New York Times
Hundreds of young women streamed into Wellesley College on the last Monday of August, many of them trailed by parents lugging suitcases and bins filled with folded towels, decorative pillows and Costco-size jugs of laundry detergent. The banner by the campus entranceway welcoming the Class of 2018 waved in the breeze, as if beckoning the newcomers to discover all that awaited them. All around the campus stood buildings named after women: the Margaret Clapp library, the Betsy Wood Knapp media and technology center, dorms, labs, academic halls, even the parking garage. The message that anything is possible for women was also evident at a fenced-in work site, which bore the sign “Elaine Construction,” after a firm named for one woman and run by another.
It was the first day of orientation, and along the picturesque paths there were cheerful upper-class student leaders providing directions and encouragement. They wore pink T-shirts stamped with this year’s orientation theme: “Free to Explore” — an enticement that could be interpreted myriad ways, perhaps far more than the college intended. One of those T-shirted helpers was a junior named Timothy Boatwright. Like every other matriculating student at Wellesley, which is just west of Boston, Timothy was raised a girl and checked “female” when he applied. Though he had told his high-school friends that he was transgender, he did not reveal that on his application, in part because his mother helped him with it, and he didn’t want her to know. Besides, he told me, “it seemed awkward to write an application essay for a women’s college on why you were not a woman.” Like many trans students, he chose a women’s college because it seemed safer physically and psychologically.
From the start, Timothy introduced himself as “masculine-of-center genderqueer.” He asked everyone at Wellesley to use male pronouns and the name Timothy, which he’d chosen for himself.
For the most part, everyone respected his request. After all, he wasn’t the only trans student on campus. Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women. Of those, a half-dozen or so were trans men, people born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies. The rest said they were transgender or genderqueer, rejecting the idea of gender entirely or identifying somewhere between female and male; many, like Timothy, called themselves transmasculine. Though his gender identity differed from that of most of his classmates, he generally felt comfortable at his new school.
Last spring, as a sophomore, Timothy decided to run for a seat on the student-government cabinet, the highest position that an openly trans student had ever sought at Wellesley. The post he sought was multicultural affairs coordinator, or “MAC,” responsible for promoting “a culture of diversity” among students and staff and faculty members. Along with Timothy, three women of color indicated their intent to run for the seat. But when they dropped out for various unrelated reasons before the race really began, he was alone on the ballot. An anonymous lobbying effort began on Facebook, pushing students to vote “abstain.” Enough “abstains” would deny Timothy the minimum number of votes Wellesley required, forcing a new election for the seat and providing an opportunity for other candidates to come forward. The “Campaign to Abstain” argument was simple: Of all the people at a multiethnic women’s college who could hold the school’s “diversity” seat, the least fitting one was a white man.
“It wasn’t about Timothy,” the student behind the Abstain campaign told me. “I thought he’d do a perfectly fine job, but it just felt inappropriate to have a white man there. It’s not just about that position either. Having men in elected leadership positions undermines the idea of this being a place where women are the leaders.”
I asked Timothy what he thought about that argument, as we sat on a bench overlooking the tranquil lake on campus during orientation. He pointed out that he has important contributions to make to the MAC position. After all, at Wellesley, masculine-of-center students are cultural minorities; by numbers alone, they’re about as minor as a minority can be. And yet Timothy said he felt conflicted about taking a leadership spot. “The patriarchy is alive and well,” he said. “I don’t want to perpetuate it.”
In the 19th century, only men were admitted to most colleges and universities, so proponents of higher education for women had to build their own. The missions at these new schools both defied and reinforced the gender norms of the day. By offering women access to an education they’d previously been denied, the schools’ very existence was radical, but most were nevertheless premised on traditional notions: College-educated women were considered more likely to be engaging wives and better mothers, who would raise informed citizens. Over time, of course, women’s colleges became more committed to preparing students for careers, but even in the early 1960s, Wellesley, for example, taught students how to get groceries into the back of a station wagon without exposing their thighs.
By the late 1960s, however, gender norms were under scrutiny. Amid the growing awareness of civil rights and women’s liberation, academic separation based on gender, as with race, seemed increasingly outdated. As a vast majority of women opted for coed schools, enrollment at women’s colleges tumbled. The number of women’s colleges dropped to fewer than 50 today from nearly 300.
In response to shifting ideas about gender, many of the remaining women’s colleges redefined themselves as an antidote to the sexism that feminists were increasingly identifying in society. Women’s colleges argued that they offered a unique environment where every student leader was a woman, where female role models were abundant, where professors were far more likely to be women and where the message of women’s empowerment pervaded academic and campus life. All that seemed to foster students’ confidence. Women’s colleges say their undergrads are more likely to major in fields traditionally dominated by men. Wellesley alumnae in particular are awarded more science and engineering doctorates than female graduates of any other liberal-arts college in the nation, according to government data. Its alums have become two secretaries of state; a groundbreaking string theorist; a NASA astronaut; and Korea’s first female ambassador.
As women’s colleges challenged the conventions of womanhood, they drew a disproportionate number of students who identified as lesbian or bisexual. Today a small but increasing number of students at those schools do not identify as women, raising the question of what it means to be a “women’s college.” Trans students are pushing their schools to play down the women-centric message. At Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke and others, they and their many supporters have successfully lobbied to scrub all female references in student government constitutions, replacing them with gender-neutral language. At Wellesley, they have pressed administrators and fellow students to excise talk of sisterhood, arguing that that rhetoric, rather than being uplifting, excludes other gender minorities. At many schools, they have also taken leadership positions long filled by women: resident advisers on dorm floors, heads of student groups and members of college government. At Wellesley, one transmasculine student was a dorm president. At Mills College, a women’s school in California, even the president of student government identifies as male.
What’s a women’s college to do? Trans students point out that they’re doing exactly what these schools encourage: breaking gender barriers, fulfilling their deepest yearnings and forging ahead even when society tries to hold them back. But yielding to their request to dilute the focus on women would undercut the identity of a women’s college. While women in coed schools generally outpace men in enrollment and performance, the equation shifts after college: Recent female graduates working full time earn far less than their male counterparts, and more experienced women are often still shut out of corporate and political leadership — all of which prompts women’s-college advocates to conclude that a four-year, confidence-building workshop still has its place.
“Sisterhood is why I chose to go to Wellesley,” said a physics major who graduated recently and asked not to be identified for fear she’d be denounced for her opinion. “A women’s college is a place to celebrate being a woman, surrounded by women. I felt empowered by that every day. You come here thinking that every single leadership position will be held by a woman: every member of the student government, every newspaper editor, every head of the Economics Council, every head of the Society of Physics. That’s an incredible thing! This is what they advertise to students. But it’s no longer true. And if all that is no longer true, the intrinsic value of a women’s college no longer holds.”
A few schools have formulated responses to this dilemma, albeit very different ones. Hollins University, a small women’s college in Virginia, established a policy several years ago stating it would confer diplomas to only women. It also said that students who have surgery or begin hormone therapy to become men — or who legally take male names — will be “helped to transfer to another institution.” Mount Holyoke and Mills College, on the other hand, recently decided they will not only continue to welcome students who become trans men while at school but will also admit those who identify on their applications as trans men, noting that welcoming the former and not the latter seemed unjustifiably arbitrary.
But most women’s colleges, including Wellesley, consider only female applicants. Once individuals have enrolled and announced that they are trans, the schools, more or less, leave it to the students to work out how trans classmates fit into a women’s college. Two of those students hashed it out last fall after Kaden Mohamed, then a Wellesley senior who had been taking testosterone for seven months, watched a news program on WGBH-TV about the plummeting number of women’s colleges. One guest was Laura Bruno, another Wellesley senior. The other guest was the president of Regis College, a women’s school that went coed in 2007 to reverse its tanking enrollment. The interviewer asked Laura to describe her experience at an “all-female school” and to explain how that might be diminished “by having men there.” Laura answered, “We look around and we see only women, only people like us, leading every organization on campus, contributing to every class discussion.”
Kaden, a manager of the campus student cafe who knew Laura casually, was upset by her words. He emailed Laura and said her response was “extremely disrespectful.” He continued: “I am not a woman. I am a trans man who is part of your graduating class, and you literally ignored my existence in your interview. . . . You had an opportunity to show people that Wellesley is a place that is complicating the meaning of being an ‘all women’s school,’ and you chose instead to displace a bunch of your current and past Wellesley siblings.”
Laura apologized, saying she hadn’t meant to marginalize anyone and had actually vowed beforehand not to imply that all Wellesley students were women. But she said that under pressure, she found herself in a difficult spot: How could she maintain that women’s colleges would lose something precious by including men, but at the same time argue that women’s colleges should accommodate students who identify as men?
Although it may seem paradoxical, Jesse Austin said he chose to attend Wellesley because being female never felt right to him. “I figured if I was any kind of woman, I’d find it there. I knew Wellesley would have strong women. They produce a ton of strong women, strong in all sorts of ways.”
When Jesse arrived on campus in the fall of 2009, his name was Sara. Eighteen years old, Sara wore form-fitting shirts and snug women’s jeans, because growing up in a small, conservative town in Georgia, she learned that that’s what girls were supposed to do — even though she never felt like a girl. As a child, Sara had always chosen to be male characters in pretend plays, and all her friends were boys. In middle school, those boys abandoned her because she was a social liability: not feminine enough to flirt with and not masculine enough to really be one of the guys. In high school, at the urging of well-intentioned female classmates, she started wearing her hair down instead of pulled back and began dressing like they did, even though people kept pointing out that she still acted and carried herself like a boy. “I had no idea that gender was something you could change,” Jesse told me recently. “I just thought I needed to make myself fit into these fixed places: There are boys, and there are girls. I knew I didn’t fit; I just didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
Around the middle of Sara’s first year at Wellesley, she attended a presentation by trans alums, including one who was in the process of transitioning. As Sara listened, the gender dysphoria she’d always felt suddenly made sense. “It was all so clear to me,” Jesse told me. “All I needed were the words.” Sara spent the next two weeks scouring the Internet for videos and information on becoming a man. She learned that unlike previous generations, today’s trans young adults don’t consider physical transformation a prerequisite for identity. Some use hormones; some have their breasts removed in “top” surgery; some reject medical interventions altogether, as unnecessary invasions and expense. She discovered that sexual orientation is independent of gender: Some trans men are attracted to women, some to men, some to both. And she learned that trans men aren’t necessarily determined to hide the fact they were raised as girls, or that they once attended a women’s college.
Soon after, Sara cut her hair short and bought her first pair of men’s jeans. Sara told friends she was a man. By second semester, he was using male pronouns and calling himself Jesse, the other name his mother had considered for her daughter. He also joined a tiny campus group for students who knew or suspected they were trans men. It was called Brothers, a counterweight to the otherwise ubiquitous message of sisterhood.
That summer, Jesse saw a gender therapist, and early in his sophomore year, he began injecting testosterone into his thigh every two weeks, making him one of the first students to medically transform into a man while at Wellesley. He became the administrator of Brothers. Though he felt supported, he also felt alone; all the other trans men on campus had graduated, and the other students in Brothers were not even sure they identified as men. Outside Brothers, everything at Wellesley was still sisterhood and female empowerment. Nevertheless, he said, “I thought of Wellesley as my home, my community. I felt fine there, like I totally belonged.”
Jesse decided he wanted to have top surgery over winter break, and his parents agreed to pay for it. He returned for spring semester but only briefly, taking a sudden leave of absence to go home and help care for his ill father. When Jesse re-enrolled at Wellesley a year and a half later, in fall 2012, much had changed in Jesse and at school. Having been on testosterone for two years at that point, Jesse no longer looked like a woman trying to pass as a man. His voice was deep. His facial hair was thick, though he kept it trimmed to a stubble. His shoulders had become broad and muscular, his hips narrow, his arms and chest more defined.
Wellesley was different, too. By then, a whole crowd of people identified as trans — enough for two trans groups. Brothers had officially become Siblings and welcomed anyone anywhere on the gender spectrum except those who identified as women. Meanwhile, Jesse and some transmasculine students continued to meet unofficially as Brothers, though Jesse was the only one on testosterone.
Over all, campus life had a stronger trans presence than ever. At least four of the school’s 70 R.A.s did not identify as women. Student organizations increasingly began meetings by asking everyone to state preferred names and pronouns. Around campus, more and more students were replacing “sisterhood” with “siblinghood” in conversation. Even the school’s oldest tradition, Flower Sunday — the 138-year-old ceremony that paired each incoming student with an upper-class Big Sister to support her — had become trans-inclusive. Though the school website still describes Flower Sunday as “a day of sisterhood,” the department that runs the event yielded to trans students’ request and started referring to each participant as a Big or Little “Sister/Sibling” — or simply as Bigs and Littles.
And yet even with the increased visibility of trans students on campus, Jesse stood out. When he swiped his Wellesley ID card to get into friends’ dorms, the groundskeepers would stop him and say, “You can’t go in there without a woman to escort you.” Residential directors who spotted him in the dorm stairwells told him the same thing. In his own dorm, parents who were visiting their daughters would stop him to ask why he was there. Because bathrooms in the dorms are not labeled “women” or “men” but rather “Wellesley only” and “non-Wellesley,” students who didn’t know Jesse would call him out for using the “Wellesley only” bathroom instead of the one for visitors. When he tried to explain he was a Wellesley student, people sometimes thought he was lying.
“Everything felt very different than it had before,” he said of that semester. “I felt so distinctly male, and I felt extremely awkward. I felt like an outsider. My voice was jarring — a male voice, which is so distinct in a classroom of women — so I felt weird saying much in class. I felt much more aware of Wellesley as a women’s place, even though the college was starting to change.”
Once spring semester ended, Jesse withdrew. “I still think of Wellesley as a women’s place, and I still think that’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “It just didn’t encompass me anymore. I felt it was a space I shouldn’t tread in.”
Some female students, meanwhile, said Wellesley wasn’t female enough. They complained among themselves and to the administration that sisterhood had been hijacked. “Siblinghood,” they argued, lacked the warm, pro-women connotation of “sisterhood,” as well as its historic resonance. Others were upset that even at a women’s college, women were still expected to accommodate men, ceding attention and leadership opportunities intended for women. Still others feared the changes were a step toward coeducation. Despite all that, many were uneasy: As a marginalized group fighting for respect and clout, how could women justify marginalizing others?
“I felt for the first time that something so stable about our school was about to change, and it made me scared,” said Beth, a junior that year, who asked to be identified by only her middle name because she was afraid of offending people she knew. “Changing ‘sister’ to ‘sibling’ didn’t feel like it was including more people; it felt like it was taking something away from sisterhood, transforming our safe space for the sake of someone else. At the same time, I felt guilty feeling that way.” Beth went to Kris Niendorf, the director of residential life, who listened sympathetically and then asked: Why does “sibling” take away from your experience? After thinking about it, Beth concluded that she was connected to her classmates not because of gender but because of their shared experiences at Wellesley. “That year was an epiphany for me. I realized that if we excluded trans students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team. We’d be on the wrong side of history.”
Exactly how Wellesley will resolve the trans question is still unclear. Trans students say that aside from making sure every academic building on campus has a unisex bathroom, Wellesley has not addressed what gender fluidity means for Wellesley’s identity. Last spring, Alex Poon won Wellesley’s 131-year-old hoop-rolling race, an annual spirit-building competition among seniors. Alex’s mother was the hoop-rolling champion of the Class of ’82 and had long ago taught her daughters the ways of the hoop, on the assumption that they would one day attend her alma mater. (One of Alex’s older sisters was Wellesley Class of ’11; another went to Bryn Mawr.) Alex was a former Girl Scout who attended an all-girls high school. But unknown to his mother, he was using Google to search for an explanation for his confusing feelings. By the time Alex applied to Wellesley, he secretly knew he was trans but was nonetheless certain Wellesley was a good fit. For one thing, going there was a family tradition; for another, it was a place where gender could be reimagined. In his sophomore year at Wellesley, he went public with his transgender status.
On hoop-rolling day, Alex — wearing a cap backward on his buzz-cut hair — broke through the finish-line streamer. President H. Kim Bottomly took a selfie with him, each with a wide smile. A small local newspaper covered the event, noting that for the first time in the school’s history, the winner was a man. And yet the page on Wellesley’s website devoted to school traditions continues to describe the race as if it involves only women. “Back in the day, it was proclaimed that whoever won the Hoop Roll would be the first to get married. In the status-seeking 1980s, she was the first to be C.E.O. Now we just say that the winner will be the first to achieve happiness and success, whatever that means to her.” But Alex isn’t a her, and he told me that his happiness and success includes being recognized for what he is: a man.
That page is not the only place on the site where Wellesley markets itself as a school of only female students. Elsewhere, it crows that “all the most courageous, most provocative, most accomplished people on campus are women.” The student body, it says, is “2,300 smart, singular women feeling the power of 2,300 smart, singular women together” on a campus where “our common identity, spirit and pride as Wellesley women” are celebrated. Those sorts of messages, trans students say, make them feel invisible.
“I just wish the administration would at least acknowledge our existence,” said Eli Cohen, a Wellesley senior who has been taking testosterone for nearly a year. “I’d be more O.K. with ‘We’re not going to cater to you, because men are catered to everywhere else in life,’ rather than just pretending we don’t exist.”
Some staff and faculty members, however, are acknowledging the trans presence. Women-and-gender-studies professors, and a handful of others, typically begin each semester asking students to indicate the names and pronouns they prefer for themselves. Kris Niendorf, director of campus and residential life, recruits trans students who want to be R.A.s., as she does with all minorities. Niendorf also initiated informational panels with trans students and alums. And before this school year began, at the urging of trans students, Niendorf required all 200 student leaders to attend a trans-sensitivity workshop focused on how to “create a more inclusive Wellesley College.” For the last few years, orientation organizers have also included a trans student as one of the half-dozen upper-class students who stand before the incoming first-years and recount how they overcame a difficult personal challenge.
And yet many trans students feel that more needs to be done. They complain that too many professors assume all their students are women. Students provided numerous examples in courses across subject areas where they’ve been asked their viewpoint “as a woman.” In a course on westerns two years ago, an essay assignment noted that western films and novels were aimed at male audiences and focused on masculinity. The professors asked students for their perspective “as a female reader or watcher” — wording that offended the three trans students in class. When a classmate pointed out the problematic wording to the professors, the instructors asked everyone instead “to explore how your own gender identity changes how you approach westerns.”
At times, professors find themselves walking a fine line. Thomas Cushman, who has taught sociology at Wellesley for the last 25 years, first found out about Wellesley’s trans population five years ago, after a student in one of his courses showed up at Cushman’s office and introduced himself as a trans male. The student pointed out that every example Cushman gave in class referred to women, and every generic pronoun he used was female, as in “Ask your classmate if she. . . . ” He told Cushman that Wellesley could no longer call itself a “women’s college,” given the presence of trans men, and he asked Cushman to use male pronouns and male examples more often, so trans students didn’t feel excluded. Cushman said he would abide by whatever pronoun individual students requested for themselves, but he drew the line at changing his emphasis on women.
“All my life here,” Cushman told me, “I’ve been compelled to use the female pronoun more generously to get away from the sexist ‘he.’ I think it’s important to evoke the idea that women are part of humanity. That should be affirmed, especially after being denied for so long. Look, I teach at a women’s college, so whenever I can make women’s identity central to that experience, I try to do that. Being asked to change that is a bit ironic. I don’t agree that this is a ‘historically’ women’s college. It is still a women’s college.”
On the second day of orientation this fall, Eli Cohen arrived on campus in a muscle T and men’s shorts, with a carabiner full of keys hanging from his belt loop. He was elated to be back to the place that felt most like home. It was the first time in four years that Eli had not been part of orientation — first as a newcomer and then two years as an R.A. We hung out in the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center, known affectionately as Lulu, and watched the excited first-years flutter by, clutching their orientation schedules and their newly purchased Wellesley wear.
Just 12 days earlier, Eli underwent top surgery, which he said gave him a newfound self-assurance in his projection of manhood. It had been nine months since he started testosterone, and the effects had become particularly noticeable over the three-month summer break. His jaw line had begun to square, his limbs to thicken and the hair on his arms and legs to darken. And of course now his chest was a flat wall. As his friends caught sight of him for the first time in months, they hugged him and gushed, “You look sooo good!”
Though Eli secretly suspected in high school that he was a boy, it wasn’t until after he arrived at Wellesley that he could imagine he might one day declare himself a man. By his second year, he had buzz-cut his hair and started wearing men’s clothes. He asked his friends to call him Beckett, which is similar to his female birth name, which he asked me not to mention. His parents live only 14 miles away and dropped by for short visits. He left his girl nameplate on his dorm door. His friends understood that whenever his parents arrived, everyone was to revert to his female name and its attendant pronouns. He was an R.A. at the time and decided not to reveal his male name to his first-year students, figuring it was too complicated to explain which name to use when.
Given how guarded he had to be, being Beckett was exhausting and anxiety-inducing. Demoralized, he eventually told his pals to just use his birth name. The summer after his sophomore year, he got an internship at a Boston health center serving the L.G.B.T. community, and many of his co-workers were trans. Their confidence gave him confidence. When the Wellesley office that coordinates internships sent out an email to all interns that began, “Good morning, ladies . . . ,” he emailed back to say he did not identify as a woman. The coordinator apologized and explained that all the names on her paperwork from Wellesley were female.
By summer’s end, he began introducing himself as Eli, a name utterly unlike his birth name. Eli mustered the courage to tell his parents. It took a little while for his mother to accept that her only daughter was actually a son, but she came around.
When I asked Eli if trans men belonged at Wellesley, he said he felt torn. “I don’t necessarily think we have a right to women’s spaces. But I’m not going to transfer, because this is a place I love, a community I love. I realize that may be a little selfish. It may be a lot selfish.” Where, he wondered, should Wellesley draw a line, if a line should even be drawn? At trans men? At transmasculine students? What about students who are simply questioning their gender? Shouldn’t students be “free to explore” without fearing their decision will make them unwelcome?
Other trans students have struggled with these questions, too. Last December, a transmasculine Wellesley student wrote an anonymous blog post that shook the school’s trans community. The student wrote to apologize for “acting in the interest of preserving a hurtful system of privileging masculinity.” He continued: “My feelings have changed: I do not think that trans men belong at Wellesley. . . . This doesn’t mean that I think that all trans men should be kicked out of Wellesley or necessarily denied admission.” He acknowledged he didn’t know how Wellesley could best address the trans question, but urged fellow transmasculine classmates to “start talking, and thinking critically, about the space that we are given and occupying, and the space that we are taking from women.”
The reactions were swift and strong. “A lot of trans people on campus felt emotionally unsafe,” recalled Timothy, a sophomore that year. “A place that seemed welcoming suddenly wasn’t. The difficulty was that because it was a trans person saying it, people who don’t have enough of an understanding to appreciate the nuance of this can say, ‘Well, even a trans person says there shouldn’t be trans people at Wellesley, so it’s O.K. for me to think the same thing, too.’ ”
Students and alums — queer and straight, trans and not — weighed in, sometimes in agreement but other times in anger. Some accused the blogger of speaking on behalf of women as if they were unable to speak for themselves. Others accused him of betraying transmasculine students. (He declined to comment for this article.) But other students, including several transmasculine ones, were glad he had the courage to start a public discussion about Wellesley’s deeply conflicted identity. “It’s a very important conversation to have,” Eli said. “Why can’t we have this conversation without feeling hurt or hated?”
In some ways, students are already having that conversation, though perhaps indirectly. Timothy ended up easily winning his seat on the student government last spring, capturing two-thirds of the votes. Given that 85 percent of the student body cast ballots in that race, his victory suggests most students think that transmasculine students — and transmasculine leaders — belong at Wellesley.
Another difficult conversation about trans students touches on the disproportionate attention they receive on campus. “The female-identified students somehow place more value on those students,” said Rose Layton, a lesbian who said she views trans students as competitors in the campus dating scene. “They flirt with them, hook up with them. And it’s not just the hetero women, but even people in the queer community. The trans men are always getting this extra bit of acknowledgment. Even though we’re in a women’s college, the fact is men and masculinity get more attention and more value in this social dynamic than women do.”
Jesse Austin noticed the paradox when he returned to campus with a man’s build and full swath of beard stubble after nearly two years on testosterone. “That was the first time in my life I was popular! People were clamoring to date me.”
Trans bodies are seen as an in-between option, Timothy said. “So no matter your sexuality, a trans person becomes safe to flirt with, to explore with. But it’s not really the person you’re interested in, it’s the novelty. For lesbians, there’s the safety of ‘I may be attracted to this person, but they’re “really” a woman, so I’m not actually bi or straight.’ And for straight people, it’s ‘I may be attracted to a woman’s body, but he’s a male, so I’m not really lesbian or bi.’ ”
Kaden Mohamed said he felt downright objectified when he returned from summer break last year, after five months of testosterone had lowered his voice, defined his arm muscles and reshaped his torso. It was attention that he had never experienced before he transitioned. But as his body changed, students he didn’t even know would run their hands over his biceps. Once at the school pub, an intoxicated Wellesley woman even grabbed his crotch and that of another trans man.
“It’s this very bizarre reversal of what happens in the real world,” Kaden said. “In the real world, it’s women who get fetishized, catcalled, sexually harassed, grabbed. At Wellesley, it’s trans men who do. If I were to go up to someone I just met and touch her body, I’d get grief from the entire Wellesley community, because they’d say it’s assault — and it is. But for some reason, when it’s done to trans men here, it doesn’t get read the same way. It’s like a free pass, that suddenly it’s O.K. to talk about or touch someone’s body as long as they’re not a woman.”
While trans men are allowed at most women’s colleges if they identify as female when applying, trans women — people raised male who go on to identify as women — have found it nearly impossible to get through the campus gates. Arguably, a trans woman’s identity is more compatible with a women’s college than a trans man’s is. But most women’s colleges require that all of an applicant’s documentation indicate the candidate is female. That’s a high bar for a 17- or 18-year-old born and raised male, given that so few come out as trans in high school. (Admissions policies at private undergraduate schools are exempt from Title IX, which bans gender discrimination at schools receiving federal funds.) Two years ago, Calliope Wong, a high-school trans woman from Connecticut, applied to Smith College, but her application was returned because her federal aid form indicated she was male. She posted the rejection letter online, catalyzing a storm on the Internet and student rallies at Smith. Smith eventually agreed to require that the applicant be referred to as female only in the transcript and recommendation letters, but not on financial-aid documents; by then, however, Wong had decided to attend the University of Connecticut.
For its part, Wellesley has never admitted a trans woman, at least not knowingly. Many Wellesley students, including some who are uncomfortable having trans men on campus, say that academically eligible trans women should be admitted, regardless of the gender on their application documents.
Others are wary of opening Wellesley’s doors too quickly — including one of Wellesley’s trans men, who asked not to be named because he knew how unpopular his stance would be. He said that Wellesley should accept only trans women who have begun sex-changing medical treatment or have legally changed their names or sex on their driver’s licenses or birth certificates. “I know that’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old just applying to college,” he said, “but at the same time, Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women. What if someone who is male-bodied comes here genuinely identified as female, and then decides after a year or two that they identify as male — and wants to stay at Wellesley? How’s that different from admitting a biological male who identifies as a man? Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it’s like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women.”
In May, Mills College became the first women’s college to broaden its admissions policy to include self-identified trans women, even those who haven’t legally or medically transitioned and even if their transcripts or recommendation letters refer to them as male. The new policy, which begins by affirming Mills’s commitment to remaining a women’s college, also welcomes biological females who identify anywhere on the gender spectrum, as long as they haven’t become legally male. The change grew out of two years of study by a committee of faculty and staff, which noted that Mills has always fought gender-based oppression and concluded, “Trans inclusiveness represents not an erasure but an updating of this mission.”
Mills also aims to educate students, staff and faculty members to be more trans inclusive, said Brian O’Rourke, who oversees enrollment at the college and was the president’s liaison to the committee. I asked O’Rourke if that included reducing the focus on women in the classroom. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “We had a national speaker on trans issues join us on campus about a year ago, and one of the things she suggested is that we stop referring to Mills as a women’s college, because that concept is exclusionary. In the auditorium, there was an audible gasp. We’ve had a lot of conversations about how to stress women’s leadership and women’s empowerment and at the same time, include people who may not identify as women. The answer is: We don’t know yet.”
Last month, Mount Holyoke College announced a more far-reaching policy: It would admit all academically qualified students regardless of their anatomy or self-proclaimed gender, except for those biologically male at birth who still identify as male. In a list that reflects just how much traditional notions of gender have been upended, Mount Holyoke said eligible candidates now include anyone born biologically female, whether identified as woman, man, neither or “other” and anyone born biologically male who identifies as a woman or “other.” The school president, Lynn Pasquerella, said she and her officers made the decision after concluding it was an issue of civil rights.
But Pasquerella said accommodations for trans students will not include changing the school’s mission. “We’re first and foremost committed to being a women’s college,” she told me. “I’m not going to stop using the language of sisterhood.” She mentioned she taught a class in critical race theory two years ago and told her students, “When I use the term ‘sisterhood,’ I’m using it in a way that acknowledges the fact that not everybody here identifies as a woman. It is a rhetorical device . . . , but it is not intended to exclude anybody.”
I said her explanation seemed like the one for using “he” as a generic pronoun for a male or female. She offered a different analogy, noting the parallel between women’s colleges and historically black colleges and universities. “Isn’t it still legitimate to speak of being a community of color even if you have half a dozen students who aren’t individuals of color?” she asked. “The same might be said about women’s colleges. Our mission was built upon education for women, and while we recognize that not everyone identifies this way, this is who we are and how we talk about things.”
Meanwhile, Wellesley continues to struggle with its own identity. In August, Debra DeMeis, the dean of students, told me the administration had not yet worked out how to be a women’s college at a time when gender is no longer considered binary. President H. Kim Bottomly and Jennifer C. Desjarlais, the dean of admissions, declined to talk to me. But a few days after Mount Holyoke’s announcement, Bottomly released a statement saying that Wellesley would begin to think about how to address the trans question.
On the last Friday in May, some 5,000 parents, alumnae and soon-to-be graduates streamed onto the rolling field near Severance Hall, named after Elisabeth Severance, a generous 1887 alumna. It was a gorgeous, temperate morning for Wellesley’s 136th annual commencement, and once the last baccalaureate degree was conferred, the audience was asked to stand. As is the school’s tradition, two graduates led an uplifting rendition of “America, the Beautiful.” The lyrics, for those who needed them, were printed in the commencement program, including the chorus: “And crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!”
Those words were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an 1880 graduate of Wellesley who defied the expectations of her gender, and not just by becoming a professor, published author and famous poet. A pastor’s daughter, she never married, living instead for 25 years with Katharine Coman, founder of Wellesley’s economics department, with whom she was deeply in love. When a colleague described “free-flying spinsters” as a “fringe on the garment of life,” Bates, then 53, answered: “I always thought the fringe had the best of it.”
As parents, professors and graduates joined in the singing of Bates’s most famous poem, many felt an intense pride in their connection to the graduates and this remarkable college, which has sent forth so many women who leave impressive marks on the world. As the hundreds of voices rounded the curve on “And crown thy good with . . . ,” the unknowing parents continued to “brotherhood,” the word that was always supposed to stand in for women too, but never really did. Wellesley women long ago learned that words matter, and for decades, this has been the point in the song when their harmonious choral singing abruptly becomes a bellow as they belt out “sisterhood,” drowning out the word that long excluded them and replacing it with a demand for recognition. It’s one of the most powerful moments of commencement, followed every year by cheers, applause and tears, evoked by the rush of solidarity with women throughout time, and the thrill of claiming in one of the nation’s most famous songs that women matter — even if the world they’re about to enter doesn’t always agree.
In the last few years, a handful of graduates have changed that word once again, having decided that “sisterhood,” no matter how well intended, is exclusionary, and so they instead call out “siblinghood.” A few trans men find even that insufficient, and in that instant, they roar the word that represents them best: “brotherhood,” not as a sexist stand-in for all humankind, but as an appeal from a tiny minority struggling to be acknowledged.
In truth, it’s difficult to distinguish in the cacophony each of the words shouted atop one another. What is clear is that whatever word each person is hollering is immensely significant as a proclamation of existence, even if it’s hard to make out what anyone else is saying.
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