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‘I belong here’: Transgender women discuss experiences on campus

Erin Armstrong (above) is an activist who wishes to engage in dialogues with students about Trans issues. (Erin Armstrong)
Erin Armstrong (above) is an activist who wishes to engage in dialogues with students about Trans issues. (Erin Armstrong)

As the first Transgender Week of Visbility since the announcement of Mills College’s transgender admissions policy comes to a close, students are continuing a dialogue about transgender experiences at Mills. Two such students are Erin Armstrong and Mia Satya, both of whom identify as transgender women.

In August of 2014, Mills enacted an official policy to admit students who self-identify as female. In the following months, numerous other women’s colleges published similar policies, including Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Simmons and Scripps. Prior to this change, Mills’ policy was to admit transgender or genderfluid students on a case by case basis.

However, when Satya called the admissions office in 2013 to ask if they admit transgender women, the person who answered the phone reportedly said no, telling Satya that applicants’ original birth certificate needed to say female in order to be admitted.

Satya had an inkling that this information was not accurate and decided to apply anyway.

“I was like, ‘maybe she’s just an intern or a student who’s not aware of their official policy,'” Satya said. “That still speaks to the fact that staff at the school aren’t adequately trained on how to answer these questions.”

Satya was admitted and transferred to Mills in Fall of 2014 and is currently a junior.

The 2013 Report on Inclusion of Transgender and Genderfluid Students: Best Practices Assessment and Recommendations (in the colleges’ Strategic Plan) recommended that admissions staff be trained in handling the needs of transgender students and admissions policies.

The admissions office did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding their training process. 

Like Satya, Armstrong, also a junior, applied to transfer to Mills prior to the official policy change. She initially thought that coming to a women’s college would allow her to blend in, as she thought female pronouns would be assumed. But coming into Mills shortly after the policy change announcement, Armstrong’s experiences were different than she had expected.

“I felt like I was never afforded that sense of invisibility because I’m a trans woman,” Armstrong said. “And we were having this large debate on campus about transwomen belonging here. I felt like just my presence was a very public experience.”

Both Armstrong and Satya have found the community to be generally supportive and accepting. For example, Satya noted that some of her professors have discussed trans identities in class.

Armstrong has found support in Gender Splendor, a formerly defunct club that she revived this year and is now the president of. While Mills does have several LGBTQ clubs, Armstrong felt there was a need for a space specifically for the discussion of gender identity.

Gender Splendor, a club on campus, opened a dialogue on gender identity and issues. (Erin Armstrong)
Gender Splendor, a club on campus, opened a dialogue on gender identity and issues. (Erin Armstrong)

Even with the revival of Gender Splendor, there is still a debate as to whether Mills provides a safe space for transgender women.

“I think that more trans women need to be on campus before we can answer that question,” Armstrong said. “From a personal standpoint, yes, I feel safe on campus, … [but] I want to see what it’s like for someone who is pre-op, or who doesn’t pass well, or, like, just barely started their transition.”

Transgender women are often met with challenges that may prevent them from seeking an education, Satya explained.

“It’s hard for trans women to go to college in general. … We lack family support. We also face employment and housing discrimination, and [we] face pervasive violence …” Satya, who was formerly homeless, said. “As a trans woman, I often feel like I’m just fighting for my survival and fighting for my life.”

According to a 2013 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence, transgender women are more likely to face harassment, discrimination, threats, intimidation, sexual violence and police violence than other groups; they are also less likely to report these experiences to law enforcement. According to the same report, 72.22 percent of victims of LGBTQ hate homicides were transgender women and 66.67  percent of homicide victims were transgender women of color.

Both Satya and Armstrong have noticed a lack of transgender women of color at Mills. They both hope to see the College extend scholarships to transgender women of color, who typically have a lower socioeconomic status.

“I … identify as white, I grew up as white, I have white privilege and that works to my benefit,” Satya said. “And I know the only other trans woman I know on campus is also white, and I think that isn’t shocking to me because with my financial aid package, I’m still spending the majority of my pay check paying for school, even with scholarships. So, a lot of other trans women of color who I used to work with or who I was homeless with, they are in the same position or worse than me and wouldn’t have the ability to finance their education here.”

Armstrong and Satya both feel that it is important to engage the community in dialogue about gender identity. Armstrong believes in looking for teachable moments. Last semester when a fellow student used the wrong pronouns for her, Armstrong took the opportunity to sit down and speak to the classmate about trans identities.

“I’ve been living as a woman for 10 years, so I’ve had lots of experience about how to deal with people misgendereing me,”Armstrong said. “I had to decide at one point that I’m going to use this as an educational opportunity as opposed to feeling like I’m being attacked.”

Armstrong said that if she could send a message to the student body, it would be to not be afraid to make mistakes but to be willing to own up to those mistakes and learn. Armstrong also encourages students to ask her questions.

Although Satya does not feel that she has experienced any blatant discrimination, she does feel that others sometimes hold back their opinions or avoid certain topics around her. Satya, who grew up in a conservative town in Texas, finds that she prefers negative comments over being ignored.

“I would rather have a conversation [about] what are your biases around trans people, what do you think my life is like, what do you think my history is like?” Satya said. “Because I think that the more we talk about it, the more we can find common understanding.”

Similarly, Armstrong also feels that it is important to open up dialogue with people who have different opinions on trans issues.

“I don’t want to demonize anyone for saying that trans women don’t belong here,” Armstrong said. “I want to engage them in a discussion about what are women’s issues, what’s the commonalities that we share. Let’s bridge that gap because I think that’s how you can actually change hearts and minds.”

In addition to the space provided by Gender Splendor, students can find other opportunities for these conversations. President Alecia DeCoudreaux recently hosted an open meeting on gender inclusivity on Mar. 11.

According to speakers at the Mar. 11 open meeting, current initiatives to make Mills a more gender inclusive environment include providing more gender-neutral bathrooms, updating the non-discrimination policy and pushing the Common Application Organization to improve the application process for transgender applicants.

Satya and Armstrong have ideas on how Mills could become more inclusive — specifically through actively recruiting transgender women.

“It’s not just about saying ‘We’ll accept you,’” Armstrong said. “It’s about saying ‘We want you here, please come here.”

Although there are changes that both Satya and Armstrong hope to see, there is one thing Satya is sure of.

“I feel like everyday that I go to Mills, I’m like, ‘This is where I should be,'” Satya said. “This is where I belong.”

Transgender Day of Visibility brought the campus together to celebrate trans lives. (Dajanae Barrows)
Transgender Day of Visibility brought the campus together to celebrate trans lives. (Dajanae Barrows)

This article is in honor of Transgender Day of Visibility. Check back with The Campanil for further coverage of TDOV.