January 20, 2015

Looking For A Space: Trans* Students Transitioning to College

Madeline Crone updates us on the changing college admissions landscape of all-women colleges for trans* students.

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Photo of the Blanchard Campus Center at Mount Holyoke College

Photo of the Blanchard Campus Center at Mount Holyoke College

In August 2014, Mills College (in Oakland, CA) made history when they announced their revised admissions policy, becoming the first women’s college in the country to allow transgender women to enroll. In September 2014, Mount Holyoke College (in South Hadley, MA) followed suit, and finally, in November 2014, Simmons College (in Boston, MA) similarly changed their admissions policy.

In their 2011 study, Jeni Hart of the University of Missouri and Jaime Lester of George Mason University wrote “at every moment the essence of a women’s college is disrupted because gender performance shifts continuously”. These new perspectives on gender are opening myriad opportunities for the transgender community, including their inclusion at single-sex institutions. However, this inclusion also offers complications and a list of unknowns for transgender students applying for colleges. Why should someone who identifies outside the traditional male-female gender binary apply to a single-sex institution? And, if they choose to do so, what should they consider?

Although seemingly a contradiction, women’s colleges offer several advantages to transgender and genderqueer students that aren’t usually found at co-educational schools. Women’s colleges have always offered “educational opportunities to students discriminated because of their gender,” and “new ideas about who women are.” In recent decades, women’s colleges have also become known as safe spaces for sometimes-radical social justice, particularly around LGBTQ issues. This legacy makes women’s colleges a safer, more inclusive space for transgender students than most co-educational institutions. Similarly, although official administrative support for transgender students at women’s colleges is relatively new, many students at women’s colleges have long been supportive of transgender inclusion.

Despite this, transgender students still face opposing attitudes at women’s colleges. Some students, alumnae, and administrators feel that admission of transgender students to women’s colleges undermines the sense of “sisterhood” that such spaces have historically provided. A recent Wellesley graduate interviewed for the New York Times in October felt that, with the admission of transgender students (specifically transgender men), “the intrinsic value of a women’s college no longer holds.” This debate was exemplified in a case at Wellesley last spring, where a male transgender student ran for a student government position, only to face opposition from students concerned that his election would threaten Wellesley’s reputation as being “a place where women are the leaders.” Similarly, transgender and genderqueer students applying to women’s colleges should be aware of some practical concerns. Former Wellesley student and transgender man Jesse Austin experienced awkward situations regarding dormitories and restrooms on campus, and ultimately chose to withdraw from the school.

If a transgender or genderqueer student decides that the advantages of applying to a women’s college outweigh the disadvantages, what should they know in deciding which school is right for them? Mills, Mount Holyoke, and Simmons Colleges are the only women’s colleges that have officially changed their policies to accept applications from transgender students thus far. Mills College officially welcomes admissions from any person who identifies as a woman, regardless of her sex assigned at birth, as well as those who identify outside the gender binary, provided that they were assigned a female sex at birth. Their policy also states that students who begin to identify as male during their time at the college may stay on campus and graduate.  Mount Holyoke and Simmons Colleges have similar, though slightly more inclusive, policies – they also accept applications from students who were born biologically female, but who identify as male. Other women’s colleges have established transgender communities on campus; however, their admissions policies are vague, including phrases such as “female-only”. In a culture where conceptions of what it means to be female are evolving, this language can be confusing and problematic, and does not guarantee admission to transgender applicants. Meanwhile, Hollins University (in Roanoke, Virginia) has by far the most conservative approach to transgender admissions, only considering transgender applicants if they have undergone a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. This is a lengthy and expensive process that not all young transgender women are mentally, emotionally, or financially prepared for, and that not all transgender women believe to be necessary in the first place. Additionally, Hollins does not allow students who begin to transition from a female to a male identity during their education to finish and graduate from their program.

Women’s colleges’ adjusted admission policies regarding transgender and genderqueer applicants are a sign of evolving conceptions of gender politics and identities. Perhaps women’s colleges will someday be known as institutions that not only were progressive in offering education and supportive communities to women, but to all gender minorities. In the meantime, it is important for transgender applicants to be informed about their options regarding these schools.

Madeline Crone is working towards a BA in psychology with a minor in biology at Mount Holyoke College. Her interests include intersections of feminism with sexuality as well as sexual psychophysiology.