The Elephant in the Dorm Room

Brown’s discriminatory student housing policy

by by Jack Fujito

There is a little-known, and I assume little-used rule at the Office of Residential Life. The terse statement, composed of only 16 words reads: “Undergraduate students who are married are exempted from the requirement of residing on-campus through semester six.”
This statement initially seemed benign, even obvious. It makes little logistical sense for a married couple to live in a dorm. Tacitly, though, these 16 words divide students between those whose have the legal right to marry their partner, and those who do not. But furthermore, they make the implicit and unusual claim that being married makes you, as an individual, different.

By using the legal institution of marriage as a credential for housing permission, Brown is legitimizing preferential treatment of heterosexual couples over other couples. And for that reason, the policy is unacceptable at an academic institution that speaks of celebrating diversity and equal rights. Granting students preferential treatment—in this case instant off-campus access—based on a discriminatory legal status perpetuates, institutionalizes, and normalizes discrimination.

While its Residential Life policy is unjust, the University has been conscious of same-sex couples’ rights elsewhere. All three of the faculty and staff health care options, operated through Blue Cross Blue Shield and United Health Care, allow faculty and staff with "domestic partners" (full disclosure: I do not ever plan on describing my relationship with that term) to extend health benefits to their spouse. This suggests that the corporation has at times acknowledged marriage inequality. But the health care companies’ policies still make arduous for same-sex couples what is easy for married couples. While United Health’s policy requires the couple to be in a “dedicated relationship of at least 12 months duration [...], share a permanent residence” and prove “financial interdependence,” Blue Cross Blue Shield requires necessary proof of domestic partnership, “as determined by [BCBS].”

And while it’s troubling to imagine that the relative strangers who marry in Las Vegas could share university health benefits, it is more troubling to imagine the same-sex couples who do not comply with company regulations cannot. In supplementing the discriminatory marriage policies in this country, these policies end up enforcing difference by creating a system that is separate but equal.

Brown should reconsider its position not just on married couples, but on its mandatory housing in general. If somebody wants to live off-campus, s/he should be allowed to whether or not he has a ring on his finger. Since responsibility and familial obligation do not automatically come with marriage like a toaster or a Crate and Barrel dip tray, and, reciprocally, not all responsible people with family obligations are married, maybe Brown’s Department of Residential Life would be better off if it skipped the blanket policies and instead offered students a means to petition for off-campus approval, making off-campus permission ‘determined by Brown.’
While the easy fix may seem to be adding an amendment to the policy to account for queer couples, this just does not cut it. Amending would create a "separate but equal," i.e. unequal, situation. Brown would do better to just drop the marriage policy, not only for queer couples, but for other non-married folk as well.

If anything, the marriage policy suggests to outsiders that, at Brown, dormitories are the original and most efficient social networking locales, where everybody’s relationship status is single and the whole point of it all is to get hitched. And as far as I can tell, that’s an image Brown’s not wedded to.
JACK FUJITO B'10.5 didn’t go to college for an MRS degree.