Transgender woman attends Wellesley, first in school’s 147-year history

wellesley-1504620769-7771Until last year, Ninotska Love would have been barred from attending Wellesley College.

She’s an accomplished student who has persevered through hardship, but under longstanding rules, the college would have rejected her.

Now the rules have changed. This week, Love will become one of the first transgender women to attend Wellesley in the school’s 147-year history.

“For me to be accepted to one of the best colleges for women in the nation, it is a big validation of the person that I have become. At first I couldn’t believe it,” said Love, 28, who was born in Ecuador but fled to the U.S. in 2009 after being kidnapped and threatened because of her gender identity. “I’m so thankful to be here.”

0905_ninotska-loveHer arrival on campus reflects a quiet but momentous shift that’s taking place at a wave of women’s colleges that have begun allowing trans women. But even as many schools embrace shifting views on gender, some have been reluctant to change amid lingering differences over the role of women’s colleges.

Since 2014, at least eight women’s colleges have moved to allow trans women, starting with Mills College in Oakland, California. Joining Wellesley in 2015 were Smith, Bryn Mawr and Barnard colleges, the last of the so-called Seven Sisters women’s colleges to make the change. Advocates say others have likely done so without advertising it.

“I think it’s a step forward, one that’s long overdue,” said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “If they say they’re women, then saying that they can’t attend is denying their identities and marginalizing them.”

Ninotska_-_Love

Ninotska Love

Just how many trans women are attending women’s colleges remains unknown. Many schools that now accept them won’t say how many they enroll, if any, citing privacy concerns. Schools including Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges say they don’t track the gender identities of their students.

Chicora Martin, vice president of student life and dean of students at Mills College, said some fear backlash from alumni or donors who don’t support the change, and they want to protect students from outside scrutiny. At Mills, 8 percent of more than 700 undergraduates identify as trans women.

“I think that’s something they don’t want to draw to their students,” Martin said. “Ultimately the attention is drawn to them, and that can be negative attention.”

Colleges of all types have faced increasing pressure to meet the needs of trans men and women, who make up an estimated 0.7 percent of the nation’s youths. Some schools have responded by offering gender-neutral bathrooms and medical insurance that covers hormone treatments, or by letting students pick their gender pronouns .

Still, alumnae of some women’s colleges have opposed the admissions change, saying it undermines the institutional mission to empower women. Leaders at some schools counter that women’s colleges were founded to educate those who have been marginalized because of their gender.

“That’s always been the historic role of women’s colleges,” Martin said. “The definition of gender and gender identity has broadened, and yet it’s still very much that mission.”

Some schools have resisted widening their gender policies. At Hollins University, a private school of about 800 in Virginia, trans women can be accepted only if they have completed a legal and surgical transition from male to female, which legally entitles them to consideration anyway.

Hollins spokesman Jeff Hodges said the policy “supports how the university defines its mission as an undergraduate institution of higher learning for women.”

At Wellesley, Love said she knows of at least one other trans woman starting this week. Wellesley leaders said that they don’t comment on the gender identities of specific students but that they welcome Love to the school’s “community of outstanding women.”

“As the leading liberal arts college for women, Wellesley’s mission is to educate women who will make a difference in the world – and those women represent diversity in every dimension,” Sofiya Cabalquinto, a college spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Love is considering a major in women’s and gender studies and later hopes to become a civil rights lawyer for LGBT students and immigrants. It’s a goal shaped by her own past; Love says she illegally entered Texas from Mexico before being granted asylum because of her persecution in Ecuador.

Her first job in the U.S. was cleaning dorms at a college in North Carolina. She later moved to New York City and started classes at LaGuardia Community College, where she earned academic honors and gained support from the Kaplan Educational Foundation, which helps low-income and minority students transfer to four-year universities.

Love was accepted to a dozen colleges but says Wellesley was always her top choice.

“I knew that it would be a challenge; I knew that it would be difficult,” she said, “but at the same time I knew that I can make a difference – and I knew that I can show to other people that we transgender women are humans, too.”

“Once you understand the human dimension of this, you want to do the right thing,” Barnard’s president, Debora L. Spar, said.

With its new policy, Barnard follows other prestigious women’s colleges in articulating a stance on transgender applicants and students at a moment when transgender people are more visible than ever. Just this week Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair.

But the rules vary by institution. The policy at Wellesley, for example, is similar to Barnard’s, as is that of Smith College. The process for Smith was especially charged after its widely publicized rejection of Calliope Wong, who identified as a woman, in 2013 because a financial aid document identified her as male. Ms. Wong had not undergone gender reassignment surgery, which rendered her ineligible to change the gender on her birth certificate in Connecticut. A bill recently passed by the Connecticut General Assembly and sent to the governor would eliminate that requirement.

Mount Holyoke, on the other hand, has one of the most inclusive policies of any prestigious women’s school. In addition to welcoming transgender women, the school also accepts transgender men, as well as those born biologically female but who do not identify as either gender. Only those born biologically male and who identify as men are ineligible to attend.

Lynn Pasquerella, the president of Mount Holyoke, explained that the college felt that anyone who had the experience of being female should have a place at the school. “If you have grown up as biologically female, you are subject to the kind of sexism and oppressive forces brought to bear as a result of your biology,” Dr. Pasquerella said. “When you identify as male, you don’t automatically become privileged because of that.”

Barnard College’s policy of accepting transgender women began in the fall of 2016.

Hollins University in Virginia has taken a very different approach to transgender applicants and students. Applicants born male will be considered for admission only if they have “completed the physical sex reassignment surgery and legal transformation from male to female,” according to campus policy. Students who transition from female to male will no longer be eligible for a Hollins degree.

va_college_hollins01Before now, Barnard did not have any formal policy on transgender applicants or students, and while there are transgender men on campus, a spokeswoman said the college had never before had a transgender woman as a student.

Going forward, applicants must describe themselves as female on the Common Application to be eligible for admission, and “application materials should support this self-identification,” a description of the new rules said. Specifics of the policy, like issues of housing and athletics, will be worked out over the next year and will be in place for fall 2016.

The process of creating Barnard’s policy included multiple forums for community comment, including five town-hall-style meetings and an online survey that elicited over 900 responses.

There were differences of opinion, which largely came down to whether Barnard should be a place for “gender oppressed minorities,” Dr. Spar said, transgender men included. The college decided it should remain exclusively for women.

Caleb LoSchiavo, a student leader who was born female but does not identify with either gender and prefers the honorific Mx., said there was less of a generational divide than some expected.

“I think the thing that was most surprising was how supportive and gung-ho a lot older alums were,” said Mx. LoSchiavo, who graduated this year (and would have been admitted under the new policy, having identified as a female at the time of application). “I thought: ‘Oh, they’re older. A different time, a different generation, raised with different ideas.’ But a lot of them were like, ‘No, we need to do this.’ ”

Mx. LoSchiavo was one of those who felt that those who identify as men should not apply to Barnard, which remains a space for women in a way most of the world is not.

But Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Barnard, who is a transgender woman, said that while there was “no one right answer,” she preferred the “most inclusive policy possible,” which would include the admission of transgender men.

“Gender is at the center of a women’s college experience in a way that it’s not” at a coeducational school, she said. “So if you’re a young trans person trying to figure out who you are, and struggling with gender throughout your whole life, of course you’d come to one of these schools, because it’s going to help you figure out who you are.

“In some ways, one of the most important reasons to go a liberal arts college in the first place is to know yourself.”

 

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