The internet rejoiced yesterday when Mount Holyoke College posted the official rules and regulations regarding the admission of trans students at the college to its website. The newest change, and the one that on campus groups such as Open Gates have been pushing for, is the admission of trans women under the new guidelines:
The justification on the web page is that a women’s college must keep up to date on the “concepts of what it means to be a woman” beyond biology and that “just as early feminists argued that the reduction of women to their biological functions was a foundation for women’s oppression, we must acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body. Instead, we must look at identity in terms of the external context in which the individual is situated.”
To clarify for readers who aren’t well versed in gender terminology, the new rules allow in individuals who were designated male at birth (often shortened to dmab, as opposed to dfab individuals) by a doctor but are actually women. Individuals whose genders do not match their designated sex at birth are often referred to as transgender. According to Your Feminism is Transmisogyny Repackaged, “Trans people’s self-concept of their gender does not match up with the external pressures placed on them (assigned sex).” This is opposed to the term cisgender, a term applied to individuals who were designated a particular gender at birth and go on to identify with that gender. For example, I’m a cisgender woman because I was designated female at birth and currently identify as a woman.
To this I say: Yes! The exclusion of transwomen from women’s spaces by ciswomen is well documented, even in specifically feminist circles (for further reading: The Long History of History Failing Transgender Women.) Accusations that transwomen are men attempting to gain access into women’s spaces are, though completely untrue, quite common, and the idea that “womyn born womyn” deserve special places inaccessible to transwomen is a form of exclusion and oppression. The oppression of transwomen in this way and others is referred to as transmisogyny, similar to misogyny and transphobia but specifically targeting transwomen.
So why is this important?
For one, transwomen are women. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this statement. However, in many states the process for the changing of one’s legal sex to match their gender is a long, occasionally expensive, one. States might require attending a cisgender therapist to challenge the trans person to defend their gender. In other countries (Note: MHC has about a 30% international student population) some trans people might be required to undergo sterilization in order to change their legal gender. So, some transwomen who are “out” in their gender still do not have the legal documentation that states they are a woman. Mount Holyoke’s new step ensures that a transwoman who is unable to legally change her gender at the time of her application (for most students, about 18) would still be allowed to attend.
The group on Mount Holyoke’s campus that aimed to gain better access to the college for transwomen is called Open Gates MHC. In their own words, “including trans women are Mount Holyoke aligns with Mount Holyoke’s existence as a women’s college” but the old policies of only admitting students who have a legally female gender “requires trans women who apply to Mount Holyoke to come from supportive families and schools, as well as have the time, money, and know-how to navigate bureaucratic processes in order to legally transition. For the vast majority of applicants, it is nearly impossible to have the resources and ability to change any, let alone all, gender markers on required admissions materials” (source.)
So, it appears that the administration now agrees. The new rules on the Mount Holyoke website state that “many students will choose leaving home for college as an opportunity to explore or proclaim new identities. Whether a student transitions suddenly or has a long history with a particular gender identity will not have an impact on how their application for admission is assessed.”
This, I approve of. Actress Laverne Cox, known for her role as Sophia in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, along with her activism for transwomen and other LGBTQ people, has spoken out against the focusing on physical and legal transition during an interview with Katie Couric by stating that “[Transwomen] experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”
The broader political and social situation continues to become more serious for transwomen. In 2012, the Hate Violence Report reported that “People of color, transgender people, and gender non-conforming people continued to experience higher rates of homicide in 2012” and that transwomen are some of the most likely to experience violence (source.) As the New Civil Rights Movement states, “To be clear, any murder is one murder too many. And it’s important to remember that each number represents a person. So when gays and lesbians outnumber transgender people about six to one, yet transgender people are being murdered at a rate that’s about 50 percent more than the murder rate for gays and lesbians, well, it’s beyond comprehension” (source.) So, the welcoming of a prestigious academic institution for women into this women’s safe space is essential in order to end persecution and, yes, physical violence against transwomen.
Cox also recalled in an interview with the Times that as a child she “didn’t associate being trans, or wearing a dress, with that, or wanting to be a girl with being successful.” For an institution that is hell-bent on providing support for women in order to help them become successful, this should send up red flags. Women who have been bullied for having the audacity to be women should be unthinkable to anyone who has the audacity to call themselves a feminist.
Women’s colleges have recently been dealing a lot with issues of trans identities and the inclusion of transwomen and dmab non-binary individuals. Because of the history of exclusion of women from higher education and the continual discrimination against women in the hard sciences and other academic spaces, women’s colleges provide an important support network for young women who wish to become successful. In her article Who Are Women’s Colleges For? Kiera Feldman notes that the issue comes from the administrations at Mount Holyoke College and other women’s colleges “struggling to reconcile their mission with a growing societal shift on how gender itself is defined.”
Nearby Smith College faced difficulties (some from a student organization Q&A) after refusing the application of a transwoman because she was not legally documented as female at the time of her application (more reading here). While Smith has stated that the applicant must be legally defined to apply, Mount Holyoke has refuted this by allowing identity to suffice (following the example of Mills College, another women’s college who uses identity as the basis for the application.) This, I think, is the smartest move and the one that is the most inclusive to transwomen, although it was in contrast to earlier statements made by President Pasquerella who had concerns that men would pretend to be women in order to gain access to the college.
And then there is Title IX.
Because legal-ese is not my preferred language, I’ll let Feldman sum up the main concerns of the administration regarding Title IX:
Enacted by Congress in 1972, Title IX prohibits all discrimination “on the basis of sex” in any educational institution that receives federal funding. But when Congress was deliberating the legislation, elite schools like Harvard, Dartmouth and Smith lobbied for and won a private-school exemption for single-sex undergraduate admissions. So as Title IX is written, private women’s colleges can accept or reject anyone based on gender.
So, if a women’s college is protected under Title IX but they admit a man they could be in danger of losing their funding. Of course, this hadn’t been an issue previously with the attendance of trans men to the college because their legal documentation reads “female,” so the new rule will require some more thought in regards to how to ‘prove’ gender identification should a Title IX issue be raised. More reading here and here.
Unfortunately, the new rules aren’t perfect. If you look above, you will see that applicants who are designated female at birth but identify as men are also included. Therefore, men are invited to attend the college provided they were misgendered at birth. I feel, along with many other women, that this is an invasion of a space for women by men. This isn’t new, as many transmen are on the campus, but this official welcoming of men specifically smacks a little of misunderstanding trans identities by the administration. Trans men are not “men lite,” they are men who are being invited to a women’s college. I don’t know what, if any, action will be taken by students to change this, but it might be in the cards for discussion in the following academic year.
Overall, I say this is a good thing. I hope that this is a step in the right direction, and that further support and outreach for transwomen in high school by a women’s college will encourage more attendance. In future years, I would like to see more scholarships for transwomen being available so that some of the women who need access to this women’s safe space most would not be hindered by the tuition price.
But it’s a start.