Women's Colleges and Ex-Women

Marcus Waterbury, a graduate of the women’s institution Mount Holyoke College, didn’t think it was a big deal when, 15 years after graduation, his alma mater agreed to re-issue his degree to reflect the new name he adopted after transitioning from female to male.

July 28, 2011

Marcus Waterbury, a graduate of the women’s institution Mount Holyoke College, didn’t think it was a big deal when, 15 years after graduation, his alma mater agreed to re-issue his degree to reflect the new name he adopted after transitioning from female to male.

It’s not unheard of to re-issue a degree after an alumna becomes an alumnus – this is at least the third time Mount Holyoke alone has done it – but that’s a pretty straightforward and uncontroversial thing to do; for instance, it’s not uncommon at any given college for graduates to be granted replacement diplomas that reflect their married names.

But for Mount Holyoke, a prestigious college that prides itself on having been educating women since nearly 100 years before they were permitted to vote, the story raises an interesting question: what place do gender roles have at a decidedly feminist institution? Or at any women’s college, for that matter?

It seems that as requests like Waterbury’s become less of an anomaly, these institutions are realizing there’s a conversation to be had.

Cerri Banks, who started as the dean of Mount Holyoke this month, has already initiated that discussion. A high priority of hers is assessing the campus climate to see how it can better support diversity and inclusivity, including for transgender students. Before she left for Mount Holyoke, Banks was beginning similar work as a dean at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the conjoined and respectively men’s and women’s institutions in New York. (Banks is an assistant professor specializing in education and sociology, and part of her research involves building inclusive communities.)

“I think higher education should be at the forefront of that, not sort of catching up to the rest of the world,” Banks said. “What I hope is we’ll have the conversation, we’ll have the policies in practice, and then we’ll move on. It will no longer be a hot-button issue and we’ll move on to other issues.”

At single-sex institutions, compounding the transgender-related issues that tend to pop up fairly regularly on all campuses – participation in athletics, demand for gender-neutral housing and bathrooms, and gender indications on college applications -- are questions of admissions, institutional history and employee and student attitudes.

There are myriad implications to consider, Banks said: in the classroom (say, a professor won’t call a student by the name she prefers), in the dorms or student union (where bullying or hate crimes could occur), and in the bathrooms and health center (which may need some degree of restructuring).

These are questions with which Mount Holyoke and other women’s colleges are grappling. Some have more straightforward answers than others.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and is most often invoked in conversations about sexual assault or athletic opportunities, men’s and women’s colleges may admit only students whose legal documentation shows they are of the gender that a particular institution serves. So a student who was biologically male at birth and fully transitioned to female some time before college could only be admitted to a place like Mount Holyoke if the transition is reflected on, say, a driver’s license. While it is becoming more common for some transgender people to fully transition from one gender to another, that is difficult to accomplish by the time one is 18 and a typical college applicant. However, it is increasingly common for some high school students to identify as transgender, even without any physical changes. (The term "transgender" encompasses people with a range of attitudes on making changes to their bodies.)

Policies generally follow the Title IX rule. At Hobart and William Smith, it also applies to students who transition while enrolled, said Robert S. Flowers, who, as vice president for student affairs, began exploring these issues with Banks before she left. Of course at Hobart and William Smith, men and women live and study together, even though separate colleges exist. At Mount Holyoke, only women are enrolled. Banks said that in the past four years or so students have begun the transitioning process while enrolled, but none have had full surgery. She added that some students have asked to be considered gender-neutral, and "we have made sure that our language and practice reflected our value that they be allowed to express their gender identity freely."

Flowers declined to specify whether any students have transitioned while enrolled, citing privacy concerns, but he did say, "Like every college campus that is committed to diversity and inclusive excellence, we work to create an environment that supports all students as they consider issues of identity. In the course of this work, we have benefited from the guidance of our policies."

Smith College also did not specify, but pointed to its website, which says, "Smith does not track statistics related to the gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation of its students. Once admitted, any student who completes the college's graduation requirements will be awarded a degree." One residence life official at Smith said she knows students who have transitioned to male while at the college and graduated. Mills College "only considers female applicants for undergraduate admission," and like Smith will graduate any admitted student who completes the requirements.

That's how it works at women's colleges these days, but as recently as five years ago it was a different story, said D. Chase James Catalano, director of Syracuse University's LGBT Resource Center. But Catalano, who is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst researching the experiences of trans-identified men at New England-area colleges, worries about the implications of the Title IX rule because of the difficulty of a person legally changing his sex. "Women's colleges are, in my opinion, attempting to figure out how to support trans men, but there are more barriers to trans women who would like to attend their institutions," Catalano, a trans male who has worked on these issues with Mount Holyoke and Smith, said via e-mail. "The underlying question is, is an all-female college/university the 'right' location for a trans-identified man?.... That is a deeper ideological question about what it means to support those who were once identified as women, and whether that support extends to transgender experiences."

In Banks' experience, concerns regarding transgender students typically don’t originate in the administration, Banks said. They stem from a student wanting to transition who reaches out to a faculty member, or a small group of students who might approach a dean.

That’s what prompted a number of support efforts at Agnes Scott College, said Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, associate dean of students. One has been the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms. Another was the Safe Zone program, through which faculty and staff who complete educational training receive a special sticker to declare themselves allies of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and questioning students. The college is also working on a “statement of support” for transgender students, Sanders-McMurtry said.

Sanders-McMurtry said the college does not track gender identity and couldn't be sure, but said, "We have students enrolled who may identify as transgender or genderqueer." There is, however, a student group "working for the rights of transgender and genderqueer people on campus.

“The very notion of being transgender at a single-gender institution – you might be marginalized,” she said. “From the moment I stepped on the campus, there’s always been a need to make sure students who were members of LGBT groups were supported.”

Hobart and William Smith recognize those needs as well, Flowers said. “Of course, as a small, private liberal arts institution we pride ourselves on our ability to converse personally with each student and manage each person with care and on an individual basis,” he said. “We are engaged in conversations about the question of post-enrollment transition, and we will continue those important conversations as we refine our policies.”

Mount Holyoke is rooted in access, equality and inclusion, making it a logical – and necessary – place for this conversation to happen, Banks said. “We need to expand that to make sure everyone is benefiting from those core values, and that those values are represented in our practices,” she said. “A lot of this is still really taboo, and yet I have found already that there are people here who are willing and want to have the conversation. And I think that’s important.”

Yet one Facebook group, while small and apparently inactive, shows at least some resistance to the idea. The group "Keep Mount Holyoke, Wellesley and Smith Single-Sex!" says students who transition to male give up their right to attend these colleges. "Becoming a man and remaining at a women's college is analogous to renouncing your citizenship, yet expecting to maintain the benefits of citizenship," the group says. "There is a limit to tolerance and acceptance; there is a point at which [these colleges] must demand that their mission be respected." The group has only seven members, and whoever created it has since left.

Susan E. Lennon, president of the Women's College Coalition, said colleges have at times raised the issue with her, "but it's not something that comes up every year." Because of the coalition's focus on research and advocacy of women's education, though, she wouldn't necessarily expect to be consulted on something like transgender policy. "The perspective of our presidents is pretty wide-ranging," she said. Considering the dimensions of higher education today and the face of the rising generation of students, she added, "It's a very complicated picture ... and it makes our work all the more complicated."

Requests like Waterbury’s, while fairly new, are already becoming “rather commonplace,” said Genny Beemyn, director of Amherst’s Stonewall Center, an LGBTQ resource center. (She and Waterbury both noted from personal experience that the willingness of an institution to issue a new degree clearly depends on the attitudes of the administrators in office.) Taken alone, Mount Holyoke’s acquiescence is not terribly exciting, Beemyn said, but it speaks to the bigger picture.

“It’s part of addressing that broader campus climate and quality of life for transgender students at women’s colleges. I think that this is an issue that many women’s colleges are beginning to address, but it’s a difficult one because of course they are set up and created to be single-sex institutions,” she said. Beemyn also does work for the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, and is trying to get admissions forms to be more inclusive of gender identity – which, at women’s colleges, is complicated by Title IX. “It’s a thorny issue,” she said, noting that most women’s colleges shy away from written policies or non-discrimination clauses that include gender, “in part because they’re afraid of what that would mean,” she said. “It’s more on a case-by-case basis. They don’t want to commit to anything in writing.”

Mount Holyoke at this point has no written policies, but Banks shrugged that off, saying the college’s historical practice is just as authoritative.

Still, the college shouldn’t pat itself on the back too hard just yet, Waterbury said: it needs to take care of the students who need support now, who may even be considering transitioning while they’re enrolled – not just the ones who are in a position to donate.

“Changing a diploma that’s already been issued and who’s there now are pretty different issues,” he said. “Down the road, you’re not really impacting what’s happening at the school, you’re impacting more of the long-term demographic.”


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