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Schools around the country are struggling with how to accommodate transgender students. It's come up at two of the nation's oldest and most prestigious private boarding schools. Phillips Exeter Academy and Phillips Andover Academy say, next year, they will convert some boys' dorms and girls' dorms into all-gender dorms. From member station WGBH in Boston, Gabrielle Emanuel reports.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: At Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, classes are done for the day, and small groups of high-schoolers shoot hoops and play games on the grass. Alex Myers is an English teacher here. He's on the front steps of Kirkland House.
ALEX MYERS: And inside is classic dorm. The pleasant gray institutional carpet shows no stains, nice and easy to clean.
EMANUEL: Right now, this is a girl's dorm, but a sign on the bathroom hints at a new future. It reads gender-inclusive restroom. Next year, this dorm and another one on campus are slated to become all-gender dorms. Myer says this idea began two years ago in meetings with a group of about a dozen students who don't fit into the classic boy-girl categories.
MYERS: And consistently, what came up as what needs work was housing.
EMANUEL: The students knew what they wanted.
MYERS: They expressed an interest. And they said what if there was a dorm that didn't have a gender designation and anybody on campus could live there?
EMANUEL: In Exeter's all-gender dorms, each of the 20 or so students will get their own room, and there will be a bit more privacy in the communal bathrooms like a changing area off each shower. Myer says everyone's first question is, do you really want to take hormonal teenagers and mix them all together? His answer - it faces the same challenges as every other dorm, and there will be a teacher living in the house to keep an eye on everything and lead discussions about gender norms.
Alex Myers wishes he could have lived in a dorm like that when he was a student at Exeter more than 20 years ago. He arrived on campus as a young girl. But by 12th grade, Alice had become Alex, yet he lived in his same girl's dorm. And while he found the school supportive...
MYERS: There were people in the dorm who were rude, for want of a better term.
EMANUEL: Just under an hour away at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, the head of school John Palfrey says these new dorms fit with the school's values.
JOHN PALFREY: So 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. And so I see this as entirely in keeping with our long tradition.
EMANUEL: And have you had any pushback from students, parents, alumni?
PALFREY: The reaction to this announcement has been 100 percent positive.
EMANUEL: Neither Andover nor Exeter would let me speak to students. But Exeter did a survey, and there, nearly 90 percent of students supported it. So what about the alumni? By and large, they are excited.
CHUCK GOLDBERG: This is a very significant and positive step.
LIZA BRECHER: I knew kids who got like relentlessly hazed and bullied in their dorms. And if they had had a safe place to go home to, like, that would have made all the difference.
JOHN FOLEY: I'm really glad the school is doing it. I found that sexuality is still not discussed very much. I think we just need to keep knocking those barriers down.
EMANUEL: That's Exeter Alums Chuck Goldberg, Liza Brecher and John Foley. Goldberg remembers when, back in the '60s, gay students didn't feel comfortable coming out. Now he hopes the new dorms will make all students feel welcome. For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.
[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly refers to Kirtland House as Kirkland House and to Phillips Academy Andover as Phillips Andover Academy.]
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