Feature image via glaad.org
In August 2012, my good friend Calliope Wong, who is a trans woman, decided to apply to Smith College. She could not find any information on Smith’s admissions policy for trans women online, but had heard different things from different people about whether she could apply and why. She created a tumblr to explain her situation and ask for help, in addition to contacting the admissions office to ask for clarification. Dean of Admissions Debra Shaver responded to Calliope’s inquiry, saying that if Calliope’s application and supporting documents “consistently read as female,” she would be eligible for admission. A policy that requires trans female applicants to “pass” to the administration’s approval such as the one Smith presented to Calliope is discriminatory and prevents many who would benefit immensely from a women’s college environment from having access to that space. Luckily, Calliope was able to fulfill Shaver’s requirements, thanks to generally supportive parents, teachers, and school administrators. She applied for admission to the Class of 2017 last fall.
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 class 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 that 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 many 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’s 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’s 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 has since met with administrators to informally present their concerns. Although the administration did not formally negotiate with Q&A, they provided several relevant pieces of information: first, that the admissions office was using a formal definition of the phrase “supporting documentation” to include all documents submitted to and reviewed by the college, regardless of their relevance. The Smith College website claims that Smith is need-blind for the overwhelming majority (96-99%) of applicants — those who receive the highest ratings from admissions officers – but that once the aid budget is exhausted, it may make decisions for the remaining 1-4% based on need, in which case the admissions office would review the FAFSA and use it to make an admissions decision. Even so, this does not by any means excuse the administration’s actions: the FAFSA is still not officially part of the admissions process, and it is still not listed as a relevant document on their Gender Identity web page.
Q&A has also met with lawyers to create a list of demands, which they finalized at their April 3rd meeting. On Tuesday April 9th, Q&A will present this list of demands to the Smith Student Senate along with an overview of the school’s discrimination against trans women. On Wednesday April 10th, the organization will hold a fireside chat with students to discuss trans women at Smith. Finally, on Thursday Q&A will present their change.org petition and list of demands to the administration. In addition, the Fully Functional Cabaret, an all trans woman performance group whose cast includes former Ada Comstock applicant Bryn Kelly, will be performing at Smith at 8 PM Thursday evening.
Q&A’s List of Demands to the Smith College Administration:
1. Smith College will provide consistent support to trans women applicants throughout the application process and provide them with transparent information about policy and an equal opportunity for acceptance regardless of medical and legal transition status.
2. Smith College administrators will openly publish a statement on a visible page of the admissions website with the current admissions policy regarding trans women applicants before the end of the 2012-2013 academic year.
3. Smith College will create an affirmative, transparent policy regarding trans women applicants and will make it readily accessible on the Smith website.
A.) Should there be inconsistent or non-female gender markers or ambiguity about how an applicant identifies her gender, Smith admissions will request a supplemental document containing additional confirmation from another source. The list of people who may verify the applicant’s identity will include but is not limited to medical doctors, school administrators, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, advisors, clergy members, employers, etc. This supplement will confirm that the student’s gender identity is female and will override inconsistent or non-female gender markers or ambiguity. Admissions will then consider the application as if there were no inconsistencies.
B.) Smith College admissions staff will be welcoming and knowledgeable about issues that trans women applicants may face and provide assistance in the application process.
4. Smith will facilitate creation of an alumnae scholarship fund for trans women applicants who are concerned about how gender markers will affect the processing of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
5. Our new president, President Kathleen McCartney, will be present at a panel hosted by Q&A for trans women and student organizers to discuss the problem of trans exclusion from women’s colleges in the Fall of 2013.
6. Smith College will include information about issues specific to trans women and other individuals affected by transphobia and transmisogyny in faculty, staff, and student diversity trainings.
7. Once students are admitted, preferred name will be used on OneCard, directory, Moodle, email, Bannerweb, graduation materials, and all other Smith documentation.
8. Smith College will make available online a semesterly report about the number of openly trans women who have applied and the number who have been accepted, while preserving anonymity.
9. This outline will be seriously considered by administrators and responded to with a full, point-by-point report of how each demand will be implemented, or why specifically it has been denied. The administration will create a committee on trans* policy that meets monthly (similarly to the Diversity Committee or Sustainability Committee). This committee will consist of members of all RCSG Orgs who want to send a representative, a member of admissions, a dean, members of the Smith faculty, and an Area Coordinator. Additionally, Smith will provide a progress report on these demands each semester.
We believe that these demands are essential for a safe and inclusive environment at Smith and for the college to continue its historical mission of educating women and tradition of standing at the forefront of women’s issues.
Q&A can be reached on Facebook and Tumblr. Have something to say? To contact Dean Shaver, email admission [at] smith.edu or call 413-585-2500. Don’t forget to sign the petition, whether or not you are affiliated with Smith College.
About the author: Sarah Giovanniello is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.
Trans Woman Denied Admission to Smith College: Why “Just Checking Female” is More Complicated Than it Sounds was originally published on broadrecognition.com Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.