Trans Woman Denied Admission to Smith College: Why “Just Checking Female” is More Complicated Than it Sounds
March 24, 2013
About six months ago, I wrote a piece about my friend Calliope Wong’s attempt to apply to Smith College as a trans woman. At her request, I’m here to present the conclusion to her story.
Calliope announced in a March 10th post on her blog that Smith had returned her application for the second and final time. The first time, her application and fee were returned due to a “male” gender marker on her transcript. Calliope and her guidance counselor, despite some confusion, finally managed to correct the error and sent the application materials back to Smith. On March 5th, her application was once again mailed back to her. Debra Shaver, Dean of Admissions at Smith, told Calliope that the “male” marker on her FAFSA forms rendered her ineligible for consideration.
Observing this “technicality” a bit more closely, two important problems come to light. First of all, using an applicant’s FAFSA information as a determining factor in their eligibility for admission presents an inherent classist bias. Secondly, the Department of Education does not cross-reference the FAFSA gender marker with what is written on one’s current Social Security card or other federal documents. Members of Smith Q&A, a group working for trans woman inclusion at Smith, contacted Jon O’Bergh, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of the US Department of Education. O’Bergh referred them to Cameron Washington, the Web Usability Specialist at FAFSA. Both O’Bergh and Washington emphasized that the gender marker on the FAFSA is used to make sure those who mark “male” sign up for the Selective Service before receiving federal aid. The US Department of Education does not in any way track, check, or cross reference the gender students mark on the FAFSA. Therefore, a women’s college which chooses to accept an applicant whose FAFSA gender marker reads “male” faces no legal federal consequences whatsoever.
FAFSA forms aside, even if Calliope had not needed or requested financial aid, would she have been eligible for admission? Quite frankly, probably not. If this had been the case, the admissions office could have found myriad other reasons not to admit her. In fact, they never needed a reason at all: private colleges can deny admission to anyone without justifying their decision. Dean Shaver’s decision to deny Calliope the right to have her application read at all therefore communicates a clear and deliberate message to the school’s applicants, current students, and alumni.
Calliope is not the only trans woman to have applied to Smith in recent years with unfavorable results. Bryn Kelly, a former applicant to Smith’s Ada Comstock program for non-traditional students, replied to Calliope’s tumblr post with her own story. In 2010, Kelly applied to Smith with an excellent community college GPA, an impressive reputation as an up-and-coming performing artist, and glowing recommendations. She had all her gender markers in order, including those on her FAFSA, except one: her high school transcript, which was impossible to change. Kelly had a friend in the admissions office who advocated for her, resulting in the admissions officers “allowing” her application to be read and processed despite the inconsistency in gender. She was not admitted. Again, since private colleges are not legally obligated to accept anyone, we cannot definitively say that it was because she was trans. She writes, “Certainly my rejection letter contained that old soft blow, ‘we received so many qualified applicants this year…’ and I’m sure they did. But given that I have never heard of an out trans woman being accepted at Smith, I have to wonder.”
The Smith College administration has not directly commented on or responded to the vast amounts of criticism they have received for refusing to read Calliope’s application. However, on March 22nd, Smith updated its “Gender Identity & Expression” page with new information regarding the institutional policy on trans applicants. In response to the question, “How does Smith consider applicants from transgender students?” the page repeats what Dean Shaver told Calliope in their previous correspondence: “An application from a transgender student is treated no differently from other applications: every application Smith receives is considered on a case-by-case basis. Like most women’s colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman.” The next question on the page asks, “What documents are part of Smith’s admission process?” The response lists the standard Common Application, transcript, midyear report, and recommendations. Noticeably absent from the list is the FAFSA or any documents not directly related to admission. Thus, according to the policy on Smith’s website, Calliope’s application should have been eligible for review.
By refusing to comment on the incident, it remains ambiguous whether Smith College acknowledges that discriminating against Calliope based on her FAFSA gender marker was a mistake. It is possible that this recent website update functions as Smith’s subtle adjustment of its policies in order to refrain from public apology. However, this policy “adjustment” merely allows the administration to keep its trans admission policy opaque and veiled from outside criticism. It is important to note that even if Smith were to cease discriminating against applicants with male gender markers on their FAFSA, its policy is still far too rigid to be amenable to many teenage trans women. Acquiring consistently “female” transcripts and recommendations requires the applicant to have the full support and understanding of her school administration, making it easy for Smith to continue to return applications based on bureaucratic error. This need for the high school administration’s support automatically restricts the access of applicants who would most benefit from a women’s college environment, barring the entry of those who might have attended high schools insensitive to their identification. A more understanding policy would allow mismatching documentation if accompanied by an appropriate letter from a doctor or therapist, much in the manner of the policy of the State of Massachusetts in order to change gender markers on state identification.
Ironically, Smith College’s inhospitality toward trans women ultimately threatens, rather than upholds, their institutional image as a women’s college. As Katherine Kraschel states in her article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, an educational institution may retain its single-sex status only if it can prove that it is helping to achieve a civil rights objective. Trans women in particular are excluded from women-only and men-only spaces based on their gender identity and/or genitalia. Excluding trans women from women’s colleges continues the institutional oppression and marginalization of people based on their gender identity. This therefore places Smith’s admissions policy in direct conflict with the trans rights movement and with its “civic-minded,” “empowering” image as a whole.
It’s also important to note that while Smith has yet to admit an out trans woman, it and other women’s colleges are rapidly becoming known as safe havens for trans men. The “Gender Identity & Expression” page on the Smith College website notes, “Once admitted, any student who completes the college’s graduation requirements — regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation — will be awarded a Smith degree.” This means that a trans man whose documents still read “female” can easily apply for admission and transition while at Smith without being asked to leave or refused a Smith degree. Because of this policy, trans men are a small but conspicuous minority at Smith, and have been for some time. Many students feel that women’s colleges are, or could be, safe havens for anyone marginalized or oppressed by their gender identity. However, the administration’s ongoing refusal to admit anyone who was not assigned female at birth continually denies these marginalized groups a safe space.
Ultimately, Smith College’s actions fail to acknowledge that civil rights discourses in the 21st century have become much more fluid and inclusive than in previous decades, especially as more and more people begin to discount the gender binary. On its “History” page, the College describes its overarching goals and interests as, “an uncompromising defense of academic and intellectual freedom, an attention to the relation between college education and the larger public issues of world order and human dignity, and a concern for the rights and privileges of women.” In order for Smith to continue to fulfill its stated mission, it must adjust its policies to reflect the changing discourse surrounding gender and sexuality by admitting both trans men and trans women. By deliberately excluding an entire marginalized group from admission, the college silences them and diminishes the importance of their fight to access women’s spaces. If Smith and other women’s colleges wish to continue to move discussion of gender identity and equality forward, they must acknowledge that the process underpinning an applicant’s gender identification is more complicated than “just checking female.”
Whether or not they decide to pursue legal action, it is up to Smith students to respond to their administration’s blatant transmisogyny. The group Smith Q&A is currently mobilizing to fight on Calliope’s behalf. On March 13th, the group held a meeting open to all Smith students intended to clarify the week’s events and launch an awareness campaign. The group’s further plans are not known at this time, although an update on their Facebook page stated that the group “will be organizing more specifically next week [March 24-30].” Q&A can be reached on Facebook and Tumblr. Have something to say? To contact Dean Shaver, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call [413-585-2500].
Sarah Giovanniello is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.