Guest Post: Fear of a trans college

emmacatarineEditor’s note: This is a guest post by Emma Caterine. Emma is a prison abolitionist, decriminalization advocate, socialist, and cat lover. She has written in the past for Autostraddle, RH Reality Check, The Feminist Wire, and Tits and Sass. You can find more of her writing at sassysyndicalist.tumblr.com.

Fear, perhaps more extremely than any other emotion, motivates people to make some strange and terrible decisions. Prejudice is very often such a decision. I disagree with those who want to abandon words like homophobia or transphobia: fear can make no rational sense and though it never excuses horrific decisions, it can explain them.

Transphobia is particularly apt when discussing the prejudicial attitudes of some cisgender feminists towards trans women. The idea that trans women are monsters, perverts, or in anyway dangerous comes from the more broad patriarchal notion of femininity being a tool that women use to prey on men, from the sex worker who lures the good husband into adulterous sin to the trans woman who lures the good straight man into queer sin. It is a cruel irony that patriarchal stereotypes of trans women as dangerous line up with cisgender feminists’ fears of patriarchy–that under the guise of creating safe spaces for women or opportunities for empowerment, cisgender feminists have excluded and disenfranchised transgender women over and over again. The fact that transgender men are often allowed in such supposedly “women only” spaces because they “understand what it’s like to be female” is an additional twist of the knife. Notable examples include the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and a number of women’s colleges like Wellesley College, which include trans men but exclude trans women. 

Somewhere in hell Andrew Carnegie is thinking to himself, “Wow what a scam! I wish I had know you could do that. I could’ve gotten into the soup kitchen by saying I understand what it’s like to be a poor person, since I used to be one.”

“Hold your horses Emma,” you may be saying, “Andrew Carnegie is a rather hyperbolic example–do you really think there are a significant number trans men maliciously appropriating women’s space under this flimsy logic?”

Well if I didn’t before, the New York Times Magazine certainly changed that. In the new article “When Women Become Men At Wellesley College,” Ruth Padawer explores in depth the experiences of various trans masculine people at different “women’s colleges” throughout the United States, touching on their life stories and how the colleges have responded to them coming out and trying to carve out space for men. We see a whole barrage of ridiculous stories of trans masculine people complaining that they’re truly the victims of the college’s policies on gender (the policies, just to remind you, that let them in and keep trans women out).

If you had a flashback just now to an internet fight you got into with a Men’s Rights Activist, you know exactly where this is going.

Here are just some of the better highlights, accompanied by relevant reaction gifs because otherwise these are kinda hard to stomach:

1. A guy who runs for multicultural affairs coordinator, because as a white man at a women’s college he’s a “cultural minority.” Don’t worry though, he apparently feels conflicted about it because he knows the patriarchy is real.


2. A man who chose to attend a women’s college because he did not feel like a woman so that he could explore his feelings about not being a woman.

confused dogs

3. A cis student who couldn’t understand why men were allowed at her women’s college but then had “an epiphany” that “if we excluded trans [male] students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team.” And yes, this college also excludes trans women.

Oh you are dead wrong

4. A guy complaining that the college doesn’t “acknowledge [his] existence” because their website talks about sisterhood and the advantages of being around other women, again at a women’s college that excludes trans women but lets him attend.

Hey, shut up, you jerks. Focus on me, idiots.

5. Oh and also at Mr. What-About-Me’s college they required all 200 student leaders to attend a trans sensitivity training. Remember having that at your college? Me neither, but you know, lack of acknowledgment.

Leslie Knope debating

6. Men shouting “Brotherhood” over the women’s chants of “Sisterhood.” Literally. It reminded me of how the frat guys at my college would shout things over the girls’ a capella groups’ performances.


7. And the cream of the crop: One guy “said that Wellesley should accept only trans women who have begun sex-changing medical treatment or have legally changed their names or sex on their driver’s licenses or birth certificates. ‘I know that’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old just applying to college,’ he said, ‘but at the same time, Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women. What if someone who is male-bodied comes here genuinely identified as female, and then decides after a year or two that they identify as male — and wants to stay at Wellesley? How’s that different from admitting a biological male who identifies as a man? Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it’s like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women.’”


Notice how I always said guy or man rather than trans guy or trans man? I wanted you to feel these acts in a genuine way that won’t be obfuscated if you do not necessarily have the best understanding of how trans identity works. Patriarchy is so pervasive, so ubiquitously present in our lives, that it found a way to make feminists pander to men out of fear of other women, trans women. Because let’s be clear: the attendance of trans men at “women’s” colleges is part and parcel with the bigoted decision to reject trans women. The gender binary view required that the scales had to be balanced: two trans enter, one trans leave. If you are scared of trans women’s “male socialization” and thus reject them–which I believe most, if not all, these colleges decided to do before accepting trans men–our male vs. female society requires you to also believe trans men have “female socialization” sufficient to be accepted, or at least not required to transfer.

I can’t help but grin at all these “women’s” colleges wringing their hands about what to do with all these misogynistic trans men at their colleges trying to decenter womanhood. They so fervently bought into the patriarchal lie of gender essentialism, of some sort of residual womanhood in trans men, that by the time these men have started challenging these colleges’ focus on women it is far too late to change their minds. That’s the kind of morbidly funny part.

But the really disturbing part for me is all this talk of “the real world” as opposed to college. These students would maybe tell you that because of transphobia and cissexism, they face discrimination as trans men, even as white trans men like example 1 above, and that my attitude here is being dismissive of that. But I’m not talking about the ability to self-determine your gender identity, supporting trans healthcare access, or the isolation faced by many rural trans people: I’m talking about feeling entitled to be men in a women’s space and have that space cater to their desires and needs while trans women sit out in the cold. The great experiment to see if a safe space for women could be created to foster a struggle against a male-dominated world has instead created a topsy-turvy fantasy land in which men are pandered to, leaving many students ill-prepared for how power and oppression actually work in the “real world.”

This issue may seem irrelevant to you. I’m a trans woman, but my issue of focus is alternatives to incarceration, not education reform, so it certainly seemed irrelevant to me at first. But once I started connecting the dots, I saw the type of atmosphere this breeds. One in which the recent transphobic attack against a woman in my neighborhood won’t be considered a feminist issue by many, because even most sympathetic cisgender women won’t think of the survivor as a women. And why would they when institutions premised on defining womanhood deny us womanhood out of fear?

But this New York Times article has shown us just how far away from the label of “women’s” college these places have gotten. The solution could be having women-only colleges that include trans women or places like Mills College or Mt. Holyoke which accept anyone except cisgender men. Whatever it is, no amount of pandering to trans men changes the fact that “women’s colleges” that exclude trans women are transphobic to the very core. What these colleges are pandering to is not trans equality–it is patriarchy.

That’s why I propose that any college that calls itself a “women’s” college and does not admit trans women be referred to henceforth as a transphobic college instead.

Mt. Holyoke college changes policy to admit trans women
The Feministing Five: Smith Q&A
Do women’s colleges really need to discriminate against trans women because of federal guidelines?
Skewed priorities mean Smith is not currently fulfilling its mission as a women’s college
Prominent women’s colleges unwilling to open doors to trans women

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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