It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when it hasn’t been this way: the world is split into boys and girls. There is no mix or overlap, and under professional, academic, or conservative circumstances, the two do not meet.
But with modern times come modern values. On Monday night, a panel composed of Ms. Courtney Marshall, a future head of one of the the all-gender dorms coming to Phillips Exeter’s regular session this fall, Ms. Viviana Santos, Ms. Elena Gosálvez-Blanco and Dr. Jeffrey Ward assembled in front of the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) to answer questions about piloting this all-gender dorm. Around 40 international students of different sexualities, gender identities, races, and religions gathered around the table.
The all-gender houses will be nonbinary living spaces without conventional gender labels, where genderqueer students can feel at home and many different identities can interact. After much deliberation, two all-gender dorms are being opened for returning students in the fall.
“We’re doing this to serve these students who need to feel comfortable,” Ms. Gosálvez-Blanco said.
She described the school’s efforts as “ahead of the game” and “revolutionary.” Exeter and Phillips Academy Andover are the first schools in their age group to attempt something like this, making it a daunting task.
The act of agreeing on the creation of the all-gender dorm was no small feat. Dr. Ward said that a vote by majority of the entire 150-member regular session faculty had to be taken, while Ms. Michelle Soucy, adviser of the GSA, noted that “it took an entire year to convince parent and trustees” to try it. Part of the process to live in the dorms will include an application and parent permission process, according to Ms. Gosálvez-Blanco.
“We’re going up against centuries of school custom,” Ms. Marshall said.
A main question that arose at the meeting was why Exeter Summer couldn’t also have an all-gender dorm. Ms. Gosálvez-Blanco was open to the idea, saying that “it’s a little early to jump for it,” but that they would “see how it goes.”
Ms. Santos jumped in later to add that there is an issue of programming. “Nine months is a much better time,” she said.
Some students were still uneasy. They asked why it wouldn’t be easier to do a “trial run,” so to speak, of the all-gender dorm during the summer?
But Ms. Gosálvez-Blanco explained the school’s decision. “During regular session, the dorm is your permanent home. It should be a place to feel safe and welcome.” In contrast, she refers to the summer living situation as “temporary.”
Syl Gibson took the opportunity to speak about personal experience as a non-binary person. “Exeter is an opportunity to meet new people, people who only know me as who I am, unlike those at home who see who I used to be … but there’s probably a kid right now, being put in the wrong dorm. Do you fully realize that you’re essentially outing them?”
Ms. Marshall comforted them, saying that this is a story the administration has heard repeatedly. “Your humanity is not up for debate. My humanity is not up for debate. No devil’s advocate, no opposing viewpoints—that doesn’t fly.
However, as the panel explained, no situation is the same, and it’s difficult to coordinate a solution for all of them. Some genderqueer students might not even feel comfortable with the all gender dorm or “don’t want to be segregated,” Ms. Gosálvez-Blanco said.
Access student Lucy Watson raised a different, but important question: “How will you deal with discrimination against students in the ‘gay dorm’?”
“Our number one rule is to make every student feel safe and secure,” Dr. Ward said. “If a student does something to challenge that, we are swift and decisive. Nothing changes with the all-gender dorm.”
Other issues brought up at the meeting included the limited visitation opportunities offered to boys and girls, especially for gay students with mainly female friends. Ms. Gosálvez-Blanco explained that the all-gender dorm was a solution to issues like that as well.
“We don’t want you to feel like the issues you raise aren’t key, fruitful questions,” assured Ms. Marshall during the meeting.
“I’m not here to be tolerated and I don’t think you’re here to be tolerated,” she addressed the GSA.“You’re here to be celebrated.”