In recent years the Residence Life Office (RLO) has introduced gender-neutral housing as a part of campus life in an attempt to match the changing needs of Davidson’s student body.
Jason Shaffer, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life, noted that “gender-neutral is not a term used by RLO because of how confus[ing] it became.” He stated that “when it comes to ‘gender-neutral housing,’ the first thing we need to do is define it.” He cited examples of the many types of housing: co-ed, single-gender, integrated, open housing, and more.
In many of these types of housing, women and men live on the same floor and within the spaces, so it could be interpreted as “gender-neutral;” however, the main differentiating factor is whether identifying gender is required on a dormitory housing application.
“For example, in Martin Court apartments, there are no questions about gender: it is just 4 or 5 students applying together,” Shaffer explained. In contrast, he used Tomlinson as an example where both floors have male and female students in equal numbers, divided up into pods and suites that are single gender. Both of these are considered co-ed dorms. He also noted, “Chidsey is mostly co-ed, with guys and girls adjacent and across from each other with single gender men and women’s bathrooms, as well as one non-gender-specific bathroom.”
Chidsey, Shaffer argued, is an important point of discussion for gender and housing on-campus as it was the pilot project that preceded open housing, in which no gender identification is necessary. Shaped roughly like an L, Chidsey demands that males and females are integrated rather than on separate ends of the hallway.
“On Richardson, it is one single hallway–having guys and girls on separate ends does not disturb the feeling of it being a co-ed hall,” Shaffer commented. “However, if we were to do this in Chidsey, it would feel more like Belk, where guys and girls are separated by wing. Those living closer to the stairwell do not feel as isolated from the other gender as those who live on the far ends of the halls.”
Three years ago, after the pilot program with Chidsey, RLO instituted the first open housing floor in which there is no gender identification and only one bathroom that serves all gender identities. This year, the third floor of Duke is the only open housing floor on campus.
Ellie Barlow ’19, a student currently living on third Duke, discusses how having an open housing option is important to the Davidson community. On third Duke, she points out that a rainbow bulletin board in the front hallway features information about what it means to be queer at Davidson, stating, “It is the only indication that this is a ‘special’ hall.”
She explained that “there is required programming for ‘special halls,’ so usually once a semester there will be a conversation about what it means to be queer at Davidson.” As a transgender student, Barlow said that she did not feel comfortable living on a co-ed hall.
According to Barlow, the process to live in open housing begins when “RLO sends out information on housing near the end of the semester. They have a list of deadlines, and one of the first is the deadline for gender-neutral, or open, housing.”
“There are a lot of people interested in gender-neutral housing because they have the opportunity to get a single before others,” Barlow lamented. However, she further explained, “If we didn’t have those people then we probably wouldn’t be able to have this option.”
In the three years in which Davidson has had open housing as an option, Barlow explained that each year, there is the threat of not having enough people sign up for the program, in which case there would be no floors that do not require identifying gender.
“There are some ways in which open housing attracts people looking for the building more than the program,” Shaffer said. “However, that means people feel comfortable in that environment, which means it has done a good job.”
Many people do not live on third Duke for more than a year or two, especially if they are not looking for the open housing program specifically, according to Shaffer. When it comes to housing on-campus, the largest determinant is community: building strong communities in which all students feel comfortable and happy, something provided for by having the many different housing options on campus.
Shaffer summed up the initiative: “The goal of RLO is to provide for the most comfortable and happy living spaces for all students.”