Why I now support transgender students at women’s colleges...and how my mind changed

24 Nov 2010 11:44 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
by Jordan Namerow
contributing writer, Bay Windows
Thursday Nov 18, 2010

On Nov. 17, the Senate of Wellesley College -- one of the few remaining women’s colleges in the country -- publicly announced that it had changed its constitution. It replaced every female pronoun with gender-neutral language. 

Some believe this change undermines Wellesley’s single-sex heritage and violates its institutional identity. But it is a necessary step to accommodate the diversity of Wellesley’s student body today.

When I enrolled at Wellesley College in the fall of 2001, it never crossed my mind that gender-neutral anything would be up for debate. 

But one month into my freshman year at a late-night meeting in the dorm living room, a classmate proposed the following: replace the bathroom’s faceless lady in a dress with a poly-gendered or gender-neutral figure. 

"Why all the fuss over an innocuous, universally recognized symbol?" I wondered. Because, as I soon learned, not every student at Wellesley identifies as a woman. Some Wellesley students are transgender. Others eschew gendered pronouns altogether. 

Over the past decade, American universities have witnessed a growing and more visible population of transgender students -- most notably, students who identify as transmen (a term embraced by people assigned a female identity at birth but who choose to live in the world as men). Just two weeks ago, the nation learned that George Washington University women’s basketball player, Kye Allums, had come out as a transman. Allums is believed to be the first Division I college basketball player to compete as a transgender person. His announcement -- which garnered national attention in a New York Times article and on popular blogs -- came appropriately at the start of November, "Transgender Awareness Month." 

Though precise figures are difficult to determine, The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that about three million Americans are transgender. Brett-Genny Janiczek Beemyn, the Director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has studied transgender college students cites that, historically, adults who wished to transition did so in middle age. But today, a larger percentage of transitions occur in adolescence or young adulthood. 

Wellesley, along with other women’s colleges, is wrestling with an unprecedented dilemma: how to accommodate transgender students in a communal context created by and for women.

This dilemma has prompted administrators and students to ask tough questions: Why would a woman who identifies as a man want to attend a women’s college in the first place? Do transgender students threaten the mission of women’s colleges, or do they advance it? And, most importantly, is it possible for a women’s college to support transgender students without abandoning its heritage or violating its integrity? 

For me, the answer is yes. Women’s colleges can -- and should -- support transgender students. 

But I didn’t always feel this way.

Nine years ago, at a weekly meeting for Wellesley’s Sexual Health Educators (the SHEs) I was sitting across from a burly, male-identified student with tattooed arms and a short buzz cut -- the first openly transgender person I had ever met. He was dressed in men’s clothing and had tightly bound his breasts with an ace-bandage.

"I want to organize a workshop about masculine sexuality," he explained. "A program by and for trans students." 

I caught myself cringing with judgment. "This is a women’s college," I thought to my conventionally gendered, Jewish lesbian feminist self. "We’re an organization called the SHEs, and you don’t even identify as a she. What makes you think you belong here?"

The other SHEs and I squirmed in discomfort, our eyes shifting nervously to the bowl of Cheez-Its in the center of the table. We didn’t know what to say or do. We just hoped the proposed masculine sexuality workshop -- and transgender issues in general -- would quietly disappear. 

But the workshop happened, and the issues didn’t go away. 

Some months after that meeting, I asked a different transgender student -- someone I met through Wellesley’s LGBTQ student organization -- why he chose to come to Wellesley:

"I thought women would be more open to my gender identity struggles than men," he said. "I was concerned about being harassed at co-ed universities for not being a ’real’ man or a ’real’ woman. Besides, I identify as a feminist and the empowering campus culture of Wellesley really resonated for me." 

His response filled me with empathy and surprise. It spoke to the invisible truths of transgender people that I had not fully considered: a desire for basic human dignity, social safety, and a body in which to feel at home. It stripped away the layers of gender theory and made transgender identity not about "a complicated issue" but about people yearning to belong. 

Who among us doesn’t want to be fully seen, fully heard, and fully supported in the world?

The Women’s College Coalition, an association representing women’s colleges in the United States and Canada, identifies three core values that animate women’s institutions: social justice, equality, and human dignity. I have come to believe that affirming the diversity of gender experience is an expression of these values that we must embrace. Although sexual orientation has been added to the protected categories in women’s colleges’ anti-discrimination policies, gender identity has not yet made the list.

Over five years have passed since I graduated from Wellesley; nearly ten since my introduction to the concept of gender-neutral bathrooms -- a concept that no longer seems foreign to me, even for women’s colleges. 

But not long ago, I found myself at a "New Years Redux" party where I reconnected with a bunch of Wellesley graduates, many of whom I hadn’t seen for several years. There were others who I was meeting -- or re-meeting -- for the very first time: Whitney had become Will. Emily was now Elliot. They had new bodies, new genders, new names. 

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling a bit of loss and sadness, quickly followed by a ping of guilt. 

Yet the faces of my friends, both familiar and unfamiliar, were full of light. They exuded a sense of rightness with who they are and with their place in the world; the kind of rightness that comes only after years of struggle. 

When I think of transgender students at Wellesley today, I am glad that this women’s college is on its way to becoming a home for them, too.

Jordan Namerow is the Senior Communications Associate of American Jewish World Service and a graduate student of Strategic Communications at Columbia University. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2005.
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