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Caveat Parens
One family's adventures in gender-neutral housing.


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If sharing a bedroom with a student of the opposite sex is not your idea of appropriate college housing for your son or daughter, beware. The college or university to which you have just sent a deposit may have other ideas.

“Poor Maria,” I said to my husband. We were reading the paper at the breakfast table during Christmas week.

“What’s up?” he asked.

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“The University of Chicago has sent a letter to parents announcing that they’ll allow men and women to room together next year — and they won’t necessarily be informing parents about their children’s room arrangements.” My friend Maria has a child at the University of Chicago.

“I thought they were a conservative school,” said my husband.

“Evidently not,” I replied.

It never occurred to me that the parents of Chicago students were lucky to be getting that letter.

A few weeks later, I called my daughter at Stanford to see how her course selection had worked out for the winter quarter. “And how’s the new room?” I asked. She had told us over Christmas break that her current dorm — a “co-op,” where the students cook and clean for themselves — required students to change rooms every quarter.

That’s how it began. And, as I explained to my astounded mother-in-law when the dust had settled, it just got worse and worse.

“She’s sharing a room with one other girl and two boys,” I said.

“You mean a suite.”

“No,” I said. “I mean a bedroom.”

My mother-in-law couldn’t believe it.

“But wait,” I said. “It gets worse. She didn’t ask for this room arrangement. She missed the room meeting because she had a friend visiting from the East Coast. She appointed a proxy, and said she wanted a room with no smoking and no sex in the room, but she didn’t ask for a single-sex room.”

“Should she?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, apparently. But she says she didn’t think it was necessary.”

“So she asked to get out, right?”

“Wrong. Her dorm had a seven-hour room meeting, and she doesn’t want to upset everyone’s consensus arrangements. Plus, she says it’s no big deal.”

“So where does she get dressed?”

“That’s the same question I asked,” I said. “She says she gets dressed in the bathroom.”

We told her this arrangement was unacceptable to us. She asked around, she later reported, and she couldn’t find anyone willing to swap with her. So she proposed that she sleep on a futon in one of the two or three all-girl rooms in the dorm, and we accepted that proposal. (When I explained this situation to my very liberal, hip, LA sister, she said, “So she’s paying board money for a closet?”)

“Who are the boys?” my mother-in-law asked. “Does she know them?”

“Well, she thinks she knows them,” I said. “She knows them from the dorm, from this year. Knowing how closely related inappropriate sexual behavior and substance abuse are, I asked her if they drink, and she told me that one of them doesn’t drink, but the other one is a ‘happy drunk.’ She thinks that makes her safe.”



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