When Connecticut high school senior Calliope Wong posted her rejection letter from Smith College on her Tumblr earlier this month, the anti-discrimination blogosphere lit up. That’s because Wong is a transgender woman—but still officially “male” on her government financial aid document. And, according to said letter from Smith College’s Dean of Admission Debra Shaver, “Smith is a women’s college, which means that undergraduate applicants must be female at the time of admission.”
But, explains Wong on her Tumblr, “In order to be legally recognized as ‘female’ on my birth certificate according to BOTH Massachusetts and Connecticut law, I have to undergo vaginoplasty (feminizing genital surgery). From what I understand, Smith College will only evaluate me as a ‘real’ girl if I get sex reassignment surgery.”
That, she continues, “is perhaps the most obscene of rights violations that I have ever witnessed from a school. It’s not a loud and boisterous violation, which is all the worse: its sly wording hurts just as much but is hard to detect. By simply stating that only ‘females’ may be allowed to apply and attend Smith, Smith College sets the bar for trans women applicants impossibly high.”
In addition to Wong blogging about her ongoing experience with Smith on Tumblr (though she has no plans to appeal Smith’s decision), she’s also had extensive coverage of her story by the feminist magazine at Yale, Broad Recognition. Wong has also found a huge boost of support both online, through Facebook pages like Smith Q&A: Trans Women Belong Here, and with Smith students on campus.
Neither Wong nor Smith College responded to a request for comment from Yahoo! Shine.
The issue of just who is male and who is female can be a particularly complex and thorny one. It’s especially true in traditionally “women-only” or feminist spaces like colleges or music festivals, including the 37-year-old Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, held every year since 1976, and carrying a controversial “woman-born-woman only” policy. That rule has basically kept out male-to-female trans people (and sparked an annual Camp Trans protest across the road from the venue) but welcomed female-to-male individuals, or trans men, who still find kinship with the sisterhood.
And Smith College, by many accounts, is home to a significant population of female-to-male transgender students, a policy which further confuses the issue.
Stacy Jackson-Roberts is a Smith graduate student of social work and a transgender woman. “I am the only trans woman at Smith that I know of,” she told Yahoo! Shine.
Although Smith College is co-ed at its graduate level, she said, her application was still a bit complicated, since she had just gone through transition surgery and still had some documents identifying her as male. Once accepted, she said she’s had no problems whatsoever with the school.
“I absolutely love Smith,” she told Shine, adding that she would have applied as an undergrad but was intimidated by its gender policy. (The policy states in part, by the way, that “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…will reflect her status as a woman.”)
According to a story on Wong’s case on Feministing, the requirements for trans women seeking admission to Smith “were created on an ad hoc basis, leaving lots of room for interpretation on the part of the administration and little for consistency in how they were applied.”
Jackson-Roberts objects to the rejection of Wong based on her “official” gender, because the college was created in the first place to provide a place for women to get educated when they were denied that privilege elsewhere. “That’s what I get hung up on,” she said. “It has to include trans women too, because they are marginalized, and they are women, too.”
That concept seems difficult for many to understand, according to Janet Mock, a writer and transgender activist. “It seems that the most basic idea is also the most radical idea: that trans women are women as well,” she told Shine.
According to Mock, feminists, historically, “did not want trans women involved. [Wong’s denial] is another form of that same kind of exile, and it’s just the latest example. The Miss Universe pageant was last year’s example.” Last year, Jenna Talackova was at first rejected from competing in the Miss Universe Canada pageant because she was born male; the decision was later reversed.
Mock added that trans women have to deal with “very hostile and violent behavior every day [from men] because they choose to take on femininity, which is devalued in this society.”
But there’s rejection from many women, too, she continued. “It’s like you have marks against you for ever having some kind of male privilege in your life. There is a double standard—and has been a historic erasure of who we are,” she said. Generally, for trans women, the attitude from many feminists is, “If you ever had a penis, we don’t want you around.” But toward trans men, she added, it’s more, “You were once a sister and you’ll always be a sister.” Which basically dismisses the gender identity of a trans male person, she said.
Trans male activist, blogger and Sarah Lawrence College student Stephen Ira takes umbrage with “once a sister, always a sister” idea.
“While it’s true that trans men often have a valuable bond with cis women [women born women who identify as such], we’re still men, and should not be a part of women’s spaces,” he told Shine. “In my experience, trans men are just as likely as cis men to perpetuate the kind of misogyny that a woman might go to a woman's college or music festival to avoid!”
Further, Ira said, “I think by attending Smith or MichFest, trans men give the stamp of approval to transmisogyny—hate against trans women predicated on their transness and their womanhood. How gross! Smith needs to open its doors to trans women now—after all, they’re one of the demographics of women in this country who have the most difficulty accessing quality education, and getting women access to good education is what colleges like Smith are supposed to be all about, right?”
Here, here, Stephen.
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