Transphobia at Women’s Colleges
The school semester is revving up. And for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students their presence can be met with mix reactions. For example, with university and college commencements that take place in June so too do class reunions.
When Caleb (not his real name) drove up from South Carolina to his class reunion this year he didn’t expect the unwelcoming reception he got from both his classmates and the college. Caleb shared with me his reason for attending a women’s college as an out lesbian undergraduate in the 70’s and now returning as a trans man alum in 2014.
But he never fathomed his transition would be the primary cause of banishment from the sisterhood that sustained and nurtured belief in himself years after graduation and, especially experiencing transphobia from an elite women’s liberal arts college in the LGBTQ-friendly state of Massachusetts.
While it’s easy to assume that much of Caleb’s experience of inhospitality at his alma mater would point to a generational divide between women’s colleges in the 1970s to now, unfortunately that’s not the case.
In March 2013, Calliope Wong, a trans woman, hoping to be one of the 2017 incoming undergraduates at Smith College was denied consideration because her “FAFSA” – Free Application for Federal Student Aid – stated her gender as male.
Today women’s college administrators are having just as much angst and uneasiness with the reality of gender fluidity as they did back in the day with the reality of lesbian and bisexual women on campus.
“I don’t want to get to a point where we have a row of guys in the back of the class with baseball caps on,” Smith’s vice president for enrollment told students.
In Kiera Feldman’s article “Who Are Women’s College For?”Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella replied, “In addition to academic excellence, it’s being a woman.”
Institutional transphobia is ubiquitous in many of our revered pillars in society where there’s unabashedly little to no effort to change. The one institution that you do not expect transphobia to rear its ugly head, given that its founding principle was to address gender discrimination, is a women’s college.
Gender has always been a social construction shaped by factors of race, class, country, sexual orientation and gender identities, to name just a few. From the biblical story of Eve to our present-day, heterosexual male-dominant societies across the globe continue to try to define us women solely by our reproductive and sex organs.
Oddly, one of the arguments for gender discrimination against trans women and trans men being admitted at elite women’s colleges is the misogynist concept we women have fought bitterly against for centuries that states our “biology is destiny.” While some women’s college won’t admit trans women because they are not “biologically” female others won’t admit them because they are not “legally” female.
“We don’t define what constitutes a woman – we leave that to other entities or agencies to affirm, ” Smith’s vice president for enrollment wrote to Feldman. Clearly, the principle concept of women empowerment that states we define ourselves for ourselves is totally missed by this female administrator.
The other argument used against trans women and trans men ironically is Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Not surprisingly, however, given how privilege is usually doled out and executed a proviso was granted to elite private institutions like Harvard, and the Seven Sister Colleges, giving them the arbitrary and capricious decision to accept or to reject students on the basis of gender.
But this past April, after long and heated deliberations on the rights of transgender students, the Department of Education finally issued new guide rules incorporating the protection of transgender students.
Title IX energized feminist activism, promoted gender equality, debunked prescribed gender roles, and finally put to rest us women as second-class citizens. And there’s no reason to exclude transgender men and women from these same benefits.
While many of these women’s colleges have been perceived bastions of inclusive feminism, especially with the rise of the Second Wave Feminist Movement, unfortunately they have primarily been an intentionally exclusive women’s country clubs that spoke to Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique of upper-crust “pumps and pearls” wearing white women.
Back in the day when I was a Wellesley College undergraduate, women like myself – African American and/or lesbian or bisexual – were no more welcomed at these schools than men were. And trans women, if they were in attendance, were invisible.
The battle to open these colleges’ pearly gates to women of color, and to women of various sexual orientations and gender identities is a fight that shouldn’t still be taking place.
And this struggle to accept transgender students and to welcome back transgender alums – like Caleb with deep pockets – in a steady dwindling sisterhood of women’s colleges should be a no-brainer.
By Reverend Irene Monroe