The Dormitories are Burning: Gender-Neutral Housing and Critical Trans* Politics in the Contemporary University

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Frothingham, Sunny

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While traditional college housing systems organize students along a binary of biological sex, many universities, like Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC- Chapel Hill), are beginning to address the inadequacies of sexed housing. Practically, sexed housing often fails to be a comfortable or safe environment for students who are trans*. Ideologically, sexed housing presupposes that all students will fit neatly within the sexed housing categories the college recognizes and enforces, and that biological sex is a stable foundation of difference.
In Chapter 1, I present a basic overview of Michel Foucault’s understanding of power, in order to develop the context of gender-neutral housing policy in a broader critical trans* politics through the use of Dean Spade’s Normal Life. Spade’s conception of life-chances draws heavily from Foucault’s biopolitics, which examines the way states and institutions shape people into neoliberal subjects—people who fit the needs of the market. I relate three modes of power, victim-perpetrator, disciplinary, and population management to gender neutral housing through Spade’s critical trans* analysis, and Judith Butler’s conceptions of normative gender performativity and compulsory heterosexuality. While attempting to change the administration of sex and gender by a higher education institution is most directly, in opposition to population management policies; I posit that a change in housing policy may have broader potential to decrease the incidence of perpetrator-victim violence and challenge the disciplinary norms that alienate trans* bodies. I also interrogate the potential for gender fluidity and gender queerness to be an asset to the human capital of the neoliberal subject, as produced in part by the institutional administration of gender. In Chapter 2, I explore the historical precedent of American higher education institutions’ power to reinforce and reproduce hierarchical prejudices in its politics of sexed spaces, racial and religious barriers, and codes of gender performance. More broadly, I explore the stakes the university holds, as a neoliberal institution, in gender and sex. In Chapter 3, I posit elements of a comprehensive gender-neutral housing as a possible solution to address harassment of trans* students in university settings, through examples of efforts to reform university policies at Duke and UNC- Chapel Hill. In addition to publically available information about Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, I come at the issue of gender-neutral housing from my experience in these spaces. By deliberately exploring cases that I am engaged with, committed to, and implicated in, I offer a perspective shaped by the knowledge production of my own activism. Especially given the relative newness of gender-neutral housing proposals at high profile universities, I see my experience as a valuable asset in explicating and analyzing what is at stake in higher education housing policy. Chapter 4 offers an overview of the potential for gender-neutral housing to improve the safety and comfort of trans* students in college and the policy’s repercussions for classification of gender on campus and in society. Here I reiterate and explicate the implications of gender-neutral housing in a neoliberal setting as a population control method, and explore the potential for gender fluidity to be co-opted for neoliberal ends.


Honors Thesis, Winner of the Dora Anne Little Service Award




Frothingham, Sunny (2014). The Dormitories are Burning: Gender-Neutral Housing and Critical Trans Politics in the Contemporary University*. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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