The Fight Over Trans* Women At Smith Sparks Debate

Mia Council '16Assistant Features Editor 

“It is not my design to render my sex any less feminine, but to develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood, and furnish women with the means of usefulness, happiness and honor, now withheld from them,” said Sophia Smith, founder of Smith College, of her intentions when founding the College in 1871. One hundred and forty two years later, students, community members and others outside of the Smith community are debating whether to more inclusively fulfill Sophia Smith’s plan for the College.

At the beginning of this semester, a working group within Students For Social Justice and Institutional Change named Q&A was begun, with the goal of making Smith a place where trans women could be both accepted. Originally titled Queers & Allies, the name was changed because not all trans women identify as queer. The organization initially focused on education, research and awareness, but it evolved rapidly over spring break of this year.

The cause of Q&A’s evolution, and the cause of many other things as well, was Smith’s rejection of the application of a transgender student named Calliope Wong, who is from Connecticut. Wong, who chronicled her college application process on a personal Tumblr, was found ineligible for consideration by Smith, despite the fact that Wong had communicated with the Office of Admissions and with Dean Debra Shaver about her case prior to applying. The Office of Admissions refused to read her application and returned her $60 application fee, at first finding fault with a clerical error which marked Wong as male, and the second time citing the FAFSA Wong’s father had filled out, which again marked Wong’s gender as male. Under Connecticut law, Wong will not be legally female unless she undergoes a vaginoplasty, an expensive surgery not covered by health insurance.

Dean Shaver’s words to me over the summer, when I was still trying to figure out Smith’s transgender-acceptance policies, were that: ‘It seems to me that if your teachers provide the language you suggest, all your pronouns would be female and therefore consistent with what Smith is expecting.’ She spoke of school papers and transcripts consistently reflecting ‘female’ for my application. Nowhere was there mention of FAFSA, a federal financial aid form,” in Wong’s words.

In an e-mail interview, Shaver, who was the first in her family to go to college and who has worked at Smith for 18 years, said, “It needs to be consistently reflected throughout the application that the student is a woman – the student needs to identify as female, all documents must indicate that the student is female.”

Due to privacy reasons, Shaver could not comment directly on Wong’s application. The miscommunication between Shaver and Wong likely stemmed from the implied fact that the FAFSA fell within “all documents.” Smith’s admissions policy toward transgender women is not clearly outlined publicly, another roadblock to determining how exactly to address cases like Wong’s.

The news of Wong’s rejection spread quickly on and off campus, to a range of reactions. Many students participated in Q&A’s photo campaign in support of Wong and the transfeminist cause and discussed the issue informally and at organization meetings. News organizations including ABC News, Jezebel, Feministing, the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, USA Today, the New York Daily News, Buzzfeed and Yahoo all published articles on the issue, and others such as Autostraddle and Bitch magazine contacted Q&A to find a student voice for pieces of their own. Several members of the administration also held a meeting with student organizers in an attempt to gauge student opinion on the situation.

A common anxiety on campus is that if Smith admits a transgender woman, its status as a women’s college will be in legal jeopardy under Title IX. According to Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University who received their J.D. from Cornell, Title IX does not apply at all to private colleges’ undergraduate admissions, nor does it include a legal definition of sex. Many people believe the legal issue deserves further scrutiny.

Wong communicated with Jon O’Bergh, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and Cameron Washington, Web Usability Specialist at FAFSA, who informed her that the sex marker on the FAFSA is used only for Selective Services (the draft) and is not cross-checked with Social Security. The FAFSA is not relevant to Smith’s federal funding, according to these sources, as Wong outlined on her blog.

“I consider Smith a diverse and student-friendly institution,” said Maureen Mahoney, Dean of the College, in an email interview. She declined to elaborate further, however. The issue of alum relations has been brought up frequently, with the alumnae themselves holding wide-ranging views. Both Wong and Q&A, however, have received messages of support from alumnae, including many identifying as LGBTQ and from people living in the Northampton area.

As for now, the debate will likely continue with those on both sides working to be heard. Q&A will be issuing a list of demands which it has written collectively to the administration on Thursday, April 4, and publishing an online petition on attached to the demands, as well as submitting the list to the Smith Senate for consideration for ratification later in April. The demands focus on ending confusion and what is viewed as consistent cissexism in Smith’s admissions policy for transgender women.