At Wellesley College, a fight over whether to admit trans men


Students will vote Tuesday on a non-binding referendum that plans to open admission to all non-binary and transgender applicants. Opponents say the school’s mission is to educate women.

The vote is in a way definitional: what is the mission of a women’s college? Bea Oyster/The New York Times

Wellesley College proudly proclaims itself as a place for “women who will make a difference in the world”. It has a long line of famous alumni, including Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Nora Ephron.

On Tuesday, its female students will vote in a referendum that has divided the campus and goes directly to the question of Wellesley’s identity as a women’s college.

The non-binding referendum asks whether admission should be open to all non-binary and transgender applicants, including trans men. Currently, the college allows admission to anyone who lives and consistently identifies as female.

The referendum would also make college communications more gender inclusive – for example, by using the word “students” or “alumni” instead of “women”.

The vote is in a way definitional: what is the mission of a women’s college?

Referendum supporters say women’s colleges have always been havens for those facing gender discrimination and that, with trans people under attack across the country, all transgender and non-binary candidates should be able to apply to Wellesley.

Activists also say the referendum will reflect reality on campus, as there are already trans students at the school who, for example, transitioned after admission.

The college, which has about 2,500 students, has no data on how many students identify as trans or non-binary.

At Wellesley College, a fight over whether to admit trans men
Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley, sent an email describing the college as “a women’s college that admits cis, trans and non-binary female students – all who consistently identify as women.” –Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe

Opponents, including Speaker Paula Johnson, say the referendum is a rewrite of Wellesley’s mission, which they say was founded to educate women.

In a message to campus last week, Johnson stood his ground.

She described Wellesley as “a women’s college that admits cis, trans and non-binary female students – all who consistently identify as female”.

There was a fierce response. The students organized a permanent sit-in at the administration building. The student newspaper’s editorial board wrote that “we disagree and completely disagree” with the president.

The departments issued statements supporting the referendum. An associate provost for equity and inclusion said employees in her office were “deeply challenged” by the president’s email.

And an open letter signed by hundreds of faculty, staff and alumni said the college was abandoning the radicalism of its founding ‘focusing on the letter, rather than the spirit, of its founding’. .

Alexandra Brooks, the student body president, said the referendum, which will be voted on anonymously, was a way to demonstrate how many students support such change — and how it reflects reality on campus now. .

“We’re just asking the administration to put on paper what is already true of the student body,” she said. “Trans men go to Wellesley, non-binary people go to Wellesley, and they always have.”

A new policy, she said, “wouldn’t change the culture of the school in any way.”

“It is still, and always will be, a school to educate people of marginalized sex,” she said.

At Wellesley College, a fight over whether to admit trans men
Wellesley students took part in a sit-in at Clapp Library. – Bea Oyster/The New York Times

Women’s colleges have struggled with trans issues for several years. In 2015, Wellesley College announced a policy allowing admission of any student “who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman”, opening the door to trans applicants.

Some women’s colleges have stricter policies. Sweet Briar College, a small private school in Virginia, requires a birth certificate or amended birth certificate indicating the applicant’s gender as female.

College president Meredith Jung-En Woo says Sweet Briar welcomes trans students if they follow the admissions policy. She didn’t get much pushback, she said.

Mount Holyoke has one of the most open admissions policies, accepting applications from all female students, trans and non-binary.

But when Mount Holyoke changed its admissions standards in 2014, many alumni expressed deep concerns, sometimes vitriolic and personal, said then-president Lynn Pasquerella.

One sent her a college sweatshirt with “Mount Holyoke” crossed out and written in blood red ink that she was destroying Christianity. Another delved into her educational background, writing in a letter that if the president “hadn’t started in a community college, I would understand what a women’s college is really about,” Pasquerella said.

Even so, she said, support for policy change among current students was enthusiastic.

At Wellesley College, a fight over whether to admit trans men
“We are simply asking the administration to put on paper what is already true of the student body,” said Alexandra Brooks, student body president. “Trans men go to Wellesley, non-binary people go to Wellesley, and they always have.” – Bea Oyster/The New York Times

Women’s colleges have a reputation for being a haven for transgender students, including transgender men, said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Schools tend to have very progressive student bodies and large numbers of lesbian and bisexual students, which may be more welcoming to transgender students, she said.

“For people who are gender nonconforming, they may feel more comfortable in an environment where there are no men, cis men, because of the greater likelihood of experiencing harassment,” Beemyn said.

Lawrence A. Rosenwald, a retired English teacher who started his career at Wellesley in 1980, said he gradually noticed a change in the way students talked about gender.

The most striking manifestation of this shift, he said, was listening to students at graduation sing “America the Beautiful,” written by former student Katharine Lee Bates.

Students had traditionally changed “fraternity” in the penultimate line to “fraternity,” Rosenwald said. But now, some students say “sorority”; others say “fraternity”.

Rosenwald, who recently retired, said he supports admitting trans men and non-binary students. Wellesley, he said, has always been a home for people who “are not in positions of power in a patriarchal society”.

But opponents of the referendum say Wellesley would indeed be a student if trans men were allowed to apply for admission. And they worry about the erosion of the institution’s mission at a time when women’s colleges are dwindling. About 30 remain, down from a peak of nearly 300 in the mid-1960s.

Elizabeth Um, a senior and president of the campus anti-abortion group, Wellesley For Life, said she chose to attend Wellesley because she’s from Boston and wanted to stay close to home, but also because of its identity as a university for women.

“If you don’t think you can fit in here, there are thousands of other coeducational colleges around the country or the world to choose from,” she said, adding, “We’re an all-women’s college. C It’s the fundamental identity of the school, and we can’t begin to water it down.

But Um hasn’t actively opposed the referendum, in part because it’s destined to pass, she said, adding that opposing it on campus is akin to “social suicide.”

With strong emotions and deep divisions, Johnson thinks the debate so far has been unhealthy. There is enormous social pressure for students to support the referendum, she said, adding that she has received messages from students, faculty and staff saying they cannot voice their opposition to fear of being ostracized.

“I’ve been personally booed at public rallies where I’ve called Wellesley a women’s college, which it is,” Johnson said.

Yet even if students vote overwhelmingly for the referendum, she said she would not reconsider her opposition.

At the same time, Johnson said the college is paying more attention to the needs of its trans students, noting administrators are working to reduce instances of student abuse. Students should soon be able to upload their pronouns to the college’s information management system for inclusion in class rosters and the directory.

She also said the college removed language from its website that said transitioning students would be supported if they no longer felt a women’s college was right for them. She said no student had ever been kicked off campus for transitioning, but the previous language had created that misperception.

“There has been an evolution in our country, and we are a microcosm of that,” she said. “Yes, it’s representative of a changing world and a changing conception of gender. That doesn’t mean Wellesley isn’t a women’s college and an inclusive community. These two can live together.

Kaleb Goldschmitt is a music teacher who made the transition to Wellesley. College culture is becoming more welcoming of gender diversity, but not as quickly as many students would like, said Goldschmitt, who identifies as transmasculine.

Yet Goldschmitt questioned the disproportionate attention students were giving to the debate.

“I really want trans and non-binary and questioning students to feel welcome, loved, supported and encouraged to explore,” the professor said, “but my God, do I want them to step up like that for students with disabilities or for other things.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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