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Women’s colleges adopt transgender admissions policies, others continue to rally

Students at Smith and other women’s colleges rally for transgender admissions (Carolyn Brown)
Students at Smith and other women’s colleges rally for transgender admissions (Carolyn Brown)

While women’s colleges across the nation begin to adopt policies admitting transgender applicants, students at some women’s colleges are still fighting for change.

Many of the recent admissions policies have come in the wake of Mills College’s move to become the first women’s college to officially admit transgender students in May of this year, although transgender students were admitted on a case-by-case basis prior to the publication of an official policy.

Mills currently provides numerous resources for students who identify as transgender or gender variant, including several clubs and organizations for current students and alums. The Mills website also offers healthcare resources and guides for transgender students, as well as instructions on changing names and pronouns with the College and a map of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

Since Mills published this policy, numerous other women’s colleges have adopted similar policies, including Mount Holyoke College.

Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, was founded in 1837 and the alma mater of Susan Mills — one of the founders of Mills College.  The president of Mount Holyoke announced the College’s decision to admit transgender students who identify as women in September of this year. The fight for this policy change was spearheaded by a student-led group at Mount Holyoke called Open Gates.

One of the leading members of Open Gates, Jennie Ochterski, said that their work is far from done.

“While we are so excited that trans women are now able to be admitted, we know there’s a lot of work to do to make our campus as welcoming as possible,” Ochterski said in an email.

Open Gates is now working to bring more awareness to transgender students. The group has facilitated campus dialogues and writes a monthly newspaper column through which they answer student questions. Student representatives from Open Gates are also currently working with residential life and admissions to create a safe space for transgender students.

Mount Holyoke is one of the Seven Sisters, a group of historically women’s colleges in the east, some of which are now coed or have merged with other colleges. While Mount Holyoke has opened its doors to transgender students, others have not yet done so. One of these colleges that has not yet changed their admissions policy is Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, where students have been engaged in a years-long battle to gain admissions for trans students.

The issue of transgender admissions at Smith entered the spotlight in 2013, when male-to-female transgender student Calliope Wong was denied admissions on the grounds that her financial aid information listed her as male. Wong’s experience prompted a national outcry and led to the formation of Smith Q&A, an organization dedicated to fighting for trans inclusion at Smith.

Justin Kilian, a transwoman working with Smith Q&A, said that the recent admissions policies of other women’s colleges have helped pave the way.

“Smith administration refused to talk with us further on the issue until Mount Holyoke’s policy went through,” Kilian said in an email. “Mount Holyoke’s recent policy, and Mills formalizing their already inclusive policy, has served as a catalyst for further change in the deliberation of this change. We hope that a similar phenomenon will also be seen at other women’s colleges when Smith changes their policy.”

Many transgender students and their allies are still working hard for admissions equality. (Carolyn Brown)
Many transgender students and their allies are still working hard for admissions equality. (Carolyn Brown)

According to Kilian, Smith Q&A is organizing to help push a more inclusive policy, though, as soon as possible, as well as determining what changes will help make trans students more accepted and welcomed.

The topic of transgender admissions has prompted many people to wonder how this will affect the mission statements of the few remaining women’s colleges — and whether transgender people belong at women’s colleges in the first place.

Kilian believes that much of the controversy around transgender admissions at women’s colleges comes from an incorrect belief that transwomen are men in dresses.

“This is not true,” Kilian said. “Transwomen are just women with a different experience than cis women [women whose gender identity matches that of the sex they were assigned at birth], and the claim that we are not fuels a systematic violence against us that results in the highest murder rate in the LGBTQ+ community, higher suicide rates, higher rates of substance abuse and an increased likeliness to be subject to sexual assault.”

Numerous student-led groups like Smith Q&A and Open Gates have surfaced at other women’s colleges. One group is Students for a Trans-Inclusive Barnard, which formed this Fall to encourage Barnard to begin admitting transgender students.

“I see us as a group of students uniting to educate and engage the community in dialogue about trans identities and experiences, which will ideally lead to Barnard adopting a trans-inclusive admissions policy,” said Caleb LoShiavo, a senior at Barnard and member of the group, who uses the pronouns they/them.

Students for a Trans-Inclusive Barnard is also working to educate the community about trans rights through various projects. A group of alums at Bryn Mawr College supporting trans inclusion has also banded together via social media. A petition started by students and alums of Bryn Mawr has garnered over 2,ooo signatures on Another group at Wellesley called Wellesley 20/20 has also formed.

Students across the nation, including LoShiavo, believe that transgender students’ place at women’s colleges is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

“Transwomen are women and their right to access women’s spaces should not be questioned,” LoShiavo said. “As for other trans people, rethinking the concept of women’s colleges and moving toward one of colleges for people who deal with gender oppression is one that I really like.”