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Genderqueer students struggle to fit into women’s college environment

Sophomore Jules Shendelman goes to Mills College, is genderqueer, and identifies with the pronoun “he.” In a school that promotes “strong women, proud women, all women, Mills women,” where does that leave genderqueer people like Shendelman?

“On the whole I would say Mills is not a comfortable place for trans people and does not make any attempt to include them,” Shendelman said.

According to Ashley Battle, an admissions counselor, the official Mills policy accepts female-to-male transgendered students, but they don’t accept male-to-female students.

“We do admit transgendered students as long as upon graduation they still have the genitalia of a woman,” Battle said.

The policy is ambiguous because it doesn’t account for the possibility of students who have their birth certificates changed from male to female by having top gender reassignment surgery, but who still have male genitalia upon entering Mills.

For many, the words gender and sex are interchangeable. But at Mills, sex is understood as biological and gender as behavioral.

People who identify as genderqueer feel like their gender expression is different from masculine and feminine. It can be a mix of masculine and feminine, one more than the other, or neither. Genderqueer falls under the umbrella of the term “transgender,” which is a person who crosses gender boundaries.

“I’ve been going by genderqueer for a long time because I wasn’t willing to commit to the term trans,” Shendelman said. “It’s my way of saying I don’t fit into the gender binary. I’m a gender identity that’s not necessarily ‘normal’ but [doesn’t] necessarily include a surgery.”

On the outside, Shendelman looks like many of the butch-identified lesbians around Mills. His hair is short and on Saturdays at Founders, he sports a fake beard with his friends from QUEERIOT! an alternative queer/gender variance alliance at Mills.

Even though there are genderqueer and trans-friendly groups on campus, Shendelman thinks the administration is not supportive.

“You look at the pamphlets and you think the school is a group of pretty, feminine women,” Shendelman said. That lack of clarity is evident to other students looking to go to Mills.

A junior who attends City College and hopes to transfer to Mills is named in this story as Aaron. Aaron identifies as the pronoun ze (a gender neutral word in lieu of he or she). Aaron is unsure about how hir (a gender neutral term in lieu of him or her) past names and identifications will affect the transfer. Out of respect, Aaron is not identified as being male or female.

“I e-mailed the admission office and they said that ‘as a women’s college we only take female applicants,’ which is good because I think there’s room for folks who identify as female, but it’s not trans-inclusive in its language, so that makes me feel nervous,” Aaron said.

Aaron said there is much support for transgendered and genderqueer people at City College, including a trans awareness day and gender-neutral bathrooms.

In contrast to City College, Shendelman said that although he feels accepted and understood at Mills, he still feels there is a lack of sensitivity training and understanding.

“It’s little things like signs around [and] no one knows how to ask what pronoun people prefer,” Shendelman said.

For people who are in a gray area of gender, what compels them to attend a college that focuses strongly on one?

Sophomore Maggie Banken, who also identifies as genderqueer, said she attends Mills because, “I really feel like [being] a woman is an experience, not an identity. Being a woman is not about the body to me. I might be genderqueer but I’m still female and I’ve had that female experience and I’m having that female experience here,” Banken said.

This article was last updated May 7, 2009, to correct the article that appeared in print May 4, 2009.