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A roommate by any other sex

Lewis & Clark College offers sex-neutral housing


Every fall, hundreds of students at Lewis & Clark College participate in a quintessential rite of passage and move in with a roommate in a dorm room in one of the school’s residence halls. But while traditionally women are paired with women, and men with men, a policy now in its 10th year offers an alternative.

Lewis & Clark is one of a growing number of universities throughout the country offering a housing system in which students of the opposite sex and students who do not identify as male or female can live together.

The sex-neutral housing policy of this small liberal arts college in Southwest Portland’s Collins View neighborhood was developed with the help of Lewis & Clark Assistant Director for Residential Education Charlie Ahlquist.

“It grew out of conversations between some of our students and a couple of administrators from the college about how our current housing process didn’t really provide opportunities specifically for some of our trans students,” he said, “or for students who for whatever reason didn’t feel comfortable living with someone of the same biological sex — for a student who had survived violence of the same biological sex, typically.”

Ahlquist said his own experience as a Lewis & Clark undergrad inspired him to come back and help give the next generation of students this option.

“When I came to Lewis & Clark and I made friends with a lot of different students here, it became apparent that there were a number of structures in place at Lewis & Clark … that were challenges,” he said. “The majority of students coming to college who identify as cisgender (a person whose gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth) — even if they don’t use the term, necessarily — and are comfortable in that type of environment don’t have to think about whether their roommate is going to be OK with them based on their identity, and that’s not the case for a lot of our specifically queer-identified students.”

Lewis & Clark’s sex-neutral housing policy would appear to be changing that.

“It validates gender identities outside the gender binary. Gender is just the cultural interpretation of biological sex, so it seems silly to enforce a cultural interpretation like the gender binary, especially when that interpretation is extremely problematic" because it enforces gender roles, gender policing and hierarchical power structures, said a student who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It also let me room with an awesome individual that I probably wouldn’t have been able to room with in most other places."

This, he said, has not been at the expense of the other aspects of the traditional college experience.

“We do all the same things that individuals living in a typical same-sex housing situation would,” he said. “We sleep, do schoolwork, complain about classes, discuss philosophy, drink smoothies, hang out, share music, watch film and support each other.”

Another student who participated in sex-neutral housing, who also agreed to comment on condition of anonymity, had a similar opinion: “I feel like I have gotten an authentic experience in the dorms because I think living in dorms is about learning how to compromise in a shared space, and none of that is determined by your roommate's gender."

While sex-neutral housing might seem like the perfect opportunity for romance, Ahlquist said this is not the case.

“They’re signing a statement saying that they’re not entering into a romantic cohabitation situation, and should that actually develop, we would engage with them to address that and pursue other options,” he said, adding that this is rarely an issue.

“For the vast majority of our students, living with a roommate is going to be the last time that they share a space with someone before they live with a romantic partner,” he said. “The vast majority of our students are not going to pursue romantic situations; they recognize that that’s kind of an added complication.”

“I would only recommend sex-neutral housing for students who are rooming with someone they feel safe and comfortable with, who they communicate with and/or with whom there is no possibility for a romantic or sexual component to occur,” the second student said.

While it has always been a fairly progressive housing system, Ahlquist said Lewis & Clark has taken steps to make sex-neutral housing a more sensitive policy in recent years.

“The gender-neutral housing policy that was a barrier for some of those students is that we, until recently, have required an interview. Essentially, in order to access the gender-neutral housing option, a student who was queer-identified would basically have to out themselves to an administrator. So the student would be able to access those resources, but it could be a very uncomfortable process for them,” he said. “Now … we just have a form that explains what the gender-neutral housing policy exists for, and saying that by signing this form, you’re entering into a sex-neutral housing agreement.”

This year, six Lewis & Clark students in three double-occupancy rooms have opted to participate in sex-neutral housing, though none of them will be among the 486 incoming first-year students. As Lewis & Clark aims to be more and more tolerant and accessible in its sex-neutral housing policy, Ahlquist said that the ultimate sign of its success will be increased student participation.

“As we continue to promote this and make this more visible as a part of our college admission,” he said, “I anticipate that we will probably recruit more students who see this as being a sign that Lewis & Clark is supportive of helping their needs in their residential experience.”