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Smith College Says No to Trans Students

by Conswella Bennett

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday April 27, 2013

A trans woman won't get to fulfill her dream of attending Smith College, a private women's university in Massachusetts, because on government federal financial aid documents she is registered as a male.

Calliope Wong, a male-to-female transwoman found out for the second time that she would not be able to fulfill her dream when she received a second denial letter from Smith dated on Mar. 5 from Dean of Admissions Debra Shaver.

"I was extremely disappointed when Smith College twice sent back my application without processing," Wong said to EDGE in an email interview. "The first 'return' was for a clerical error at school regarding my transcripts. The second, however, was far worse. It wasn't even a rejection notice: Smith College based it on the arbitrary criterion of my FAFSA sex marker (a federal, not school, document), simply decided to disregard my application and return it to me."

According to the letter, which Wong posted on her blog on tumblr, Shaver wrote, "As you may remember from our previous correspondence, Smith is a women's college, which means that undergraduate applicants to Smith must be a female at the time of the admission."

"Our expectation is that it is consistently reflected throughout the application that the student is a woman. Upon reviewing your file, this is not the case. Your FAFSA indicates your gender as male. Therefore, Smith cannot process your application," the letter read.

A little over a month after receiving the news, Wong says she has now come to a point of understanding.

"I'm largely past those feelings of betrayal, and continue working so that trans women applicants after me might have the real "fair shot" that I'd always wanted," she told EDGE.

Like most students entering high school, Wong began thinking of where she would further her education. Back then, as a high school freshman, Wong said she knew Smith was where she wanted to attend. "I felt a connection to the school," she said.
"Smith College seemed a great fit -- it was a school for 'iron women,' women who had the willpower and knowledge to affect real change in society," said Wong. "As a third-wave feminist, I definitely saw Smith as a place for the empowerment of visionary, vocal and practical women who worked to close the gap between ideal and reality."

Wong had planned to study Women/Ethnic/Gender studies as well as English and writing. But in the fall, Wong will take her plans to a different university.

Smith Students and Alumni Support Wong’s Plight

Since news of Smith's rejection of Wong as a student made it onto social media, Wong has been met with overwhelming support from alumna, current and future Smith students.

A first-year student at Smith, Elli Palmer is a member of the campus' activist group, Queers & Allies (Q&A). Palmer and other members of Q&A are working on the Trans Women at Smith Campaign to show their support for Wong and for other trans students who want to attend the school.

Palmer said the group learned of Wong's plight after seeing her post on Tumblr on Mar. 10.

Palmer along with Ollie Schwartz, a senior graduating in May and a facilitator of Q&A, said this year the group decided to focus on the issues that trans students face when trying to enroll at Smith.

"I learned the news from an email from another Q&A member who saw Calliope's Tumblr post. I was not surprised that she was rejected, we suspected that many trans women had been rejected from Smith because of their status as a trans woman," Palmer said in an interview with EDGE. "However, these trans women always only received standard rejection letters so we had nothing to prove that they were rejected for any reason specific to their identity. What was surprising was that the letter Calliope received from Smith College specifically cited the reason they would not consider her application as the male gender-marker on her FAFSA form."

So, it went from there; Q&A was on a mission. With Wong's recent denial, Schwartz said they felt it was a good opportunity to start the conversation and to start the education.

"I decided to be involved in this issue because this issue is about more to me than just a change in Smith College's policy," Palmer noted. "It's about making Smith, a college that has acted as an affirmative space for so many women, open to all women and an affirmative space for all women. I believe that Smith has the potential to be a wonderful, positive space for trans women and that Smith could benefit from having the perspectives of trans women in their student body."

Before the petition, Q&A started a photo campaign in support of Wong and other trans women whose names are not known. "Members of Q&A, Smith students, and supporters from across the country sent in photos of themselves holding signs saying things like 'Trans women belong at women's colleges' and 'I believe that trans women belong at Smith,' Palmer said. "Since then there have been a few events on campus to raise awareness of Calliope's specific situation but also to discuss the issue of trans women at women's colleges and the trans misogyny some people notice on Smith's campus."

According to Palmer, Q&A hosted an open meeting where they discussed Title IX, Wong's situation, and other elements of the issue with the students that attended. Q&A, along with the other campus student organizations hosted Girl Talk, a performance group made of trans women and cis women. Members of Girl Talk discussed the trans women at Smith issue, their experiences organizing for trans women, as well as the experience of being a trans woman in the world today.

Last week, Apr. 11, Q&A also hosted the Fully Functional Cabaret, another performance group composed of trans women, that addressed the experiences of trans womanhood. Another informational meeting for students to attend, learn about, and discuss the trans women at Smith issue was held on Apr. 18.

"We have a petition of over 3,700 signatures," Schwartz said of the petition, noting plans to present the petition with the signatures to the school's administration sometime this week. "We have a list of demands created as an organization."

Palmer too, is ready for Smith to make some changes to its admission policies. "I do not agree with Smith's policy," Palmer said. "I think that it is too much to ask of young trans women to have entirely consistent gender markers on all documents. I think that in order for Smith to be inclusive of trans women they should not refuse to consider an application because of an inconsistent gender marker."

Rejecting Transwomen Against the Smith’s Mission, Say Students

According to Schwartz, who is studying Women and Gender Studies, "Smith is not living up to its mission and goals of being a women's college," he said. "It's directly contradicting to the mission and hypocritical." "It's harder for a trans woman to enter higher education," Schwartz added. "The paradigm is shifting of what it means to be a women's college."

Ironically, according to the Smith College website, "Smith College was founded at a time when there were practically no choices for women that wanted an education equal to that available to men. The idea of such a college was a radical notion in 1871, but its success has been dramatic and undeniable."

For more than 130 years, as the website proudly states, "Smith has stayed true to its mission of providing women with the best education available in the liberal arts and sciences. At Smith, there are no stereotypes about what women should do, but there are unlimited expectations about what women can do. Smith is a great training ground for careers that might still be considered non-traditional for women."

The school opened in 1875 and is among the largest women's colleges in the United States, according to the website.

In an email to EDGE, Kristen Cole, Smith College media relations director said, "While it is our policy not to comment on the status or admissibility of individual applicants, an application from a transgender student is treated the same as other applications: every application to Smith is considered on a case-by-case basis."

On the website's Gender Identity and Expression page, it lists a series of questions and answers pertaining to transgender students interested in Smith. According to a question if there are transgender students attending the school, the response reads "Like nearly every college, university and school today, Smith College has a diverse and dynamic student body that includes individuals who identify as transgender. Students at Smith, whatever their gender identity or gender expression are diverse, accomplished, and various in their views."

It further states, "An application from a transgender student is treated no differently from other applications: every application Smith receives is considered on a case-by-case basis. Like most women's colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student's application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman."

That is why Wong's application was returned the first time. "Smith College refused to read my application the first time around because of a clerical error on my application, in which some of my forms were marked 'male,'" Wong said. "I worked with my school administrators to fix the discrepancies, and sent my application back-only to have Smith College return my application a second time, for the arbitrary reason of my FAFSA sex marker."

However, Wong said that after the first application was returned to her she became suspicious that her application would not receive the same treatment as a female assigned at birth (FAAB) applicant. "I had asked Dean Shaver explicitly whether Smith would consider me the same as an FAAB applicant with all female gender markers included on my school documents; she replied: 'It seems to me that if your teachers provide the language you suggest, all your pronouns would be female and therefore consistent with what Smith is expecting.' Though I badly wanted to believe that things would be as simple and clean as having the correct gender marker on my school forms, I knew it was idealistic of me to take her words at full face."

Despite the disappointment of not being able to attend Smith, Wong has been overwhelmed by all of the support from Smith students and alumnae and also from others with no connections to the school.

"I began my campaign by pushing an open letter into the general Tumblr community, in the hopes that at least a handful of people would notice my story," Wong added. "Little did I know that the first letter would steamroll into the public, to the point that media groups and organizations such as EDGE would be interested in covering what has happened. It has been a very surprising journey, to say the least."

Palmer added that this case is more than just about Wong for Q&A. "I think that it's important that we remember that what we are fighting for is not just Calliope's specific situation but the countless other trans women who have been denied entrance into Smith and other affirmative women's spaces," she said. "What we are fighting for is for Smith to recognize trans female applicants as women who deserve to be a part of the Smith community. Therefore, what we are truly fighting for is the understanding that when the woman's movement works with trans women, both are benefited."