A class apart: Transgender students at Smith College

Craig Offman – The Financial Times

Published: April 15 2005 18:25 Copyright The Financial TImes
Signing up for a beginner’s Italian class is usually a simple enough task, but for Sebastian, a second-year student at Smith College in the US, it proved complicated. Smith has always been a school for women, which is what Sebastian was when he began a bachelor’s degree there in 2001. But since then, he has become a man. At least that is how she thinks of herself. Himself. That is how his friends think of him, too, but it isn’t necessarily how a new Italian teacher would see him. And since Italian is such a gender-specific language, Sebastian needed to let the teacher know before the semester began that there would be a new studente in class, not a studentessa. Feeling apprehensive, he asked an Italian-speaking friend, who was also “transgender”, to go with him to the teacher’s office. “Can you help us,” asked the friend. “This semester my friend needs to speak Italian like a boy.”
”Ma certo,” came the reply. No problem. And that was it. If accommodating Smith’s growing number of transgender students was always that easy, life would be a lot more straightforward, both for the students and the college itself. But it rarely is.
Established 134 years ago, Smith has educated some of America’s most influential women. Feminist pioneers Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are graduates. So is the poet Sylvia Plath and former Republican first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. Set on a slope overlooking the town of Northampton in western Massachusetts, Smith is one of the four surviving “seven sisters” network of elite all-female schools.
It has been resolutely dedicated to the advancement of women (and women only) ever since it was set up. Its founder, Sophia Smith, was a wealthy New Englander who made it clear in her will that she wanted Smith to be a liberal arts college for women, equal to the best available to men; a place where women could “develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood”.
In its promotional literature, the college boasts that its all-female student body offers a superior academic environment where women are encouraged to be anything from chief executive to US president. “At Smith,” the slogan goes, “women come first and do best.” So what does such an institution do when some of its women decide to become men?
Of the 2,500 women who attend Smith, about two dozen describe themselves as “female-to-male transgender”, or women who have become men. The term “transgender” itself is a catch-all that includes a wide spectrum of people who don’t identify with their birth sex; from transsexuals, who use surgery to change their sex, to those who change their appearance cosmetically – cross-dressers, as they used to be known, though such a term is considered old-school today. The number of transgender students at Smith is small, but it has been enough to create significant divisions on the campus. On one hand are the students who take an orthodox view of their college’s mission. These are the “girls with pearls” – the more traditional women who are at the college because of its rigorous academic training and its venerable heritage.
”If they want to be boys, they should go to a co-ed school,” says one alumnus from the 1990s, who did not wish to be named for fear of being labelled intolerant. “Women go to Smith because they only want to learn with other women.”
For these students, who pay $37,000 a year in tuition fees, Smith is first and foremost for women. Women, they say, learn better without the distractions of male classmates, and if an all-women college accepts, teaches and graduates male students, it will go down the path of the other “seven sister” colleges and lose an invaluable part of its heritage. Women’s colleges are an endangered species – Sarah Lawrence and Vassar have gone co-ed and Radcliffe has been subsumed by its former brother school, Harvard.
At Smith, males from neighbouring colleges such as Amherst and Hampshire are permitted to attend selected courses, but since they aren’t full-time college residents they do not cause as much tension as their transgender classmates.
For those students from the progressive, feminist tradition of Steinem and Friedan, Smith’s transgender students fit naturally on a campus that has long been tolerant of sexual difference. Notably tolerant. When the widely read Princeton Review of US colleges is released each year, Smith is regularly rated one of the top 10 most “gay friendly” colleges in the country. Students joke that the college’s motto should be “Queer in a year or your money back”. The campus has long been home to organisations such as the Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Alliance’s Women of Colour Committee. The National Enquirer tabloid once dubbed Smith’s hometown of Northampton “Lesbianville USA” because of its visible population of gay women. (One Smith student told me it is the only place in the US where local 14-year-old boys are mistaken for university students.)
On such a campus, some students insist that not only do women who decide to become men belong there, but college administrators should do more to officially acknowledge them. Hana Meadwell, a first-year campus activist, is one such student. She has a “faux-hawk” hair style – cut short on the sides with a longer stripe of hair in the middle – and a badge on her blazer reads “Yes. I’m in the right bathroom.”
She says the college needs to do a lot more to help transgender students. “It really doesn’t want to deal with the trans issue right now.” As for those who do not think such students belong at the college, she believes they don’t have a deep enough understanding of the issue. “The negative side wonders why a man would want to go to a women’s college, or why he’d want to stay,” she says. “They’re uninformed.”
Smith wants to be an accepting environment, where every student can explore who she wants to be. For transgender students, the bathrooms have been a testing ground. After a group of transgender students and their allies tore down gender-specific plaques, Smith created some “gender-neutral” restrooms.
It is not the only college that is grappling with transgenderism and the campus activism it has provoked. More than 25 American institutions have taken steps to accommodate transgender students, according to the advocacy group, Transgender Law and Policy Institute. Nearly a dozen have created, or have promised to create, gender-neutral restrooms, including the University of Chicago, which has 15 on its campus. Four, including New York University and Cornell University, either require or strongly encourage their health and counselling staff to attend training courses on transgender issues. University health insurance plans seldom cover the hormone and surgical procedures now sought by transgender students who decide to “transition” at college, but the University of California is reportedly considering adding cover for such services to its plans. (The procedures don’t come cheap: a “top operation” or breast reduction costs up to $10,000.)
A number of schools have replaced “male” or “female” boxes on official university forms with a single blank line that lets students state their “gender”. And a few allow students to change their name and gender designation on their official records. But housing has been a trickier proposition About two years ago, Wesleyan, a respected liberal-arts university in Connecticut, created a gender-blind dormitory hall. For the 2003-04 academic year, it offered a space where transgender students could live either in single rooms or with roommates who did not mind living with a student who had changed sex. After a huge amount of media attention – and some hate mail – the school ended the experiment after a year. Wesleyan director of university communications, Justin Harmon, says the experiment failed because it stigmatised students who lived on the floor but were not transgender, and called too much attention to the transgender students themselves. “It turned out to be a bit of a ghetto,” he says. The university now assigns housing to transgender students on a case-by-case basis. But Harmon is well aware that the debate is not about to go away. “The truth is that a lot of universities and colleges are looking at trans issues emerging from the high school population,” he says. “There are people who specifically self-identify as trans on their college applications.”
The activism of transgender students and their supporters raises complicated questions about the way we think about gender. Is it what we’re born with or is it merely one of many roles we learn? Something one has or one does? Either transgender recognition is merely political correctness at its most extreme, or it represents the next crucial battle for civil rights.
”Just as Herbert Marcuse’s theories were important on campus in his day, gender theory is important now,” says Paisley Currah, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and a board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute.
The theory sometimes requires translating for the uninitiated, especially the use of pronouns. Deciding to call oneself “he” rather than “she” is considered a highly significant event, akin to coming out. A declaration of such a change to friends or family doesn’t necessarily mean a woman will always be a man, but shows that she wants to experiment with gender roles. In theory, reversing pronouns – or going back to calling oneself “she” – isn’t supposed to be as dramatic.
Yet when I mentioned to one transgender student at Smith that I was going to meet a transgender friend, and used the friend’s male pronoun, the student corrected me, somewhat cattily: “I heard he’s gone back to the old pronoun.”
The transgender movement has also come up with a series of gender-neutral terms such as “hir” (pronounced “here”) to represent the possessive “her” or “his”; and “ze” (”zee”) to represent the pronouns “she” and “he”. The expressions do not appear to have caught on. During my four days in Northampton, the words never crossed anyone’s lips – except to explain that they existed – and sometimes they were delivered with an ironic roll of the eyes.
Whatever its cultural significance, the transgender movement poses everyday logistical difficulties for institutions such as Smith, where admissions are open only to women whose gender at birth was female. In an exchange of e-mails with Smith, the college said that a female candidate who wanted to be called “male” would be eligible.
A female who was using hormones or surgery to become a male seems a trickier proposition: the college gave an ambiguous response. “We would never be privy to that information,” said media relations director Kristen Cole.
For those students who have decided to become men, the registrar’s office notifies professors of the name change. If a student wants to change her pronoun, most professors are likely to respect that decision. But for the most part, it is the students who are either puzzled or who are actively resisting.
And the question remains: why would a man attend an all-women college? Why not just go to a co-ed school?
Anne Bassett was a 16-year-old at New Hampshire’s exclusive prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy, when she announced that she was transgender. Bassett applied and was accepted to Smith and to Trinity, a co-ed college with a reputation for being “trans-friendly”. Bassett chose the women’s school.
”Another trans guy I know from Exeter recommended Smith, and Trinity has a huge frat culture,” Bassett says over dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. About five feet tall with oatmeal-coloured hair, the baby-faced Bassett brought his boyfriend, Jesse, an affable, deep-voiced man with long hair who sometimes dresses as a woman. They met at a local goth club.
Now a third-year student, Bassett echoes what many say about the college: it’s a safe place for those who have changed gender. But while the transgendered may not be as susceptible to loutish, random acts of hatred at Smith, they’re not entirely accepted either. A second-year transgender student, Ethan Helainen, has encountered varying kinds of resistance, ranging from sceptical curiosity to outright intolerance.
”I’ve had first-years ask me why I’d want to stay here,” Helainen says. The questions aren’t asked in a hostile way – usually they arise in the course of casual conversations about gender, either in workshops, seminars or around a table. Students simply ask him, as I did, why, if he identifies himself as a male, does he remain at Smith?
”I got in before I knew what I wanted to be,” he replies, adding that he’s not going to pick up and leave just because his identity shifted. “I love it here. It feels like home.”
Earlier this year, though, Helainen went to a house meeting to talk about its big sister/little sister mentoring program and suggested that “sib” replace “sis” – as in “big-sib/little sib”. The request provoked a woman on his floor to write about the excesses of political correctness in a school newspaper, singling out the incident without naming Helainen.
”Everyone on campus should have the right to feel comfortable,” wrote Virginia Phillips in The Sophian. “No one should trample the minority but, in the same respect, the minority shouldn’t be allowed to scare everyone else into silence.”
Helainen says that initially the newspaper article was hurtful. The subtext was that transgender students didn’t have a place at the college, and in the viral way gossip flies across a small campus, it was clear that the writer was aiming at Helainen. (Phillips did not return my calls.) Ultimately, Helainen says he understands Phillips’ point and has no wish to pursue the matter further with her.
This is just a microcosm of a debate that has been held on campus for almost two years. In the spring of 2003, “trans” students began campaigning for a referendum to purge the school constitution of all gender-specific language. They wanted to replace “she” with “the student” and “her” with “the student’s”. About 1,100 students took part in the plebiscite, and the proposal was passed narrowly, by 50 votes.
A year later, the School Government Association held elections in which SGA vice-president Shawn Basta, a transgender student, ran for president. During the campaign, a broad coalition called for another referendum to overturn the constitution’s pronoun change, claiming that there had not been enough information before the original vote. Many students saw this as an unpleasant move aimed at calling attention to Basta’s gender identity.
”The campus was very divided,” recalls Alexandra Keller, faculty liaison to the Gay Bisexual Lesbian Trans activist group. “There were buttons, stickers. People stopped talking to each other. But I don’t think people over-reacted,” says Keller. “We tend to think in a binary way about gender, when there is a broad continuum of desire. The referendum questions whether or not it should be represented.” The constitution remained unchanged, but Basta lost.
While life for Smith’s transgender students may occasionally be difficult, what happens when they emerge as young male graduates and apply for a job, holding a degree from a women-only school?
Sebastian, the Italian language student, is due to finish his fine arts degree next month but he doesn’t seem perturbed about life after Smith. Candid, articulate and slightly nervous, he looks more youthful than his 21 years and is undoubtedly male in appearance – in transgender parlance, he “passes”. His breasts have shrunk and his voice has deepened since he started taking testosterone more than a year ago. He sings bass in a choir and has long sideburns – you would think he had been born a boy.
He will not have any trouble graduating from the college, but what happens when a potential employer receives his college transcript with a female name on it? Or when a human resources staff member can’t figure out how this man graduated from a prestigious women-only college? Since Sebastian plans to take a job as a cabinet-maker, he is not so concerned.
Nor is Bassett. He says a transgender friend who graduated from Smith last year got a job without a hitch. “If someone interviewing me asked me how I graduated from Smith,” says Bassett, “I’d reply that every year the college graduates a few boys.”
And perhaps, once these people leave with their degrees, the hardest part will be over. Worries about toilets and dormitories will be moot; they can live with whomever they please. They have declared their pronoun change. Difficult questions about identity may never end, but they can start getting on with their lives.
The identity crisis at Smith College, however, is just beginning. There are males in the classrooms, in the dorm halls and applying for jobs. This may mean that the school’s original mission has been compromised, or that Smith has fallen victim to its own lofty ideals of tolerance. Either way, the transgender controversy underscores what many Smith students already know: boys are a huge distraction.
Craig Offman is a freelance writer based in New York.


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