In college dorms, 'post-gender world'

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LOS ANGELES -- They weren't looking to make a political statement or to be pioneers of gender liberation. Each just wanted a familiar, decent roommate rather than a stranger after their original roommates left to study abroad.

That's how Pitzer College sophomores Kayla Eland, female, and Lindon Pronto, male, began sharing a room this semester on Holden Hall's second floor.

They are not a couple, and neither is gay. They are just compatible roommates in a new, sometimes-controversial, dormitory option -- known as gender-neutral housing -- that is gaining support at some colleges across the nation.

Ms. Eland, a biology major who hopes to become a doctor, said a roommate's personality and study habits are more important than gender. "This might not be right for everyone," she said of sharing the small, cinder block-walled room with a man. "But I think it's important to have the right to choose where you want to live, how you want to live and who you want to live with."

Mr. Pronto, an environmental studies major who works each summer as a forest firefighter, agreed. Apart from remembering to lower the toilet seat, he said, living with a woman friend is not much different from rooming with a man. "As far as I'm concerned, a roommate is a roommate," he said.

Although the number of participants remains small, gender-neutral housing has gained attention as the final step in the integration of student housing. In the 1970s, many U.S. colleges moved from having only single-sex dormitories to providing coed residence halls, with male and female students typically housed on alternating floors or wings.

Then came coed hallways and bathrooms, further shocking traditionalists. Now, some colleges allow undergraduates of opposite sexes to share a room.

Pitzer, which began its program in the fall of 2008, is among about 50 U.S. schools with the housing choice, according to Jeffrey Chang, who co-founded the National Student Genderblind Campaign in 2006 to encourage gender-mixed rooms. Participating schools include UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, Sarah Lawrence, Haverford, Wesleyan and the University of Michigan.

College officials say the movement began mainly as a way to accommodate gay, bisexual and transgender students who may feel more comfortable living with a member of the opposite sex. Most schools say they discourage couples from participating, citing emotional and logistical problems of breakups. Officials say most heterosexuals in the programs are platonic friends.

"College students are adults," said Mr. Chang, who is gay and is now a law student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "They have every single right to choose the person they feel most comfortable living with."

He estimates that, at schools where the option exists, only 1 percent to 3 percent of students living on campus choose a roommate of the opposite sex. Officials at the Association of College & University Housing Officers-International say the trend has accelerated, but they don't expect most schools to adopt it.

Experts note that most students prefer a same-sex roommate, and some colleges are reluctant to antagonize parents, legislators and donors who may view the option as immoral or even dangerous.

Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, maintains separate dorm wings and apartments for men and women. Asked whether it would consider going gender neutral, Sue Gamboa, a housing department office manager, said: "Not in the wildest dream would Pepperdine move in that direction."

Harvey Mudd College, next to Pitzer in the Claremont Colleges, began gender-neutral housing last fall, mainly as an option for gay and transgender students, said Guy Gerbick, dean of residential life. Seven students joined; among them are a man and two women, all straight, who share a triple room.

Parents cannot veto such a decision at Harvey Mudd, but Mr. Gerbick asks students to discuss it with their families ahead of time. He also asks applicants whether they are romantically involved; all of this year's participants said no. But if they were, the school could not forbid them from rooming together. "If we are going into a post-gender world, then the regulation of private behavior is just not practical," he said.

Many schools restrict the option to upperclassmen, to certain floors or to residence halls with gay themes. Pitzer, which has about a dozen students participating this year, avoids such limits out of concern that they may marginalize students, said Chris Brunelle, director of residence life.

Pitzer housing applications ask whether students prefer a roommate to be woman, man, "other," or have no preference. Or students can request to live together, as Ms. Eland and Mr. Pronto did after losing their original roommates. Their room, which shares a tiny bathroom with two men next door, has the usual collegiate trappings of beer bottles and political posters. The only unusual sight is women's clothes in one closet and men's in another.

The pair seem to have a warm, brotherly-sisterly friendship, and, while they try to be respectful, they say they are not inhibited about being in underwear or even nude while changing clothes in the room. They insist that their living situation does not interfere with romantic relationships with other people. And although they have not been teased on campus, they face curious questions from relatives and friends.

"I definitely think it's generational," said Ms. Eland, 20, of Seattle. "For my grandparents, living with someone of the opposite sex, if he is not your serious boyfriend or husband or brother, would be very strange."

Mr. Pronto, 21, of Weimar, Calif., said his mother at first worried that he might be distracted by having a female roommate. And fellow firefighters at his "macho" summer barracks may joke about it, he said.

But at colleges, he said, "I think those old-fashioned ways of thinking are kind of dissipating. ... Over the years, this division between men and women, which was so big, is slowly closing."

Ms. Eland's and Mr. Pronto's living arrangement won't last long. Both next fall will be studying overseas -- she in Spain, and he in Costa Rica -- and they are not sure where, or with whom, they will live when they return to school.



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