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Hendrix College in Conway will offer housing next fall for students who are openly gay or are questioning their sexuality. The "gender-neutral" student housing program is expected to make life a bit easier for students uncomfortable in a dormitory. Students who have applied for the program say it's an important step, and a testament to the school's inclusiveness.
The pilot program will offer up to six two-person apartments that will be assigned without preference to gender while making an effort to select for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, and hetero students who are comfortable living with an LGBT roommate. Unlike other student housing, each of the gender-neutral apartments will have two bathrooms, one for each resident. The application deadline was March 4. Administrators say that the program may be expanded if it's a success.
Jim Wiltgen, dean of students at Hendrix, said the college began studying the possibility of instituting limited gender-neutral housing at the request of underclassmen who were studying gender issues. After some exploration of the topic, the college found only one other school of similar size to Hendrix that offers gender-neutral housing. Hendrix will be the only college in Arkansas to offer gender-neutral housing for gay and lesbian students.
Wiltgen called the application process for the housing "gender-blind," though it does have optional check boxes where an applicant can identify his or her biological sex and "gender identity."
"We don't ask invasive questions on the application, like whether they're considering a gender [reassignment] operation," Wiltgen said. "All we do is ask open-ended questions about why are you interested in this option, what makes you a candidate for this option, and then just describe your level of comfort with gender issues and sexual orientation." Those questions, Wiltgen said, are to make sure the applicant is committed to the program. He said the college will ask those who assigned to gender-neutral housing to give feedback throughout the year. Wiltgen said the gender-neutral apartments will probably be on Clifton Street just off the western edge of the campus. The program is not available to first-year students.
Though the process allows applicants to request a particular roommate, couples involved in a relationship — no matter what their sexual orientation — shouldn't take it as a chance to shack up.
"If you're in a relationship, we wouldn't want you to be in that housing together," Wiltgen said. "For students, it's a tough enough relationship with roommates as it is. To add any kind of romantic entanglement wouldn't be advisable."
Aaron Aldridge, a 19-year-old freshman at Hendrix, has applied for gender-neutral housing for next fall. Aldridge, who is openly gay, said that living in mostly-straight student housing has its difficulties. "There is kind of this unspoken nature of all of it," he said. "If you have a guy over at the dorm, it's kind of uncomfortable — whether you introduce them as a friend, or someone you're dating. It's an uncomfortable thing to talk about on top of the fact that I just don't really mesh with [heterosexual] guys that well."
Aldridge said there was some confusion on campus early on over whether the housing was open only to transgender students. Once he looked into it, however, he learned that it was open to anyone and applied.
Asked whether allowing gay and straight students the option to reside apart is a good thing, given that one aspect of college life is learning to live with those who aren't like you, Aldridge said it might have its disadvantages, but the quality of life for gay students who might not be comfortable outweighs that for him.
"I understand the value of being able to adapt to different situations," he said. "But I really do like the prospect of having the option open for somebody [whose housing is] affecting their ability to do well in their classes and affecting their ability to be happy and proper as far as their personal life on campus. Once it starts going over into that area, it starts becoming necessary for there to be some sort of alternative option."
Logan Leatherman, who will be a senior at Hendrix in the fall, agrees. An officer in Hendrix's gay-and-lesbian student group, known as UNITY, Leatherman has also applied for gender-neutral housing, and hopes to be paired with a straight female friend who has also applied. Leatherman said that LGBT students are often forced into uncomfortable situations when paired with straight roommates of the same sex.
"It's more of the fear of they don't know how their roommate will react to the news that they might be homosexual or bisexual or whatever, and then that'll make their roommate uncomfortable," he said. "[Many students] try to avoid that entire situation by just not saying anything. That's a little bit of unspoken social oppression."
Leatherman said he thinks the gender-neutral option will give some students "a more positive college experience."
Dean Jim Wiltgen hopes that will be the outcome as well, and that the program will say plenty about the school's dedication to inclusiveness.
"We're making a statement of sorts — that we do care about this issue," Wiltgen said. "We have a conservative alumni in some ways, and there are some folks who might not agree with this, but it's not a push toward co-ed housing. It's really a limited program. It's really to say and seek out, as Hendrix has always done: How can we meet the individual and help meet the individual's needs?"
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