Gustavus offers many different opportunities for housing: traditional halls like Sohre and Pittman, triples and quads in Uhler, apartment style living in buildings like College View and Southwest and special interest housing like the International Center (IC) and Intentional Learning and Service (ILS) Houses. One area that the institution lacks, however, is an official gender neutral housing option.
Gender neutral housing is gender-blind housing where students aren’t limited by gender in their housing options. Junior Tristan Fernstrom described gender neutral housing as “a safe space not labeled as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ floor, where the applicants for this housing would be able to room with one another or have a single space available where they are comfortable with one another.”
Student Senate Co-presidents Tasha Ostendorf and Josh Sande ran last year with gender neutral housing as part of their platform.
Four years ago when Ostendorf first joined Student Senate, the idea was tossed around in regards to private gender neutral bathrooms, and she saw the need to expand this to include a gender neutral housing option.
Her plan going forward is to distribute a student survey in the spring following Room Draw to measure interest and discuss location.
“This is not a radical initiative to spread gender blindness to the campus, but to bring flexibility to the housing process,” Ostendorf said. “Students should not feel limited to finding roommates within their own gender groups.”
After meeting with Director of Residential Life Charlie Potts recently, Ostendorf said they found that there was “no hard policy in the books against gender neutral housing,” so she believes they will be able to work within the existing system they seek to change. Potts sees the validity of students’ requests for safe living spaces and believes that Residential Life should seek to accommodate them as best they can.
“I think that as an institution that talks about valuing inclusiveness and equity, Residential Life has a responsibility to have the conversation about what options could exist for gender neutral housing on campus,” Potts said.
Despite the ready attitudes to enact change in the housing system, Potts cautions that a large-scale change will take time and thought.
“Any discussion about a change in housing like this is a process with very intentional planning and conversations with a variety of students and administrators,” Potts said.
Ostendorf recognizes the thought and planning that must go into instituting gender neutral housing as well as the possibility of using select housing in Southwest, Chapel View or IC to experiment with the new housing option in the future and see how it develops. In fact, she uses this year’s Q&A house as a good example of mixed genders living together and thriving.
This issue is important to her as she is involved in Q&A and sees the greater benefits the school could achieve in recruitment because it fulfills an “inclusive need” that may be a factor as prospective students look at available housing options.
Although Gustavus has some flexibility in housing space with certain options for private bathrooms and single rooms. It is difficult for students to express their housing needs when there is no housing officially labeled as gender neutral. This makes the student choose between either financial hardship in paying extra fees to live in private apartment housing or a conversation about their gender identity that may be uncomfortable for them.
“These options cost the student extra money and act as a penalty against a student who is just trying to find a place where they can be safe and come back to,” Fernstrom said. “Furthermore, to even be able to negotiate for a space like this with a possibly lessened fee or no extra fee at all, the student has to out themselves to whomever they are speaking to about housing. This can be a very uncomfortable and jarring experience.”
Fernstrom believes in the importance of having this option because he sees it fitting a need at Gustavus that has been overlooked in adhering to the traditional social construct of gender identity.
“As it stands, two people of the opposite biological sex cannot room together, whether one person identifies as the same gender or not” Fernstrom said. “For example, it’s against policy for me to share a room with a biological male, no matter how much I may feel like, look like, or identify as a male. The policy works for the majority of the campus, sure enough, but it’s outdated for some of us.”