A few prominent women’s colleges in the United States, Mount Holyoke and Simmons among them, have officially updated their admissions policies to explicitly open their doors and classrooms to trans women. Now that the issue of trans inclusion is being brought to the table, conversations have also begun to take place on and off campuses about whether all women’s colleges should begin openly admitting trans women. The very existence and framing of these arguments, however, reflects a transmisogyny at these institutions that will not be undone with a single admissions policy change. For that matter, they distract from a far more valuable concern: how addressing that transmisogyny can strengthen the mission of women’s colleges.
The debate over whether trans women should be admitted in the first place calls our very womanhood into question, as if we are not “really” women. On most campuses, for that matter, administrators delegate the issue to committees and boards that often have no trans women on them, and that solicit input from students, parents, and faculty who are themselves not trans women. In other words, these discussions revolve around the interests of all parties involved except for those of trans women—the only ones whose survival is directly affected by these policies and the ideologies that inform them.
In these situations, trans women are frequently perceived as a looming threat to their cisgender classmates: men in disguise who infiltrate women’s-only spaces. For example, a recent New York Times article quoted an anonymous male student at Wellesley College as arguing, “Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women. … Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it’s like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women.”
But a trans man claiming to understand misogyny better than women, or to be oppressed by it, is akin to a straight person claiming the same about heterosexism because they’d been read as gay and dealt with homophobic harassment. To pretend as if trans men are still women in the context of their oppression is to disregard their gender identity entirely, and to do so at the expense of women. This is what leads to trans women and trans people who were coercively assigned “male” at birth (CAMAB) being treated with extreme skepticism, distrust, and hesitancy in women’s spaces; the misdirected notion of “male socialization” paints trans women as the predators. In reality, however, trans women have heavily internalized “female socialization” by necessity, in order to resist the constant, coercive misgendering from other people.
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Moreover, it is not men who endure most of the violence against trans people. Trans women face disproportionately high rates of physical and sexual assault, domestic and intimate partner violence/abuse, incarceration, police targeting and brutality, harassment (often by superiors), poverty, homelessness, and murder. Trans women of color, particularly Black trans women, bear the brunt of most of these and experience the vast majority of hate violence and murder endured by LGBTQ people. Despite these painful-to-bear-repeating facts, the concerns of Black trans women and other trans women of color are consistently the lowest priority in conversations that already prioritize everyone else above trans women in general. So to treat us like the potential perpetrators rather than the victims and survivors of hate violence and sexual violence is to propagate a mythology that leaves us even more vulnerable.
The culture of transmisogyny that enables that violence exists everywhere, including—but not limited to—college campuses. It is a culture rooted in the invalidation of trans women’s female identity, an identity which shapes and compounds our experiences of sexism. LGBTQ advocates commonly conflate multiple aspects of gender under the umbrella of “non-cisgender men,” which includes everyone except for the most privileged and washes over the difference between trans identity and female identity. This effective separation of some men from the patriarchy delegitimizes the reality of both trans male and trans female identities, as if trans men aren’t really men and aren’t deeply invested in masculinity. Instead, it portrays trans men in women’s spaces as somehow inherently radical gender revolutionaries. So pervasive is this belief, in fact, that even trans activists often react with shock and disbelief to trans men assaulting or abusing other people.
Meanwhile, there is at least as much apprehension and scrutiny of trans women. Hollins University, for instance, excludes men, even those who transition while attending; however, it also excludes trans women entirely. While its administrators are reconsidering those policies, if the latter is reversed, the former will most likely be as well—yet another implication that trans women’s rights and input cannot be regarded without giving trans men at least as much.
It shouldn’t be ignored, for that matter, that trans women have already attended and graduated from women’s colleges, so long as there is no evidence on paper that they are trans. At Smith College, for example, supporting documentation must not include any reference to an applicant as a male, even though that’s almost always impossible without having previously attended a school that was very accommodating to trans students. Requiring trans women to be able to “pass” (be read as cis women, either in person or on paper) in this way places the burden on the women to prove their own womanhood to an unsympathetic jury.
And admission is only a first step; it’s only a basic, formal acknowledgment that our womanhood cannot be invalidated or denied with any accurate and historically grounded understanding of sexism, oppression, and gender-based violence. Once we can attend these schools without having to conceal our trans histories, though, what will we have to face in classrooms and on campuses? Transmisogyny won’t disappear because these schools begin to consider accepting trans women.
Having taken courses at Smith as a Five College Consortium student, I am already familiar with how such transmisogyny can be felt on a women’s college campus. It is painful to have few or no trans women, especially non-white ones, in a community with me. It is painful to have no trans female professors or other role models to look up to. It is painful to be undesirable, and disposable when desired. It is painful to watch men be accepted by cis women as peers, while trans women are rejected. It is painful to wonder why no one seems to sit next to you in class. It is painful to feel like you are the only one who experiences all of this, and to blame yourself for it. Colleges already have a mental health crisis that administrators are not properly addressing. Combined with a lack of access to respectful health care, discrimination, and fear of mistreatment, it’s no wonder the rates of mental illness and attempted suicide are very high in trans women. It should be clear how any educational environment that does not address the social climate for trans women cannot truly offer us a fair opportunity for success.
The very question of whether to admit trans women in the first place reflects an ingrained transmisogyny that will not be overcome without long-term remedial efforts. Otherwise, all of the other barriers to trans women’s admission to and — importantly — successful graduation from college will still be just as strong: the lack of access to adequate support, common attitudes towards trans women, and material disadvantages that compound the stresses of school. If not mitigated well by colleges through proactive initiatives, faculty training, orientation materials, trans women’s leadership, and other means, those issues will probably get worse before they get better, even after admissions policies shift. People in power often use formal “equality” in the legal or institutional sense to claim that marginalized and protected classes can’t possibly experience widespread prejudice against them anymore. For example, even after the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act notably forced top-down alterations at universities, racism and ableism were and are still heavily present on campuses around the country. Similarly, how do we prevent institutions from pretending transmisogyny is over as soon as they make a single change?
Based on a coercive process of assigning gender at birth, men currently can and do attend many women’s colleges, such as Wellesley and Smith, yet many women cannot. In spite of the fact that these colleges are not being true to their name, the comfort and freedom of men takes equal or higher priority to the mere recognition of women. When the gender identities of any trans people are not fully respected, it is trans women who bear the brunt of that degradation, and it is our continued degradation that serves as a fulcrum for transphobia and the patriarchy at large. Valuing or devaluing women based on the bodies we have and reducing us to our anatomy severely limits our potential. If women’s colleges seek to educate, empower, and advance women, they must do so for all women; they must challenge the social values that place men above women and place certain women over others based on race, (dis)ability, sexuality, class, and coercive gender assignment at birth.
The question is not how women’s colleges will maintain their integrity as a space for women if trans women are admitted. The question is, how will women’s colleges address transmisogyny on their campuses, in their classrooms, and within their own administration, after they stop wholly denying our womanhood?