"In the glow of the enduring success assured to those who benefit from a women’s college experience, a moment of change has arrived at these institutions. Particularly documented and commented upon at the five remaining Seven Sisters (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley Colleges), and other highly selective women’s colleges, a small but visible (and vocal) cohort of students are emerging who have made a decision to transition their gender, sex, or both, and to live as male-identified or genderqueer individuals (Brune, 2007; Chen, 2010; Greenaway, 2001; Morais & Schreiber, 2007; Offman, 2005; Quart, 2008; Raftery, 2003; Smothers, 2006). Although their (known) numbers are small, their presence has become a lightning rod for a renewed examination of the mission, history, and future of women’s colleges. They have raised questions about belonging, agency, self-definition, and the intersection of individual and community identity. After nearly 150 years of quiet but powerful endurance, a small handful of students have forged an ideological chasm in the basic premise of these colleges" (Marine, 2011, p. 1166).
The above extended quote was taken from an article Dr. Susan Marine wrote regarding her dissertation study. Her study, titled Navigating Discourses of Discomfort: Women's College Student Affairs Administrators and Transgender Students, explored the various perceptions of student affairs administrators at women's colleges regarding trans* students. As Marine accurately noted, a moment of change had indeed arrived; a moment that has continued to build momentum. Most recently, Smith College's decision to deny admission to Calliope Wong has sparked further controversy about the place (or lack thereof) for trans* students in higher education, and specifically at women's colleges.
According to the Smith College website:
An application from a transgender student is treated no differently from other applications: every application Smith receives is considered on a case-by-case basis. Like most women’s colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman.(http://www.smith.edu/diversity/gender.php)
This policy presumes that all trans* students: (a) have a desire to change documentation, (b) have access to change their documentation, (c) would have support (family and otherwise) to do everything necessary to change their documentation, and/or (d) that one's gender is or should be seen as directly connected to sex and/or gender markers on documentation. However, as Tobin (2011) stated:
Nationally, the percentage of transgender people who are unable to update identification and official records to reflect their lived gender varies from 41 percent for driver’s licenses and 51 percent for Social Security records to 74 percent for birth certificates. Prior to a change in federal policy in June 2010, 75 percent of transgender people were unable to obtain a passport that reflected their lived gender, and 79 percent were unable to update all their identification and records (National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force forthcoming).
Thus, even if it were the case that all trans* college applicants desired to change their legal documentation--which is admittedly a substantial stretch of the imagination--a large majority of these individuals would not have access to do so. This means that trans* college applicants whose names and sex and/or gender designations on their college applications do not match those on their federal supplemental documentation (e.g., FAFSA applications) will not be granted the ability to attend women's colleges. It also suggests that one's gender identity is only as real as one's legal documentation supports. Thus, trans* people whose sex and/or gender markers disagree across documents, or those trans* people (like myself) who choose not to legally change their names or sex/gender markers on their legal documentation--which in my case is due to there not being a suitable option to which I would change said markers--are made out to be 'false,' 'fictional,' or 'unreal.' In this way, the continued requirement on behalf of Smith College (and other institutions of higher education that have similar policies around trans* student admission) perpetuates the harmful myth that trans* people do not, nor should they, have agency in determining their own gender. It also suggests that trans* people are deceptive, a notion that Julia Serano (2007), among others, have highlighted as being highly dangerous to trans* lives. For a population that already faces severe challenges and oppression, situations like the denial of trans* women from applying to and matriculating at women's institutions serve as a microcosm of the negative yet prevailing social view that trans* people deceptive and, thus, are not 'real' people, regardless of how they (we) identify their (our) genders.
All this being said, I am incredibly encouraged to hear of the activism going on at Smith. A recent Buzzfeed article stated that over 200 Smith students protested the school's policy that bars admission to numerous trans* individuals who identify as women (as Calliope Wong did). Furthermore, I was pleased to read this protest took place during an "official admissions event for prospective students" (Yandoli, 2014), and that several prospective students and family members were similarly confused as to why Smith did not allow all trans* women to apply to and attend Smith. Although some Smith employees were quoted in the article as saying it was just 'business as usual,' there was also some suggestion that the protest interrupted the admissions event, requiring staff to reroute parking and tours. To quote Dean Spade (2002):
I want to be shocked and undone and delighted by what you're doing and how you're living. And I don't want anyone to be afraid to put on their look, their body, their clothes anymore. Resistance is what is sexy, its what looks good and is hard to look at and what sometimes requires explanation. Why would we want to do things that don't require explanation, that are obvious, impervious to critique because no one even notices we're doing them?
This resistance is most definitely sexy, and it is in this resistance that there springs hope for a transformed future that honors, respects, and recognizes the agency of trans* women (and all trans* individuals) to name, identify, and speak for themselves. The protest was well planned and executed, and has even stretched beyond the walls of Smith. As can be seen by the Smith Trans Women Tumblr, this movement has built support from students at numerous women's colleges. Furthermore, it has the potential for future coalition-building, as the notion of 'realness' and what it means to be a 'real woman' extends beyond just the questioning of trans* bodies, experiences, and lives. Although they each have their own historical and political realities, campaigns like I, Too, Am Harvard (focused on racial inequity at Harvard) and Queerability(focused on the intersection of queerness and disability) each have their own stake in the deleterious notions of what it means to be 'real.'
In talking with a colleague, I recently learned that a new Dean of the College and Vice President for Campus Life will be starting at Smith soon. As my friend aptly said, this new VP (Dr. Donna Lisker, who will be coming from Duke University) "will inherit this issue" (S. Marine, personal communication, May 1, 2014). So the question then becomes, what might Dr. Lisker do? What might I want to suggest that VP Lisker do? Here are some thoughts...
The first thing I would like to see happen is an open conversation about the real impacts of Smith's current policy regarding trans* women. In all I have read, it does not appear as though upper-level administrators at Smith have discussed not just what the policy is (which is vague and, thus, open to individual discretion), but what the policy does (its effects). Once there is a handle on the negative impacts of the policy, it would be nice to see how this policy connects with the broader systems of genderism and trans* oppression. If Dr. Lisker and others want a start on these links, I may suggest checking out my brief analysis of the policy above. Also, Catalano, McCarthy, and Shlasko's (2007) chapter on trans* oppression in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice is an exellent (and more in depth) primer. From there, I would strongly urge Dr. Lisker to work alongside all Smith colleagues to change not just the policy regarding admission for trans* women, but the ethos on campus. In Marine's aforementioned study, she found a variety of attitudes regarding trans* women at women's colleges, including ambivalence, support, and advocacy for trans* students. Changing a policy is not sufficient for changing an environment; a point Spade (2011) deftly makes in his most recent book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. Although this a good start, it is just that: a start. More must happen at Smith (and other campuses) to address the pernicious (and often tacit) forms of transphobia and genderism that will likely pervade campus. In doing this, I would strongly suggest Dr. Lisker listen to students, but not wait for students to be the main actors in this movement. All too often I have been on college campuses where those who are the most marginalized are pushed to create change. This means that the role of change agent falls invariably to marginalized students, who already have a full load of courses and activities, and are often times trying to cope with the negative effects of whatever systems of oppression are rearing their ugly heads on campus. It is not fair, nor is it ethical, to assume that students can (or should) change any campus culture. While they should be listened to, Dr. Lisker and Smith employees need to make the inclusion of trans* women a priority in their own work, and they can do this specifically by interrogating the notion of 'realness' that I discussed earlier. What makes a 'real' Smithie? Who is included and excluded? Why? How has realness changed over the years? What are the potential ramifications of realness? How can changing the ethos at Smith regarding trans* students both honor the ongoing historical and political necessity for women's colleges, while also allowing people to understand that trans* women are indeed women? That trans* women do not harm nor do they dissolve the need, veracity, or force behind the ongoing need for feminism or the feminist movement, but instead they add to an ever-expanding notion about how feminism can (and must) advocate for the rights of all women?
These are tough questions, no doubt. But they need to be taken on, and I think Dr. Lisker could be just the person to lead this effort. My fist is raised in solidarity with the brave students at Smith who are saying enough is enough. Your message encourages me, and your strength empowers me. I once got a postcard with a message on the front that seems to ring true now. It said, "Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving, keep fighting."
(Image above found on Smith Q&A Facebook group)
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.