NU students continue to push for gender-neutral housing

Christina Salter

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Members of Northwestern’s Gender Protection Initiative plan to keep fighting for a gender-neutral housing option on campus despite the recent rejection of their original proposal, Initiative President Mugsie Pike said.

Three Gender Protection Initiative members and LGBT Center Coordinator Doris Dirks presented the proposal to the housing and food service policy advisory committee during Winter Quarter, the Communication senior said, but ultimately did not convince the committee to make any changes.

“They’ve just presented it at least as feeling as if they’re doing enough, and they need to be made aware that they’re not,” Pike said. “If the students don’t know the student experience, who does?”

The proposal asked for one wing or suite of one dorm with single and double rooms to be set aside for students who requested gender-neutral housing. Interested students would be required to write a paragraph explaining their housing preference, just as for residential colleges, Pike said.

The proposal also included the group’s online petition of more than 700 student signatures in support of the housing option, Pike said.

The committee first responded to the proposal via e-mail April 10, stating the university would continue to review housing requests on an individual basis and “will assure that space will be set aside to accommodate students desiring this type of living space,” Pike said.

Members of the Initiative asked for clarification and received a second e-mail from the committee April 17, she said.

Pike said the second e-mail explained that NU has “always been able to handle a wide variety of special housing requests without fanfare and expect to continue to do so in order to provide the best possible experience for our students.”

Beyond disagreeing with the refusal, Pike said she thought the response was offensive.

“The students that they’re saying they accommodated are the ones that are protesting this right now,” she said. “If that’s not fanfare, I don’t know what qualifies as fanfare.”

The committee that made the decision on the proposal is co-chaired by Mary Goldenberg, director of university residential life, and Garth Miller, director of housing and food services. Both Goldenberg and Miller declined to comment on the committee’s decision.

Mark D’Arienzo, associate director for university housing, said while he had not seen the official decision on the proposal, he had not been instructed to change housing policy.

According to a July 2008 list, 56 U.S. universities currently have gender-neutral housing. The University of Chicago recently adopted an open housing policy in January 2009, allowing sophomores through seniors “increased choice in selecting roommates, regardless of gender, in order to respect and support the various needs of our students,” according to the university’s Web site.

Members of Gender Protection Initiative will likely wait until next year to appeal the committee’s decision and hope to attract significant student response to show the decision “will not be tolerated,” Pike said. The group will continue to work on their other projects, including transgender-friendly university health services and getting Blackboard to allow the use of preferred names as opposed to legal names. The creation of more gender-neutral rest rooms on campus is another major goal that found success in the Norris University Center last weekend.

During a graduate student conference at Norris on April 24-25, the first-floor restrooms were temporarily labeled as unisex in response to conference members’ requests, said Jennifer Tyburczy, a Ph.D student in performance studies and member of the conference’s organizing committee.

Norris Director Rick Thomas said the decision to allow the request was not affected by the recent addition of gender expression and identity to NU’s non-discrimination policy.

“I suspect we would have made the same decision without that change, because it seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.

Tyburczy said she supports the undergraduate push for more campus gender-neutral options, in the interest of making everyone comfortable.

“If people are asking for it, there’s obviously a need,” she said. “It should be when and where, how and now.”