Trans women belong here

Prominent women’s colleges unwilling to open doors to trans women

Trans women belong here

Image via “Smith Q&A” Facebook page. Design by jack laxson.

Last summer, Calliope Wong, then a high school senior, began an open-letter campaign regarding the admissions policies of Smith College. Calliope had hoped to apply for admission to their undergraduate program. But as a trans woman, Calliope encountered an admissions policy at Smith with such prohibitively high demands and so many inconsistencies that her application was ultimately denied consideration, even after following instructions given to her through repeated, direct communication with members of the Smith College administration in which they encouraged her to apply. (Here’s a photo of the rejection letter she received, courtesy Transwomen@Smith Tumblr)

The actions of the Smith College administration constitute a discriminatory bar against trans women. But after reaching out to over eight women’s colleges nationwide, it’s clear that such policies are not the exception but the rule.

Calliope’s case

There are several aspects of Calliope’s experience that are particularly alarming and contribute to idea that the Smith College admissions policy constitutes discrimination against trans women.

First, the administration’s requirements were prohibitively demanding. According to her account, Calliope was told that all school records submitted as part of her application must indicate her gender as female. “I understand why women’s colleges would want paper verification of a trans woman applicant’s gender identity,” Calliope told me. “However, it doesn’t make sense to me for institutions to demand that all forms and federal forms confirm the individual’s gender. For many trans applicants, getting the necessary paperwork in order isn’t simply an inconvenience; it’s practically a prezygotic barrier, a bar against even attempting to apply to women’s colleges in the first place. Though the individual student may have every intention to apply, he, she, or ze may not have the resources or support (parental, administrative at school) to make the appropriate changes.”

Second, the requirements for trans women seeking admission to Smith were created on an ad hoc basis, leaving lots of room for interpretation on the part of the administration and little for consistency in how they were applied. Calliope claims she was told by administration officials that as long as school records indicated her gender as female, she could apply as any other Smith assigned-at-birth female applicant. Yet even after discussing her specific case with Smith administration and changing all school documentation to female as suggested by the Dean of Admission, she had her application sent back to her twice without processing due to a discrepancy in her FAFSA (a federal financial aid form). Calliope sees this as a particularly problematic aspect of the process. “Women’s colleges typically do not have clear, well-defined policies for trans woman-application,” Calliope told me. “Colleges may simply make up policy as the student progresses along. This seems to be the case with Smith College, as the nebulous (lack of official) policy suggested I was simply jumping through hoops made up as I went along. It is impossible to adhere to protocol and regulations during application, when the school itself is improvising with policy.”

Third, such off-the-book, ad hoc policies give schools the leeway they need to shift the blame and accountability for their discrimination over to someone else. In Calliope’s case, Smith was able to throw out her application without reading it on the grounds that the “sex” category on her FAFSA form read “male.” (There is no ambiguity in the rejection letter she received: “Your FAFSA indicates your gender as male. Therefore, Smith cannot process your application.”) However, Calliope has published an email exchange on her Tumblr with Jon O’Bergh, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of the US Department of Education, which appears to challenge the  logic of this decision, stating that “The FAFSA sex reported is only used for Selective Service purposes. Neither FAFSA nor the Department of Education cross-checks sex information with Social Security,” and causes Calliope to conclude that “Smith College could choose to accept me or at least process my application, if the administrators wanted to. Smith is not bound by any kind of federal mandate…Thus, Smith College’s decision not to process my application based on my FAFSA sex marker is at Smith’s sole discretion. Their hand was not forced; they chose this. Smith College is fully capable of reviewing my application and making an admissions decision for me based on my credentials. Just—it’s so simple, really. This is obvious discrimination on Smith’s part.

Smith College, for their part, declined to comment on the particular case of Calliope Wong, or on the issues it raises relating to the difficulties transgender individuals might face in applying to the College. They also declined to comment when asked whether their administration is considering updating its policy to reflect greater consideration for trans women applicants in the future. A spokesperson did point me to this Diversity and Gender page on the College’s website, which states that “Smith College has a diverse and dynamic student body that includes individuals who identify as transgendered” [sic]. The page also boasts a bizarre and frankly outdated foray into some of the reasons said individuals might choose to do so (“for intellectual or political reasons, in order to challenge prevailing gender norms in our society”) and the policy goes on to emphasize that Smith is “absolutely” still a women’s college and, as such, “only considers female applicants for undergraduate admission.”

A systemic issue

The case of Callope Wong is emblematic of a wider problem of cissexism and transmisogyny across the board at women’s colleges across the country.

A number of schools declined to comment for this article, including Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Chatham, Simmons, and Barnard.

Spelman College, to its credit, had a spokesperson let me know that the College addresses admission for transgender and genderqueer students on an ad hoc basis, but emphasized that they admit “qualified female candidates without regard to race, color, religion, creed, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital or veteran status, or any other legally protected status.” They also sent me a few links to some of their notable work around LGBTQ rights.

Wellesley wrote to let me know that they are “deeply committed to being a women’s college” and as such, they “admit women exclusively.” They also said that “once a woman has been admitted as a Wellesley student, we support all her choices and we celebrate her progress toward self-discovery.” This second part makes sense — if someone wants to transition while at a women’s college for example, they shouldn’t face getting kicked out of their school. But when pressed further to clarify if a trans woman would be considered for admission under this policy, they declined to comment.

I find all of these responses sub-par and problematic. While I respect Spelman for being the only school I contracted willing to state for the record a policy of considering trans women applicants, it is not enough. Trans women should not have to guess and hope their way into fair consideration from women’s colleges as a matter of policy.

Historic sites of activism

Hillary Rodham giving the commencement speech at Wellesley College, 1969. "Every protest, every dissent…is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age," sge said. "But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation.”

Hillary Rodham giving the commencement speech at Wellesley College, 1969. “Every protest, every dissent…is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age,” she said.

It’s easy to forget that just 40 years ago, men’s only colleges were not just acceptable but the norm. Many colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown, systematically and unapologetically excluded women throughout and sometimes beyond the 1960’s. Co-ed commencement exercises didn’t take place at Harvard until 1970, for example. These discriminatory policies didn’t just go away — they were pushed out by the advent of feminist activists demanding their right to quality education along the same lines as their male counterparts.

It was in this context that many women’s colleges were founded, as alternatives to these men’s only spaces. Women’s colleges offered women access to the higher education they were being denied elsewhere. They also played a large social and cultural role, coming of age in a time when feminist activism was rampant in America. Hillary Clinton has famously extolled the virtues of her Wellesley experience. Gloria Steinem is a graduate of Smith.

Even today, women’s colleges have maintained a reputation as having politically active students, progressive policies and an inclusive atmosphere. Women’s colleges are frequently considered a safe space for people to get to know their genders and explore how they identify. I spoke to Kelly Wise, Ph.D, a sex therapist in private practice who attended Smith College School for Social Work for graduate school, who expressed disappointment with the College’s admissions policy despite having had a positive experience at Smith himself. “[Attending] Smith helped me figure out many different aspects of who I am, including gender,” he said. “I wish they would come up with a policy that’s more inclusive, because the learning environment at Smith has great potential to be a safe haven for trans* individuals in a lot of ways.”

Yet this “safe haven” aspect seems to be restricted to those who are assigned female at birth or become female-identified early in life. It’s ironic, then, that women’s colleges, having long played a pioneering role in feminist history, now find themselves on the other side of such feminist advocacy efforts.

Demanding change

If anything is clear from Calliope’s case, it’s that these schools don’t need an explicit policy of exclusion towards trans women to achieve the same result. De facto transmisogyny is still misogyny.

Women’s colleges should not be in the business of policing people’s bodies or identities, or deciding what kinds of people get to qualify as “women”. Many women’s colleges are already sites of inclusion for some trans and gender non-conforming folks, but this behavior should not be limited to certain kinds of trans* people. It’s both arbitrary and discriminatory to label a space as “for women” and then deny access for many women just because they were not assigned female at birth. Stating this, and demanding that women’s colleges include trans women in the group “women,” is not akin to calling for the end of women’s colleges by any means. Rather, it is calling for a policy change that will strengthen and bolster the mission of women’s colleges and bring them back in line with the feminist activism of today.

A Feministing Editor will be speaking on a range of topics, including this one, at Smith on April 6. Details are forthcoming. In the meantime, please feel free to direct letters [] or phone calls [413-585-2500] concerning this policy to Dean Shaver at Smith College Admissions.

UPDATE: A trans woman has been accepted to the Simmons class of 2017. I applaud this move by Simmons. We need to keep up the pressure on Smith and other women’s colleges to not only follow suit in considering some trans women for acceptance, but developing a clear and consistent policy of inclusion towards such individuals.

CORRECTION: This post originally included Stanford University in a list of schools that remained closed to women until the 1960s. The school has been open to women since it was established in 1891, however, it limited enrollment of women to a specified ratio.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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Join the Conversation

  • Amanda

    I wrote to Dean Shaver immediately after reading about this. She replied with a dismissive “Thank you for feedback and sharing your opinion.” I hope that with more and more voices added to the conversation, it will be hard and harder for the Office of Admissions to bury their head in the sand on this issue. I hold out hope for the Smith community to take a stand on this.

    Smith was such an important experience for me as a woman and it makes me furious to see it denied to other women because they weren’t assigned the female gender at birth. Smith seems to be more okay admitting male identified female assigned at birth students* than the other way around out of some cissexist idea that transmen aren’t “real” men (ergo they are “safe”) and transwomen aren’t “real” women (ergo they are “unsafe”). It’s deeply problematic and Smith needs to fix it by developing actual rules on how Admissions handles the application of transgender students and actually sticks to their “we only consider applicants who are female at the time of applying” claim.

    We cannot move forward on the backs of others.

    * I feel necessary to add an addendum regarding female assigned at birth students who transition after admission. I think they should be allowed to make their own decision on whether to stay at a women’s college, not the administration. Which seems to be what happens now. I do not think that transmen who identify as men at the time they apply for admission should be considered.

  • Sam L-L

    While the fixes you outline here are clear, and would make a real concrete positive difference in the lives of people like Ms. Wong, I think that this problem illustrates how gender segregation in eduction clearly and ineluctably relies on a discrete gender binary. When we segregate by gender, not only do we reinforce that the single most important characteristic of any person is their gender (all of Ms. Wong’s history, intellectual capability, and possible valuable contributions are thrown out because of one checkmark on her FAFSA form) but we also punish and cause harm to those of us who don’t clearly and inarguably fit into those two binary buckets. These are some of us who are already under the most strain from our sexist society, and gender segregation unavoidably adds to that social burden.

  • Soledad Anatrone

    I agree that trans discrimination is an ongoing and generally unaddressed issue trans men and women face on a daily basis and I thank you for bringing attention to this. I do not, however, support the trend of treating women’s colleges as “safe havens” for transitioning people. Women’s colleges are real places where important thinking, living and creating is happening. To relegate them to the level of “safe haven” is to mark them as stopping points, shelters from “the real world.” The conversation should be about making ALL COLLEGES safe for all people regardless of where they land on the gender spectrum, not taking issue with spaces that are considered “safe” simply because they are populated by women.

  • Agaidis

    I just posted my initial reactions to facebook, and thought I’d share here too. I’m a Mt. Holyoke alumna with deep convictions on this issue. Thank you, Lori for such a fantastic piece.

    I’m no educational policy expert, but I’d say the best way to determine an applicant’s gender would be to ask them. Not cross check their application with the fucking FAFSA.

    Mt. Holyoke’s mission: “Mount Holyoke College reaffirms its commitment to educating a diverse residential community of women at the highest level of academic excellence and to fostering the alliance of liberal arts education with purposeful engagement in the world.”

    I would love to see all historically women’s colleges open to all those marginalized by gender discrimination.

    ALSO: This is all kinds of fucked up given that, in my experience, Mt. Holyoke spent a fair amount of time reassuring prospies that there would be plenty of opportunities to interact with men in classes and through the campus community. Yet these schools are going out of their way to “reassure” some vague group of people about the “purity” of their female student body. All the while, denying many trans people what could be a seriously kickass educational opportunity, and denying the reality of gender diversity of the students, alumnae, alumni and alumzes who are already a part of our community.

  • Porter

    Some schools are of course more inclusive than others. My own school, Agnes Scott College, is a tiny women’s liberal arts college in Georgia. The school requires upon admission that a student “identifies” as a woman. It doesn’t make any difference if that’s not what federal paperwork or her birth certificate says, if she asserts she is a woman than the college acknowledges and respects that.

    That being said, some of Agnes Scott students enter the college identifying as a woman, and graduate as men. The college is a very open and accepting environment, and many people feel like they can finally be true to themselves there. They express a male gender identity, and that’s okay too!

    The school supports trans students. The student wellness services are trained to be sensitive to trans health issues, there are panels and meetings on how the school can provide a more comfortable and supportive environment for trans students, and the students don’t bat an eye when Jessica comes back from summer break as Justin.

    The school also recognizes that not all people fit in the gender binary. No one there sees anything wrong with someone who choses to not conform to a male or female gender.

    I just wanted to share this in part to redeem women’s colleges. Some are progressive and inclusive and others have a long way to go. The world is still a hostile one for the trans community, but at least Agnes Scott provides a pocket of inclusion and acceptance.

  • Lucia Fasano

    This is the letter that I wrote. Obviously could’ve touched on even more but I was getting stressed. What I also wanted to highlight was that there’s no “aid” for filling out and filing all of your college paperwork. Even the most privilege person is going through ridiculous hoops with terrible counselors and automated voice dialing. It costs so much just to request your past transcripts, to get things printed, sent, organized, etc. These colleges need to consider so many different socioeconomic levels when coming up with their arbitrary policies for how we can let people in. Calliope’s situation is mindboggallingly stressful to me just reading about it.
    This is my letter to the admissions office! I was hoping to appeal to them and then make them feel shameful and stupid essentially, haha. I got back an auto-reply so far because it’s not office hours, but you can write a letter too! :D

    “To Whom It May Concern,

    Civil Rights movements go in trends. We all know that. You’d learn that in a basic college sociology or political science class, i’m sure. It’s hard. Women, people of color, non land-owners, gay people, they all had to sit silent as their rights were trampled upon, because the world wasn’t ready for their fight yet. The world wasn’t ready to accept them and have them vote or have them marry or any sort of thing like that. The premises were too new, too untested, too daunting, to allow “Others” to have any sort of attainable voice or personhood. Smith College’s decision and tact regarding Calliope Wong’s admission, perhaps a few years ago, would’ve just flown right by. But not in 2013.

    Trans-literacy feels very new– to most people it is a fiction. But to the people who love a trans person, to the people who live their lives not prescribing to the gender schema that society wanted them to cultivate (basic college Psychology), making them jump through impossible hoops and locking them out of your college for something without any of their control– for a “factual” reason that their body simply doesn’t agree with, is just wrong. And will definitely be remembered as a non-progressive move. Feminism is hard– women are still so much second class citizens on Earth. It feels like we really need to help out our fellow “natural” woman. But the trans movement will come, and is already burgeoning along with the rest of the LGBT movement. The goal is equality amongst all genders and identifications. Drawing an arbitrary line in the sand is a bad move.

    I’m definitely sure any college sociology/psychology/gender studies/political science professor will tell you, this was a bad political move. And isn’t this all politics, and business? I’m sure it is. It is easy to push this under the rug because trans people are very easy to walk all over. That’s why approximately 2000 queer youth are becoming homeless at this moment. Or why trans people in NY have been jailed without cause. Or why people want to arrest them for being in the ‘wrong bathroom’.

    But the movement is alive and well on the internet– where the humanitarian in many people are scolding and shaming this college’s admission office’s move. And when it is finally time for the “T” in “LGBT” to have their day, you will be remembered. I would take this opportunity, and the flack you’ve received or maybe haven’t read but is definitely out there, to apologize, or to make it right. Or to make considerate, well defined, clear, concise policies regarding this so that you never again have to send one of the embarrassing, insulting, ignorant, and hurtful letters like you wrote to Calliope.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.”