Trans Women at Smith
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the current policy?
A woman who is unable to obtain all female gender markers on her transcripts, teacher and guidance counselor letters of recommendation, and midyear academic report cannot attend Smith. Although the Common App requires legal sex as listed on a birth certificate, Smith has an unofficial practice of advising trans women to “just check female” on the Common App, but this “policy” is nowhere to be found on the official Smith website or on its admissions brochures.
Has this always been Smith’s policy?
No, before Calliope Wong began a campaign to include trans women at Smith, and before Smith Q&A started talks with the Dean of Admission and the VP of Enrollment, applicants also had to have all female gender markers on everything submitted to the Office of Disability and/or the Office of Financial Aid (including the FAFSA which is mandatory for financial aid). This is no longer the case.
How is the current policy exclusionary?
1. Changing school records is notoriously difficult and often impossible
This is especially true for trans women in high school, and especially for low-income trans women and/or trans-women of color.
Changing the gender markers on the school records Smith is no easy task. Most school districts are free to prohibit students from changing the gender markers on their records for any reason they like. Very few states have formulated guidelines for school districts to follow. Schools can make up whatever requirements they want - like seeing a gender specialist or changing legal gender markers. These actions are not financially or logistically accessible to most trans high school students.
A landmark study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that (out of a sample of “out” trans high schoolers of all genders) less than half of trans high students have been able to change their documents. Although Lamba Legal suggests that it’s possible to use a federal law — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — as a legal precedent to change one’s school records, they also caution that:
“school districts are not always immediately cooperative, even when presented with compelling arguments. Often, we hear a school district say ‘We can’t do that’ or, in the same vein, ‘Our lawyer says we can’t do that.’ The school district may have an established policy of not making name or gender marker changes.”
A recent national study of trans high school students (of all genders) by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that less than half of students are able to get their documents changed. Additionally, Ada Comstock Scholars, who are not traditional-aged students, have explained to us that many schools will also be unable to change gender markers on outdated or paper records.
"The rules that govern changing gender markers on identity documents in the U.S. are inconsistent and arbitrary, and there is no such thing as a “legal gender." Every ID-issuing agency has its own rules regarding whether and how people can change their gender marker. Some require a letter from a doctor or therapist, others require medical treatment, and others require specific medical interventions, including surgery. While some agencies are updating their policies by removing surgical requirements for gender ID change, such as the State Department’s passport policy, some are likely decades away from eliminating outdated standards. As a result, whether transgender people can change some of their documents depends on where they’re from. Women’s colleges should not be basing their admissions policies on an arbitrary, inconsistent and harmful system. Additionally, the process of obtaining gender ID change is particularly difficult for young and low-income people. Most applicants to college are barely 18 years old. Many ID-issuing agencies require medical treatment and/or letters from medical providers. Most young people, especially those without supportive parents, cannot access such care. Furthermore, many states’ Medicaid systems and some private health insurance companies have bans on covering this care. Tying admissions policies to gender on identification documents disproportionately excludes people who have the hardest time accessing health care and the legal and administrative processes required by these policies: young people, poor people, people with disabilities and people of color." — Women’s Colleges Are on the Wrong Side of History on Transgender Womenby Avi Cummings and Dean Spade of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, from TIME Magazine
2. Being an “out” trans woman in school is dangerous
In the same study mentioned above, 31% of trans K-12 students report harassment from their teacher(s) because of their gender, 5% reported physical assault and 3% reported sexual assault from their teacher. “Trans K-12 students of color experienced higher rates of harassment and violence across the board. African American students experienced much higher rates of sexual assault by teachers (7%) relative to their peers of any race. 42% of multiracial students experienced teacher harassment, higher than any other racial category. In terms of gender, trans girls were doubly at risk for physical and sexual assault.”
3. Womanhood is not about approval from legal or medical gatekeepers. Our admissions policy should not have a bigoted definition of womanhood. Trans women are our sisters and our community is not complete as a “womens’ college” with out them.
So, what is Smith Q&A’s proposed solution?
Because we recognize that the avenues the government provides to affirm one’s gender legally are inaccessible to most prospective Smithies, Q&A’s ultimate goal is that all trans women can apply to Smith College regardless of legal or surgical status or the support of their schools and families. Mills College, a womens’ college in California, does not “check” gender markers on application materials at all. They have used this policy for years with no reported issues.
Our Policy Proposal
"Smith College has always been committed to promoting feminism and womens’ education. Moving into the 2014-2015 academic year, we have realized that women’s empowerment should never be limited to just cisgender women. We realize that fighting transmisogyny — misogyny experienced by trans women and other transfeminine people specifically — is essential to furthering Smith’s mission as a women’s college. Due to current barriers to gender marker changes on application materials, we have updated our admissions criteria to disregard both sex assigned at birth and gender markers on documents. Instead, our admissions policy is based on gender identity.
Admission consideration is open to academically qualified students who identify as one or more of the following:
- a woman, regardless of sex assignment at birth
- non-binary and/or genderqueer, regardless of sex assignment at birth, in addition to feeling comfortable maintaining Smith as a woman-centered space.
Academic consideration is closed to students who identify as the following:
Note that any student who transitions while at Smith will still be fully supported by the institution, regardless of gender identity”
- a man, regardless of sex assignment at birth
How would Smith be able to preserve its mission as a women’s college and still accept trans women?
— Dean Spade, Associate Professor of Law at Seattle University and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project
"Well, the wake up call has happened, and now it’s time for the Smith community to decide what they want their school to be. Do they want it to be a women’s college that’s open to all women? There’s a lot of potential here for Smith to take a major step forward in fulfilling its mission by opening its doors for some of the most marginalized women" - Skewed priorities mean Smith is not currently fulfilling its mission as a women’s college” — Feministing.com
"How can Smith be able to preserve its mission as a women’s college and *not*accept trans women? Seriously, is it even accurate to call it a women’s college when some women and kept from attending while their male counterparts are welcomed? Accepting *all* women is the best way to fulfill this mission. The reality is that many people, especially those involved in social justice, LGBTQ activism, or simply are a part of the younger generations that increasingly oppose anti-trans bias, see women’s colleges that exclude trans women as being hypocritical. I know some young women who choose not to apply to such colleges because they don’t want to be associated with this discrimination. I know others who hide the fact that their degree is from Smith because when they tell others they have been assumed to support discrimination and prejudice. Smith is quickly garnering a reputation as a school that actively harms women’s populations rather than a school that supports women. Is that a legacy you want to be remembered by?" - Tobi Hill-Meyer, trans academic, filmmaker, and activist
"How can we begin to find room in our community for our sisters who are continually excluded?" - Tangent, chartered Smith Organization for trans issues, 2004
But what about the men at Smith?
Q&A does not organize around issues of trans men. Until September 2014, Q&A had no official stance on trans male Smithies. (Read about the consensus we reached re: trans men and admissions policy.) Our resources are best spent discussing and organizing around issues regarding the visibility, safety, and admission of trans women at Smith. Q&A members may have varying opinions regarding trans men at Smith, and some are trans men themselves, but we all agree trans women belong here.
Will admitting trans women cause Smith to lose its Title IX status or affect financial aid?
According to legal experts we consulted, and Smith’s lawyers, no. Undergraduate private admissions are actually exempt from Title IX, which is why Smith can be a womens’ college. Besides, Title IX protects transgender students.
"This assumes that trans women are legally considered male. That’s just not the case. Even trans women with “male” on their documentation are increasingly being recognized by the courts as legal females with logistical difficulties leading to incorrect documentation. Massachusetts non-discrimination law includes discrimination on trans status and sees discrimination against trans women as illegal. Furthermore, case law around Title IX has specifically recognized discrimination against someone on the basis of being trans to be a part of the discrimination based on sexual characteristics that Title IX was created to address. While there isn’t direct precedent, there is a significant concern that discriminating against trans women is a greater liability risk than admitting trans women would be.” - Tobi Hill-Meyer
Katherine Kraschel, graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Law School has written a 24-page note to the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, “in which she debunks the assertions that Title IX can be used to defend the exclusion of transgender applicants from single-sex institutions, and that the admission of a transgender individual would force the school to become co-educational… Although the original 1970s language of Title IX relies heavily on a strict gender binary, contemporary interpretations of Title IX and the related Title VII, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have expanded them to include gender as well as sex, and to protect gender nonconforming individuals (as seen in Smith v. City of Salem and Schwenk v. Hartford). — Just Check ‘Female’: Trans Women and Smith College Admissions” by Sarah Giovannielo in Broad Recognition, Yale’s feminist magazine
What’s wrong with calling trans women “male bodied”?
"Because it’s inaccurate, imprecise, there’s no consensus about what that term means, and terribly unclear what you are talking about." - Tobi Hill-Meyer, who wrote a very helpful piece on this topic
“While many act as if ‘biologically male’ is an objective, impartial scientific reality, this insistence in practice serves as a means for larger society to negate the identity of transgender individuals. As a trans woman, I’m expected to simply accept that I’m inescapably male, even if others deign to acknowledge me as a ‘male woman’, and act as if there are no gendered connotations in this designation. What I hear when people insist that I acknowledge that I am male is that I can only ever aspire to be a woman to a point. No matter what lengths I go to to legitimize my identity, there will always be an external check in place to make sure that I know that the best I can hope for is being a woman with an asterisk. In other words, I can pretend to be a woman all I want, but “objective reality” will always say otherwise. … If we decided to acknowledge the self-identification of transgender individuals as a valid reality, rather than a superficial, subjective, and flimsy role, and if we didn’t insist on the primacy of a sexual designation that is anything but objective (chromosomes are not readily visible indicators of gender, rarely tested, and operate in ways far more complex than most people acknowledge, making designation by medical professionals in effect an educated guess) then perhaps transgender individuals could be more easily accepted as who they are.”- Kate Hache
“The two sex binary is a flawed social construct…. In our society sexing is based on 5 criteria: genes, gonads, genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, and hormone patterns. Once we take into account all 5 of those criteria an actual majority of people don’t line up with either male or female in all 5 areas which means it’s not possible to classify most people along the strict binary the way people like you would like to…. Some form of intersex characteristics happen in approximately 2% of all live births in humans. That’s 2 out of every 100 which in a world with billions of people is a lot of people that don’t fit into either “male” or “female” and that obviously doesn’t include trans* people which makes the statistics higher. And that also doesn’t include the people who aren’t technically intersex but also don’t fully fit the biological construct of what a male or female “should” be which is far far more people that you realize or most medical doctors willing to admit.” — tumblr user rapeculturerealities summarizing points from Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a trans feminist biologist
“Genuine question: Q&As page says their cause is regarding trans women. were they not founded for all queer people?”
Q&A used to be called “Queers And Allies.” It was a queer social/activist group that eventually faded out and has nothing to do with the current Q&A at all. The current Q&A, when starting up in the middle of the media storm over Calliope Wong’s rejection, just repurposed, or rather revived, the old org rather with the specific mission of organizing for the inclusion of trans women at Smith. Queers and Allies got shortened to Q&A because we realized the name wasn’t really appropriate for our purposes and eventually it all worked out and became sloganized (Q: Trans women at Smith? A: Trans women at Smith.)