By: Lauren Walleser/TRT Assistant Editor—
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Smith College students recently held a protest on campus in response to admissions policies they say are exclusionary towards transgender women, and many local activists agree.
“After several talks with administrators, they still have not accepted our central demand of a gender supplement compromise so that Office of Admission materials do not have to have all female gender markers,” said Sarah Fraas, organizer of the protest with Smith Q&A (Queers and Allies), a student-run consensus-based organization dedicated to justice for trans women, starting with the Smith community. “They have, however, made a couple great changes—Office of Disability and Office of Financial Aid materials no longer have to have all female gender markers.”
Students and activists are still fighting for other admissions documents, including transcripts, letters of recommendation, the Common App., a guidance counselor recommendation, and mid-year academic reports, to not have to include female gender markers. Smith Q&A suggests that the Office of Admission change their policy to allow a supplement, so that if admissions materials have a “male” gender marker, Smith can request “two letters of support from health providers, school administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, advisors, clergy, family, employers, etc.” [pullquote]Smith Q&A suggests that the Office of Admission change their policy to allow a supplement, so that if admissions materials have a “male” gender marker, Smith can request “two letters of support from health providers, school administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, advisors, clergy, family, employers, etc.”[/pullquote]
A flyer composed by the group states “Smith Admissions has always been concerned that someone might assert they’re a woman for the wrong reasons—this eliminates that risk as it would be hard to imagine two trusted adults being ‘in’ on such a scheme. Although we know that not every single trans girl will have two adults willing to affirm her identity, it’s certainly a start.”
“Less than half of trans high school students are able to change documents like their transcripts, and that is readily accessible information,” Fraas said. “In practice, Smith’s policy excludes most women without a supportive school and family, which in reality is most trans women, and perhaps the trans women who need to come to Smith the most.”
BET POWER ALWIN, executive director of the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation, Inc. and curator of the Sexual Minorities Archives, also attended the protest.
“Admissions at Smith College is blocking entry to trans women undergraduate students and that is blatant discrimination in education,” said Power Alwin. “Smith cannot claim to be a college for all ‘Women of the World’ if they exclude trans women, who are women. It is very frustrating because student and community activists like myself have been working to improve this situation for over a year and yet another school year has come to a close. It won’t be until fall semester when student activists will work on this problem some more. In the meantime, trans women who may apply to Smith this spring and summer will encounter a barrier to entry in the form of having to present gender credentials from others that cisgender women do not have to supply. It is the rare case, indeed, when an adult—much less a youth—who is trans has all of their identity documents consistently ‘F’ or ‘M’ across the board. It takes decades to achieve that, and years of time, effort, and money to achieve that! In many cases, it is outright impossible. There are several states that will not change the gender marker on a birth certificate or even amend it to the correct gender.” “[pullquote]Smith cannot claim to be a college for all ‘Women of the World’ if they exclude trans women, who are women.” — Bet Power Alwin[/pullquote]
Genny BEEMYN, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, shared their take on the situation as it stands now.
“Smith officials are not doing enough to enable trans female students to be able to attend the college,” Beemyn said. “There is no reason that all of a student’s documents have to indicate that they are female. I have spoken to leaders in the Department of Education about this, and it is not an issue for them if MTF [male to female] students attend a women’s college. Smith could enable a MTF student to include a statement with their application confirming their female gender identity. This would not be too onerous on their Admissions people, but be a tremendous benefit to trans women.”[pullquote] “Smith could enable a MTF student to include a statement with their application confirming their female gender identity. This would not be too onerous on their Admissions people, but be a tremendous benefit to trans women.”—Genny Beemyn, Director, UMass Stonewall Center[/pullquote]
MASON DUNN, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, also commented on the issue.
“By relying on administrative, state, and federal documents to affirm gender identity, Smith College is silencing the voices of trans applicants,” said Dunn. “All people should have the right to define their gender identity for themselves, rather than rely on often unachievable or discriminatory processes imposed by schools and government bodies.”
Additionally, CARLY BURTON, deputy director of MassEquality, shared her perspective.
“My personal take is that the admissions office needs to make these changes quickly so that the next class of Smith students is truly as diverse as it could be,” Burton said.
The issue was spurred last spring after Smith College rejected the application of Calliope Mora Wong, stating “undergraduate applicants to Smith must be female at the time of admission.” While Wong identifies as a woman, her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) listed her gender marker as male, prompting the college’s decision to return her application. [pullquote]The issue was spurred last spring after Smith College rejected the application of Calliope Mora Wong, stating “undergraduate applicants to Smith must be female at the time of admission.” While Wong identifies as a woman, her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) listed her gender marker as male, prompting the college’s decision to return her application.[/pullquote]
Students protested outside the Smith admissions office Thursday, April 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
“The rally was a peaceful celebration of unity and sisterhood, as we chanted ‘It’s been too long! Trans women belong!’” said Fraas. “We handed out over 300 flyers explaining the cause to students, prospective students and their families, passersby, faculty and staff.”
Fraas shared that several members of the faculty were in attendance. The event featured acoustic guitars, chants and picketing outside. NYC-based musician, activist and trans woman Joanna BLACKHART spoke about her experiences and read a statement from Wong, and the group also read a solidarity statement sent to them by the Trans Youth Equality Foundation.
“You could hear us from every vantage point on campus,” said Fraas. “We marched into the library, the campus center, and college hall to make our presence known in other spaces on campus as well. People spontaneously stopped and were given a sign to hold and joined the crowd. We sat-in at the Admissions office, and also walked through the very busy office chanting and holding our signs every hour. The rally certainly sent a strong message that the inclusion of trans women at Smith has popular support in the student body.”
The Office of Admissions did not officially respond to the protest. Fraas said she e-mailed the Dean of Admission to ask her to come outside and make a statement, which she also declined, saying that the admissions practices were on the website and that media could contact College Relations if they had questions.
After the event, Karen KRISTOF, senior associate director of admission for Smith, said she “could not answer questions about the student demands and referred any questions about policy to the college website,” according to MassLive. “But she said as far as the admission office was concerned, ‘it was business as usual.’”
Fraas, however, shared a different perspective.
“I do know that we caused quite a stir: parking had to be re-routed, tour groups were snuck out the back door, and guides were apparently told not to answer any questions about the protest,” she said. “However, many prospective students and their families came up to us and asked for a flyer and asked us questions, ultimately asking ‘Why can’t Smith just change this?’”
ELLI Palmer, co-chair of Smith Q&A last year and current member, said she believes there is “a pretty evident disparity between the understandings of most students and the administration of Smith when it comes to trans women.” [pullquote]“All people should have the right to define their gender identity for themselves, rather than rely on often unachievable or discriminatory processes imposed by schools and government bodies.”—Mason Dunn, Director, MTPC[/pullquote]
“From the conversations I have had it seems clear to me that the administration simply does not understand the complexity of this issue,” said Palmer. “They seem to see trans women as just another ‘special case’ rather than a group of women who face extreme oppression and who should have the extra support of women’s spaces. Quite simply there is a divide that exists between the way Smith students see the world and imagine the Smith community and the way the administration sees the world and envisions the Smith community. So long as the administration does not have to change the policy, I believe they won’t because they simply don’t seem to see how problematic it is. So for student activists there are only a few options available to us with that understanding—we can try to teach the administration why what they’re doing is wrong, which requires a desire to learn and change which we have not seen from them, or we can effectively force them by showing them it is their only option to avoid protests, bad press, etcetera. Hopefully we can change the policy with a combination of these two methods, but the future is still unclear and I see no change in the policy in the near future.”
Smith student Raven Fowlkes-Witten said that Q&A meetings will resume again in the fall, but that people can get involved now by sending a picture holding a sign that explains “why you understand that trans women belong at Smith and why it matters to you” to http://smith-q-and-a.tumblr.com/submit. Fowlkes-Witten also suggested calling or e-mailing Smith’s Office of Admission to share your thoughts.
“As a women’s college, Smith should be admitting all women—not just the women they label as ‘real’ or ‘legitimate,’” said Julia Marciano, ANOTHER Smith student. “Smith College has a longstanding tradition as a college for iron women, a place where feminism is an integral part of the liberal arts. By disenfranchising trans women—as well as women of color and queer people, on a whole other note—the college contradicts itself. I believe that there needs to be a transition from white ‘pearl and cashmere’ feminism, which is trans exclusionary and violent in nature, to good intersectional feminism that includes all women, not just those who were given that title at birth. As a feminist, it makes sense to me to fight for this issue. I love Smith enough that I want every woman to have the chance to go here.”
Marciano said Smith Q&A is on hiatus for the summer, but is currently planning for the fall, including working on establishing privately funded scholarships for trans women who wish to attend women’s colleges.
“After the rally and the tremendous attention it’s received, it is my hope that we can re-establish a working relationship with the administration and pass the gender supplement compromise,” said Fraas. “There’s nothing stopping Smith from doing so, and it would open up access to Smith a lot, changing women’s lives in the process.”
Smith College did not return this reporter’s inquiries.
For more information, visit the Facebook page for Smith Q&A at http://tiny.cc/x5xigx.