Women’s College Admissions: Are Trans Women Left in the Dust?

by Antoinette Weil

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 5, 2013

The women's college traditionally has been a place for social experimentation, nonconformity and ferocious advocacy for social justice. To their credit, women's colleges have been at the forefront of our country's ever-changing cultural landscape and have served as forums for important questions, including ones about conventional gender roles and what it means to be a woman. Now, with transgender issues at last making their mainstream debut as the next wave in the LGBT movement, the women's college is faced with one of its biggest questions to date: Where do trans students fit in to these unique learning institutions?

Transgender student policies are largely still being ironed out, and these policies are a topic that has sparked debate on both sides of the aisle, causing many women's colleges internal turmoil.

Currently, while some women's colleges have enacted specific policies on transgender students and student applicants, most remain up in the air, ostensibly subject to a case-by-case examination. While perusing transgender policies at some of the remaining women's schools, it is commonplace to see references to diversity and LGBTQ inclusion coupled with a statement of exclusivity, somewhere along the lines of "[insert college here] only admits women." For cisgender males and females this appears pretty black and white -- but what exactly does it mean for transgender students?

Are the applications of transwomen considered? Largely they are not unless the applicant has undergone sex reassignment procedures and legally changed her gender marker before the time of application. Considering the majority of undergraduate applicants begin the process of seeking admission at 17 or 18 years old, this is a tall order. The expenses related to sex reassignment surgeries, most of which are not covered by insurance and must be paid out of pocket, are enough to put transgender females of most income levels at a severe disadvantage when applying to a women's college. This disadvantage is amplified for individuals in low-income households.

For female to male transitioning students, however, the process is more favorable. Applicants who were born female and who are "legally" female will be given a fair shake with the rest of the women applying. The rules vary from school to school on whether enrolled students choosing to transition from female-to-male during their college years are allowed to continue toward their degree.

Hollins University in Virginia, whose transgender policy has been called "the strictest of an American college" by the Chronicle of Higher Education, will consider transgender females for admission if they have already undergone sex reassignment and have legally changed their gender marker, but will not allow transgender males undergoing sex reassignment to continue toward their undergraduate degree. While they have not had to implement their policy yet, officials from Hollins say it will assist transmale students in finding a new school, but that it strictly admits and graduates women.

"When developing the policy, we discussed with students our ability to stay a women's college and to see and support transmasculine students as men," said Patty O'Toole, Dean of Students at Hollins University. "Our feeling is 'Now you see yourself as a man. That's great, and you're supported.'"

Although Hollins' policy has been called strict, it has also been called something that other women's colleges have yet to achieve-defined.

"Interestingly," said O'Toole, "We've received positive feedback from students saying 'I'm glad I know where I stand'."

Smith College in Massachusetts, triggered controversy recently, when school officials returned high school student Calliope Wong's admissions application with a curt letter explaining that she wouldn't be considered due to the gender marker on her Federal Application For Student Aid (FAFSA). Had Wong changed her gender marker legally, she ostensibly could have been considered for admittance. Smith however, unlike Hollins, does allow matriculated students to continue toward their degree even after beginning transition, starting hormone therapy or having sex reassignment surgery.

"Once admitted, any student who completes the college's graduation requirements - regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation - will be awarded a Smith degree," as found on Smith's Gender Identity and Expression Page.

A couple students per year go through this process at Mills College, according to Provost Kimberly Phillips. And many of their students identify as gender neutral.

"We are a college deeply committed to sexual justice for all members of the community," said Phillips.

Phillips tells EDGE that unlike Smith, Mills does not require documentation or "proof" of gender, and instead relies only on self-identification of its applicants.

Many women's colleges have cited Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity for all educational programs, which receive federal funding, as one of the obstacles allowing male-to-female transgender students admission. However, as Erin Buzuvis, a professor of Law at Western New England University, notes in her article about Title IX and women's colleges, single-sex colleges are allowed to discriminate based on sex, but they do not have to. Private undergraduate admissions are exempt from Title IX regulations and undergraduate admissions at public institutes of higher education which "traditionally and continually from their establishment have had a policy of admitting only students of one sex" are also exempt. Essentially Title IX isn't enforced in undergraduate admissions for private colleges and virtually all women's colleges are private institutions.

One of the really interesting things about this debate is the overlooking of the fact that most women's colleges do allow men to take classes on campus. Salem College in Salem, Mass., allows men over the age of 23 admission through the Fleer Center. Barnard College in upstate New York, has a cooperative program with Columbia, allowing males to attend its classes. Located in Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr is only admitting and graduating women but has a co-op/exchange program with three other colleges in the area, allowing students both male and female, from Haverford, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania to attend classes on its campus.

Both Smith and Mount Holyoke, are part of the five-college area in Western Massachusetts, meaning males from Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts may take classes at the all-women's facilities. Both Hollins University and Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., admit males for graduate student programs. This is certainly different from undergrad admissions, but it does help to illustrate the point that no woman's college campus is completely devoid of males.

Why, then, should allowing trans males to continue in their studies have any drastic effect on the educational landscape of a women's college? Further, why should a trans female be insufficient, or not female enough, to be admitted amongst the other women and, even men, that attend women's colleges?

Digging into the issue begs the difficult question of whether women's colleges are in fact more accepting of trans men than trans women. And the answer, sadly, appears to be "yes."

While almost all women's colleges boast a diverse community and student body, one is far more likely to see transgender men on campus than trans women due to the technicality of having to be legally female before admissions. So, looking at this in real terms: a person who was born a male but feels like a female, and wishes for the world to see her as such, women's colleges are usually not an option. While her counterpart, a female-to-male trans person, feeling, identifying, and now presenting as a man, can be accepted on the basis of his being born as a female.

It is both paradoxical and confusing to think that students wishing to study among other women because they feel they are women cannot be afforded the same luxury as transgender males.

This is simply the system as it stands right now. It is not all bad, and there are certainly triumphs. Simmons College recently offered admission to a transgender woman, citing her activism in the LGBT community as one of the standout qualities on her application. There will undoubtedly be more discussion and deeper examination of transgender issues in women's colleges; we've only just started to look at sorting them out.

"This is one of the issues of the twenty-first century and is a question that needs more, not less, talk," said Phillips. "We're in the process of having the conversation, we have not finished it."

And women's colleges, she says, are precisely the place to have this type of conversation.

"Women have been at the forefront of social justice. We've seen racial, ethnic and class diversity that we could not have imagined fifty years ago," said Phillips. "Will we see more diversity in the future? You bet, in every way."