On Saturday, Gina de Vries, Elena Rose, and myself brought Girl Talk: A Trans and Cis Woman Dialogue to Smith College. Girl Talk is a multi-media performance show promoting dialogue about relationships of all kinds between queer trans women, queer cis women, and genderqueer people. We were brought to Smith in the wake of this women’s college rejecting Calliope Wong because she is a trans woman. Our comments focused specifically on the issue of trans women’s exclusion from spaces like Smith. This was followed by a question and answer session in which we dove deeper into some of these issues and offered a lot of ideas for organizing strategy. This post is a slightly edited version of my presentation at Smith College.
I want to talk about priorities. Frankly, Calliope Wong’s case is part of a problem that’s existed at Smith and many women’s colleges throughout their history, and this was just the moment the issue became public because it screwed over someone so clearly, and because she was badass enough to speak up. It’s a problem of how Smith as an institution understands gender. Years of policy and the reality of who’s at Smith makes it very clear: Smith prioritizes the gender assigned to you at birth over your actual gender identity. Which means, in practice, that Smith is not a “women’s college” – it’s a school for those who were assigned female at birth. That means Smith prioritizes a coercive, non-consensual gendering over how people understand themselves. You know, when a medical professional says “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” without any input from you, and then you’re supposed to live in that box forever. To put it bluntly, Smith thinks the state and the medical establishment know what your gender is better than you do.
As a result, this “women’s college” is full of men. The only way this isn’t an issue in regards to the school’s stated mission is if you think trans men aren’t really men, are somehow not fully men, or don’t have male privilege. Which, besides being super undermining of many people’s identities, certainly doesn’t match any of my experience with men, cis or trans.
People might bring up the presence of gender non-conforming folks at Smith to complicate the issue. But in this case the school is still only open to female assigned folks. As an alternative, take how Girl Talk is organized. This is a show of folks who identify in some way as queer women. There are genderqueer and gender non-conforming folks in the shows, but their presence isn’t based on their non-consensual gendering at birth – it’s based on how they understand themselves. Now I know this can be easy to lose site of in the Pioneer Valley, land of the hipsterqueer bois, but there are ways to do gender non-conformity that aren’t about masculinity. Folks can be femme or feminine or however they understand their genders. And this is regardless of how they were identified at birth. Smith’s model still prioritizes how you were coercively assigned over how you identify.
While I don’t see some magical difference between cis and trans guys, and think it’s effed that one group of guys is admitted at Smith and another isn’t, I do think it’s worth noting that there are actually plenty of cis men at Smith too. They’re not enrolled there, but because Smith is part of a Five College Consortium they can and do take classes and participate in the social scene. And Smith hasn’t done all that great a job of excluding trans women, cause I went there. I was a Hampshire student, but I took classes at Smith, I hung out and went to events there, I organized with Smithies. I don’t think Smith’s participation in the consortium undermines its identity as a women’s college, but I do think it further highlights the absurdity of the school’s gender orthodoxy in Calliope’s case.
Talking about the presence of men at Smith in relation to this issue makes a lot of folks nervous. “We have to make sure that trans men still get to be in women’s colleges,” they say, “we have to make sure not to exclude them if we’re going to work on making space for women.” Well, why? Why do trans men need to be in women’s colleges? I used to buy this line of arguing when I was a student in the Pioneer Valley. But that’s also because I’d been convinced by my queer, feminist organizing community that trans folks could never really move fully beyond their assigned identities. Now that I know that’s basically the definition of cissexism, I see the issue very differently. How can preserving trans men’s access to women’s space be a priority, unless you think they’re lesser men?
More important to me is that men’s access is a priority but trans women’s is not. In fact, men’s access gets to trump ours. Smith’s position is clear – it’s more important to be open to all female assigned folks than to be open to all women. Why do worries about trans men get to trump working to include trans women? Because of a cisnormative understanding of gender. As a result, Smith is part of a whole network of institutions that perpetuate male power by creating opportunities for trans men at the same time it perpetuates the overwhelming exclusion and oppression of trans women, a group of people who are consistently discriminated against and targeted with violence at shockingly high rates.
While this is largely an institutional issue, I do think folks who are currently enrolled at Smith are accountable as well. I understand a lot of folks at Smith were surprised by how Calliope’s case played out. How? I’ve known for a long time this was how Smith and other women’s colleges work. It’s pretty obvious from knowing the school community, knowing there are trans men there and not trans women. But it’s also obvious in the school’s policy of basing consideration for admission on legal paperwork, which is ridiculously difficult to change. Did Smith’s transmisogyny need to be completely overt to be seen? Did there need to be a stated “no trans women here” policy for folks to see the problem? Because it seems that way, since it took the recent case for folks to notice the problem. Frankly, marginalization and exclusion at the institutional level are rarely that overt – that’s part of how they manage to function.
Well, the wake up call has happened, and now it’s time for the Smith community to decide what they want their school to be. Do they want it to be a women’s college that’s open to all women? There’s a lot of potential here for Smith to take a major step forward in fulfilling its mission by opening its doors for some of the most marginalized women.
I’ve heard the suggestion that getting rid of Smith’s identity as a women’s college is the answer. I’m incredibly disturbed by the idea that dropping the school’s mission is a better or easier solution to consider than actually being a women’s college. I absolutely believe there is a value to women’s spaces – I wouldn’t be part of Girl Talk if I didn’t. I just happen to think women’s spaces should be open to women.
There’s also the danger of the perennial transphobe’s answer to this sort of problem – saying the space is for folks who were female assigned at birth. To be clear, being overt about how Smith works now is not a solution. Openly basing access on assigned gender is just openly stating the institution’s cissexism and transmisogyny.
Finally, I think it’s incredibly important to think about how the Smith community wants this moment to play out. Will Calliope’s rejection just lead to a learning opportunity for everyone who’s already at the school? I would hate for this to end with folks at Smith getting to see shows like Girl Talk and Fully Functional Cabaret, which is also headed to Smith, and learning a lot, but with no actual change. Institutions often use “dialogue” as a diversion tactic to stop folks from agitating for actual change. If folks who are already enrolled benefit in your education from this moment, but the school doesn’t open up to trans women, this is just perpetuating the fucked up power dynamic that Smith is part of right now, the large network of institutions that keep trans women at the margins. I also don’t want to see some long, slow process to solve a problem that’s not nearly as complicated as the school’s administrators want to pretend. Changing the school’s discriminatory practices will only be the first step – Smith will need to commit to actively recruiting trans women if the school actually wants to play a role in combatting the extreme oppression girls like us face. But to begin this work, now’s the time to actually make Smith a women’s college, starting yesterday.