Welcoming Transwomen at Women’s Colleges

This blog’s straight ally of the day, Smith College student Alexandra Bregman, writes today in the campus newspaper The Sophian in defense of allowing transgender students at women’s colleges:

Smith is not a women’s college. The confines of the gender binary are constantly blurred and redefined, as we educate one another on pronoun usage, testosterone injections and the day-to-day tribulations of what it means to be in transition. The transsexual, transgender and gender queer populations of Smith College are valid and flourishing, whether they make it onto the “I Am Smith” Web page or not. In an age where single-sex education is a niche market and a deep source of pride at Smith College, the transient population and all forms of masculinity on campus simply must be addressed….

…all students come to Smith not knowing what the future holds. It’s more than likely that an F to M candidate stumbled upon his, her, hir or ze path to self-discovery by joining the ranks of Smith’s LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transsexual/Transgender-Queer) community. We’re all here to discover our futures. If the future holds another name, pronoun or gender, why should that be a problem?

Unfortunately, gender realization is often difficult on campus. Students can be uncomfortable, and the question of transferring often comes up. A fellow student recounted the tribulations of not transferring. While he loves his ties to Smith, everything from the classroom situation to the bathroom to his on-campus job proves potentially awkward. The constant questions, most often, “Are you a Five College student?” can be exhausting.

Yet this student also fears that a transfer to the University of Massachusetts could be both physically and socially dangerous, especially in light of the recent abuse at Hampshire College.

According to circulating speculative blogs and e-mails, a transwoman of color was seeking refuge at Hampshire College on Sept. 24 when the Five College Public Safety entered her host’s mod, victimized her and took her to jail for trespassing. Then she was taken to the Amherst police station, where she was allegedly more aggressively sexually violated, and detained after her friends had paid bail. I am consistently shocked and saddened by challenges Trans college students face, because it really seems that there is nowhere to turn.

Read the whole article here.

Bregman focuses on the case of an F-to-M student who wishes to remain at Smith despite the awkwardness of presenting as male at a women’s college. The controversy seems to be greater in the other direction, from what I’ve read about this issue: what happens when someone who’s biologically male, but identifies as female, wants to be included in a “women-only” space? The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for instance, only opened its doors to transwomen in 2006 after heated debate.

As I understand it, one rationale for women-only institutions and events is to create a safe space for a group that’s been silenced and discriminated against. Those who oppose inclusion of trans-women have argued that a person who grew up with male privilege, and whose personality was formed by being a member of the dominant group, might carry those oppressive attitudes into the women-only space, notwithstanding hir outward gender presentation.

This argument doesn’t convince me, personally. Having spent a little time with radical feminists, I understand that the presence of any man can be triggering for survivors of extreme abuse. However, I’m really wary about extending this separatist, essentialist model as the norm for women’s empowerment. Gender-nonconforming men may have been born with some privileges that we XX-chromosomal women never had, but they’ve had their own formative experiences of marginalization and discrimination. I think it’s helpful for us to share our space with women who’ve had different experiences of both gender privilege and gender bias, so that we don’t focus on our own sufferings to the exclusion of others.