Attending W&L comes with a unique set of stress-inducing processes. There is, of course, the complication of class registration and the adrenaline rush that is Pick One, the ever-growing stack of financial and legal paperwork necessary for “adulting,” and, who can forget, the spectacle of move-in day. Although perhaps frustrating, many of these aspects of university living are simple realities that we as students must grow accustomed to as we navigate this fast-paced phase of our life. However, in the pomp and circumstance of these inherited structures, what had originally seemed like a necessary facet of our time here should become obsolete, considering shifting needs and practices of the current and future student bodies. To put it another way, this university, and structures like it, often find themselves ripe for change. When we find ourselves in this situation, it is then our responsibility to nudge Washington and Lee in the right direction. Namely, I argue that the university make all available housing coed and move away from the arbitrary model of majority single-gender housing.
I begin with an overview of the current housing procedure, with special focus on upper-classmen housing as Theme Housing, Woods Creek, and the Third Year Village are the only ones that involve an actual selection process. As the current system demands, students form their own housing groups, relying on the person with the earliest time slot in the housing lottery to select their best living option for the entire group. These housing options are broken up into two categories: coed or single-gender. In previous years, single-gender housing options, or those in which only a group of all male or all female students live together, have been the overwhelming majority. Coed housing options have been much harder to come by, with only a fraction of spaces being designated for housing groups made up of multiple genders. This seems straightforward enough (and perhaps justifies at least some criticism for its general lack of housing options for students interested in coed living situations). However, the situation becomes much more obviously rooted in inequality when one learns that what had originally seemed to be a steadfast division between coed and single-gender housing is not that simple. Under the current system, single-gender housing groups may select a coed housing option to live in, while coed housing groups cannot do the same with single-gender housing.
All this considered, coed housing groups are at a significant disadvantage for getting housing. First, coed groups find themselves vying for but a fraction of the housing options that single-gender groups have available. Single-gender groups then having the ability to claim coed housing only restricts coed options even further, by forcing coed groups to compete with all student groups whereas single-gender groups only compete with each other. Of course, it is inevitable that single-gender groups will claim some or all of the coed housing options, limiting or even potentially eradicating the possibility of coed housing groups on campus. This undue burden placed on coed groups makes the process of selecting housing particularly difficult for these students. Making backup housing plans is much more complicated for coed groups as well. For example, if a single-gender group does not receive their original housing selection, they can simply select another housing option with the appropriate number of people. However, for coed groups, their original housing selection is often one of the only or few housing options that fits their gender and number specifications. This means that if it does not work out the first time, they are much more likely to be split up either on their own accord or through the school’s randomized placing of individual students without housing groups.
This disparity in and of itself is infuriating and an unfortunate reality for students who wish to live with their friends of different genders. However, upon examining the students who tend to form coed groups, we see that the school again fails its most vulnerable and marginalized students. Most obviously, the distinction between single-gender and coed housing relies on the maintenance of the gender binary. In other words, the system assumes students will live with people of their same gender, rather than a mixed group. Much more damagingly, it also leaves little to no room for students who do not conform to gender norms. For these students, coed housing is the only option which truly reflects their identities. To limit the options of coed living situations puts the school in a difficult situation. Where does one put a student who is neither male or female? But much more importantly, this is directly disrespectful to the identity and personhood of the nonbinary student themselves, forcing them to choose a gender and live in a gendered space that does not acknowledge their actual identity.
In a similar vein, other minority students and students who choose to live in coed housing overlap, unsurprisingly. Namely, queer students of all gender identities and sexual orientations tend to live in coed housing as the expressions of our genders and sexualities simply do not lend themselves to the heteronormativity and cisnormativity of traditionally gendered spaces. Similarly, independent students who do not have the additional option of living in a sorority or fraternity house also seem to be the students most in coed situations as we do not have the single-gendered norm of a Greek organization influencing our social choices on this campus. Consider that membership fees to Greek organizations leave many lower-income students independent and that the alienating effects of sororities and fraternities excludes vulnerable groups such as students of color and queer students. We see that the students most affected by this disparity are the students most disadvantaged on this campus and, more broadly, in this country.
For these reasons, I urge that the school consider moving towards a campus in which any person of any gender can live in any housing option. If all campus housing was open to coed housing groups, the complications of housing and the inevitable inequality these distinctions present would fall away. Under an ideal system, a student would form their housing group with students of whatever gender they feel comfortable living with, and could select any housing option with the appropriate number of beds, unburdened by whether it is for a particular gender group. This not only evens the playing field for coed and single-gender groups, but also gives us as students the most agency in choosing with whom and where we live. Under this system, without housing set aside for single-gender or coed groups, students may still live in a single-gender housing option by making their housing group single-gender. This simply gives coed groups a fair shot in finding housing and takes away the added burden of the high likelihood that they may be split up due to the limited amount of coed housing and the competition with single-gender groups.
Put simply, the demographics of this school are changing. More and more queer and nonbinary students enter our university each year. It is our responsibility to ensure that they have a fair shot at having appropriate housing that validates and respects their identities. Moreover, a number of other universities have moved to this model of disregarding reserving specifically gendered housing and have instead placed agency into the hands of their students, allowing them to decide who they feel most comfortable living with and giving them a fair shot in actually living with that group. As more students choose to stay independent, as more minority students begin to become more vocal, and as our society’s concept of gender begins to loosen and change, coed housing will only become a more and more popular option. Unfortunately, future students at W&L will find themselves at a severe disadvantage when seeking this housing option if the system does not change. Moving to a housing model that allows any gender to live in any space simply reflects the changing needs of our society as a whole and the students on this campus. This change will not affect those students who desire a single-gender group, but will make the inequality between coed and single-gender groups nonexistent. Such a move will allow W&L to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse group of students and frankly will simplify the housing system as a whole, making housing registration a much less stressful process, especially for our most vulnerable students.