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Challenging the Existence of Women’s College Through Transgender

Challenging the Existence of Women’s Colleges Through Transgender

About three years ago, I sat around my circle of friends who had then morphed into strangers with personalities that substantially differed from those they embodied in high school. I had brought along my roommate as a comfort blanket, if anything I would have someone there who knew my phone number by heart. All of us went around the table consecutively iterating our college experiences until I was last. Nora asked me, “You go to an all-girls’ school, right?” I took a breath to answer but my roommate chimed in first stating, “Yeah, but you’d never tell by some of the looks on campus.” The conversation of course then steered toward the “lesbian aspect” of Bryn Mawr College with most of the strangers asking crude questions, and I said nothing to deter them. Looking back now, I don’t remember what my answer was going to be when Nora asked the question. I presume at the time it was an affirmative response but since I did not speak to solidify my answer in history, I suppose I can rewrite the past and answer the question now. Do I attend an all women’s college? My first thought is one of a biological nature, I am a math and science girl after all. Even here, I can’t use my knowledge of genetics and anatomy to definitively say I go to a women’s college, as is demonstrated by pemwrez2007 whose hormone therapy defied her birth certificate. Mathematics is, at present, limited in its help since the statistics state a 100% female student body in the college’s brochure. I need to take a step back. What is “female?” Is it purely biological as the college seems to think, or is it a state of being rather than a distinct physiological class? Even further, is there a time limit as to how long someone has been female to be admitted? I then try to find a place for transgendered individuals in the definition of “women’s college.” Does this group of individuals question the underlying assumptions of a structure that aims to separate individuals based on sex? To understand how transgender relates to this single sex environment, I myself need to first comprehend those that identify with this particular category, if I can that is.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term transgender derives from the Latin trans, a combination form meaning across, beyond, or through, and genre, kind or sort. The word is “of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender, but combines or moves between these” (“Transgender” def.1). Transgender is deemed an umbrella term in that it is used to describe people whose gender identity, or sense of themselves as male or female, or gender expression differs from that usually associated with their birth sex. It is common to find a majority of transgender people living as part-time or full-time members of the other gender.
What is most interesting about the scope of the term is that in a broad sense, anyone whose identity, appearance, or behavior falls outside of conventional gender norms can be described as transgender. However, not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender-atypical will identify as a transgender person. Transgender individuals, and even those who are not, confirm the existence of a distinct line between the definitions of gender and sex. Sex refers to a biological status such as male or female and includes physical attributes such as sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive structures, and external genitalia. Gender is the term that is often used to refer to ways in which people act, interact, or feel themselves that correlate with boys/men and girls/women. While facets of biological sex are identical across different cultures, aspects of gender may diverge.
Transgender people can be classified, ironic as it may seem, into various groups; Biological females who desire to be acknowledged as men are called female-to-male (or FTM) transsexuals or transgender men. It follows that biological males who wish to live and be established as women are called male-to-female (or MTF) transsexuals or transsexual women. Traditionally, transsexuals seek medical intervention, such as hormones or surgery, to parallel their bodies with their gender preference. This process of transitioning between genders is specified as sex reassignment or gender reassignment. Cross dressers or transvestites encompass the majority of the transgender group. These individuals choose to wear the clothing of the other sex they identify with and vary in how fully they dress, whether it be from one article of clothing to full cross-dressing, as well as in their motives for being compelled to do so. Some cross-dress to express their cross-gender emotions or identities while others do so for entertainment purposes, emotional stability and comfort, or for sexual arousal. The greatest portion of cross-dressers fall under biological males, most of whom are sexually attracted to women. Drag queens and drag kings (a word I am not familiar with) are biological males and females respectively, who present themselves part-time as affiliates of the other sex for the primary purpose of performing or entertaining. It is uncertain as to whether a particular drag performer may or may not identify as transgender but most distinguish themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. There exist other categories of transgender people that include androgynous, bigendered, and gendered queer people (American Psychological Association 2009). It is difficult to ascertain a precise definition of these classifications due to the fact that each varies from person to person. However, each designation includes an essence of combining or alternating genders and expresses an attitude of traditional concepts of gender being restrictive.
Documentation has been discovered that reveals the existence of transgendered people in many Western and non-Western cultures dating back to the Greco-Roman world that centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising of the interlocking civilizations of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, to present day. Currently there as many as 2-3% of biological males engaged in cross-dressing, at least on a sporadic basis. Recent estimates demonstrate ratios of about 1 in 10,000 biological males and 1 in 30,000 biological females are transsexual (American Psychological Association 2009). That is, of the 6.77 billion people alive today, approximately 67.7 million individuals are transsexual women and 22.6 million people are transsexual men. The National Center for Transgender Equality even estimates that between a quarter of a percent and 1% of the U.S. population is transgender, which yields about three million Americans in total, though precise figures are difficult to obtain with some individuals choosing to maintain privacy when facing questions about their gender expression (Quart 2008). Despite gender and gender identity distinctions, in general, people view gender identity and sexual orientation as two separate entities. Sexual orientation associates with one’s sexual attraction to men, women, both or neither whereas gender identity refers to one’s sense of self as male, female, or transgender. Usually those who are attracted to women or men prior to transition continue to be attracted to women or men respectively after transition. Thus, a biological male who is attracted to females will retain his (her?) attraction to females post-transformation and may possibly regard herself as a lesbian.
The motivations behind defining oneself as trans stem from a variety of reasons. Some individuals trace their transgender identities or gender-atypical perspectives and behaviors back to their earliest memories. Others become aware of their transgender identities at a later time in life. Despite the ignorant stigma associated with it, transgender is not a mental disorder. A mental disorder is deemed a mental disorder only if the psychological condition causes distress or disability. Many transgender people do not relate their transgender feeling with one of distress or disability, but most acknowledge that the significant problem they face is a lack of resources such as social support to have an outlet available to express gender identification and minimize discrimination. There are of course those who do report feeling distressed or disabled with this observation being particularly true of transsexuals, who experience their gender identity as incongruent with their birth sex or with the gender role that is associated with that particular sex. This distressing feeling of incongruity is referred to as gender dysphoria (American Psychological Association 2009). The diagnostic standards of American psychiatry, set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, contend that people who experience intense, persistent, gender dysphoria can be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (Heffner 2003). This diagnosis is especially controversial among mental health professionals and transgendered people with some contending that the diagnosis inappropriately pathologizes, or biologically describes, gender variance and should be eliminated from the vernacular. Others argue, particularly the health care providers, that due to the health care system in the United States requiring a diagnosis to justify medical or psychological treatment, it is imperative that the diagnosis is retained in order to ensure access to proper care. That is not to say that non-transgender people do not experience these mental disorders or others that deviate from or fall within the same category. However, the stigma, discrimination, and internal conflict that many transgender people experience could possibly place them at an increased risk for certain mental health problems. These problems can henceforth be exacerbated in turn by the inadequate access to care for their particular mental states. Thus, it is vital that transgendered students have readily available an environment that catalyzes the understanding of those that can and cannot relate and works to achieve a structural support system for varying degrees of trans expression.
While still a rarity, young women who have made the transition to transmales have grown in number over the last 10 years as well as the number of young people who openly identify as transgendered. In a sample of 412 university students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 16.9% of the subjects reported that they were lesbian, gay or bisexual, while the remaining percentage identified themselves as heterosexual. Of the lesbian, gay and bi-sexual subjects, only two individuals affirmed their gender positions as transgender though only one student admitted to being of the transfemale persuasion but heterosexual since she always referred to herself as “she” and was attracted to men despite being born biologically male (Hangrud 1997). Some parents of even younger children, ages 5 to 13, who are “gender nonconforming”- usually referencing children who identify psychologically with the opposite sex but also those possessing hermaphroditic traits such as indeterminate sex organs- now allow their children to choose whether they are referred to as “he” or “she” and whether to wear boys’ or girls’ clothing. Furthermore, a portion of these parents, under a doctor’s supervision, have even begun to administer hormone blockers to prevent the arrival of secondary sex characteristics until a “gender variant” child is of the appropriate age to make permanent choices. Hence, it is not surprising that individuals with such sexual ambiguity and transgender confirmation choose to attend women’s colleges. Same-sex colleges have been the laboratories for experimentations in transformations among American women since the establishment of these institutions.
With their inception as places where women could flourish without men, colleges like Bryn Mawr and its six other sisters including Barnard, Wellesley, and Smith have always embodied dual personalities; the first of which serves as a finishing school and the other as an incubator of American feminism. The schools that decided to retain their single-sex designations in the 1970s, despite many around the country changing to coed, demonstrated a meaningful and very controversial challenge to liberal ideals about gender equality. In renovating their identities for the time, many colleges became centers for the evaluation of gender roles in society. Scholars such as the philosopher Judith Butler, saw femaleness as not automatically producing femininity and maleness as producing masculinity, but rather gender was a fluid and variable concept that could be fashioned and shift in characters depending on the culture or time period (Quart 2008). For some, the presence of trans students at single-sex colleges is just a logical extension of this intellectual tradition. In a sense, transgender and genderqueer students can be said to hold women’s colleges to their word in being committed to fully supporting women’s exploration of gender, with no exception for those explorations that conclude with a student no longer being female-identified (Quart 2008).
Regarding admission policies concerning transgender students, Bryn Mawr’s prerogative is to admit female students exclusively. If a situation arises in which an applicant’s sex is inexact, the college will approach the conundrum individually to better comprehend the nature of the student’s circumstances. The policy stresses that the college’s guidelines to only admit female students would also be enforced (Transgender Task Force Recommendations). This statement seems to contradict itself. How can a college administrator fully understand the extent of an individual’s position on hir (a gender neutral pronoun) gender if the situation is inherently approached with a definitive stance on the definition and limits of femininity? Bryn Mawr seeming understands MTFs to be men just playing with gender prior to their college acceptances. Then the admissions committee is implying that MTFs are not “really” female and their orientations may as well be written off as just theory. Gender incongruence does ultimately call into question the validity of the single-sex education, which preaches a very antiquated, binary notion of gender. If a college is content to name itself “all female” then how is “female” defined? Transfemales similarly express the distinct, yet altered, experience of “being female.” How is it just to exclude these people? Bryn Mawr can hardly claim to be centered around the experience of “being female” if trans experiences are being expelled. Additionally, how does the college feel about women who have been afflicted with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or AIS? These women are presented physically as women but possess the XY male karyotype. Is Bryn Mawr willing to accept these individuals as “female” enough to receive an education at the institution? Should the applicant choose not to divulge this information to the admissions committee, the coordinators would be none the wiser and accept hir on the basis of the individual’s “feminine-looking” exterior. However, should this information be shared to members of the Bryn Mawr community, is he/she also coined “inappropriate” to experience a Bryn Mawr education? If the answer is yes, then Bryn Mawr not only needs to re-define its notions of “female” but also its definition of “biological” since having the male karyotype and then expressing it are two very different concepts. How then are individuals affected with this disorder different from MTF transsexuals who have undergone various surgeries to look physically female but still retain the male XY karyotype?
At present, 147 colleges and universities nationwide now include “gender identity and expression” in their nondiscrimination polices, and students will often use gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze” or “hir” in everyday speech, including those students attending coeducational institutions. At Wesleyan in 2007, students initiated a survey of the bathrooms on campus to determine whether or not each can be considered transgender-friendly or open to all sexes and genders. In addition, many colleges have instituted Transgender Days of Remembrance in memory of victims of gender-identity-related hate crimes. Students at the University of Vermont hold a yearly “Translating Identity Conference” for trans students that attracts hundreds of individuals from around the country (Quart 2008). If these universities are embracing the distinct experience of transgendered people, then aren’t we then hypocritical to exclude them from such rare gender-accepting experiences such as those available at Bryn Mawr? I don’t remember completing a gender-oriented bathroom survey.
Bryn Mawr does support its students in their potential decisions to be transgendered upon their classification as a “Bryn Mawr student.” The problem lies in the college’s viewpoint towards transgendered students prior to their applications being submitted. What of the cases where a male child experiences gender dysphoria at a very early age and genuinely believes to have a gender that is of the “female” type? Take for instance the “little girl” that entered Broward County kindergarten in Broward County, Florida. Mental health professionals diagnosed Pat (her name has been changed for anonymity reasons) in 2006 with gender dysphoria and after two years of examination, the officials determined that the child’s actions were not simply effeminate or would terminate upon the phase reaching maturation. The school officials have in turn, agreed to cooperate with Pat’s family and medical professionals to help “create an environment that will maximize the child’s ability to learn and grow within the school system” (Santiago 1). With such acceptance received from an early age, this transgendered child has been conditioned to be female by those she associates with. In fact, gender dysphoria can actually occur during the fetus’ development in the womb, as noted by gender specialist and sexologist Marilyn Volker, Ph.D., of Miami (Santiago 1). Thus if Pat applies to Bryn Mawr College, can she anticipate to be rejected even she has been raised female, conditioned as female and has experienced life as a female? Would anyone blame Pat for checking the “female” box on the general application?
If we as members of a so-called “accepting” community choose to place a time restriction as to when the transition from female to male can occur, then we significantly lack an understanding of transgender issues and are expected to only become cognizant of the community’s concerns when a crisis arises of a violent, emotionally disturbing, or socially hurtful nature. I now return to my question of Bryn Mawr really distinguishing itself as an “all-women’s” college. Statistically speaking, every “women’s college” brochure presents a strict 100% female student body. According to the Middle States Commission on High Education, this number is binding in order to be accredited as an all-women’s college. When asked about the definition of “women” and whether or not the colleges take into account the admittance of non-biological “females,” the commission did not wish to answer such a controversial question. Thus it is in a metamorphosis of the understanding of gender that we can create a revolution among “all-women’s” colleges to admit transgendered students since the statistics themselves do not support a clear definition of what is “female.”  In the hope that “women’s” colleges such as Bryn Mawr do accept transfemales and from the fact that there is the presence of transgendered individuals on campuses, it is not enough to have the non-discrimination policies remain as they are. Colleges’ non-discrimination policies usually include “sex” and possibly “sexual orientation” as protected categories but from this evaluation, neither necessary applies to transgender people. These individuals face discrimination based on gender identity and expression rather than biological gender or sexual identity. Hence these policies must be revised through the use of gender neutral pronouns and a change or addition of terms to include the distinguishing personas of the transgendered community.
Do I attend an “all-women’s college.” No, I do not. Do I attend a coeducational college? No, I do not. I attend a single-sex school with many genders. “Women’s” colleges represent and reproduce notions of gender essentialism, a belief in that there are uniquely feminine and uniquely masculine essences, which exist independently of cultural conditioning, by correlating sex with gender. Within these college communities, including faculty, staff, students and alumnae, there are many who wish the college’s image to be one shaped by students with female genitalia and perform femininity. Transgender persons rebut the gender dichotomy by performing and identifying in ways contradictory to their sex. Their “passing” is often a blending of genders that willfully violate social rules of dress, communication styles, and emotions by adopting and performing the gender that is in contrast to their sex. The process of presenting oneself with a male name in an “all-women’s” college contradicts the very notion of serving a single-sex. The existence of transgender students at Bryn Mawr highlights the issues that arise when our institution (along with almost every institution worldwide) relies on notions of gender essentialism. Fundamentally, it is hypocritical for a “diverse” community to have gender essentialism become a requisite for access and participation in the structure. In time, transgendered individuals will hopefully be steered away from being seen as infiltrators of the last “girls-with-pearls fortresses” in existence.

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