Continuing Feministing’s coverage of Smith College’s severe refusal to allow trans women to enroll, we were thrilled to speak with two members of Smith Q&A — a collective that has been organizing to make the college more accessible to young trans women.
Two weeks ago Smith students held a large protest outside of a campus main office, which was sparked when the administration refused to further negotiate with students regarding policy reform. According to current undergraduate Raven Fowlkes-Witten, “The rally was a big win in itself and we were able to show support for trans women everywhere. Even though we are just allies, we support them in any way that we can.” This direct action has been a part of their larger movement — extending beyond campus to a digital campaign as students, alumnae, and other community members holding signs of support for prospective trans Smith students.
Q & A specifically calls on Smith College to realize that “Womanhood does not belong in documents.” In other words, they are pushing the administration to realize that gender identifiers in student application documents should not take priority over a student’s own assertion of their gender. For example, Calliope Wong was refused admission to Smith because her high school mistakenly included male gender markers on her transcript, after she had taken the means to seek change. To borrow Jos’s remarks which she made at Smith last April, “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.” By pushing to Smith to curtail their discriminatory policies, Sarah Fraas reflected, “We are doing this because we want to open up more educational opportunities for our sisters.”
Suzanna Bobadilla: I understand that you both helped to plan an action earlier last week in front of Smith’s admissions office. Can you describe how it went? Has there been any progress since?
Raven Fowlkes-Witten: It went extremely well. There were about two hundred people that came out off and on. It was really peaceful — there were people singing, people dancing. We had Joanna Blackheart who performed and spoke about her experience as a trans woman and it was really great to have everyone out there.
Sarah Fraas: The night before as as the Q&A board drafted a email to the Admissions Office to see if they wanted to send a representative to the rally or if they wanted to give out a statement to the press. They emailed me back said that the policy is clear on the website and that they felt like they didn’t need to make a statement.
They did up end up telling one of the reporters at the rally that it was “business as usual,” but we disagree. We don’t think it was business as usual and we believe that we went a really powerful message during the rally. It was very loud and it was very celebratory.
SB: Can you share with us a bit more about your organization? What makes Q&A tic and what are you really proud about?
Sarah: Q &A is a sub-working group under a greater social justice org at Smith. These groups are usually formed spontaneously when the need arises for them. Q & A formed with a bunch of people starting my first year at Smith when we heard about the case of Calliope Wong, who actually started this all on her own — blogging on tumblr about her experience trying to apply to Smith and how hard it was. She got the ball rolling and we started to organization in support of her.
Q & A started meeting every week in a special place called the Center for Gender and Sexuality on campus. We have always since the beginning been a collective — we make decisions based on consensus. We do a really cheesy thumbs up or thumbs down or thumbs in the middle for every decision that we make. This year we spent a lot of time making sure that individual voices are heard in the group, even if we have to have official student chairs for paperwork. Even within every meeting we want to make sure that people aren’t taking up too much space and that we can hear from everyone.
The group works really well because we are strategic, we think about what our goals are. We do a lot of conversation and a lot of planning. It’s been a really really special thing for me.
SB: What have been some of your main demands? Can you also share the context behind them?
Sarah: We’re asking that if the application has male gender marks that Smith would ask for two letter of support from medical officials or teacher or members of the applicant’s community. Our ultimate goal is a policy similar to Mills College in California where they don’t even have a supplement, they accept students on their own terms.
SB: Any big wins that you’d like to shout-out?
Sarah: We’ve had a couple major wins — a win in the first place was to have student negotiators have direct access to administrators. This past year, I’ve gone to several myself. They have been great way to get face-to-face time. We’ve met with the Dean of Admission and the Vice-President of Enrollment. We’ve been presenting our demands for an hour or so and why they are important and there have been some concessions on the way. We definitely consider those victories. For some background, when Calliope was first rejected, her applications was sent back twice. Once because her FAFSA did not have her marked as female, which was a huge classist piece of it, basically saying if you need financial aid, it’s much harder if you don’t have all female gender markers on your documents. The second was because her transcript had a male gender marker through no fault of her own. She had actually got through the process of changing her transcript but it was a clerical error. Basically, we’ve made some improvements there.
Now if Calliope had applied, the FAFSA would not have been a problem: you can send whatever you want to the office of financial aid with whatever gender markers you want — which is good. That’s definitely a victory. The other victory is whatever you send to the Office of Disability does not have to have female gender markers. These are things I think Smith felt like they could do without making any serious headway on the main issue here which is the admissions documents.
Your Common App, your transcript, your letter of recommendation — these things are much harder to change because individual school districts are able to decide for themselves whether or not to make changes on those documents. In our own research, we’ve found that less than half of high school students are able to change their documents — that’s not just trans women but all trans students. Another 40% have been harassed by their teachers K-12. Under those conditions, it does not make sense to continue to discriminate this way. If they had done a couple of Google searches, they would have know these statistics too.
We have had some serious victories and we are fortunate to have a working relationship with the administration, but that’s something that not many students get when they are organizing like this. But at the same time there are some serious gaps in their social justice education about trans gender issues. That’s another problem — it’s not like one individual, but the institution itself that could do better to orient itself to different modes of feminism.
SB: Earlier this week, the White House’s release recommendations for Title IX that specifically affirmed that its protections apply to gender queer and trans students. I was wondering how your organization views this new development.
Sarah: Originally when we heard that we were really excited about it. I contacted a law professor who’ve worked with in the past, and they told me that unfortunately Title IX does not apply to private undergraduate admissions. But if a trans woman was treated unfairly at her time at Smith, that would definitely be grounds. Since this is so recent, I’m sure this isn’t the only legal opinion on it, but I hope ultimately we can use it for our efforts.
Raven: I think that the new Title IX announcement will show that Smith’s policy is discriminatory, whether that be an immediate policy change or that this policy needs to change.
SB: How can our readers help your campaign?
Raven: I think it would be great if your readers could share your thoughts on this policy by contacting the Admission’s Office at (413) 585-2500. They can also reach out to the Dean of Admission (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the VP of Enrollment (email@example.com) and the Secretary of the Smith College Board of Trustees (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sarah: People should check out our Tumblr and submit written statements of solidarity. There is a lot of information so people can educate themselves and why the policy is discriminatory.
SB: You are stranded on a dessert island, you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you choose?
Raven: For food pizza, for my drink apple juice. For my feminist, I’d pick Laverne Cox.
Sarah: For my drink I’d pick Diet Coke, for my food pizza, for my feminist, Dean Spade.
Suzanna Bobadilla is the interviews contributor at Feministing. If you think there is someone that she should talk to, give her a holler via the Twitter. (Sidenote: she would also like to remind Americans that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, but when we kicked the French out of Puebla. She would advise said folks to stop wearing sombreros because you look like a fool.)