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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Nation's First Gender-Blind College Dorm Opens Fall 2003

Gender Won't Count In New Dorm

[MIDDLETOWN] - Zachary Strassburger came to Wesleyan University looking forward to the camaraderie of life in a college dorm.

But there was a problem. Though physically female, Strassburger lives as a male. Under Wesleyan's policy, any roommate assigned to Strassburger would have to be female. Housing officials offered Strassburger the alternative of a single room. Reluctantly, Strassburger took the offer.

"I wanted the experience of having a roommate and I'm sad that I didn't," said Strassburger, whose name was legally changed to Zachary last fall. Strassburger would not reveal her birth name.

Starting in September, students such as Strassburger won't have to make such a choice.

Transgender freshman will have the option of living in a "gender-blind" hall - one floor of a dormitory for students who don't want to be categorized as one gender or another. The new mission statement says freshmen who choose to live in the gender-blind area "will be assigned a roommate without the consideration of gender."

University officials say they believe the hall is the first of its kind in the nation.

The move, they say, came at the urging of students who feel the university needed to do more to accommodate the living needs of transgender students.

Mike Whaley, dean of student services, estimates there are 12 to 15 transgender students on campus. Capacity of the gender-blind hall was kept to 12 because there's no way to tell how many students are going to opt for it.

The hall will be on the first floor of one of the Foss Hill residence complex buildings. It will consist of two single rooms and five "doubles" - a single unit with two rooms. The bathrooms will be unisex.

When the idea was brought to administrators, Whaley said, he and other university officials welcomed it as a solution to a tricky matter. Other universities have been grappling with the issue in the last few years.

"I think people were beginning to become aware of it 10 years ago," he said. "In the last three to five years it has been showing up in practical terms."

Selina Ellis, one of the students who campaigned for the new housing, said she was surprised by how open administrators were to the idea.

"We figured that this would be too much for them to handle but they were really eager to understand and meet the needs of transgender students on campus," she said.

"Transgender" is an umbrella term, said Whaley , who serves as co-chairman to the gay and lesbian student group on campus. The term could apply to people born with ambiguous genitalia or to people who don't identify with their physical sex. Whaley said he doesn't believe any students on campus have undergone surgical alteration of their sex.

The gender-blind housing was partly the result of a recent amendment to the university's nondiscrimination policy, which now includes the terms "gender identity and gender expression."

In many ways, Whaley said, the gender-blind floor isn't much different from other living options that Wesleyan has offered incoming students. For instance there's a "substance-free" area in one of the residence halls.

"It's just another one of the different living options that we offer for first- year students," he said.

In considering the new housing, students and officials discussed the possibly of heterosexual students looking to pair up with someone of the opposite sex. Emily Polak, co-chairwoman of the student life committee, said she expects students will honor the spirit of the hall.

"You have to sign an agreement and the language really kind of deters anyone who wants to do that," she said.

Wesleyan has offered coed rooms since 1995, but never to freshmen. A few other universities offer coed rooms, but few, if any, offer them to first-year students.

Students and officials at Wesleyan say the term "coed" oversimplifies the purpose of the gender-blind hall.

"We don't really use the word `coed,' because `coed' implies one of two genders and a lot of people don't identify with either gender," Strassburger said.

The new housing is "ideal for students whose gender identification and/or gender expression varies from the standard paradigm and for students who believe that their gender should not factor into the decision of whom to live with," the mission statement says.

Peter LaBarbera of the Culture and Family Institute, a conservative group, called the new housing a case of "politically correct anarchy" that would ultimately draw more students into "gender confusion."

"I'm sure other students will try to imitate it," he said, adding that he expects to see similar policies on other campuses. "They will imitate it, and it will be all the rage on campuses."

A famously liberal school, Wesleyan has garnered publicity in recent years for a course on pornography, a "queer prom" and rumors of a "naked dorm." Often, the publicity has been accompanied by criticism from the general public or alumni. Wesleyan spokesman Justin Harmon said he doesn't expect that kind of fallout in this case.

"I think if people understand the issues and the needs of the folks we're trying to help, I don't think there's much to react to," he said.

Strassburger won't be living in the hall next semester, but is glad that other students will have more of a choice when it comes to housing. At least one transgender freshman has already signed up for it, Strassburger said.

Having always felt like a male, Strassburger said living in a female room wasn't an option.

"I know that I would be really uncomfortable and I think the people I was living with would feel really weird about it."

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