Thursday, October 16, 2014

In my inbox: Trans students at women's colleges

It was a trans-centric day for my email inbox.

First I received this petition from asking Smith College to adopt a more trans-inclusive admissions policy. This is somewhat similar to a petition from last year that was protesting the denial of admissions to a transwoman because her FAFSA identified her as male and after she was told by someone from Smith that this would not be an issue.

The petition, created by a group called Smith Q&A, actually includes a recommended admissions policy which they modeled after the one Mills College (in California) recently adopted. It is asking the administration to change its policy requiring female gender markers on transcripts and letters of recommendation for transwomen seeking admission to the college in light of the constraints--legal, emotional, cultural--that transwomen face regarding "official" change of gender or even being out as a transperson.

Interestingly, the recommended admissions policy does not extend its categories for admission as far as the one announced earlier this fall by Smith's Pioneer Valley neighbor, Mt. Holyoke College.

Though the policy created by Smith Q&A does allow for women who transition to men while on campus to remain on campus and enrolled, it does not allow for those men who are seeking admissions after already or in the process of transition.

I suspect that Smith administrators and trustees will be addressing this (publicly) before the end of the academic year given the attention the MHC announcement received (and the comparisons being made to Smith) and because other women's colleges are also grappling with this issue...

One of the other emails I received today was from a student who was pointing me towards this NYT article about transmen at Wellesley. Similar to what is happening at other women's colleges, transmen are becoming a more visible part of the student population with some transitioning while at school and others entering somewhere along their (own personal) transition process. And this visibility has some people quite concerned. If women's colleges are for women, as some point out, what does it mean when students who do not identify as women are entering leadership roles on campus? One student whom the story focused on entered Wellesley knowing he was transmasculine but was not out to his family and checked female on the admissions application. He chose the school because he felt it would be a safe space for him.

This is an issue being raised as part of the discussion. It is not simply about who women's colleges are for? But what are women's colleges for? What is their mission in the 21st century? These are the questions women's colleges should be asking themselves--and many seemingly are doing so already.

And this is an issue that exists in sports as well. Erin and I have explored the role of women's sport spaces and their role in women's community as part of our research. We looked at recreational sports and the history of women's-only rec sports asking similar questions. Who is this for? What purpose does it serve? What changes occur when transmen are included in these spaces?

Interestingly I see parallels in the historical missions of many women's colleges and women's-only sport spaces. They were created as an environment (relatively) free from male influence, to empower women, to provide access to something that had been historically male-dominated. 

I understand why the presence of transmen feels threatening to some of these institutions, but I think more soul-searching needs to be done and more external searching for multiple voices from many constituencies about the meaning and purpose of women's spaces in our culture.