tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I wrote this comment on a LinkedIn forum thread a few weeks ago for alums of my undergrad school, and I wanted to save the comment somewhere less ephemeral. Most of it is replying to another comment that I won't quote directly since it was posted to a private forum, but it's from a faculty member who I respect very much.
I haven't read the blog post Daniel linked to yet, but I would suspect that the reasons based on humanities/social science apply to us as CS people more than you might think.

As far as [REDACTED]'s points: I don't know of any CS Ph.D programs that will put you into debt either... well, sort of. I went from having ~ $5000 in student loans post-Wellesley to having ~ $40000 in student loans after being a Ph.D student at Portland State for 4 years (and not graduating). Why? Because my grant didn't pay for health insurance, so I had to pay for that out-of-pocket (and the cost of student health insurance went up from about $1200/year to $4000/year over that four years). I had a lot of other expenses, mostly medical, that I couldn't pay for just out of my grad student stipend either. So while a CS Ph.D program may seem like it's not going to cost you anything, you also have to think about the opportunity cost of spending 4-10 years making $15K-$25K/year, most likely with no benefits (since RAs and TAs at many schools are hired at 0.45 FTE so the university won't have to give them benefits -- the exception is schools where RAs and TAs are unionized, which anyone looking to go to grad school should seek out). Especially for CS majors, those 4-10 years could be critical in your career -- people who don't go to grad school spend them developing and gaining experience that you're likely going to have to start over with anyway if/when you leave or graduate and can't or don't want to work in academia.

I agree that being your own boss is very appealing, and it's a big reason why i once wanted to be a professor. But it's not quite right to say that professors get to decide what they work on, and especially not grad students. Applying for grants limits what you can work on and also means you have to do a little or a lot of "spin" to make your work sound like something that will "help the war fight" (at least if you're applying for defense funding, which is what a lot of CS funding is). For some people, this may feel dishonest.

Teaching and mentoring are also appealing. There are many jobs that have mentoring as a component.

I think there should be more women in CS, but I also wouldn't want to make any individual woman deciding on a career feel like she *has* to do something that's difficult, costly (financially and emotionally), and will likely expose her to various kinds of harassment just to further the cause of equality. Ultimately, it's men's job to stop driving women out of CS.

In the end, I think if somebody reads all of this stuff and makes an informed decision that they still want to go to grad school, then they should go. That's why I went, two separate times! I won't exactly say that I wish I hadn't, but I also wonder how it could have been if I had spent those years working on projects with clear goals and expectations where I would have been compensated fairly.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Almost ten years ago, I posted this to LiveJournal:

From Nora Ephron's essay about the tenth Wellesley Class of '62 reunion, in _Crazy Salad_:

I never went near the Wellesley College chapel in my four years there, but I am still amazed at the amount of Christian charity that school stuck us with, a kind of glazed politeness in the face of boredom and stupidity. Tolerance, in the worst sense of the word. Wellesley was not alone in encouraging this for its students, but it always seemed to sad that a school that could have done so much for women put so much energy into the one area women should be educated out of. How marvelous it would have been to go to a women's college that encouraged impoliteness, that rewarded aggression, that encouraged argument.

And she summarizes everything I've thought about Wellesley, 35 years before I even got there.

Today, Ms. Ephron died. May she rest in snark, as peace would probably bore her, as it would me.

(Oh yeah and I heard she did some movies or something.)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A couple weeks ago, Zoe Moyer, a student at Wellesley and writer for the Wellesley news, emailed me asking my opinion about a petition to make Wellesley admissions gender-neutral. I explained that in my opinion, Wellesley is already not a single-sex institution and the question is whether to admit people who were coercively assigned male at birth, not whether to admit men (since Wellesley already admits men, provided they were coercively assigned female at birth).

The article was published last week, but unfortunately, it appears I didn't make myself very clear in my comments, as the first part of the passage where my name is mentioned is accurate about my views, but the second part isn't. I wrote the following email to Zoe:
I'm afraid that something I wrote in my email may have
been unclear, because of this quote:

'Because transgender women are also allowed to apply to Wellesley,
Chevalier said that Wellesley "need[s] to be honest…and stop referring
to [itself] as a single-sex college.'"

The quote makes it look like I believe that trans women are not women,
and that's absolutely something I do not believe. Trans women don't
make Wellesley not-a-single-sex-college; trans *men* do. The quote
would reflect what I believe if "women" was changed to "men". Would
you mind printing a correction? I would hate for anyone to come away
from the article thinking that I said something that was so erasing of
trans women's personhood.

Anyway, I just thought I would post this here in case anyone came across the article and thought that my view is that admitting trans women (which Wellesley never does in practice, except for those women who have corrected their gender documentation and can avoid disclosing their trans status, as far as I know, so that's also a bit confusing) makes Wellesley not-single-sex.

If anyone is interested, my original reply from which the quotes from me are derived:
Read more... )
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here's a comment that was posted on Reddit in response to Jake Pecht's article "I Am Smith And I Am Male". I'm reposting it with permission, but the author would prefer to remain anonymous.

At Smith, my face and female body is invisible, transparent, complementary. My medical records say I have a transsexual body. And because of this, my voice is inaudible and irrelevant in Northampton, in Wellesley, in Oakland, and so on. And also because of this, my mind and presence are unwelcome and unheard.

Smith, et al., can "la la la la can't hear you la la la la you non-cis women don't exist" towards trans women all they want. They can assert that trans women are not women. This position, however, cannot be reified, and it cannot last ad infinitum without the internalized misogyny of this tack eventually, in absence of a defusing, blowing up in their face. I think the detonator at this point has to come from our trans brothers to mobilize, to man (or tran) up, and announce the (non-)policy on its face as a farce. Then walk out with their cohort allies and see what remains of their student body count left behind. That's a lot of tuition revenue they stand to lose. The provosts would have to capitulate or fold (from loss of revenue). I doubt the latter would be permitted by alumnae to actually happen.

This actually doesn't affect me directly. I earned a bachelor degree from another institution, where I was female when applied (with prior transcripts also listing female) and female when conferred cum laude. I attended one of the best schools in the world, despite plenty of barriers asserting that, as a trans woman, I would never get so far as university. My alma mater's gain was the Sisters' loss, because I had been looking at two of those schools carefully (Smith was not one of them) before I started to apply.

It was not a sex-segregated institution like Smith or the other Sister holdouts. The policies of these morphological/body sex-segregated colleges, however, are not gender-segregated — even if for now the notion of letting trans men hosting potential applicants gives them cold feet. These schools allow for the masculine articulation of gender (and the social identities affirmed therefrom) in their students; allow them to continue with and complete their studies; and allow them to exist in these spaces as active participants who constitute part of the college's student body.

These colleges allow for this articulation of masculine dialects because they, quite plainly, neither recognize nor respect that trans men are men, are male, and might also be masculine. These colleges regard (with a wink and nod) that these men are "still" women.

This cognitive dissonance may be the most insulting aspect to this blanket exclusion of (known)† trans women at these American women-only colleges: the continued inclusion of trans men in these self-governed, female-only-enforced campuses undermines their emergent manhood and invalidates their encephalic/neurological sex as male. The schools cannot have it both ways without that cognitive dissonance to erupt.

The eruption has to come from these guys and their female cohort allies, or we as trans people, writ large, are not going to make a lot of progress on being recognized at face value for who we are. Institutions and estates (like the media) have to be on-side by eradicating exceptions of treatment and distinction of trans people. Exception clauses undermine all of us — (trans) men and (trans) women alike.

[† Trans women certainly exist as students at these women's colleges (as in, I know actual trans women who are or have been enrolled — not by some hypothetical abstraction of "existing"). They are not known to the colleges as anything other than cisgender women with cissexual bodies, and for these institutions to try to "sniff out" these transsexual bodies would create the most bizarre paradox: a de facto witch hunt on a women's college campus.]
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
We feel that statements such as “We are everywhere” and “Dykes rule!” could evoke an uneasy response in women who are not yet comfortable with Lesbian culture. It seems potentially self-defeating that the first exposure for many incoming students to Wellesley’s Lesbian community occurred in the form of anonymous, ubiquitous graffiti, rather than in the personalized non-threatening atmosphere of a Straight Talks workshop. -- Wellesley News op-ed, 1988

I find this to be a great illustration of the meaning of the terms "tone argument" and "concern trolling". 23 years later, it seems ridiculous to us, the idea that the obvious truth "We are everywhere" could be seen as hostile or alienating, as something that could legitimately strengthen someone's learned homophobia rather than undermining it. When you make a similar suggestion now -- when you tell someone that they're turning off potential allies by being so angry, or that you don't have a problem with someone's way of demanding their rights but someone else might think they're being too (hostile, aggressive, blunt, sexually explicit, bitchy, demanding, strident, selfish, all of the other qualities that privileged people flaunt) -- can you consider how you're going to look 23 years from now, with the benefit of hindsight?
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Another Wellesley alum who came out as being a guy after graduation, Warren Kunce '08, posted a video reacting to the recent news. I particularly liked his comments from 3:44-5:58 in the video, as follows:

"The admissions office at Wellesley has decided that that is either too confusing for a prospective student, or somehow the interview would be made all about me and my transition. Which is really insulting, by the way, that, like, I am an intelligent human being. I do know what the purpose of the interview is. I do know how to make an interview not be about myself. It's just this whole idea that the interview would be more about me than about the student is frankly, just absurd. It's insulting as well.... It first of all assumes that, one, that I would be comfortable talking about being trans and my transition, which, depending on the situation, I probably won't be. I mean, the whole thing can be taken care of in two sentences, like: "Hello, yes, I'm transgender, I transitioned to male after I was at Wellesley College, but this interview is about you, not about me, so let's go ahead. You know? This is not difficult. I'm not going to sit with a prospective student, a stranger who's 17 years old, who I don't know, and talk to them about, like, my gender identity and my transition. That's so inappropriate, so inappropriate. Why would I do that?

The only reason I can think of for us to spend any time at all talking about my gender identity is if the student was trans and wanted to know: as a trans person, how will it be at Wellesley? Will it be okay for me to transition at Wellesley? In which case I think I would be the perfect alum to be having this interview with the student. This whole policy, not letting trans alumni do the prospective interviews, also assumes that the prospective student is not transgender, which is not cool."

Warren, if you're reading this, thanks for saying this! Someone had to call out just how ridiculous the idea that someone who was trans would automatically make the interview about himself, and to me it was so absurd that I couldn't even address it head-on. It bounced right off my absurdity filter.

In other news, here's a story about the Smith student I mentioned who's being denied the role of hosting prospective students. As well, notes from a Bryn Mawr alum who's trying to get them to state a clear policy on trans women as applicants, featuring this bureaucratic gem from their admissions office: "If it is not clear that an applicant to the College is female, we would approach the situation on an individual basis to gain a better understanding of the student's circumstances." (I assume this means panty-checks?)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
For the current or former students / faculty / staff out there, tomorrow (May 2) is your last chance to sign the petition being circulated by current students; if you agree with the text at that link, then email Sarah Ditmars - sditmars at wellesley -- with your name and status (e.g. class year for alums).

I don't have much else that's new except to express some puzzlement at the comments I've been reading in the blogosphere to the effect that "Wellesley is not a historically women's college" or "Wellesley should not become a historically women's college". Well, that bird has flown, as far as I can tell, unless it's possible to be a "women's college" and graduate men. I've said all this before, but: trans men don't "become" men by transitioning, they are born male and live as boys or men for their entire lives, even though their gendered presentation may vary during the course of their life (the same as for everyone else!) and their level of conscious awareness of that fact may vary.

So, the fact that Wellesley is not a women's college is not up for debate. The question is how the administration narrates the story that justifies an (unstated) policy of considering applications from some men, but not others. I don't have an opinion on whether Wellesley should admit cis men -- I just think that if they're going to admit trans men but not cis men, they have to know the reasons why. If the policy is "we admit all people who self-identify as women at the time of application, and graduate anyone who's accepted and who fulfills graduation requirements," great! And if that is their policy, then they ought to have no problem whatsoever explaining to the public that they have alums who are men. Other reasonable policies are imaginable. But continuing to insist on the "women's college" label disrespects the inalienable right to be the final arbiter of one's own identity, for those students and alums who are male -- and really, for everyone, since when you take away that right from one person, you're saying it's not a universal human right and thus calling it into question for everyone.

In re-reading the Admissions office's statement, and discussing it with others, I continue to reflect on how the author seems to be trying very hard -- without actually saying so -- to make it seem as if my desire (as stated in the previous two paragraphs) for a reality-based discussion is the reason why they did not wish for me to interview prospectives. But, of course, nothing of the sort is true, since they made that decision while having one (1) unit of information about me: my gender. My opinions never entered into it, since they didn't ask for my opinions, or indeed, anything else!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Well, I'm on the front page of the Wellesley News this week -- here's the article (PDF). This is an ephemeral URL that will go away once the Wellesley News updates their site, so save a copy if you want to have one.

I thought that Lesley Thulin did a great job with the article. None of the Admissions Office staff were willing to comment on-the-record, but there was a fascinating comment from an anonymous Admissions Office staffer who said (column 4, page 2), among other things, that the admissions office had a climate of discouraging any mention of Wellesley's LGBTQ community to prospective students and their families.

To the extent that that anonymous source's perception is accurate, it's unfortunate that the administration doesn't align itself with Wellesley's student and faculty population in showing pride for the LGBTQ community at Wellesley, rather than distancing itself from it. And amusingly, by doing their best to try to make me shut up and go away, the admissions office has attracted way more negative publicity than they would have done by just letting me do an interview.

I love my alma mater, but the decisions made by the admissions office are cowardly.

If you would like to add your name to the petition being organized by current students, you can see the text of it at http://docs.com/BO71 and email Sarah Ditmars -- sditmars (domain name is what you'd expect) to add yourself. You should include your affiliation with the college (presumably for most people who haven't already signed on, that'll be "Class of [whatever]"). I didn't write the petition and if I had, I would have asked for something less strong (to wit, a statement of discrimination, with reasons why, or of non-discrimination), but I do support what it says.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
One of my informers kindly forwarded me the following statement, which was posted on Wellesley's internal Official Announcements bulletin board today:
I write to offer some clarification in response to the discussion regarding a decision by the Admission Office not to allow a transgendered male alum to serve as an interviewer. The decision in this case was influenced by our tradition of having women serve as alumnae interviewers. The question raised in this discussion is whether this decision was based on a policy of not permitting transgendered alums to interview prospective students. The answer is: no, because no such policy exists.

We have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the recent discussions have reemphasized the importance of ensuring that we welcome the participation of all alums in all volunteer activities and admission outreach programs, including the opportunity to interview prospective students. We do value the diversity of experiences that our volunteer interviewers bring to the interview.

An important component of the admission interview is that a prospective student leaves with a clear understanding of the value of attending a women’s college. One thing we do insist on is that the interviewer strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college.

Beyond this specific point, our community would benefit from a broad discussion of various ways in which the inclusion of transgendered students—and alums—has an impact on our institutional identity as a women’s college and our current practices. President Bottomly, my Senior Staff colleagues, the Alumnae Association, and I look forward to these important discussions with the community.

Jennifer Desjarlais
Dean of Admission and Financial Aid
Wellesley College

I find this statement to be an example of the kind of communication that is intended to obfuscate rather than to clarify. I also find it to be a non-response to what students, alums and faculty are asking for, and to what happened. With the least important point first, "transgendered" is a word I have never used to describe myself, and is an objectionable word to apply to transgender and transsexual people. Joanne Herman, among others, has explained why. "Transgender" is an okay word, but I don't use it to describe myself; I'm transsexual. (That's an adjective, by the way; referring to someone in a way that turns an adjective into a noun is rarely respectful.)

The statement suggests, but does not say explicitly, that no alum who was trans would be allowed to serve as a volunteer interviewer. This suggests, contrary to what the statement does say explicitly, that there is a policy. Wellesley just doesn't want to take responsibility for that policy by stating it as such.

The decision to ask me not to serve as an interviewer could not possibly have been made on the basis of a belief that I would not "strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college", as this statement insinuates but doesn't say outright, because no one bothered to find out whether I would "strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college." As I've said in previous posts (which, of course, I published after the decision in dispute was made), to me, saying that Wellesley is a women's college is like saying that the sky is green. It's not something that should be controversial. Whether Wellesley graduates two men in each class or 200, it's not a women's college as long as the number is greater than zero.

On the whole, the administration's response is disappointing and I'll continue to be involved in whatever way is appropriate to ask them to be accountable for their decisions. It's what current students want, and it's what's morally right.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
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.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
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 alumnaeadmissions 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.

Dear Tim,

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 about it.

Edit: 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.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
An article from Jezebel about the guy who attended my alma mater as an exchange student (emphasis on the past tense, apparently) and proceeded to call the entire campus "whores" would have been great without one line: "boys really can't handle single-sex schools".

I, and the (at least) other two guys who graduated from Wellesley in 2001, handled it just fine. I don't recall ever calling anyone a whore while I was there[*]. Blame Jeremy Pham's behavior on his douchiness -- blaming it on his gender is too easy. This isn't to say that his gender (or rather, his gendered socialization) has nothing to do with his behavior -- just to remark that apparently, even in discussions of men at a women's college, some of us still end up invisible.

[*] except in the "Listen, ho" sort of way [**]
[**] you had to be there
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Five years ago as of tomorrow, Esther died. She was my friend, and I miss her deeply. It's rare for a day to go by when I don't think of her.

Esther died six days after September 11, 2001; I got the news a week after that, when the world was seeming crazy and unpredictable enough as it was. After September 11, I was wondering what was going to come next; we all were, I think. Nuclear bombs over San Francisco or biological weapons in the toothpaste would have come as less of a shock. It was my first year in grad school at Berkeley. I left my morning class, Programming Language Design, planning on checking email and then going for lunch before my Operating Systems class. I sat down to check email in my office and there was an email from Marge, my former boss when I had worked at the Helpdesk at Wellesley. (Esther had worked for the Helpdesk, too.) I opened it, I read it, I had to read it again and again to believe what it said. The email was forwarded from Hannah, another Wellesley alum who'd worked for IS. It said that Esther had died last week, while looking for her lost cat one evening; she had stopped her car on an incline, left it in neutral, she went out in front of it, and it rolled over her. If I'd been reading the same story in a newspaper, a good samaritan would have come along before it was too late and pulled her out of harm's way. Instead, I was reading it in an email, there was no fortunate coincidence, and my friend was dead. My officemates were in the office with me, but somehow I couldn't tell them what had just happened. I wrote back to Hannah and Marge to ask if they were sure this really happened, as if doing so would somehow change the past. I forwarded the email to a few places and people, as if keeping my hands busy on the keyboard would help. Finally I got up and stumbled across the campus to get food; I'd lost all appetite for anything else, so I had frozen yogurt for lunch and then went to Operating Systems; I was in my chair for the entire 70-minute lecture, doubt I heard a word the professor said.

Esther was my first friend at Wellesley; for a while, she was my best friend. We met in the spring of 1996, when she was a sophomore and I was fifteen, in my second semester of taking classes at Wellesley. I'd been following Public and the other folders on Wellesley's Bulletin system (a primitive message board program running on a VAX cluster that was already obsolete then, yet had a fanatical following among students who loved and hated it) since the fall, but I didn't have the nerve to start posting in the spring. When I did, I lost my inhibitions fast, and didn't hesitate to both answer questions on Helpdesk (a folder for computing questions) and chastise those, both on Public and on Helpdesk, who had failed to RTFM. There were a few people who, I guess, resented that somebody might be so audacious to suggest that they should read documentation before asking a question, and moreover resented the fact that the advice was coming from someone who they saw as being outside the community (the "T1" prefix before my username, and the fact that I didn't show up in the WHOIS directory at the time, marked me as an outsider). On Public, people started trying to figure who I was; someone posted saying that I was a high school student from Wellesley (which wasn't exactly true since I never took any classes at the high school, but was close enough, since I was taking classes at Wellesley by virtue of a program that allowed Wellesley High students access to college courses); other people, not realizing that I was also a Wellesley student, posted indignant responses wondering how it was that a high school student could have "hacked" into the system. Esther, who I'd never met or even talked to online before, came to my defense and explained that I was taking classes at Wellesley, and not only that, that I was a very good student. I was confused as to how she knew this exactly, but grateful -- ten years ago, I wasn't quite as used to being flamed online as I am now. I ended up exchanging emails with Esther after that and found out that she knew who I was because she was friendly with Lyn Turbak, whose Data Structures class I was taking that semester, and he had mentioned my name to her. We exchanged more emails and then one day, she used the "Talk" command on Sallie to invite me to chat. Eventually, she invited me over to her room in Tower to meet her pet hedgehog. We were friends after that, and from then until December 1998, when she completed her work at Wellesley and moved to Seattle to work at Microsoft, we saw each other often and chatted via Talk sessions more often.

Esther, more than anybody else, led me out of my anti-social orientation, and it was because of her that I was able to see that I could form meaningful relationships with others, even people a couple of years older than me. And besides that, she was fun to be around and always had other interesting people around her, whether at Wellesley or MIT. We were both bulletin addicts, both members of the Lyn Turbak fan club, and I followed in her footsteps by working for IS and working on Wilbur, the student web server, when I got the chance. My first semester first year, we took the intro computer architecture class together and I remember the yellow bus she drew for the poster for her lab project (we all paired up to build different components of a machine; guess which one hers was.) The semester after that, she went to Prague. Over the summer, I went to New York with her to pick up her car from her parents there, and we went to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The fall of my sophomore year (her last semester at Wellesley), she took care of my hamster, Nibbles, when my floor voted to reject my having a pet, and she organized a Thanksgiving dinner in Simpson West that I went to. The second-to-last time I saw her, over Christmas break in 1998, we saw "The Prince of Egypt" in Framingham for no adequately explored reason. After she moved, we fell out of touch a bit; she did come to Berkeley with her boyfriend when I was living there in summer 1999, and we all went up in the Campanile. (That was when you could still go in the Campanile.) When I think of her, I think of nights in Simpson West spent baking and drinking, silly bulletin threads, going on a DNC room visit with her and teaching the user to play Set, riding in her boyfriend's car to get ice cream and discussing whether Starbucks should introduce a "Scheme Chip" flavor to go with "Java Chip". I think of how she knew all the words to Mr. Bungle's "The Girls of Porn". I think of her warmth, her kindness, her sense of humor, how once after a nasty breakup she was able to shrug and say, "well, I only dated him for his dog."

By some strange coincidence, tonight I find myself in the city of her birth on the eve of the fifth anniversary of her death. Esther was twenty-five when she died; I am twenty-five years old now. I can hardly believe that I am as old now as she ever was. She always seemed so smart, so wise, so sensible, so well-versed in the ways of the world. I don't feel nearly as mature now as I remember her being during the times when I knew her best, when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and she was twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. If she were still alive, she would be thirty now. I can't imagine that, either. Would she be married with kids? (I know she wanted to have them.) Would she be living out her dreams, writing software or raising goats or teaching kids? Would she still be trying to figure out just what it was she wanted, like me? I don't know. But I'd give anything to see her again. When I try to remember her, time I spent with her seems more and more like a blur; I guess I'm writing out this post partially to remind myself, because I don't want to forget her. I re-read some emails from her tonight, something I hadn't done in as long as I can remember. The last email exchange we ever had, in May 2001, was her reply to an email from me announcing that I was getting married in two weeks and that Lyn won the Pinanski Prize (I leaked the news about the latter before I was supposed to, but only to her). She congratulated me and asked whether that meant Lyn was going to get tenure (he was up for it that fall); I replied and said not necessarily, and she said she was going to write another letter supporting him. I wonder if she wrote the letter. I wish I had emailed her one more time in between May and September.

I don't believe in God, I don't believe that people go to a better place when they die. I don't believe that when a young, healthy, happy person dies absurdly that there's a good reason for it. It's just senseless death; the world is worse off without Esther, and she is worse off for not having gotten to finish her life, for barely having gotten the chance to start it. I don't believe in the "when one door closes, another opens" stuff that some people spout about death, because I don't see any good reason why that would be true. Esther made a mistake, a trivial one, and she died because of it. We all make the same kinds of mistakes all the time, and most people get away alive. There's no sense or logic to which of us imperfect beings gets to live or die; Esther didn't deserve to live any less than anyone else who's done the same thing and never given it a second thought. If she'd remembered to pull the emergency brake, she'd probably be alive today. I almost want to get angry thinking about it -- but I don't know who to be angry at, other than her, and I can't even be angry at her since I know she didn't want to die, that she was careless because of her concern for her pet. She was careless and she died; lots of other people are far more careless and they're still here. I can find nothing to soften the blow that she died for no good reason and that her potential was wasted -- nothing except the knowledge that I am better off for having known her, the memories I have of her, and the understanding that others remember her as I do, too. I'm glad I got the chance to know Esther, and having known her for five years and then having lost her is better than never having gotten the chance to know her at all. I hate to say anything as clichéd as "she lives on in our hearts," but there you have it. All that anybody leaves behind is that they mattered to one or two or many people, and she mattered a lot to me.


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

December 2018

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