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Gender Neutral Living: Seminal but Unobtrusive

All PostsOpinionGender Neutral Living: Seminal but Unobtrusive

column Meghna Basu | May Tay

Illustration - Gender Neutral Living
(Tong Xueyin)

This week, the Yale-NUS College administration announced its decision to open up to students the option for gender-neutral housing, and we applaud this decision. By making gender-neutral housing available, we as a community have decided to reject gender binaries and reinforce our commitment to freedom of choice.

In a recent Student Government Survey, the student body responded to a question on gender-neutral housing as follows:

Do you support having gender-neutral housing in the new campus? (gender-neutral housing is when room/ suite allocation of the new campus does not take gender into account)

I don’t care 16% (35 students)
Yes 58% (122 students)
No 25% (52 students)

It is evident the majority of our students—a total of 157 (74%)—will welcome this new policy, some with open arms and others with indifferent ones. There is a significant number of students, however, who will be uncomfortable with this new housing structure: 52 of them (25%). As such, we’d like to explain why we think Yale-NUS’s new housing structure is for the better. We think it will be a seminal but unobtrusive step forward for this institution.

Yale-NUS’s previous housing policy was fundamentally problematic because it assumed and reinforced a gender binary. To retain it wholesale would have been profoundly disappointing for a college that has been given a mandate by its founders and students to break new ideological ground. Separating ‘men’ and ‘women’ into concentrations of each other would have been detrimental to having a fluid and unified community of learning—there already exist acutely gendered colloquial names for suites, such as ‘The Testosterone Suite’, ‘The Unicorn Suite’, or the ‘Illuminafrati Suite’. These are nascent indications of greek life, which, while valuable to some students, should not be allowed to grow into a norm for all the rest. Doing so would fortify gender divides, and potentially reinforce gender stereotypes (a reality supported by a number of studies that show links between Greek life and more traditional gender attitudes).

Indeed, our choice of suitemates is ultimately based on lifestyle habits such as bedtimes and tolerance levels for noise and mess, to name a few. Thus implicit in this initial housing policy was the assumption that males and females lead two individually homogenous but otherwise differing lifestyles—an assumption that societies world-over need to change. We can and should be pioneers of this change, given that we already have significant support from within the community to do so (see survey results above).

Separating ‘males’ and ‘females’ by a corridor, over and above being a regressive reinforcement of gender divide, also created a disconcerting atmosphere around sexuality. The old policy was enforced partially because of parental concerns, as members of the school administration have mentioned to us over the years (including Dean of Students Kyle Farley, in an interview for this piece). The policy therefore implied that sexual health in the college would have been compromised by having a gender-neutral setup—which we feel is an unfair underestimation of our maturity and responsibility as young adults. At present, our college already allows for the free movement of males and females along corridors and into rooms; condoms are even supplied in our Common Lounges. We have been given almost complete free reign with our sexual choices, yet our campus has not become a toxic sex den. The students of Yale-NUS have shown that they use their freedom of movement responsibly, and are thus worthy of this expanded freedom of housing choices. We strongly believe students will use this new policy wisely.

Even further, by responding to parents’ worries in the form of separating males from females, our previous housing policy failed to consider the members of our community who do not conform to default doctrines of heteronormativity. Members of The G Spot have previously received enquiries from queer and transgender individuals about whether gender-neutral housing was available. Upon hearing that no such option existed, those individuals decided not to apply. Maintaining our previous policy would have been to turn a blind eye to the reality of human relations, the spectrum of human sexuality, and our friends whose beliefs are not less important than ours.

Before making this important decision, however, Mr. Farley and Student Government members commented in a Student Government meeting that ‘we are already progressive with our co-ed floors’. They highlighted that many colleges in the U.S. still don’t have mixed housing; Mr. Farley pointed out that the introduction of mixed housing at Yale University is also very new. Some could argue, then, that this move is all too fast: if America isn’t even doing it, why should we?

Constantly comparing ourselves to American colleges is just not constructive. The framework of American universities do not define what is ‘progressive’: we are our own college, and we should define our own value set. The very ethos of setting up a liberal arts college in Singapore was to challenge and redefine norms, beginning with our model of education unique to Asia. At present, there are no gender-neutral suites in the whole undergraduate landscape of Singapore, and we are now the first to offer such an option. Let’s not forget that many of us enrolled to this school to push boundaries—personal ones, pedagogical ones, and, most importantly, ideological ones.

It is critical to note, however, that opting for gender-neutral housing solely for the sake of pushing boundaries is a potential tendency that we should avoid. The policy as a whole does not fall into this trap, as it turns over the choice for taking on mixed housing to us. Individually, though, as Mr. Farley warned us in an interview, we shouldn’t be opting for neutral housing just because we each want to break norms. Taking on a ‘mixed’ suite just because it seems cool and avant-garde would not be constructive either.

However, we as a community are already pushing boundaries amongst ourselves. The Yale-NUS community is already substantially gender-fluid everywhere beyond suite areas—physical movement and ideological exchanges between students are already salient. Thus, the authors of this piece don’t think this change will overly transform the way we live. All that it will bring is institutional backing and reinforcement of the values we as a community already hold, making this change seminal but unobtrusive. Thank you Yale-NUS Administration, thank you Student Government, and thank you students for precipitating this move. We can’t wait to move in next year.

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