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Strong Women, Proud Women, All Women?

I am struggling with a conundrum right now.  I want to write an article about transphobia* and cisgenderism* at Mills.  But this transphobia and cisgenderism is so pervasive I can’t be sure my readers even know what transgender means.  I want to get into the hard, important questions about ideology and policy, but I can’t do that if I always have to do “transgender 101” first.  But please, I implore you to keep reading, even if you don’t follow every single thing I say.

Keep reading, because there is so little education on this campus around transgender allyship*, I can’t even be sure we are speaking the same language.

Keep reading, because it is not enough for cisgender* (non-transgender) people to just not hate trans* people. Transphobia and cisgenderism can only become unraveled when we unlearn everything we have been taught about gender and sex.

There is no official admissions policy that articulates whether or not trans students are welcome. Instead, trans students are admitted on a case-by-case basis.  This means trans applicants are put in touch with admission’s staff, who may or may not have the appropriate skills to provide them with the support they need.   Sadly, for some prospective students, this has meant phone calls in which hurtful and transphobic language was used.  At this junction it becomes clear that Mills does not prioritize welcoming trans students from the get-go.

Further, transwomen applicants are required to provide government-issued “proof” of their gender. To my knowledge there is no other population who is required to provide this sort of documentation upon applying to Mills College. Though this is not an official policy, it is an unofficial policy that plays out in a distinct pattern.

This discriminatory unofficial policy invokes the essence of feminist transphobia, wherein women’s spaces need to be “protected” from the “threat” of trans people and the boundaries of “true womanhood” are policed by cisgender women. As policy-makers require “proof” of gender, they articulate an implicit fear that cisgender men are trying to enter the undergraduate institution through the “guise” of transsexuality. This fear echoes the pervasive, damaging cultural tropes that trans people are “predators” out to either access male privilege or “penetrate” women’s spaces.

The unofficial policy also produces discrimination along various axes (including class, citizenship status, race and gender identity), that impact whether trans applicants are wanting, willing, and/or able to access government-issued documentation of gender.

For example, a trans person with low or no income may be unable to afford the expensive process of acquiring government-issued gender documentation.  A trans person who is an undocumented (or documented) immigrant, may be unable to acquire such forms of gender documentation without risking deportation.  A genderqueer person may not wish to legally change their gender for many reasons.  Further, trans people of color have long been discriminated against by the systems that provide government issued “proof” of gender.

As a transgender person on this campus I am exhausted from trying to provide proof. Proof I should be here, proof that I am my gender, proof that I exist.

Trans students exist on this campus. We can fight until we are blue in the face for a little policy change here, and a little policy change there. All of those things are important. But if the undercurrent of transphobic ideology stays the same, we will always be made invisible.

Will Mills college be the first or last women’s college in the U.S. to stop beating around the bush and start addressing the reality of trans students? Will Mills college be on the cutting edge of the next decade’s gender revolutions, or will we be stuck in a transphobic feminist ideology that excludes and erases trans people? How can we translate “women’s education” to mean an education that cultivates a powerful resistance to transphobia and cisgenderism, not just to patriarchy and sexism?

It is only after these questions are addressed, that I can begin to feel like I am welcome at Mills as a transgender student. I have big dreams for Mills, and I hope dearly that this institution can someday live up to them.
My Mills will recognize that trans students have always been and will always be here. My Mills will support trans students by providing resources and educating cisgender students, faculty, and staff about trans allyship. My Mills will explicitly welcome trans students and publicly acknowledge our existence in promotional materials (I will have my face on that damn website!).

My Mills will harbor the next generation of trans students, nurturing and guiding them, and providing them with education to help them grow into fully-fledged gender revolutionaries. My Mills will recognize some trans students come here just to be physically safe and survive while getting their education. My Mills will be sure that the burden of making this college trans friendly does not fall on trans students who have enough to deal with just getting through the day.

Right now, my Mills feels like a pipe dream.

*cisgenderism is the tendency of institutions, organizations, and social systems to be designed with the expectation that people needing to access them will be non-trans, and therefore to provide services less effectively for trans people.  This is distinct from transphobia because explicitly invokes the institutional aspects of discrimination.

*allyship refers to the act of being an ally.  Allies to transgender people work in solidarity with our struggles.  For a plethora of resources on how to be a transgender ally, google “how to be a transgender ally”

*cisgender refers to people who are not transgender.  Cisgender people have the privilege that their assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity today.

*trans refers not just to transgender people who identify as MtF or FtM.  Rather, it is a broader umbrella term that can be used to include a variety of genders, beyond just male and female.