By Alyssa Melillo
The walls are blank. Pots and pans are scattered across the kitchen counter, and a half-eaten pie rests atop the table. This sounds like the common room of a typical suite here at Stony Brook University—and it is, except that this is the common room of the very first gender-neutral suite on campus.
This academic year, men and women are sharing a suite for the first time, as a result of a Campus Residences-committee decision, which came three years after the initial proposal.
The suite, located in Hand College of Tabler Quad, is currently the only one of its kind on campus. It includes three rooms, each with two occupants. Hearing about the program through friends and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance at SBU, suite members Zach Knowlton, Polina Malamud and Anne Marie Greco were all very enthusiastic about being a part of it.
“I’m really, really excited that I get to do this,” says Knowlton, a history major and a Press editor. “This is my last year here on campus…and as someone who is transgender, I was really glad that at least for one year this option was available to me, so that I can be comfortable living in a suite that’s accepting of my gender identity.”
To be part of the program, students who were interested had to identify themselves to Alan deVries, the Associate Director of Campus Residences, and say why they wanted to participate. If he felt that gender-neutral housing was appropriate, the student was assigned to the pilot.
Even though it is only a few weeks into the semester, the suitemates have been enjoying it so far. It’s not any different from living in a single-gender suite, except that they can choose any person they want to live with, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman.
“The biggest difference for me is that I got to choose the people I lived with,” says Malamud, a sophomore. “The gender of my suitemates doesn’t really affect me at all.”
Those who are part of the project are not the only ones who are hopeful about it; Campus Residences is as well. While deVries declined to comment directly, Knowlton feels he has made his opinion clear. “I know that Alan deVries, in my conversations with him, has very high hopes for this program. So I’m pretty sure this will prove to have a positive impact on the rest of Campus Residences,” Knowlton says.
As for the reactions of other residential students on campus, a lot of people seem to be really interested and surprised, because they were not aware that gender-neutral housing existed here at the University.
“I’ve been getting a lot of envious reactions. People will be like, ‘Really? I wish I had that option available to me,’” Malamud says. For the LGBTA, this project is opening many doors and expanding opportunities. However, it is also broadening horizons for the rest of the campus community as well. You don’t have to be part of the LGBTA to live in the suite, which is the case for Greco.
“I think I might be the only person in this suite who isn’t a member of the LGBTA, but it’s important for the whole community to just accept the idea,” the third-year English major says. “You don’t have to be transgender, bi or have any other alternate sexuality to be able to accept it, and be able to live with someone who is a different gender.”
To avoid potential awkwardness, the suitemates have a whiteboard on the bathroom door where they check off what they are doing, so no one accidentally walks in on someone.
When asked if there is anything that needs to be improved, they all had the same answer: there needs to be more of these suites on campus. “[It’s important] to just have the option available,” Malamud says. “You need to be able to choose rather than be limited to just one choice.”
If the pilot proves to be a success, gender-neutral housing will be open to more students in the future. This would prove to be a big step forward for Campus Residences and the University itself. The suitemates are confident that this will happen, and each one thinks it is important for the campus to take that step.
Knowlton, Malamud and Greco say there are many advantages to living in a gender-neutral environment, but they all agree on one in particular. “It’s all about being able to choose the person you want to live with,” says Malamud. “Most of my friends are actually guys, so it makes sense to be able to have a suite where you’re actually living with your friends,” Greco says.
“I can live with my friends,” Knowlton agrees. “I don’t have to be put with one gender or the other. I don’t have to be put in that uncomfortable situation where I have to declare who I am.”
Although at Stony Brook this is a first, SUNY Albany, Purchase, Plattsburgh and Geneseo already offer this housing option to their students. “When they [students] hear about gender-neutral suites, they know what building it is,” said Joe Flynn, a sophomore English major at SUNY Geneseo where there is more awareness concerning the alternative housing option.
Like Knowlton and the rest of his suite, Flynn had to provide an answer as to why he wanted to live in Genesee Hall, the only gender-neutral environment at Geneseo. His answer, “Because I have friends who are girls,” was good enough.
The goal of this project, the suitemates say, is to not make gender neutral housing different from other housing choices, but to make it just another feature that can be checked off the housing preference form. “It’s not about being a separate housing option…it’s about being one of many housing options,” Malamud says.
Knowlton is predicting that this will have a positive impact on the university community. “I think it’s going to make this sort of housing option just another part of campus residences and another part of campus life at Stony Brook.”