I am a male alum of Wellesley College, a women’s college. When I applied to and enrolled at Wellesley, I did not know I was male. I did not know the entire time I was enrolled, and even for a few years after graduating. I presumed I was female. But it turns out that I am male, and being among thousands of graduates of a women’s college, I often feel as though I am not supposed to exist.
The admissions office has made it clear in the past that it’s ambivalent at best about transmale alums doing admissions interviews, suggesting they will consider it on a case by case basis. Perhaps they believe it would be confusing for a prospective student to speak to a man about their experiences at a women’s college. Well, yes, it could be confusing at first to a prospective student who is uneducated about trans* issues, but that can be quickly remedied. Yes, it could be off-putting to prospective students who hold transphobic views. Is the student body really better off with students who are unable to understand and accept the existence of transgender people? Or who, interested in a woman’s perspective of a women’s college, are unwilling to seek out an additional interviewer on their own? Another concern might be that the conversation would be entirely about the transgender alum’s gender, as if the transgender interviewer would even want to talk about that, or would not understand the purpose of the conversation well enough to redirect it, and as if the interviewee would be so bold and rude as to press the subject – is that really the kind of student we want? Additionally, suggesting that the existence of a trans* alum would be confusing or potentially bad further solidifies the invisibility of transmen who are current students. It seems the college is invested in hiding the fact that there are transgender students and alums in the Wellesley community. Is it more important to attract students who might hold transphobic viewpoints than it is to support current transgender students and alums?
On campus and among the vast and amazing alum network, there have been efforts to make certain language more gender neutral. Where folks have often referred to students and alums as ‘sisters’, many now use ‘siblings’. Where some college documents formerly referred to all students as ‘women’, they now refer to everyone as ‘students’. As a transman who has to fight for my existence and my gender to be acknowledged by a world that tells me that I shouldn’t exist, that my existence isn’t worth noting, that I must be delusional and am not really male, it means a lot to me when people make changes like these. At the same time, I feel conflicted. There are those who feel a great deal of empowerment referring to a large group of people as their ‘sisters’ and fellow ‘alumnae’. We live in a world where the minority of men get priority over a majority of women in many situations, and after all, isn’t that what we’re doing when we change the language from ‘sisters’ to ‘siblings’?
I didn’t want to be a man. I never wanted male privilege. In fact, my resistance to the idea of being a man with male privilege made it much harder to come to terms with my true gender identity. Living as a queer woman for much of my life, I came to be easily frustrated with people who I didn’t know well but who I perceived to be cisgender, usually straight, men, and I did not want to be one. Switching to male pronouns felt a little bit like going against my counter-culture instincts. Using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ used to feel empowering and radical in certain contexts. But now, in the face of how hard it is to affirm my true identity and have it acknowledged, having had to live with near constant misgendering for a good stretch of time, the opposite feels true in certain contexts. When my fellow Wellesley alums use ‘siblings’ instead of ‘sisters’, it is not the same as catering to a minority of entitled cisgender men. It is counter-cultural. It is deeply meaningful in the fight for solidarity in the face of oppression. It is an acknowledgement of the very real existence of transgender men and non-binary identified students who are a reality at Wellesley and beyond, who have to fight for that acknowledgement.
As for whether or not transmen should be enrolled at Wellesley (or any women’s college), I urge you to consider the following. Figuring out that you are transgender is not straightforward, nor easy. It can take a lot of time, a lot of going back and forth, a lot of uncertainty. To expect every student to know for sure that they are female by the end of high school is not only unreasonable, it’s impossible. So imagine you just figured out that you’re male, and you are feeling overwhelmed, and you are at a women’s college. Is the college supposed to kick you out when you most need your current support community? And if so, at what point? When you change your name or gender marker on your IDs? When you begin any sort of medical treatment (if you are going to at all)? Who decides? Wouldn’t this just encourage students to remain miserable and in the closet or to delay life-affirming (and life-saving) medical care in order to remain? And why would this be so important? The student is still the same person as they were when they were admitted. Also, even if the college were to police students’ genders like this, they would still end up with male alums such as myself. We are inevitable. Thankfully, transgender students are left alone, allowed to continue and graduate, though this feels a bit like a product of pretending they don’t exist.
Additionally, regardless of the fact that I am male, my perspective of my life and the world has been irrevocably shaped by the significant amount of time I spent trying to live as a woman. I have been socialized female. I am highly attuned to misogyny and take it personally. I have experienced sexism. I am reluctant to negotiate salaries, to speak up in meetings, to assert myself, because I internalized the idea that to do so would bring about a negative impression of myself or would put people off. I still have these internalized ideas even though I understand that I am not a woman, even though I know I will be treated differently than a woman. These ideas are subconscious and ingrained. Because of this, I find a great deal of solidarity among women. I remain hugely grateful that I went to Wellesley, even though it turns out that I am a man. It was an invaluable experience for me, and I do not regret it for a second. Would I really be out of place at, or outside the mission of, a women’s college?
While I’m on the topic of women’s colleges and their failure to acknowledge the existence of transgender people, I would be remiss if I did not mention the utter failure of admissions to treat transwomen applicants in a non-discriminatory manner. Smith College almost got this right last year. A transwoman applied to the school, and the admissions office appeared to be giving her the green light to apply, only to then deny her because a single form still had her listed as ‘M’. They dropped her application from consideration over a simple issue of ultimately changeable bureaucratic logistics, as if that could somehow invalidate her female-ness, and thus her eligibility. Outrageous.
This article from Feministing last year put it well. For the women’s colleges that do have some sort of policy for transwomen applicants, the bar is so incredibly high that it basically leaves room only for transwomen who could be perceived to be cisgender women on every piece of paper submitted. This is prohibitive for most transwomen at 17, among those who even know their gender at this point. To achieve this bar, all rec letters must use female pronouns, gender marker must have been changed through the social security administration and on state IDs, which, depending on the state, can require specific medical intervention (which not everyone wants or has access to, or is willing to do as a developing teenager), having a name change permeate to all institutions and documentation (which takes a lot of time and effort), and a variety of other logistics. This requires a great deal of affirming support from a great deal of people, not to mention time and money, which many transwomen in high school do not have.
Having this be the bar is absolutely discriminatory, and reeks of requiring transwomen to ‘prove’ that they are female, which reinforces mainstream narratives that transgender people must just be confused, or aren’t really who they say they are. Perhaps there are concerns that a transwoman who is still perceived as male would be, what, a threat of some sort? Would really be a man? Would make transphobic students uncomfortable? Also, it isn’t like there aren’t ever men on campus, at least at Wellesley – we have exchange programs with other coed schools, and even occasionally have a cis-male student or two living in the dorms for semesters at a time, not to mention transmen on campus (or are we considering their genders invalid, too? *cough*). So what’s the problem? Oh right. Transphobia.
So for now, it looks like Smith College, and also Wellesley College, in addition to many other women’s colleges (if you know of one that handles these issues differently, do tell!), are just for cis-women. But only as long as we’re pretending transmen and non-binary identified students don’t exist. Way to support oppression!
I would like to end this somewhat rant-y post, however, with an acknowledgment of the incredible support I have had from my fellow Wellesley alums. Our network has so many amazing, supportive people who have helped me to feel welcome, whether they know me personally or not, and for that, I am enormously grateful. Thank you.