August 29, 2012
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.