Gender neutral housing on its way to St. Mary's

For several years, the notion of gender neutral housing has been tossed around campus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

However last spring former Student Government Association (SGA) president Marlena Weiss and the rest of the SGA passed a notion showing their unanimous support of this new housing, according to current SGA President Mark Snyder. Progress was being made to make this a reality until Weiss graduated last May.“[Weiss] and [Assistant Director of Residence Life] Kelly Smolinsky worked together on this for awhile,” Director of Residence Life and Associate Dean of Students Joanne Goldwater said. “But they didn’t progress as quickly as I thought it would.”

The hope, according to Goldwater, is that a policy will be put together for approval by the end of the semester and be implemented by next year.

In SGA resolution 09-10S, which was passed last year, the SGA stated it supported “the adoption of a gender neutral housing policy on North Campus Housing (Lewis Quad, Waring Commons, North and South Crescents, and the Greens)…” However, the current policy is still in the works and it has not yet been determined what ages it will be available to or for what type of housing.

There are several issues to be concerned with gender neutral accommodations.

“When I first heard of gender neutral housing I thought of it rather negatively because my mind jumped to couples living together,” Senior and Resident Assistant on the Greens Lauren Jacoby said. “Things can get very exciting to the point where the situation becomes a little unhealthy because you don’t have any balance between time for your partner and time for your friends and yourself. But couples do this to themselves already without gender neutral housing so it’s only a real draw back if RAs all of a sudden have to mediate break ups.”

Goldwater also added that “we have to figure out how to handle the bathroom situation,” as decided whether or not males and females will share a bathroom. Other issues include parental concern and religious beliefs.

Once the policy is assembled, it will go through Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Laura Bayless then President Joseph Urgo’s board to receive approval.

Gender Neutral Housing Pilot Program Planned To Take Effect Next Spring

According to the President of the Student Government Associate (SGA), senior Marlena Weiss, the option of gender neutral housing will be a reality at the College.

However, not until the room selection process during the spring semester of 2012 will students be able to choose for the following fall semester.

The campaign for the housing option has been a large part of Weiss’s platform during her time in the SGA.

Specifically, the new plan will allow students to choose to room with another student of the opposite gender.

This is one step further than the current situation, in which students have the option of sharing a suite with mixed genders, but still must room with a person of the same gender.

As of yet, Weiss has heard only positive feedback about the proposal. “I have never talked to anyone who’s against it,” she said, including students who do not currently reside in on-campus housing.

Currently, the only concerns she has heard deal with circumstances for first year students.

Though the choice will be primarily restricted to North Campus, the option would be open for first years, according to Weiss, assuming they take the necessary steps in contacting Residence Life, though that seems unlikely given that most students enter knowing very few other students or have access to North Campus.

Additonally, Weiss said there will be no circumstance under which a student would be forced into a gender neutral housing situation, including study abroad cases.

For example, if a female and male live together in the fall and the female travels abroad in the spring, unless the male student otherwise informs Residence Life, another male student would be assigned as his roommate for the spring semester.

Weiss used winter break to finish putting together the proposal, schedule a meeting with the President’s Council, which she said will be the final step, and talk with all departments to “double-check [that] all our bases are covered.”

With the time until the program’s inception next spring, Residence Life should be able to work out most of the kinks, Weiss said.

However, when the option is actually available, Weiss believes that is when any functional issues with the system will arise and be worked out.

Part of the reason the program won’t start for over a year is because Weiss believes it is important to have time for Residence Life staff and the students to prepare for and make the gender neutral transition.

“I hope that students interested in participating in gender neutral housing will start communicating with [Residence Life] as soon as the school year starts,” she said.

Gender-Neutral Housing One More Step To Becoming a Reality

As part of her platform last year, Student Government Association (SGA) President Marlena Weiss campaigned for gender neutral housing on campus. The plan is currently in the works, according to Assistant Director of Residence Life Kelly Smolinsky.

Under the proposal, gender-neutral housing would be available to students living in North Campus. Students would apply for housing in the same process as they do now, the only difference being that students of opposite genders would be allowed to share bedrooms.

Gender neutral housing would not be restricted to a certain area designated for the purpose; for example, a building in Warring Commons would not be specifically gender neutral.

Additionally, because the proposal would only affect North Campus housing, in theory only upperclassman would be eligible for that option. First years are less likely to request a roommate entering college, because they don’t know many other people; in the event that they do, the likelihood that they’d live on North Campus is low.

Furthermore, although gender-neutral housing requests would be evaluated on a case by case basis, Weiss believes that the option is “a little too much” for a first-year in college.

A large concern regarding the effectiveness of gender neutral housing has been regarding couples living together. Senior Ally Moore believes that this is flaw in the plan.

“[Gender-neutral housing] is a terrible idea. I honestly think it’s going to lead to a lot of couples together,” which she thinks poses a real problem. To be fair, she says, “I also think same-sex couples shouldn’t live together.”

Though concerns have been raised over whether or not couples would be permitted to room together, Smolinsky said there’s nothing to say they would be restricted in the proposed plan.

“We would not be ‘policing’ couples living together. That’s not really our business. Same-sex couples live together now and if it becomes a roommate problem, we deal with it just like any other roommate problem,” Smolinsky said.

Weiss agreed adding, “If a couple wants to live together they’re going to find a way to live together.” Weiss also said she believes restrictions should not be applied “because it makes the process more open.”

Senior Mary Walters agreed, and said, “I think we should have a right to [gender neutral housing]. I just think that [couples] would end up wanting to kill each other. But I think as adults…we have a right to request to live with anybody we want.”

Although couples would not be restricted, Residence Life would sit down with anyone who chooses gender neutral housing and “have a discussion to make sure they’ve thought things all the way through.”

In theory, although the details have not been worked out entirely, the discussion would relate to issues roommates might not consider. Couples, Weiss says, would discuss challenges relating to space while friends might deal with shower, changing, and other privacy issues.

Additionally, Smolinsky believes a roommate or suitemate agreement would probably be beneficial to the discussion and final decision.

Currently, SGA has already passed a resolution supporting the plan, and Weiss has been attempting to gauge student feedback. She believes that most students are in favor of the plan, and said initial concerns regarded restrictions on couples and general questions about how housing would work.

Weiss believes that some students perceive this as an important step in increasing tolerance. “For students who don’t identify as straight or with the gender they’re born with, it gives them more options and puts them in less awkward situations,” Weiss explains.

Weiss is unsure of parental reception of the plan. She said, “Most people think it could sound intimidating to parents because they automatically go to the couples scenario.”

However, since the college already allows mixed-gender suites, the policy is already relaxed, and Weiss said that if couples wanted to live together they already have the option. Although parents’ concerns and opinions are important to Weiss, she added “it’s also a personal opinion between parents and children at St. Mary’s.”

According to Smolinsky and Weiss, a formal proposal is in the process of being written and will be taken to the President’s Council. From there, the plan may have to be approved by the Board of Trustees, but as of now, Smolinsky is unsure of what will be required.

Ideally, Weiss hopes that gender neutral housing will be in effect for the fall of 2011, but the timeline will depend on how the proposal is received and what, if anything, needs to be modified. A more realistic goal, she believes, is the spring of 2012, because of the difficulties of planning housing next semester.

Student feedback is the most important part of the process, Weiss said. She requests that any concerns, comments, or questions be emailed to her at mjweiss@smcm.edu.

Inside a Trustee Meeting

When I woke up on Saturday morning, my first thought was to turn off that annoying alarm clock. Then I sat there for a minute while my brain woke up, and I remembered why my alarm went off so early. I quickly got ready and headed to the Board meeting.

The buffet breakfast prior to the meeting was excellent, though I didn’t indulge much as I was trying not to get my suit dirty. It’s a different mentality from most days, when I simply walk around, sometimes lacking shoes, and don’t really worry about what happens.

But that day, I needed to look my best in order to make the Trustees listen without reservations. Had to represent ya’ll well.

When Molly Mahoney Matthews, the new Board Chair who was profiled in an earlier Point News, banged her gavel (which she did slightly less vigorously than our own SGA Vice President), everyone took a seat and the meeting began.

Following an appeal from Mahoney Matthews to the Board on behalf of student scholarships, we heard the report of the President. It was his first Board report, much as it was mine, though he looked significantly more comfortable in the role. His remarks were, as always, eloquent.

Next was the Faculty Senate President report, which Professor Bob Paul gave in his usual thorough fashion. I always feel quite enlightened as to faculty happenings after listening to him.

During his report, a Trustee got up and slipped me a note, which made me feel like we were in class listening to a professor, instead of in a Board meeting listening to a professor.

The Trustee was wondering where the Student Trustee-in-Training was. For those of you who don’t know, Maurielle Stewart is in France, studying abroad for the semester.

As Paul concluded his report, Mahoney Matthews gave me the floor for the report of the Student Trustee. With butterflies in my stomach, I talked about the great job students think President Urgo is doing, the support I’ve found behind Gender Neutral housing, the sustainable initiatives on campus, how the bike shop lost its funding, why the internet is too slow, and of course, I talked all about our very own mold problem.

The Trustees were receptive on all counts, and I’m working on many of these points with the Administration and Trustees.

Following my report, we heard the reports of all the Committee Chairs and from the heads of affiliated organizations, such as the Alumni Council and Historic St. Mary’s Commission.

After the meeting concluded, I stayed behind to discuss a number of aforementioned issues with Trustees and administrators before I took my leave to watch women’s tennis put up a valiant fight, men’s tennis defeat an undefeated team, and women’s soccer shut down York.

Now, I have two months to make some headway into these areas of concern before bringing a new report before the Board at the next meeting in December. As always, let me know what I can do for you, and I’ll see what I can make happen!

See you on the Path!

Gender-Neutral Housing Passes SGA, Seen Favorably by Students

On Tuesday, April 20, the Student Government Association passed legislation stating that, “The SGA supports the adoption of a gender-neutral housing policy on North Campus Housing (Lewis Quad, Waring Commons, North and South Crescents and the Greens) that students may opt into if they so choose.” The legislation, which was sponsored by Secretary Marlena Weiss and LQ Senator Ken Benjes, only condones the creation of such a housing policy.

There was some debate among the SGA before the legislation was passed. Many of the senators wanted clarification about the different parts of the policy, specifically about what gender-neutral housing would look like. When it was confirmed that the legislation only supported the establishment of gender-neutral housing within the current credit based system, it passed easily, with only two Senators voting no. There was some concern that gender-neutral housing would be available outside of a credit based system, like WISH or SAFE house.

“In no way would this when it’s implemented take spots away from students who would have priority because of their credits,” said Weiss. “Just because you want to live with someone of the opposite gender wouldn’t give you priority to live on North Campus.”

“There seemed to be a lot of discussion at SGA about the potential ‘bad break-up’ situations that could arise from couple who choose to live together,” said Sustainability Fellow Shane Hall, who attended the April 20 meeting. “But as was pointed out in SGA, we need to be real about this.” Gay and lesbian couples have lived together in the past, and roommate or housemate conflicts can arise regardless of the inhabitants’ orientations.

“Residence life already does an admirable job ameliorating or otherwise dealing with roommate/housemate conflicts,” said Hall. “This policy would give greater freedom and acceptance to platonic friends who identify as ‘males’ and ‘females’ who want to live together, and those who do not force themselves into heteronormative distinctions, and yes, heterosexual couples. And you know what? Every one of those scenarios involve “‘love’- and love is always risky.”

As before, Assistant Director of Residence Life Kelly Smolinsky said that it is possible a gender-neutral policy could be implemented for the 2011-2012 school year. The SGA’s legislation was the first step in the process: the administration has not yet begun to work on any such policy. For gender-neutral housing to be implemented, the President’s cabinet and Board of Trustees would most likely need to be involved.

Students, in general, have been receptive to the idea for a variety of reasons. Several students remarked on the possibility of friends co-habiting.

“As someone who’s always had girls as best friends, I’m glad that our relationship would no longer be discriminated were we to want to live together,” said first-year Evan Mahone. “This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully we will serve as a models for other schools.”

“I support it,” said sophomore Emily Skeen. “Gender-neutral housing would give friends a chance to bond even further.”

Other students had more to say about the legislation’s potential for changing heteronormative assumptions.

Senior Bethany Wetherill said, “I think it is a necessary step, a step toward accepting students who may not easily identify as simply ‘male’ or ‘female’ and allowing students to live with whomever they feel most comfortable with.”