September 10, 2007

Cornell Considers Gender-Neutral Living

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Cornell University has been making an effort in recent years to foster diversity and tolerance, promoting concepts like gender-neutrality to ensure the comfort and safety of students who Gwendolyn Dean, coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Questioning Resource Center called “gender non-conforming.”
One event at Cornell featuring a gender-neutral environment occured last fall in the form of Hillel-sponsored speed dating. Ga’avah, Cornell’s LGBTQ Jewish group, held speed-dating for members of the LGTBQ community upstairs in Trillium. Graduate students also had a speed-dating event on the second floor, so that, according to Nomi Fridman, Ga’avah’s faculty advisor, no one going upstairs would stand out.
“It was a way for us to be all-inclusive,” Fridman said.
The issue of gender-neutrality comes up often regarding on-campus restrooms. There are approximately 13 universal restrooms on Cornell’s campus that can be used by members of either sex. According to Dean, these restrooms are meant to protect people who don’t conform to gender norms from being harassed by others. The majority of these bathrooms are located on Central Campus.
Of universal restrooms, Haven President Ashley McGovern ’08 wrote in an email, “I understand some [arguments] that people will be uncomfortable if made to share bathrooms with someone of a different gender, however, these gender segregations occur even in single stall bathrooms on campus, where no one else is present, which make no sense at all, and is really only reinforcing the narrow idea that men and women have to be separated in locations that are intimate and private.”
“This is obviously not an isolated issue,” McGovern continued, “this is a microcosmic example of the gender segregation that occurs in our society at large, and the persistence in maintaining distinct binary gender categories; trying to make the identities of men and women vastly distinct, universal and static, which is not the case.”
Last semester, Natasha Pendleton ’08, a member of the Ordinary People theater group, wrote a skit entitled, “A Bathroom for Everyone.”
In the skit, her character gives a monologue worrying over which bathroom to choose. Pendleton said she wrote the skit because she thought it must be “perplexing to try to discover who you are and feel trapped in the wrong body.”
Although there are no gender-neutral locker rooms at Cornell, students may request special screens to change behind, a service, Dean said, that has yet to be requested.
Another hot topic is the issue of gender-neutral housing. About 20 colleges, including Harvard and Dartmouth, currently offer some form of gender-neutral housing.
At Cornell, students who want to live in rooms not designated as “male” or “female” must live off campus. This includes transgendered students, as well as any male and female students who wish to live together as siblings, friends or romantic partners.
Typically, transgendered students wishing to live on campus meet with Dean or a representative from campus life to figure out what works best in their situation. Dean said, “We tailor [housing] to individual needs rather than one size fits all.”
When asked whether she sees a need to make gender-neutral housing an option on campus, Dean said, “Not at this point. I haven’t been hearing a strong push from the students … They seem satisfied.”
However, not all students are content with the current state of housing.
Last Thursday, Vince Hartman ’08, the Arts & Sciences representative to the Student Assembly and Senior Class Council president, brought up a resolution to the S.A. entitled, “Requesting the Implementation of Gender-Neural Housing in the Residence Halls.”
Hartman presented the resolution after discussing with his housemates in Hans Bethe whether the suites there should be co-educational. As he continued to probe the issue, Hartman heard a lot of support for making not only suites, but also rooms throughout West Campus co-ed.
Ideally, Hartman would like for students of the opposite sex who specifically request each other to be allowed to live together in dorms all over West Campus.
By denying students the “right to choose their roommates based on their preferences regardless of gender,” Hartman said in his resolution, the University “discriminates with the assumption that heterosexuality is universal.”
Now that the resolution has been tabled, Hartman is currently meeting with Campus Life to further discuss his goals. He said that he is “hopeful” that the resolution will pass.
All in all, many people are satisfied with what the university is doing in terms of gender-neutrality. Dean said, “We have gotten most of what we needed to do done without making a lot of noise.”
McGovern agreed, saying Cornell “is doing what it can under the terms of the State and Federal Government.”