Williams House at Phillips Exeter Academy is slated to become one of their two 'All Gender Dorms'

Credit: Courtesy of Exeter

Phillips Exeter And Andover To Open ‘All-Gender Dorms’ Next Year

April 21, 2017

Head to the south side of Phillips Exeter Academy's campus, in the hills of New Hampshire, and you'll find a wood-framed house with white paint and black shutters. From the outside, Kirtland House is stately. From the inside, it's your classic dorm.

Right now, it is a girls' dorm, but a sign on the bathroom hints at the future. It reads: gender inclusive restroom. Next year, this dorm and another one will become Exeter's all-gender dorms.

Alex Myers, an English teacher here, says this all began almost two years ago when he would ask a group of about a dozen transgender and gender non-conforming students: What's been great? And what needs work?

"Consistently, what came up as 'what needs work' was housing," remembers Myers. "If you don't understand yourself to be a girl or a boy, living in a space that's designated just for boys or just for girls feels really uncomfortable."

The students knew what they wanted.

"They said, 'What if there was a dorm that didn't have a gender designation and anybody on campus could live there?'"

Next year, both Phillips Exeter Academy and Phillips Academy Andover are converting a few boys' dorms and girls' dorms to all-gender dorms. This comes as prep schools around the country are figuring out how best to accommodate transgender students and many are considering new housing options.

As two of the oldest and most prestigious private boarding schools, Exeter and Andover are known as schools full of tradition. But they are also on the leading edge of this social change.

In Exeter's all-gender dorms, each of the 20-or-so students will get their own room. The bathrooms will still be communal, but there will be a bit more privacy, including changing areas off each shower.

Myers says everyone's first question is: do you really want hormonal teenagers of different genders living together? He says, like at every Exeter dorm, there will be a teacher living in the house to keep an eye on everything. And in the all-gender dorms, the teachers will also facilitate discussions about gender norms.

Myers says he was surprised to see the number of straight students interested. He says one boy told him, "I am tired of coming back to a place where people have conversations that are troubling to me about how they talk about women. I want to be in a space where I am having a very different set of conversations."

Alex Myers wishes he could have had those different conversations when he was a student at Exeter more than two decades ago.

He arrived on campus as a young girl, but by 12th grade, Alice had become Alex. Yet, he lived in his same girls' dorm. And while he found the school supportive, "there were people in the dorm who were rude -- for want of a better term."

Myers was the first openly transgender student at Exeter, and for the past 21 years, the school has addressed housing issues on a case-by-case basis. The all-gender dorms are the first time the school has developed a housing policy to accommodate students who are transgender, which includes an application process for any student who is interested.

While all-gender dorms may be easier for LGBT students, Myers acknowledges students in traditional dorms might miss out on getting to know those classmates.

"That was something we talked about intensively," he said. "Are we kind of skimming off a population and taking diversity away from our dorms?"

They decided that the very existence of gender-neutral dorms and their curriculum would serve as a model of how to openly address these issues.

John Palfrey is the Head of School at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. He says the dorms are consistent with the school's values.

"Our idea is to bring young people from all over the world, from all walks of life, from all backgrounds and, frankly, from all gender and sexuality backgrounds," he said. "So I see this as entirely in keeping with our long tradition."

And, Palfrey says, there hasn't been any pushback.

"The reaction to this announcement has been 100% positive."

Neither Andover nor Exeter would allow WGBH News speak to students. But Exeter did a survey, and Myers says a little over 10 percent of students who responded said they don't want the new dorms. Their reasons varied, but some said they liked the current system and didn't want it to change. Others said they don't think small groups should get special treatment.

But what about the alumni?

Many posted on Facebook, and I talked to several. By and large, they are excited.

Chuck Goldberg was a student at Exeter in the mid-60s when it was all boys and, more recently, he served as head of the alumni association of New York.

His thoughts on all-gender dorms are clear: "This is a very significant and positive step."

Some alumni have questioned whether the 15, 16 and 17-year-olds are mature enough, but Goldberg isn't worried.

"It's not going to be as some people, I am sure in their minds, are thinking: It's going to be a free-for-all!" he said. "I think anything but."

When he was at Exeter, Goldberg says gay students didn't feel comfortable coming out. He's glad things are changing, and he hopes all-gender dorms will open new conversations at old institutions.

WGBH's coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Kirtland House as Kirkland, and listed the school as Phillips Andover Academy, rather than Phillips Academy Andover.

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