Bryn Mawr clarifies stance towards trans applicants

The Chair of Bryn Mawr College’s Board of Trustees, Arlene Gibson, announced in a community-wide email two weeks ago that the Board had approved a working group’s recommendation to examine and clarify the college’s stance towards trans, intersex, non-binary, and gender non-conforming applicants.

Gibson’s email explained that the Board had approved the working group’s recommendation to include in its applicant pool trans women and intersex individuals who identify as women at the time of the application, as well as intersex individuals who do not identify as male. However, Gibson wrote, those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male would not be eligible for admission.

Bryn Mawr is the second member of the Seven Sisters, a loose association of seven historically women’s liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, to clarify its stance towards trans applicants.

Gibson also clarified that the college may request additional information — such as “verifiable legal steps taken to affirm gender” — in the case that an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials. She stressed that the college intended to be as flexible and inclusive as possible in evaluating such additional information.

Additionally, Gibson clarified the college’s stance towards students whose gender identities may change while at Bryn Mawr.

“All Bryn Mawr students will continue to be valued and supported members of the community, no matter how their gender identity shifts during their time at the College,” Gibson wrote.

This fall, Mount Holyoke became the first (and remains the only) of the Seven Sisters to clarify that it would accept applications from all trans people, as its President Lynn Pasquerella announced during an opening convocation ceremony. In previous application processes, trans women applying to Mount Holyoke who had not legally updated their gender were considered ineligible for admission.

Two of the Seven Sisters — Vassar and Radcliffe — are now coeducational institutions, while the other three of the seven — Barnard, Smith, and Wellesley — remain vague in their stances towards trans applicants.

Smith came under fire in March of 2013 for its refusal to accept an application from high school senior Calliope Wong. Wong’s application was rejected due to the fact that she was not legally recognized as female in her home state of Connecticut. To achieve this recognition, Wong would have had to undergo a gender confirmation surgery. These types of surgeries, which can run between $7,000 to $24,000 for male-to-female reassignment, is often cost-prohibitive and legally complicated for teenagers. Additionally, not all trans people choose to ever undergo such surgeries.

After a petition arguing that Wong’s application be considered gathered nearly 5,000 signatures, however, Smith’s Dean of Admissions Debra Shraver announced that a committee would begin meeting the following September in order to discuss the needs of prospective trans students.

According to statement from a college spokeswoman, Stacey Schmeidel, in January 2013, Smith changed its admissions policy towards trans applicants, lowering the number of documents required in order to affirm an applicant’s gender identity.

Students behind the ongoing effort to persuade Smith to draft a trans-inclusive admissions policy similar to Mount Holyoke’s, however, argued that the process was taking far too long. Students alleged that despite a large protest this fall and continued pressure from students, Smith’s Board of Trustees had only recently began to seek opinions from students, faculty, and alumni.

This October, a New York Times piece drew attention to Wellesley’s continued resistance to admitting those who identify as trans women. Several students and alumni interviewed for the piece expressed the belief that educating students who identify as men would defeat the purpose of the college. Many trans advocates critiqued both Wellesley’s stance and the article, entitled, “When Women Become Men at Wellesley: Can Women’s Colleges Survive the Transgender Movement?,” arguing that it painted trans students as the potential downfall of women’s colleges.

In debates like these over applications from trans students, the missions and identities of historically women’s colleges are often called into question. The Bryn Mawr working group’s process and Gibson’s email both engaged with these debates: Gibson stressed that the Board’s acceptance of the recommendation and the working group’s process had both focused heavily on Bryn Mawr’s mission.

“The working group concluded unanimously that the mission of the College at the undergraduate level is to educate women to be future leaders,” Gibson wrote. “In its recommendation to the Board, the working group noted that Bryn Mawr’s identity as a women’s college is fundamental to its distinctive environment, one in which women are central, faculty assume and expect excellence from women, and women assume positions of leadership.”

Gibson also noted that the working group recommended Bryn Mawr “use language that affirms our institutional identity as a women’s college (e.g. use of gendered language) while respecting the diversity of individual identities in the community.”

A piece next week will feature interviews with Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy and members of queer groups at Bryn Mawr and Haverford regarding Bryn Mawr’s recent decision.

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