A little bit of background for the one or two of you who don't know: In 2001 I graduated from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, which thinks of itself as a women's college but -- since I graduated from it, and not just me -- is really more of a historically women's college.
Wellesley's alumnae [sic] association coordinates alum volunteers in various cities to interview prospective students. The interview is partially used for evaluating an applicant, but mostly, as I understand it, a chance for a prospective student to learn more about the college from someone who attended. I volunteered to interview a student in the past, when I lived in Berkeley, and I enjoyed it. So when I got an email last fall that the Oregon alumnae club was looking for alums to interview students in Portland, I inquired.
The difference between the last time I interviewed, and now, is that in between, I came out as being a man. I was always male, of course, it's just that because it's so rare when you're outside specifically queer/trans spaces to hear that encephalic sex can differ from the sex that people impute to one based on one's actual or presumed genitalia, I didn't know that I wasn't female until I was 18 and didn't know that I was male until I was 26. In fact, it was in a class at Wellesley (Anthropology 269 - Gender, Marriage and the Family with Prof. Lauren Leve) that I first learned that there were people in the world who'd been assigned female at birth, but weren't female. In any case, I didn't think this particular difference had any more effect on whether I could represent my alma mater to a prospective student than, say, the fact that I have longer hair now than I did when I graduated, but it turned out there were some people in the college administration who begged to differ.
I met with the alum volunteer who was coordinating interviewers, K., to discuss what would be involved. I had told K. by email that I was a trans man, so that she wouldn't be surprised when we met in person. When we met, K. explained that she had talked to someone in the
admissions office, and they had decided that trans alums would not be allowed to do one-on-one interviews with prospective students. I had the impression that this was a "policy" that had been formulated on the spot. K. said that I would be welcome to participate in any other recruiting activity, but not do a one-on-one interview.
I wasn't terribly surprised by this, but I was disappointed. While I was pondering how to go forward, I received a call from Maggie Farnsworth, the associate director of admissions at Wellesley. She said that there had been a miscommunication, there was no policy against trans alums being involved with recruiting in any way, and that I could go ahead and be involved. After our brief exchange, I didn't actually get around to contacting K. again, because I was getting busier with grad school. This was back in November 2010.
Just before I left for the winter holiday break, I got another call from Joy St. John, the director of admissions. I waited until after returning from a bike trip to return her call, and spoke with her in January. She restated the original policy decision and rationale that K. had given to me, saying that if I were to interview a prospective, the focus of the interview would be on me, and they wanted interviews to be about the prospective student. She said that a prospective student wouldn't be expecting to interview with a man. I asked how she would feel about that if I was a person of color -- many high school students from Eastern Oregon might never have interacted with someone who wasn't white, and even among alums, some ethnic groups are certainly not well-represented compared to their numbers in the population. Or, what if I was a person with an obvious physical disability? This might also be surprising to some prospective students. Her reply was that the admissions office explains to prospectives that Wellesley has students of color, and disabled students, but not that Wellesley has male students. Thus, while she cited the need to protect prospective students (from, apparently, the knowledge either that trans men exist or that Wellesley graduates men), the real concern is protecting Wellesley's administration from having to acknowledge the existence of trans students and alums.
Again, it wasn't surprising to me that Wellesley was happy to throw its trans alums under the bus in order to desperately conceal from prospectives the existence of men living in Wellesley dorms and male Wellesley alums, but it is disappointing. It is certainly true that the Wellesley administration needs to decide how to handle the truth that the existence of trans people obliterates the idea of a single-sex educational institution (the only way to maintain the "single-sex"-edness of one's institution is to immediately expel students who come out as trans after enrolling, and I'm not sure anyone
would find that morally tenable), but that decision is not for me to make, and the burden of determining just what it is that Wellesley has to offer prospective students aside from the absence of male students is not on my shoulders. In my opinion, respect for alums -- all
alums -- has to come first, and being told, implicitly, that I'm not a suitable representative of my alma mater and that my college is ashamed to have me as an alum is certainly not respect.
It seems counterproductive to me to "protect" a prospective student from knowledge about trans students. If a prospective is accepted to Wellesley and decides to attend, then within just a few short months, she might be attending classes with male students, living with them, sharing bathrooms with them. I don't know how many out trans men are attending Wellesley right now, but it seems unlikely that the number will ever be zero from here on, barring any administrative crackdowns. Moreover, prospective students may be queer, may have trans parents, family members, or friends, or may be trans men themselves. Talking with Ms. St. John gave me the distinct impression that such students aren't who Wellesley wishes to recruit.
I asked Ms. St. John if the admissions office would be willing to state the policy on trans alums' involvement with recruiting in writing. It would be difficult for me to bring others into the discussion based on hearsay; a policy that isn't written down is not one that an institution can be held accountable for. I received no written reply for several months; at that point, I learned that Wellesley had recently hired an advisor to LGBT students, and contacted her about the matter. About a week later, I received the following email from Ms. St. John, which I must include below for the sake of holding power accountable.
I recently had a conversation with Dr. Fygetakis, Director of LGBTQ Services, regarding our office decision to ask you not to interview prospective students. In our conversation, Dr. Fygetakis indicated that you believed I had not responded to your request for a written policy regarding male interviewers. I want to clarify any confusion. In our original conversation I stated that I felt it was unlikely that I would be able to provide you with a written policy, because our decision to ask you not to interview was not a college or office policy, but rather, one of the many case-by-case decisions our office makes regarding volunteer interviewers. I then told you I would respond to your request for a written policy. A week later (after consulting with other administrators in my office and in other offices on c ampus), I did leave you a voicemai l message explaining that I would not be able to provide you with the written policy you requested. I apologize if you did not receive that communication. I am writing you an email in hopes that this is a more reliable form of communication. Our office will not be providing you with the written policy you request, for the reasons I stated above. However, I do want to be clear that the College would welcome your involvement in other volunteer activities. I am happy to remain in communication with you regarding this issue. My phone number and contact information are listed below and you should feel free to contact me again if you think it would be helpful.
Joy St. John
One of the most common verbal assaults against trans people is that we "just want attention". Apparently, if one is trans, one is expected to be above the normal human need for interaction with and validation from others. I've been hesitating for six months to discuss this matter in a public forum, because I believed that I should go through the proper channels first; well, in my opinion, the quoted email demonstrates to me that I have done everything it's possible to do within
the proper channels. I also hesitated because of the threat, already levelled at me, that if I contested this decision, I would be accused of wanting to make everything about me, of wanting attention. Well, I don't; I certainly couldn't care less about whether I, or someone else, is asked to do a particular volunteer job. I do care whether I'm treated the same way as everyone else, or treated differently based on my gender or on my assigned sex or the juxtaposition of the two. In her email, Ms. St. John said that discrimination against trans alums was a "case-by-case decision". It's hard to read this statement with an assumption of good faith, because she and others made it very clear to me that I was not
being excluded from recruiting because of any
personal, individual qualities, but solely because of my gender. It's impossible that it could be any other way, as the decision to exclude me based on my gender was made before anyone involved with the admissions office had met or talked to me. If I was being excluded not to interview because someone in Admissions believed I would not be a good representative of the college, or wouldn't be cordial to a prospective student, then the subject of my gender would never have come up in conversation
. Furthermore, since Wellesley considered me a good representative of the college when I interviewed a prospective student in the past, and since the only thing that has changed since then is that I'm no longer pretending to be a woman, I would have to come to the conclusion that no "case-by-case decision" was made, but rather, a discriminatory decision was and is being made.
Since institutional discrimination is rarely confined to one person or one situation, in the end, I think it's worthwhile for me to raise the issue in public. I hesitated as well because I could be accused of complaining about "First World problems". Surely no one privileged enough to have graduated from a college like Wellesley has anything to complain about? I think not, though; incidents like this one are examples of microaggressions
: tiny interactions that accumulate on each other to maintain social structures of domination. If the existence of worse problems in the world was an excuse, I could get out of a speeding ticket by saying that at least I'm not engaging in child sex trafficking. I think that whenever you tell somebody that they are less of a person, that that makes the world a worse place.
I don't think that my alma mater has anything to be ashamed of in having me as an alum. I'm working for a nonprofit right now; I'm planning to finish my Ph.D and become a teacher. I volunteer, I ride my bike instead of driving, and I've helped friends get through tough times. I'm certainly not the most noble or the most high-achieving person in my graduating class, but at least I don't work on Wall Street. Even though most graduates of my alma mater are women and I'm a man, I am exactly as good a representative of Wellesley as other alum is. Every individual is different, with their own set of experiences; no one is more typical than another. And it's not going to do Wellesley any good in the long term to either purge trans students or work to erase those students' gender identities. Wellesley will always have male students, since gender-variant people who were raised as female will always search for liberation from the roles that were forced on them, and flock institutions that seem to have strong feminist values. The question for the administration, then, is that given that male students will always be with them, whether there's a good reason to distinguish between a man with an 'M' written on his birth certificate and one with an 'F' there. That question isn't for me to answer. All I know is that they can't have it both ways; if they don't consider me good enough to represent the college, then surely my money isn't good enough to support the college, either. Which would seem to contradict the contents of my mailbox every few weeks.
Being told my alma mater wishes to deny the fact of my existence is a small injustice, but as with any microaggression, it grates nonetheless. Everybody only gets (at most) one undergraduate alma mater, and while most people never have to think twice about being able to say, proudly, that they graduated from the University of _______, I do have to think twice about whether I can be proud to have graduated from a school where, it seems, the administration would be more comfortable if I was still pretending to be something I'm not.
The outcomes I'd like to see are either that Wellesley issue an official, written statement of the specific ways in which it does not treat its alums and students who are trans men or who are genderqueer in the same way it treats its alums and students who are cis women, which can then be discussed or critiqued; or, alternatively, that they issue a statement that it is college policy that there is no discrimination on the basis of gender within the context of alum activities. If you are a Wellesley student or alum who agrees with me, I would encourage you to write to the office of admissions to let them know how their decisions to try to erase trans alums will affect your willingness to donate to the College. And let me know as well, so that we can think about what collective action is possible.
Finally, it appears that Wellesley isn't the only putative women's college that's having a problem balancing its image with respect for trans students and alums: a trans male student at Smith
was denied the opportunity to be a host to a visiting prospective student and is circulating a petition
It seems that I made an error in the original post by mentioning the alumnae office. As far as I know, nobody from the alumnae office was involved in policy discussions about trans alums' involvement with recruiting. It is solely an admissions office matter. If you're a Wellesley person, direct any thoughts to the admissions office only.