Wellesley College students have made their position clear: the majority of them want the women’s college to open admissions to all transgender people, including those who identify as trans men.
That’s according to a student-led, nonbinding referendum held Tuesday as part of the institution’s yearly student government elections. The referendum also asks administrators to use nongendered language in other communications, rather than referring to the Wellesley community with terms like “alumnae” or “women.”
But the vote will have no direct effect, according to a statement from Wellesley. “Wellesley College acknowledges the result of the non-binding student ballot initiative,” the statement read. “Although there is no plan to revisit its mission as a women’s college or its admissions policy, the College will continue to engage all students, including transgender male and nonbinary students, in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong.”
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Presently, the university accepts some trans students: specifically, it welcomes trans women and nonbinary students who were assigned female at birth, according to its gender policy. Broadly, Wellesley describes its student body as those who “live as a woman and consistently identify as a woman.”
Paula A. Johnson, the college’s president, recently reiterated that phrase in an email explaining her position on the upcoming referendum, which sparked student backlash and protests. Some activists argue that Wellesley already has many students who don’t fit that description, and the language Wellesley uses to describe its student body does nothing but ostracize those individuals and make them feel unwelcome.
“Trans students exist and belong on this campus—past, present, and future,” read a statement released by Sexual Health Educators, a student peer sex education group on campus, in response to Johnson’s email. “As Sexual Health Educators, we know that consistency is not always a word that can be attributed to gender—for many, gender is expansive and fluid. Trans students should feel welcome on this campus regardless of how ‘consistent’ their gender is, as the reality is that people experience gender and transness in a variety of ways.”
It’s not uncommon for students at Wellesley and other women’s colleges to transition while enrolled. Nearly all women’s colleges allow trans men to matriculate, as long as they came to the institution identifying as a woman or nonbinary. Still, some women’s college students, faculty, staff and graduates say that expanding who can attend these institutions takes away from their mission to celebrate womanhood and give women an educational space that is wholly theirs.
Alex C. Lange, an assistant professor of higher education at Colorado State University, argued that it’s possible to be more inclusive without lessening support for women’s education. They equated the phenomenon to historically Black colleges and universities that admit students of all races but still focus primarily on uplifting Black students.
They also noted that the ways in which women’s colleges define womanhood have already expanded many times over; some women’s colleges originally only served upper-class, white women.
“Some are going to say, no matter what, that women’s colleges are invalid if they open their admissions beyond cisgender women. And yet, we’ve seen many colleges make this move and retain their focus on women and gender equity,” they said. “For me, this is the next step in that evolution.”
In SHE’s statement, one of the group’s co-presidents, SJ Stephens, shared their experience as a trans student at Wellesley.
“I have been openly out as trans since I was 15 years old. When I applied to Wellesley College, I never hid the fact that I was trans and have always made it clear that I am not a woman. I even wrote my personal statement about my transness and have been a panelist on Men’s Panel for 2 years in a row. Yet, Wellesley still allowed me to enroll as a student,” they wrote. “When I applied, I understood that Wellesley accepts applications from those ‘who feel they belong in our community of women’—this still rings true for me. Even as a trans person at this institution, I do feel that I belong in this community. I believe that multiple truths can coexist: Wellesley has always had and will continue to have trans people who do not align with womanhood and Wellesley should have spaces that center women. I go to a historically women’s college.”
(Some women’s college students and graduates use the phrase “historically women’s college” to avoid ostracizing nonwomen students. Others, including Johnson, use the term to refer only to women’s colleges that became coeducational.)
A Contentious Message
Johnson, Wellesley’s president, is among those who oppose admitting trans men. While Johnson was not available for comment for this story, her March 6 email to the campus community stated that the results of the referendum “will not impact any of the policies or practices of the College or of student organizations at Wellesley.”
While she said in the email that she wants trans men and nonbinary students who transitioned during their time at Wellesley to feel included, she also sympathized with “students who are committed to Wellesley’s mission as a women’s college and who identify as women [who] have been publicly criticized for that view and have felt pressured to describe Wellesley as a historically women’s college.”
“So how do we reflect our mission and identity as a women’s college while recognizing and embracing the diversity of our community in a way that does not make any student feel erased or ignored? Let me try: Wellesley is a women’s college that admits cis, trans, and nonbinary students—all who consistently identify as women. Wellesley is also an inclusive community that embraces students, alumnae, faculty, and staff of diverse gender identities,” Johnson’s email read. “I believe the two ways of seeing Wellesley are not mutually exclusive. Rather, this is who we are: a women’s college and a diverse community.”
The email mentioned a number of changes to support trans students, including expanding the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus and appointing a new director for the Office of LGBTQ+ Programs and Services, who, among other things, will be the adviser for the university’s trans student organization and train faculty and staff about “gender identity and pronoun use.”
The communication prompted significant backlash from students and graduates alike.
“Your email yesterday, titled ‘Affirming our mission and embracing our community,’ was a direct attack on the lives and experiences of transgender, nonbinary, and gender diverse students on your campus,” read an open letter, published on Medium the day after the email was sent out, entitled “An Open Letter to President Johnson.” It is unclear what the author’s relationship to the university is. “Make no mistake (lest you ‘try’ again): Wellesley is a historically women’s college that admits cis, trans, and nonbinary students.”
Additionally, nearly 600 graduates have signed a letter in favor of the referendum, which denounces Johnson’s email.
A Pivotal Moment
The majority of women’s colleges follow guidelines similar to Wellesley’s. But one, Mount Holyoke College, began specifically accepting trans men in 2014. (Mount Holyoke’s admissions policy is cited in the text of the Wellesley referendum.)
The decision came about following a wave of LGBTQ+ activism that called upon institutions to be more transparent regarding their policies about trans students, inspired by a situation at George Fox University in which a trans man was denied housing in the men’s dormitories.
“That was the point where we made a commitment to developing and communicating a policy that was consistent with what we had been doing in the past,” said Lynn Pasquerella, then the president of Mount Holyoke and now the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “We had always [said], ‘they come as women, and they graduate as students.’”
For Pasquerella, allowing trans men to enroll didn’t in any way discredit the university’s mission. Trans people, including trans men, she argued, “share a positionality” with women “in terms of the legacy of gender oppression.”
Pasquerella said that at the time, students and employees had an overwhelmingly positive response to the change. Former students’ responses were more varied, she said, with some who opposed the decision coming from a place of ignorance and others holding anti-transgender ideologies.
But it’s unclear if any other colleges have taken the same step since; a list of trans student admissions policies at women’s colleges published by Campus Pride seems to indicate none have.
This push for Wellesley to allow trans men to enroll comes at a time when legislation in many states is targeting trans people, seeking to prevent them from expressing their gender identity in school settings and forbidding trans students from playing on sports team that align with their gender identity.
In response to Johnson’s email, The Wellesley News editorial board wrote, “This bias has real-world consequences, as demonstrated by the alarming spike in anti-trans legislation in the United States; 39/50 states have proposed and/or passed legislation affecting trans people’s ability to access healthcare, public facilities and safe spaces to be themselves in 2023. It is telling that President Johnson did not mention these legislative attacks against the trans community in her email.”