Sunday, October 19, 2014

Who Belongs in Women's Spaces, Again? Women's College Edition

This weekend, the NY Times cover story was on trans men at women's colleges.  I found the article very frustrating, first of all due to the title, "When Women Become Men at Wellesley."  Dear NY Times: trans men are coming out at college, which is different from cis women "becoming" trans men.  Your title is as off-base as one reading, "When Straight Women Turn Into Lesbians at Wellesley."

The subtitle of the article is "Can women's colleges survive the transgender movement?" The answer to this hyperbolic question is obviously yes.  The reporting in the article itself is much less inflammatory, so let's just re-title it in our heads to match the actual content--something like "Women's Colleges Struggle with the Place of Trans Students"--and consider that content.

I understand why trans men wind up in women's colleges. If you're a young person who is assigned female at birth, and you are struggling a lot with gender issues, a women's college might seem a good place to go.  One student in the article, Jesse, says "he chose to attend Wellesley because being female never felt right to him.  'I figured if I was any kind of woman, I'd find it there.'" It's actually quite common for people struggling with trans identities to enter institutions highly centered around the sex they were assigned at birth--for example, many trans women report joining the military or entering highly masculine fields such as firefighting to see if those institutions can reconcile them to living in the gender expected for someone of their birth-assigned sex.  Of course, the result, for many, is to realize they do not identify with that gender at all.  And so it's right and good that students who realize they are trans come out.

But once a trans man or masculine-of-center genderqueer person comes out at a women's college, they have to face the fact that they are a man or masculine-of-center person in a woman's space.  Personally, what I would do at that point is start making arrangements to transfer to another college, because I support the existence of women's colleges in a patriarchal society, and the whole point of them is that they are for women--and I am not a woman.  That said, I don't believe that transmasculine students should be required to uproot themselves and transfer out.  Leaving a college can be emotionally difficult and have financial repercussions, and a transitioning student has a lot on their plate to deal with. I believe that an ethic of care demands a struggling transmasculine student be permitted to stay, and be treated with respect as a man or genderqueer person.

But there is a big difference between accommodating struggling transmasculine students and having trans guys make women's colleges all about them.  And that's exactly what I'd call it when trans men keep insisting that when these colleges call themselves "women's colleges" without adding "plus some transmasculine people" they are doing evil.  That's exactly what I'd call it when trans guys demand that students should stop calling their classmates "sisters" and start calling them "siblings."  I absolutely agree that it undermines one's identity as a man to be referred to as a sister, and I'd hate it too--which is exactly why I would not stay at a women's college.  To stay, and then insist that your needs as a man outweigh the needs of everyone else who chose to go to a women's college . . . that's hubris.

I've certainly met my share of trans men with hubris.  When someone transitions from female to male, they face hurdles in the form of cissexism and negotiating legal and often medical challenges--but they also gain male privilege.  All trans people are aware of the challenges they are facing.  But many trans men seem little aware of the male privilege they are gaining.  That's normal, in the sense that most people are unaware of most of their privileges--but it's ironic when you encounter it in someone who talks about patriarchy and cis privilege, as I have.  Just like a cis man, a trans guy can be oblivious to his own privilege, taking over conversations about sexism in a circle of cis women, or transmansplaining cissexism to a trans woman.  You see, when someone who is being respected in his male identity talks, whether he is cis or trans, people listen more attentively than they do when a woman talks.  That's basic patriarchy, and I've certainly experienced the difference in how my statements are taken more seriously as a result of transitioning to male status.  If you're expecting it and looking for it, as a man, you can see it some of the time and catch yourself.  (I'm sure it happens often without my recognizing it.)  But I've met my share of trans men who conflate their new male privilege and the greater deference they are granted with their gaining confidence and coming into their own as they transition.  They presume people pay such attention to what they say now because they have fascinating things to contribute.  And at a women's college, where young men are a novelty, this effect of attention centering on a man is exacerbated.  (Some of the ways this manifests in the article are pretty creepy, in terms of cis women proving they can be "tranny-chasers" too, but trans men like Jesse report loving having become popular and having people "clamoring" to date them.)

Personally, were I a woman at a women's college, I'd be upset at trans men telling me not to presume my dorm or class was a women's space.  My accepting of transmasculine students would not contradict the fact that they are sojourners who chose to enter a rare territory designed for women.  I guess I'm just fascinated, given the uproar that many cis feminists made when trans women tried to participate in women's events like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, specifically so that they could be with other women, that when trans men plant their flag and actually say "stop calling this a women's space," the opposition is so minimal.

Which brings me to the topic of transfeminine students in this article--a brief bit near the end of the piece.  I find it very disappointing that an article about women's colleges should give trans women such little attention, while devoting masses of space to transmasculine people.  Look: fundamentally, trans women belong at women's colleges, and trans men don't.  But there's little to report, given that no trans woman has ever attended Wellesley, as far as anyone knows.  (If one did, she did it utterly in the closet, and at great personal risk.  Such things have happened before, however--Anita Hemmings, a woman of African descent, passed as white and graduated from Vassar in 1897, though she was outed in the last weeks of her exemplary college career and kicked out, lucky to have a diploma mailed to her afterwards.)

What really disturbs me is that much of what the article conveys on the topic of trans women entering Wellesley is the opinion of some trans guy.  He says that trans men and genderqueer people who were assigned female at birth belong at Wellesley--but that trans women should have to face barriers to admission, and be treated with suspicion.  No trans woman should be admitted, he declares, unless she can prove she's started medical transition or has changed her name legally (steps very difficult for someone of a typical age to be applying to college to have taken, requiring parental support for the transition and financial resources).  Why this disparity? To keep Wellesley a safe space for women, of course! If she hasn't had medical and/or legal interventions, a trans woman might not really be a woman, he claims. Taking the difficult steps of coming out and applying to Wellesley as a woman aren't enough proof of her commitment! Maybe her identity is fluid and she'll identify as a man again . . .  But hey, aren't genderfluidity and lack of interest in medical interventions treated as fine in transmasculine people?  Yes, says the trans dude. "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."

This argument is appalling on so many levels. First, it is exactly the reasoning used by "gender crits" and Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists to "prove" that gender transition is an impossibility: that gender socialization is rigidly binary, inescapably tied to birth-assigned sex, and sex assigned at birth is thus immutable. The thing is, the TERFs are at least logically consistent in saying that this means not only that trans women are "really" eternally men, but trans men "really" eternally women.  It's transphobic logic--yet it's being voiced here by a trans gender person.  How is this possible?  Enter transmisogyny: the trans Wellesley student applies it only against trans women, while ignoring the implications of the argument for trans men like himself.

Underlying the ability of this trans man to assert a transmisogynistic logic while refusing to see how it applies to trans men is that hubris again.  Look, he basically says, a trans woman on campus might make cis women feel uncomfortable in what's supposed to be a women's safe space!  But apparently it never occurs to this student that a cis woman seeing him in her dorm at night might feel unsafe.  He presumes (a) that women can always tell if a given man is cis or trans at a glance,  (b) that everybody agrees trans men are always "safe" in a way cis men are not, and (c) that if a woman did feel unsafe seeing him in her dorm, her reaction would simply be wrong, as he is Mr. Perfect Nonthreatening Male of Female Experience, and can tell her what she should feel.

For a trans man to believe that trans women pose a threat to female safe space, while transmasculine people should be allowed free access to women's spaces--that demonstrates a combination of patriarchal egotism, lack of awareness of one's own male privilege, and transmisogyny that I deplore.

I do believe that trans men in women's colleges should be treated with respect, but I look forward to the day when a report on trans students in women's colleges will center transfeminine people and decenter transmasculine ones.


  1. So frustrating to be perpetually stuck in this place where male privilege prevails regardless and ironic and confusing too, as transwomen are accused of using male privilege to violate spaces where transmen suddenly gain it and fail to recognize it!

    On that side note of creepiness--I have been in the very awkward position back when I was queerdating of being one among a group of lesbians surrounding a transman as if he were a god. It felt like high school all over again.

  2. Thank you for commenting on this. As a graduate of a women's college, I feel like this is a vital conversation to be having. My institution went co-ed so I'm supporting my sisters who are pushing their alma maters to include trans women in the student body.

  3. Good response. There's an active discussion on this article on LiveJournal's FTM community, and the response there thus far seems overwhelmingly in agreement with yours.

  4. As a transman, it is extremely offensive that this is even up for debate. Or rather, being accepted so languidly. If a man, trans or cis is attending a women's college, he needs to respect the space without trying to force his sister students to conform to his whims. If one's feelings are so delicate as to not handle being address as "sisters" in a group, then leave the group. I really appreciate your perspective as it puts my own views into much more professional sounding words. It's hard not to be angry at anyone, and especially a transman for assuming those of us with XX chromosomes must be bound by them all our lives. A vagina is not a "get out of jail free" pass into every women's space (or really any,to be perfectly honest). Among the right to be seen as a man, is the right to be excluded from places that a cis-man might expect to be excluded as well.
    There are so many places that a man, even a transman can be accepted and included that it is entirely inappropriate to expect the college to re-conform itself to these twisted notions.
    Also, thank you for addressing the article's title, as I was viciously thinking the particular individual in dispute deserved to be insulted if he was going to go about expecting the world to revolve around him. But that would be petty and vindictive and I shouldn't be thinking that way, and it does much more damage to other, respectful transmen who are not attempting to reinforce patriarchal ideals all around them at the expense of others. :C

  5. Great essay, Cary. I'm going to share this with my Dean as we're still negotiating what it means to have trans students at our women's college.

    1. I'm glad it could be of some use, Elroi! I'd love to hear how those conversations resolve.

  6. I am a Bryn Mawr alum (class of '04), so this topic hits close to home. Granted, I am privileged to identify with my assigned gender. I can't begin to imagine what it must feel like navigating gendered spaces as a trans person of any variety.

    The year before I went to Bryn Mawr, there was a student who realized he identified as male and went through the transition process. If I remember correctly, he ultimately decided to transfer because he could not reconcile being at a women's school.

    I don't know about other women's colleges, but I know I am staunchly opposed to Bryn Mawr going co-ed. So if other women's institutions are similar, I guess I feel the same way about them too. I'm aware that my reasons for taking this stance are mostly emotional.

    I loved my experience at Bryn Mawr, and I think it would lose a core element of its identity if it were to go co-Ed. There are some traditions and beautiful aspects of that culture that would be lost. The very thought makes me a sad panda.

    For someone who identifies as male, regardless of assigned gender, I agree that a women's college is not a good fit. I also agree that once a person is admitted to a women's college, that decision should be a personal choice, not an administrative mandate. But as you said, if you are a man in a women's space, it is up to you to respect that space. (In the case of Bryn Mawr, you can transfer to Haveford and *still* have the option of taking only Bryn Mawr classes and living on Bryn Mawr's campus.)

    If someone identifies as female, more days than not, regardless of assigned gender, I hope they're given a fair shot at joining a sisterhood such as Bryn Mawr. To me, not welcoming a trans woman into a female space is like not letting a religious convert into their chosen house of worship. For crying out loud, if someone chooses to make major life changes and sacrifices to be part of our communities, doesn't that deserve to be honored and/or celebrated?

    For those who opt out of gender altogether or are gender fluid/nonconforming/whatever, I think it's up to them to decide whether they would feel comfortable in such strongly female identified spaces.

  7. I feel like the question shouldn't be about whether women's colleges should be offering admission to trans-people, but rather what can institutes of higher learning do to create the accepting environment for trans-people that right now is exclusively associated with women's colleges.

    BMC '04

    1. I like the clarity and broader sense of you question

  8. Thank you for writing this. I particularly enjoy your use of the word "hubris" to describe trans masculine people making demands while choosing to occupy women's spaces. This is one of the reasons why, as a trans guy, I never correct people when they call me "she" during a bicycle race - because I am choosing to compete in women's events. See some of my thoughts on the issue of competing in women's sports here:

    While sports and academics/living spaces are different, I wholeheartedly agree that trans men and women need to be held to the same standards.

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  10. I follow your logic, and agree that the transman in the article is the worst kind (in fact, I imagine many transmen are chagrined to see this representation of their politics in relation to women's colleges).

    But here's my question: would you found this particular student's statements appalling if he had not been coupling them with anti-transwomen sentiments? I can see the hubris/male privilege point easily, but I'm wondering, if a transman did NOT display this hubris or make anti-transwomen statements-- if he in fact was active is gaining access for transwomen to the women's college-- would you still feel offended by his claims to understanding "what it's like to be a woman" and drawing on that experience to prove they are equally affected by patriarchy and therefore belong at women's colleges?

    1. Yes, I absolutely would still find them appalling. Even as a purely standalone issue, the presence of trans men at women's colleges is an unacceptable intrusion on the entire concept of women's spaces. While gender policing of the student community is obviously both impractical and oppressive, trans men at women's colleges should not be accomodated or encouraged in any way. They should be firmly encouraged to transfer to coed and/or men's institutions where they belong.

  11. As I said in this post, I do not agree that trans men should be kicked out of women's colleges, because it would be uncharitable to force someone undergoing major life changes to lose their supportive network of friends and face the major financial challenges that could be involved.

    However, I believe that people who transition to male at women's colleges should comport themselves carefully and respectfully, as they are essentially tolerated intruders. The instant he begins transitioning, a trans man is no longer "equally afffected by patriarchy," as he begins to gain male privilege. The fact that many trans men don't feel they are experiencing male privilege just illustrates that they are indeed men--most cis men don't feel they experience male privilege either. What men, cis and trans, need to do is step back and let women speak about sexism, misogyny, transmisogyny, and male privilege--and listen carefully. Yes, cis and trans men can speak about gender issues. But they shouldn't dominate conversations about gender, or try to make things all about them.

    Where trans men at women's colleges show their greatest hubris, to me, is when they say "you can't call this a women's space anymore, that's transphobic." Actually, Mr. All-About-Meeeee, trans men do not suffer more than cis women, women's colleges serve a purpose, and excluding *men* from a women's space is not transphobic--excluding *trans women* is.

    Besides the hubris of claiming a right to undermine the idea of a women's institution, the other example of smug and clueless behavior that really gets my goat is when trans men tell women how to feel about them. When cis men get on their #NotAllMen hobbyhorse and say, "You know, it really hurts my feelings when a woman crosses the street at night to get away from me or turns down my offer to drive her home. I'm innocent and she shouldn't treat me like I'm guilty," then we rightly reply, "You can't tell some woman how to feel; women fear sexual assault for rational reasons." When a trans guy says, "Women shouldn't feel anxious to see me in a women's safe space because although I am a man I know as much as they do about patriarchy and their viewing me as threat is ridiculous," they are doing the same thing as the cis #NotAllMen dude--and are taking it to another level by demanding access to women's spaces, not just demanding welcoming and trusting attitudes from women in public spaces.

    Saying, "I'm a man, but I can't be a part of the patriarchy because my intentions are good and I am trans" is no different from saying "I'm a man, but I can't be a part of the patriarchy because my intentions are good and I am living with a disability/a man of color/gay/pagan/unemployed/whatever." That's not how intersectionality works.

    As a trans man, I benefit from male privilege all the time. I'm just lucky in that I have a trans woman spouse who can point it out to me, and whose contrasting experiences making it very clear. Trans men who aren't close to trans women often only notice the ways in which they suffer from cissexism, while being as blind to the ways in which they benefit from male privilege as the next (cis) guy.

  12. (So, trans men are not equally affected by patriarchy as cis women. Now, as to the question of whether trans men "understand what it's like to be a woman," my response would be that many, but not all, trans men understand what it's like to be *treated as a woman*. That's not the same thing as understanding what it's like to *be a woman*. I've never identified as female, so I can't tell you what it's like to be one, but I do know a good deal about how people perceived as female are treated. Now, there are other trans men who have different life experiences--most often referenced are trans men who used to identify as lesbian women. If someone's experience really is that of identifying wholeheartedly as a woman, then having some sort of conversion experience, and identifying as a man instead, then I'd presume he really did know what it was like to be a woman. But again, once he began transitioning, he'd start gaining male privilege and becoming, whether he wanted to or not, part of the patriarchy. And I'd suspect that would shape his recollections of his prior gender experience. Human memory isn't like a computer file; it's a construct, recreated by our current brains, and shaped by our experiences since the memory.)

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  16. So I realize it's now been nearly two years since publication, but Dr. Costello, THANK YOU so much for writing this. I am planning to begin attending a women's college this fall (I am a cis woman), and have already begun running into objections to me referring to classmates as "sisters." I love that there is an article by a trans man that I can refer them to, since most won't listen to me due to my identifying as what I was assigned.