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Sup! I wanted to post an update on my post from last week about Wellesley. Apparently, it hasn't escaped notice, which I'm glad for; one of my informers on campus let me know that there's now a petition with > 174 student/faculty/staff signatures asking the administration to provide either a statement of non-discrimination or a statement of the ways in which it discriminates and why. My sources forwarded me some of the comments that were posted on Community, and it surprised me that almost all of them were supportive. But there were a few points I want to respond to.

A faculty member pointed out that the petition, which asks the Admissions office to change their unofficial policy of discrimination, asks for something stronger than what I asked for in my post. This is correct. I'm confident that if the office merely puts their unofficial policy in writing, then justice will take care of itself in the long term. Prejudice thrives behind closed doors when people assume that everybody else shares it, and cowers before the light of day. So I ask for nothing more than the latter. But I'm also not going to question what students think is best, since, of course, this isn't just about me, but about treating all students and alums fairly.

The same faculty member wrote, "[The petition] also presumes what I'm pretty sure is the case but what hasn't been explicitly stated as yet - again, this is what the alum is asking for - namely, that turning down the alum was done because the alum is an out trans man." Well, without recordings of the phone conversations I had with Admissions staff, I can't prove it, but yes, I am completely certain that I was turned down as an interviewer because I'm an out trans man. The evidence is:
  1. Before anybody associated with the admissions / alum volunteer process met me in person, a decision was made in the admissions office that I should not be allowed to interview, and it was made very clear to me that that's because I'm male. If the decision had been based on anything about me as an individual, rather than based on the gender I belong to, then it would have been made after I spoke with either an alumnae association volunteer or an admissions office staff member, in person or on the phone. Because the decision was made by people who knew nothing about me other than my gender, and because everyone I spoke with (the volunteer, K., who was relaying information from admissions staffers; and Joy St. John, the director of admissions) took pains to explain why I should find it obvious that a male alum shouldn't be the face of Wellesley, I conclude that the decision was made based on my gender.
  2. I interviewed a prospective student in 2005. If I was a suitable person to represent Wellesley, then I am one now; the only thing that has changed is that I'm no longer pretending to be a woman.
  3. When I interviewed the student in 2005, there was absolutely no screening process. The process that led to me interviewing the student involved a few brief emails and me receiving an envelope of admissions materials in the mail.
  4. This is kind of a repeat of the first point, but my gender would never have been an issue if the Admissions staff hadn't brought it up. It's not really something I talk about much unless someone is interested. I guess they are interested.

A comment from a student averred that "All Wellesley students, to the best of my knowledge, are biologically female at the time of admission" and made reference to a policy (also unwritten, as far as I know) that I've heard before, to wit: "Wellesley admits women and graduates students." Well, I'm sorry to have to spoil the oversimplified notions that are taught in certain introductory women's studies classes (perhaps the ones at Wellesley, perhaps not, I'm not sure), but sex and gender are inseparable and not all Wellesley students are biologically female at the time of admission. "Biologically female" and "biologically male" are transphobic turns of phrase that make no sense unless you accept the idea that for any given human being, all gendered aspects of their embodiment (chromosomal type, hormonal balance, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, neurological perception of one's own body as male or female, and I could go on) consistently map to the same binary sex category -- or at least the idea that humans who have a mix of conflicting gendered characteristics are somehow sub-human or atypical examples of the category "human". These phrases are deceptive as they attempt to clothe a social judgment in pseudo-scientific garments. They are political. They are misleading.

Lest you think I'm being pedantic, the conceptual vacuity of the notion of an objectively determinable mapping from person to "biological sex" is highly relevant to the question at hand. "Biological sex", even if such a thing did exist, has nothing to do with admission to Wellesley or any other women's college that I know of. To enroll in the college, I was not required to submit medical records that proved I had certain reproductive organs; proof that my chromosomes had an XX karyotype (I don't know whether they do or not -- do you know what yours are?); proof that I had certain levels of certain hormones in my bloodstream; or any other data that would establish the conformance of my body to the definition of "biological femaleness" that is hegemonic in our culture. I didn't even have to submit a photograph of myself! And the school does not require in-person interviews (alum interviews like the one I originally offered to do serve a function akin to that of an extra recommendation letter: they can strengthen a student's application, but can never weaken it, is my understanding, anyway). I suspect most parties involved, whether they're cis or trans, would find any request to submit such evidence to be demeaning and degrading, with good reason. So how do the readers of student applications determine whether the student is a woman? Why, by inspecting the student's first name (for the majority who have gendered first names, anyway) and the pronouns used in their recommendation letters, of course.

So -- biology has nothing to do with it. The fallacy that biology has something to do with it is just the transphobic fallacy that there's a causal relationship between social gender and any objectively measurable -- "biological" -- characteristics.

I was born biologically male, which I know because my brain has an internal mental map that describes certain body parts I was born without and is conspicuously silent on the matter of certain body parts I was born with. When I studied the arguments in favor of dualism and in favor of materialism in Philosophy 215 at Wellesley, the former didn't seem to have much going for them. So I conclude that the brain is part of the body, and hence, is biological. What makes me male is biological, making me biologically male. Of course, there are some aspects of my embodiment that other people would describe as being "female". But I know that people exist who have conflicting gendered characteristics in one body, since I've met and talked with many of them. Since I have a uterus and I have a brain, the latter of which is pretty definitively male (I didn't learn to need what I need to do during sex or to need to see a male face and body in the mirror -- it would have been in nobody's interest to teach me to need those things), and I'm a feminist, I think my brain determines who I am, not my uterus. Typically, in the culture in which I live, we associate identity with the brain. You don't inspect your ovaries or testicles to determine whether you're Buddhist, left-handed, extroverted, or whether you like the Red Sox; you experience those identities through your mind. And likewise with gender.

Therefore, the assertion that Wellesley "admits women and graduates students" is simply false. The notion that trans men start out as girls or women and become men, or trans women start out as boys or men and become women, is both transphobic and obfuscatory. Given the messages that Western culture bombards its youth with about the inherent untrustworthiness of the individual on matters of one's own identity, it's not surprising that many people don't reach an awareness of what their gender actually is until well after the age when one applies to college. The answer to that is not to subscribe to the imaginary causal relationship between extrinsic gender and intrinsic gender.

The answer is to acknowledge that the concept of a single-gender institution is a fiction, as it requires an ability to read other people's minds that, if anyone had it, would have been put to far more sinister uses by now. And again, any appeals to the notion of a single "biological", "measurable" sex that always corresponds to the letter an observer wrote on a given person's birth certificate are highly irrelevant, as no college or university I know of even tries to measure that attribute in any of its applicants. One could say that one is running a college for people whose birth certificates have the letter "F" on them; saying this would put one closer to expressing the true intent honestly, I suspect. But that would be unsatisfactory as well because -- again, as far as I know -- no single-gender institution requires prospective students to submit legal documentation of their gender. And even if they began requiring that, it would seem like an awfully weird organizing principle for an educational institution. "We admit students who have an 'F' written on their birth certificate and graduate students" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And for students, having to submit a copy of their birth certificate (certified? Or would just a photocopy be okay, to rein in the high cost of college applications these days?) along with their application could make them wonder whether they are applying to college or running for President.

Some people questioned my assertion that Wellesley is at most a "historically women's college". I hope this post has clarified why it's untenable to see it as anything else. Those who would cling to the idea of a "women's college" while paying lip service to trans self-determination lean on the concept of separating out only "biologically female" people to justify what makes a college like Wellesley special. But there is just no such thing as a notion of "biological femaleness" that has any relevance to one's educational and social life, and can be measured objectively. Thus, defenders of the notion of a "women's college" need to refine their definition or try harder.

Please note that I'm not talking about whether single-sex institutions are desirable, just about whether they're possible; if they're not possible, then their desirability is a moot point. It's certainly possible to focus on educating women without claiming to be a single-sex institution. That's why I suggested the phrasing "historically women's college". There are certainly other possible formulations. And of course, nothing I've said is incompatible with an admissions policy that says that admission is restricted to students who identify as female at the time of admission. As far as I know, this is not the current policy, because as far as I know (and people can correct me on this if I'm wrong), Wellesley does admit out trans men and does not admit trans women. However, if such a policy were implemented in the future, it would have to come with an awareness that only admitting people who are conscious of themselves as being women at a given point in time is not equivalent to "only admitting women".

And none of this says very much about people who don't identify as male or female, which is mostly because that isn't my experience and I don't want to speak for others. Nevertheless, they also deserve to know where they stand.

With that in mind, let me reiterate what I began with: I'm not asking for any change in college policy. I'm asking for honesty about the de facto policy that already exists, a policy that involves admitting men. And to me, honesty about that policy can't mean that the administration accepts the academic, social, spiritual, and financial contributions of male and genderqueer students while telling the general public that it's ashamed of them.

I understand that the matter is being taken seriously by students, faculty, and staff, so at this time, I don't feel that (at least at this time) it's necessary to organize a letter-writing campaign on behalf of alums -- though I still encourage alums to let the Admissions office know how they feel. That isn't to say that the conversation is over; clearly, it's just begun. An issue that I haven't taken on because it's not directly relevant is that of trans women as students; I don't know whether Wellesley has a policy on admitting trans women, either, but I would be very surprised if Wellesley departed from all the other women's colleges I'm familiar with and admitted trans women who were early enough in transition that their legal name and/or recommendations would make their trans status an issue. I would be happy to be told I'm mistaken, but fear that I'm not. Trans women experience everything that constitutes the reasons why women's colleges are still necessary, and they belong at Wellesley as much as anyone.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-05-06 04:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] photomonk2.livejournal.com
hiya Tim!

I am coming to this discussion late, having just heard about all of it when I was at Wellesley last weekend. Been reading up on your posts and have some comments I want to add.

First let me give you a little background. I regard myself as transgender in a more general sense, ie not transitional. I have always had gender on my mind, though lacked any language for it at all until after college. During my college years (late 80s), gender as non binary was not on our radar. And one of my majors was women's studies! A few years after I graduated, Kate Bornstein released "Gender Outlaw..." which was a transformative book for me (and many others). I saw her perform a show called 'The Opposite Sex is Neither', which was also mind blowing. I had found other friends who also found themselves outside of the binary. Back then, our only language around this was tied to sexuality. Being a self IDed butch lesbian or femme was the available expression of non-traditional gender roles within the context of lesbian relationships, and even then, calling one's self butch or femme was often scorned and looked down upon. Transitioning to the opposite sex was certainly happening but it was not the right solution for all of us. The language and discussions were only just starting.

I let my internal discussions on the topic sort of lapse for a long while but have returned to it in the last couple of years. The language has evolved, as it hopefully will continue to do since it is a very fluid subject so I may get some of the current lingo wrong, but I am working on catching up. Back when I first found myself learning about this, transgender was a more umbrella term for anyone who felt outside of the 'traditional' binary gender system (I say traditional to mean this is how it presents in society today, not to imply that it is inherently correct). As I return to these discussions, I find that transgender now tends to be synonymous with transsexual so I find myself outside of the language again.

OK. All that put out there - to that end, I disagree with this line in your above post:

but sex and gender are inseparable ...

They are not to me, nor to all who wrestle with gender. My sex is female. I was born with female parts and still have those parts. I'm ok with having those parts. But my gender, how I express myself externally and regard myself internally, is a good bit more complicated than that. I have always known that I identify with a lot more traditionally (ie how society defines, for good or ill) male things than female things. I've always loathed women's clothing, and generally only buy mens clothing. Just feels better. Growing up in a fairly rural area, all of the girly stuff was always very foreign to me, the make up, hairstyles, earrings body language etc. Going though Wellesley was in many ways a boon to that end. Even though there was/is still plenty of stereotypical female stuff going on, I never felt pressured to cave into that stuff or do it, or made to feel lesser than or like a freak for not doing it.

I'd read about sex changes. Have long been curious about them, learned about them. I know a number of people who have or are taking that journey (both MTF and FTM). After much thinking, and more that is highly likely to come, I have determined that I am ok being female bodied but with an internal ID that is much more genderqueer, more masculine leaning. There's not much that could described as female or girly that I like or do, and certainly not all things defined as masculine or male are comfortable for me either despite leaning more strongly that way.

So my sex is female, and my gender is a lot more complicated than that. And it's ok for me that way. I have tremendous respect for those who do undertake a transition from one sex to another in order to be properly aligned inside and out, but that journey is not going to be necessary for everyone. So the two, sex and gender, are not the same.

I think what this illustrates is that gender really is such a dynamic topic and expression that language is hard to pin down to any absolutes at all. I think one of the challenges of ongoing gender discussion/debate/language evolution is finding ways for everyone to be and feel validated. I am really glad that this matter about Admissions interviewing is getting out in the open and being examined from multiple sides, in the office, in the college community etc. Thank you for putting your story out there.

I have other thoughts about your position on whether or not Wellesley can still call itself a women's college. I disagree with you on this count. I think it still is a women's college. Yes, clearly male students are graduating from the school. But there is still the vast majority of students who graduate with a self ID as a woman, whether by societal default (it's gonna happen, not everyone has or is willing to examine a non gender binary world), or after introspection upon learning more about the non binary gender spectrum. I think we do an enormous disservice to those women by stripping the descriptor of women's college away from Wellesley. There are, and long will be, students who apply BECAUSE it is a women's college. I do not think it can be up to a few students who are now living their lives more completely as themselves as male beings to change the school for the very many more who are women. Even considering the non binary gender spectrum, there will likely always be those who do wind up as men and women and not somewhere else on the spectrum. Wellesley's evolution will come as result of careful examination, discussion, etc before any change in descriptor becomes a formal thing. You might think of it as you do, but it is not up to one individual, or a handful, to change how other many many students and alumnae regard the school.

It also, to me, does remain both desirable and possible for a women's college to exist alongside of creating community for students who ultimately transition or find themselves outside of the binary. The reality of our world is still that women are undervalued, underpaid, etc etc. Ironically, the fact that Wellesley is a women's college was NOT a key point for me when I applied. But in hindsight, I am very very glad I attended. I definitely gained a lot of personal strength from the experience. Having had the co-ed high school experience that I did, I do not think for one minute that I would have gained the strength that I did in a co-ed college environment. The intrinsic value of the women's college environment for me is that there is no binary gender/sex competition, no having to prove one's self against male students for whom the decks are already stacked in favor at the start. Having that element removed from the equation DOES make a difference, is still valuable in today's society, and should remain available to those who wish to experience it. I remember a study done while I was there, with the class of 1988, IIRC. I may get the precise numbers wrong, but when polled as first years, something like 80% said it was a con that the school was a women's college. Asked the same question at graduation, the same number now said it was a pro that Wellesley is all women. There is enormous value here to the students and alumnae. Granted a lot of time has passed since that particular study, so it would be interesting to find out if the question has been posed since. I think that Wellesley has such a strong, vocal, and engaged alumnae community speaks to how valuable the experience it is across years and generations.

I also know that the women's college aspect was NOT right for some of my classmates, not because of gender. It just wasn't a good fit for them (nor is it going to be a good fit for every woman in general) There were no students that I am aware of who were considering or undergoing transition during my years there. I am glad that students can feel safe enough now to do so. And I can't help but wonder how my life would be different if current knowledge/language/discussions of gender had been happening while I was a student.

To me, the phrase that Wellesley admits women and graduates students says something different to me than to you. For me, that means that we are leaving Wellesley knowing that we can be more than 'just' women, we can be whole human beings, not limited by what society wants to dictate for women as lesser than. I'd be curious to know, if there is anyway to find out, how many students matriculate at Wellesley with the intention of transitioning. I know my knowledge of this is limited at this point in time, but my impression has been that students who come out as male often do so as part of their learning about gender during their college years, perhaps not having any idea about other ways to be regarding their gender during high school or earlier. I am very curious about this. I am also curious, to that end, why - if a student DOES know they want to transition to male in full body and spirit - would choose a women's college to attend as opposed to a co-ed school. I would hope it is because they would feel safer undergoing a transition there. More than anything, I want Wellesley to be a safe and welcoming place. I am encouraged that there is an active group which is working on all of this. I will be watching all of this unfold and will jump in however necessary to help push the dialogue into more examination, acceptance, understanding of how gender can be so much more than man/woman, male/female, and how all of our alumnae are valuable in 'selling' the college to prospective students.

I never have really felt comfortable being called woman or lady even though I knew that base on my physical sex those were the most common and applicable words. I felt, still do feel, like a bit of an outsider to all of that but at the same time, I embrace that it is in a small way part of me and part of what makes me a member of the Wellesley community. Please bear in mind, I am talking only about myself and not attempting to assign meaning to any of these words to any other individual.

This got a lot longer than I had expected - my apologies for that. I look forward to any discussion you would like to have on all of this.

Thanks, Tim.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-05-20 04:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] photomonk2.livejournal.com
hi Tim,

I think you summarize the issue very well here:

"I've never said that women's colleges should admit people who know themselves to be men at the time of applying to college, though, just that they need to be honest about how not every 18-year-old knows their gender and how if you don't know your own gender, no one else can either."

From my seat, it seems you want Wellesley to take ownership of the fact that not every student may be aware of their gender upon application/attendance and therefore has to have genderblind admissions. As you have pointed out in previous posts, Wellesley requires no medical/genetic proof of sex/gender. The college has to take on faith that an applicant is female given the mission of the school. If a student does discover/become aware of his male self while a student or (as in your self-described case) after college, I do not believe you can take the college to task for admitting male students. If the student did not know, the college could not possibly have known and can't be made responsible for absent knowledge after the fact.

The admissions office admits students who are female at time of entrance. That's all it can do. To try to retroactively redefine that does not work. And if a student applies, presenting as female but knows he is actually male, that's deceptive. I don't know if that has ever happened (and there may be no way to know that). I would have a problem with a student misrepresenting himself as that disrespects not only himself in the deception but the school in trying to subvert its stated mission of being a women's college. I am not sure what you mean here:

probably because a trans man who most people subconsciously perceive as female experiences all the same negative consequences that women do in college (e.g. being ignored by instructors), and just as cis women might, he might want to make all of that a non-issue

I don't quite follow your logic. I totally get how a transman may not be able or willing to acknowledge his male self in hostile high school environs and may push that awareness deep into the subconscious. But if he IS aware of his real gender and yet hides himself in a female cloak to gain admission, that is deceitful. That has nothing to do, now, with how one is treated in a classroom (though I hope all students, including those who are male, are treated respectfully.)

Trying to claim the college does not acknowledge transmen or think they are really men, what proof do you have of that? I know that my knowledge of specific situations is incomplete, but I have been asking current students and am not aware of any institutional discrimination against enrolled transmen. Nor of any attempt to strip an alum of his degree. It's specious to suggest without proof that the college does not think trans men are men.

I'd bet we can agree that there are many ways of being men, and of being women, and of being somewhere else between/around the binary. This is to me is one of the critical ways where sex and gender are important and separate distinctions. I certainly never carried off the stereotypical pumps and pearls look, nor did I ever feel coerced into that. My sex is female. My gender is a good bit more complex. I didn't know it at the time when I was a student because the language hadn't developed, the awareness of the possibilities of the nuances. I don't think my not being a woman in what may be most commonly accepted perception of woman had anything to do with Wellesley's perception of me, and admission. I was female at the time of admission. That my gender has become more fluid since then does not that change that one key fact, in my eyes or the college's.

It cannot be made the college's responsibility to police the students so rigorously in terms of gender. We learn SO MUCH about ourselves during college years, and any college knows that is going to happen . Transformations happen in many ways. That doesn't necessarily mean the college changes. It means the student changes. It doesn't mean the college has to change its stated mission, on the chance that a student may wind up discovering and living his maleness. It doesn't mean the college is going to start asking for genetics and medical history (which as we know does not necessarily have anything to do with gender, only sex, which is not always the same). It doesn't mean we can go back in history and say "ah ha! I know this now and as a result the college admitted a man and has to own up to that." It means that the college is a place where students CAN come a great self awareness of that gender and hopefully safe if they choose to transition during those years. But it does not change the fact that at its core, Wellesley is a womens college.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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