Broad Recognition


“Just Check ‘Female’”: Trans Women and Smith College Admissions

On one hot August night this summer, one of my best friends, Calliope Wong, called me up to ask if I could help her apply to college. I gave her some standard advice (which mostly consisted of “Please don’t be like me. Don’t save all your Regular Decision applications for Christmas break. No, seriously. Don’t do that.”) and assigned her some tasks to do over the coming week. Then she threw me a curveball. “I’ve been looking into women’s colleges. I want to apply to Smith,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, do your other applications first, and then maybe you can try and apply. You don’t want to waste your time on something that will probably be fruitless.” She sighed and we changed the subject.

A few nights later we were talking on the phone, and she brought up Smith again. “If you were cis, or even legally female, they would love you,” I said to her.  “Well, that’s not fair! I want a fair shot!” she insisted. And so it began.

Calliope started a Tumblr in the hopes of attracting some attention and support. After a friend posted the link on the Smith Class of 2016 Facebook group, the support came rushing in; within days Calliope made the Smith LGBTQ Alumni listserv and she received scores of messages wishing her luck. As is to be expected, though, along with the positive feedback came the problems.

Smith College is a small private liberal arts college in Northampton, MA, the city with the highest number of lesbian couples in the nation. Although the school began as a place where wealthy, straight, white women went to find husbands (as dictated the societal expectations of the era), for the past few generations the school has enjoyed a reputation for producing fearless female leaders of all stripes. With a student body whose queer population at least equals and probably surpasses Yale’s approximate 20% (estimates for Smith range from 20-35% of the student body), Smith’s environment is extremely supportive of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

However, the administration is significantly more conservative than the student body and recent alumni. For example, in April 2011, the Director of Admissions refused to let Jake, a Smith student and trans man, host an admitted student overnight at Smith Open Campus. Although Jake proposed that he contact the student ahead of time to make sure she was comfortable staying with him, the administration would not consider his solution. Jake explained that the administration’s decision seemed to be more concerned with how Smith appears to outsiders than with the experiences of enrolled students: “It was insinuated that the real reason I was ‘inappropriate’ was not about a male and a female sharing a room. It was about maintaining Smith’s pristine image as a pearls and sweater sets kind of place…If I were to host the daughter of an alumnae [sic] or a donor, admissions was concerned about potential backlash.” The administration announced a permanent policy barring male-identified students from hosting overnights the following November, and although there was much resistance to this change from the student body, the policy was never successfully challenged.

In Calliope’s case, one of the biggest issues was simply locating and understanding the college’s policy, or rather lack of policy, on admitting trans women. Jake was admitted to the college when he was both legally female and female-identified, and transitioned while at Smith. The only mention of gender identity on the college’s website is disappointingly vague: “As a women’s college, Smith only considers female applicants for undergraduate admission…Once admitted, any student who completes the college’s graduation requirements will be awarded a degree.” Calliope interpreted this to mean, based on both the website and what she had heard, that the only trans women who could possibly be considered for admission had to have already changed the markers on all legal documents used for identification from “male” to “female.”

As Calliope eloquently explains on her blog, doing this is nearly impossible for a seventeen or eighteen year old trans woman. Changing one’s name, and the gender on one’s passport and driver’s license, can be done with relative ease in Connecticut (Calliope’s home state) and Massachusetts. Name changes are granted fairly freely, and gender changes require a letter of recommendation from a health care provider such as a psychologist or gender therapist attesting to the applicant’s current enrollment in a program that meets the WPATH Standards of Care, a set of guidelines outlining therapy for individuals planning to transition. Though obstacles themselves, requiring, for example, supportive parents and a great deal of time, such changes are far from impossible. However, changing the legal sex on one’s birth certificate is a different story: in both states, sex-reassignment surgery (i.e., genital surgery) is a prerequisite for the change. On her blog, Calliope explains why this presents such an obstacle:

“-transwomen are most likely not ready for surgery at 17 or 18, the typical age of a college applicant. It’s a monumental personal decision that usually arises from years of introspection and deliberation.

-transwomen may not even feel the need for genital surgery. Some transwomen do not experience extreme dysphoria about the state of their genitalia, and opt not to undergo vaginoplasty.

-genital surgery is notoriously expensive (several tens of thousands of dollars, easily), and many transwomen cannot afford to pay for vaginoplasty at this point in their lives.”

Calliope went on to propose that a more reasonable approach would be for Smith to accept a letter of recommendation from a psychologist or gender therapist, similar to that necessary for changing a passport or drivers’ license, as “proof” of applicants’ gender identity.

After the responses to Calliope’s initial post started to come in, however, she received conflicting reports on the exact meaning of “female applicants.” Mac Hamilton, the Smith Student Government Association Diversity Chair, posted a response clarifying the policy as she understood it after talking to the college’s Dean, Maureen Mahoney:

“Smith does not ask for verification that applicants are female—no birth certificate, no passport, etc. You just must check the ‘female’ box on the Common Application. The only time admissions would ask about the sex of the applicant would be if there was an inconsistent use of pronouns throughout the application, including in reference letters.”

When contacted by Calliope, Dean of Admissions Debra Shaver confirmed this, stating that all applicants to Smith must consistently show on their applications that they identify as female. The gender and pronouns on all documents they submit to the college must be female, she explained, but the college does not require official “proof” of the applicant’s femaleness, i.e. a birth certificate, passport, or drivers’ license.

The guidelines set forth by Hamilton and Shaver seemed much easier for a teenage trans woman to accomplish than what Calliope originally thought, though obviously they still require a lot of support from the authority figures in an applicant’s life. However, even this supposed clarification created confusion: in order for a trans woman to be considered for admission to Smith College, she must check the “female” option on the Common Application, regardless of whether her legal sex is female at the time of application. This is directly in conflict with the official advice in regards to this matter given on the Common Application website:

“How should I answer the sex question? Federal guidelines mandate that we collect data on the legal sex of all applicants. Please report the sex currently listed on your birth certificate. If you wish to provide more details regarding your sex or gender identity, you are welcome to do so in the Additional Information section.”

A trans woman who was in doubt about how to mark her sex on the Common Application would likely follow the official advice, to avoid any consequences that would come of disobeying it. Yet doing so would disqualify her from admission to Smith College.

Finally, after Calliope’s persistent questioning, Shaver resolved the apparent contradiction in a follow-up email. She explained that she had looked into the Common App regulations and found that applicants are not required by federal law to check off the sex on their birth certificates. The advice provided online is intended to help guide students who are confused about what to do, and is in no way a mandate. She instructed Calliope to submit her applications to women’s colleges with the “female” box checked, either by creating alternate versions of the Common App, sending the women’s college applications by mail, or simply checking “female” for all the schools to which she applies. She also encouraged her to explain her situation in the Additional Information section.  Without contacting Shaver and explicitly asking her, Calliope would not have had access to this information.

Over the course of Calliope’s struggle, a number of readers of Calliope’s Tumblr suggested that Smith’s hands were tied:  that Smith could not accept applicants who were still legally male (or create an official written policy on doing so) because this would violate Title IX and therefore jeopardize its government funding, status as a single-sex school, or both.  Luckily for Calliope, Katherine Kraschel, graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Law School, thinks otherwise. In a 24-page note to the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Kraschel debunks the assertions that Title IX can be used to defend the exclusion of transgender applicants from single-sex institutions, and that the admission of a transgender individual would force the school to become co-educational. Kraschel begins by noting that although the original 1970s language of Title IX relies heavily on a strict gender binary, contemporary interpretations of Title IX and the related* Title VII, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have expanded them to include gender as well as sex, and to protect gender nonconforming individuals (as seen in Smith v. City of Salem and Schwenk v. Hartford).

She goes on to explain, the Supreme Court has declared that single-sex schools must directly serve an “important governmental objective,” in this case ending gender discrimination, in order to justify discrimination/sex-based affirmative action. Kraschel puts forth Darwinder Sidhu’s argument that based upon previous cases such as United States v. Virginia and Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, in order for a private single-sex women’s college to justify single-sex discrimination it must adhere to five conditions:  “(1) they must not perpetuate archaic gender stereotypes; (2) they must intentionally and directly assist a disadvantaged gender in a manner related to that disadvantage; (3) enrollment in the single-sex affirmative action program must be completely voluntary; (4) the single-sex affirmative action program must not include members of the non-disadvantaged gender; and (5) the single-sex affirmative action program must last no longer than the discriminatory conditions.” Because Title IX’s “based on sex” clause includes gender and protects gender-nonconforming individuals, transgender individuals fall under the umbrella of “disadvantaged gender,” and therefore their presence at a women’s college would not and does not cause the college to fail to adhere to the fourth condition. Indeed, Kraschel asserts, the inclusion of transgender individuals would not result in failure to adhere to any of the five conditions presented.

Overall, it took Calliope Wong an entire week, almost 600 notes on tumblr, some legal research, and several email exchanges with the administration of Smith College to even figure out if it would be possible for her to apply. What was supposed to be a fight for a major policy change turned out to be a struggle for clear instructions. While it turns out that, in fact, Smith does indeed admit trans women, the college made this policy so inaccessible and unclear to potential trans woman applicants that it very well may have turned many of them away. Perhaps this is an attempt by the college to have the “best of both worlds”— remaining “inclusive” while avoiding all of the problems involved with actually enrolling trans women. That way, Smith doesn’t need to explain their presence to its more conservative older alumnae (those who are the biggest donors). It would be wise of Smith to consider stating a clear admission policy for trans women on their website, or in some other easily located place.  The inaccessibility of this information is disappointing from an institution that claims to be inclusive and create strong leaders in the face of gender discrimination.

* “On the basis of sex” in Title IX has been interpreted by the courts as equal to “because of sex” in Title VII, and therefore interpretations of one clause apply to the other.

Sarah Giovanniello is a freshman in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

Comments (23)

  • Very well written. Hopefully buzz like this brings about the change needed in the 21st century college process.

    posted by Jul      August 30th, 2012 at 12:38 am

  • FYI I believe the trans* masculine student who was asked not to host prospective students overnight in 2011 has asked that people not use his name in articles about that incident.

    posted by thecommonwoman      August 31st, 2012 at 4:17 pm

  • I would like to second the comment below by thecommonwoman- the student who was barred from hosting potential students does not want his name used.

    posted by R      September 13th, 2012 at 7:54 pm

  • As a student and recent graduate of Smith College, we find this article to be ill-informed with shoddy logic. First, it is a common misconception that Smith was a college where “wealthy, straight, white women went to find husbands.” The first generations of Smithies were primarily the daughters of middle-class New England merchants and tradesmen; many decades passed before the nation’s superficial and repressive gender roles permeated the college. Smith was also founded on the principle that the college’s course offerings be comparable to those of the (still all-male) Ivy league schools. In short, although an earlier demographic of Smithies may have been more focused on marriage as a result of the eras in which they lived, the college was founded with the mission of providing women with quality educations, not Mrs. degrees.

    Your characterization of Smith College administration and older alumnae as “conservative” is equally unfounded, based on stereotypes and misconceptions rather than fact. You cite nothing—not even the meager anecdotal evidence provided to support your other claims—that justifies labeling our administration and alumnae in such a way. Different eras dictate different standards, but Smith has always been a progressive women’s college; this extends to our alumnae and administration as well as our current student body.

    Additionally, you imply that Smith College has a high number of lesbians based off of data referring specifically to the city of Northampton. The college has never and does not intend to carry out an official study to this effect, because the sexual preferences of our student body are irrelevant to our standing as a prestigious academic institution. Would it be fair for us to conclude that Yale has a high crime rate based on statistics referring specifically to New Haven?

    Finally, if you did not receive explicit permission to use the name of the student who was unable to host a prospective student in 2011, then it is highly inappropriate that his privacy has been breached. The quotation you cite from this student comes from a Sophian opinion piece, not from a conversation or interview conducted specifically for your article.

    Calliope should have contacted Smith’s administration directly before painting herself as a victim of their supposed discriminatory policies. Your article seems more an attempt to maintain Calliope’s status as a victim than to illuminate any real problems on the part of Smith College. Furthermore, writing a handful of emails to obtain information about an exceptional case can hardly be called a “struggle.” We guarantee the coursework here will prove to be a much greater challenge.

    This being said, we do encourage Calliope to apply to Smith College. We also encourage you to check your facts, learn to support claims with valid evidence, and brush up on the ethics of journalism before writing your next article.

    -Victoria Henry and Jessie Daubner

    posted by Victoria Henry and Jessie Daubner      September 21st, 2012 at 6:25 pm

  • ^^missing the point of the article.

    posted by Jul      September 25th, 2012 at 1:30 am

  • To all those concerned: A personal friend of the male Smith student contacted us via e-mail soon after the article was published asking us to remove his last name, which we did. If we receive another communication from that friend or the student himself, we will happily remove his first name as well. Thanks for standing up for his right to privacy, though; it’s important, and we realize we made an error in publishing his last name.

    posted by Sarah Giovanniello      September 25th, 2012 at 1:35 am

  • As an older graduate of Smith, I am very troubled by the college’s seeming inability to move beyond what I guess more up-to-odate theory folks would call gender essentialism (forgive me, if I’m not using the correct term).

    I agree that the admissions policy — whatever it is — needs to be transparent. If the college is actually going to admit trans women (which it does apparently — an act I applaud and support), then the guidelines need to be made manifest. As things stand, I see the college forcing members of an extremely marginalized and erased group to jump through complicated hoops in a kafkaesque exercise to merely _try_ to find out what they must do to even apply for admission into what is — still — a very privileged educational space.

    Thank you for this article!

    . It’s a strange place, as the article explains — one one hand a haven for LGB women of a certain class (with admittedly, some concern with women of color), but on the other hand, still

    posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer      October 9th, 2012 at 5:27 pm

  • As someone who lived in the five college area for a year, and dealt with Smith-ites, Victoria Henry and Jessie Daubner clearly missed the point of the article and revel in their privilege that yes, the five college area caters to straight, cis white people. And, also, queer cis white people who aren’t trans*

    Seriously, I’ve seen enough white people in dreadlocks in that area of the state than I need to see in a lifetime.

    posted by Dan      October 10th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

  • just a note, smith is a women’s college. it has alumnae. not alumni

    posted by Smithies      January 25th, 2013 at 7:29 am

  • Victoria and Jessie – This is an article in a student magazine written by a freshman. Get over yourselves.

    posted by Jon      March 20th, 2013 at 10:02 pm

  • [...] Wong’s box for Yale’s feminist repository Broad Recognition. She wrote in Aug that Smith’s transgender entrance routine seemed unnecessarily confusing. “Perhaps,” Giovanniello wrote, “this is an try by a college to have a [...]

    posted by Smith College Rejects Female Transgender Student Calliope Wong; Applicant … | Pack for College      March 21st, 2013 at 9:51 pm

  • [...] Wong’s case for Yale’s feminist magazine Broad Recognition. She wrote in August that Smith’s transgender admittance policy seemed unnecessarily confusing. “Perhaps,” Giovanniello wrote, “this is an attempt by the college to have the [...]

    posted by Smith College Rejects Female Transgender Student Calliope Wong; Applicant … – Huffington Post | LGBT Indonesia      March 21st, 2013 at 10:12 pm

  • [...] Wong’s box for Yale’s feminist repository Broad Recognition. She wrote in Aug that Smith’s transgender entrance routine seemed unnecessarily confusing. “Perhaps,” Giovanniello wrote, “this is an try by a college to have a [...]

    posted by Smith College Rejects Female Transgender Student Calliope Wong; Applicant … | Education Guide      March 21st, 2013 at 11:16 pm

  • [...] Wong’s case for Yale’s feminist magazine Broad Recognition. She wrote in August that Smith’s transgender admittance policy seemed unnecessarily confusing. “Perhaps,” Giovanniello wrote, “this is an attempt by the college to have the [...]

    posted by Smith college transgender confusion « Worlding      March 22nd, 2013 at 7:05 am

  • [...] situation reflects the tension between the past and present generations of Smithies. Although Smith College was once a place for privileged, white, straight women to find [...]

    posted by Smith Women's College Rejects Transgender Woman | HEAVY      March 22nd, 2013 at 5:45 pm

  • [...] decision), she’s also had extensive coverage of her story by the feminist magazine at Yale, Broad Recognition. Wong has also found a huge boost of support both online, through Facebook pages like Smith [...]

    posted by Transgender Woman Rejected from Smith is Just the Latest Tale of ...      March 23rd, 2013 at 2:05 pm

  • [...] You can read more about Callipone’s application experience, Smith’s policy, and more in this article.Written by Georgianna Dolan-Reilly, LMSW SJS Staff Writer GD Star Ratingloading…GD Star [...]

    posted by Smith College Denies Female Transgender Student • Social Justice Solutions      March 23rd, 2013 at 4:19 pm

  • [...] Smith. You could do better. If you want to be inclusive of trans people, and not just trans men, then you n… Share [...]

    posted by Really, Smith? – en|Gender      March 23rd, 2013 at 5:16 pm

  • A note in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender is by no means a legal authority. It is written by a non-lawyer under the supervision of other law students. It is the legal equivalent of a term paper. This note has been cited a total of zero times, rendering is no more dispositive than any other opinion with fancy citations. Kraschel hardly “debunks” any assertions, rather she relies on conjecture via an interpretation of someone else’s (Sidhu’s) interpretation of a series of cases pertaining to public, not private, single-sexed institutions. The point being that the answers to these issues hardly rest in established case law. To suggest otherwise is shoddy journalism.

    posted by Lis      March 25th, 2013 at 6:01 am

  • [...] her situation in the Additional Information section of the application. Yet on March 10, Smith returned Wong’s application unconsidered, citing her gender as the [...]

    posted by Smith’s Unsisterly Move | Bear Market Investments      April 4th, 2013 at 4:17 pm

  • [...] her situation in the Additional Information section of the application. Yet on March 10, Smith returned Wong’s application unconsidered, citing her gender as the reason. The SocialLike this:Like [...]

    posted by From The Prospect: Smith’s Unsisterly Move @Jaclyn Friedman April 4, 2013 | BEN QUICK: Author, Son of Viet Nam Veteran, Father of Part-Time Indian      April 7th, 2013 at 12:48 am

  • [...] thing, though: many of these women’s colleges are perfectly all right with the presence of transitioning trans men on their campus. So we’re talking about institutions that exclude an entire class of women, [...]

    posted by The Ranting Fangirl: Women’s Space. Some Restrictions May Apply. | Diary of a Random Fangirl      May 24th, 2013 at 7:54 am

  • This is important: “Calliope explains…transwomen are most likely not ready for surgery at 17 or 18, the typical age of a college applicant. It’s a monumental personal decision that usually arises from years of introspection and deliberation.”

    One is still a minor until at least age 18. Surgery and hormone replacement treatment, prior to and after surgery, is not a minor matter. I doubt that any medical providers, would allow the lengthy series of psychological, pharma-related and surgical procedures for sex reassignment therapy on a child. That is what would be necessary in order for Calliope to apply for admission and attend Smith College at age 17 or 18.

    The author of the article (not Calliope, but the Yale freshman who wrote this) diminishes the persuasiveness of her point with multiple and inconsistent criticisms of Smith College administration and alumnae. Smith has not been a “pearls and sweater sets kind of place” in a very long time.

    “Estimates for Smith range from 20-35% of the student body” as not heterosexual. The author claims that
    “Smith’s environment is extremely supportive of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations” yet
    “the administration is significantly more conservative than the student body and recent alumni.”
    I doubt that. Who makes decisions about admissions and sets the character of Smith College, with decisions about curricula, faculty choice, school organizations? The administration does.Smith was not conservative 25 years ago, and it isn’t now. Recent alumni are no more conservative than current students.

    It is also illogical to claim that Smith College is hesitant to enroll trans women due to adverse consequences to its endowment as a result of “explaining their presence to its more conservative older alumnae, those who are the biggest donors.”

    Alumnae, even the “older” ones, age 60 – 75, would have attended Smith between 1960 and 1975. That was during the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, ERA proposal etc. Don’t represent Smith College as a reactionary, narrow minded school, driven by deceptive monetary solicitation practices.

    posted by Ellie Kesselman      September 26th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

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