Trans Women at Smith: The Complexities of Checking “Female”

Photo courtesy of Smith Q&A| Q & A envisions an admission’s proccess  that extends to  all women regardless of  their gender markers.

Photo courtesy of Smith Q&A|
Q & A envisions an admission’s proccess that extends to all women regardless of their gender markers.


Sarah Fraas ’16
Contributing Writer 

(Written with the help of Raven Fowlkes-Witten, Maggie Peebles-Dorrin and Jason McGourty)

Imagine a women’s college that accepts all women. A feminist institution that supports women no matter what gender they were assigned at birth, or what legal documents they have, or whether or not their parent or high school supports them.

It might surprise some that this women’s college does in fact exist – in Oakland, Calif. Mills College is open to “all women who claim a female gender identity.” Yes, Mills accepts trans women without checking their papers and, no, the sky has not fallen. Smith and other women’s colleges need to follow this example.

How is Smith’s current policy different from this?

Every applicant has to have all female gender markers on four materials: the Common Application, their high school transcript, their midyear academic report, and three letters of recommendation.

Easy enough, right? Well, no. Not for a lot of young women.

For starters, what if your teachers refuse to use “she” pronouns in your recommendation letters? What if you live in one of the countless school districts that don’t allow gender changes on transcripts? What if you live in Washington, which has the official policy that schools are free to reject gender-marker changes as they please? What if changing your gender markers requires a $10,000+ surgery with months of painful and debilitating recovery time behind it, and what if that’s a surgery you don’t even want?

Essentially, the only trans women who can reasonably hope to apply have a supportive family, attend a supportive school and have the luxury of free time to navigate bureaucratic processes.

A recent study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that less than half of trans high school students have been able to update their school documents. 11 percent tried to do so and were flat-out denied.

Let’s factor in school climate as well:

In another study of transgender K-12 students, 31 percent reported verbal harassment by teachers or staff for their gender. Another 5 percent reported physical assault by teachers and 3 percent reported sexual assault. The more harassment that students faced, the less likely they were to maintain higher GPAs, attend all their classes and plan for college. But transmisogyny doesn’t just affect education – it’s a life and death issue. In fact, 53 percent of those lost to anti-queer hate murders in 2012 were trans women.

In the words of Bet Power, Director of the Sexual Minorities Archives: “Trans girls dream big for their futures. There is no luxury in that. Education is the only chance at survival while living as trans.”

Smith Q&A is not asking that Smith suddenly adopt Mills’ policy, although we hope to work towards that goal. We are simply demanding that Smith accept the proposal of a supplement to allow women with non-female gender markers on their documents to go here.

Smith Q&A drafted this proposal when the group was first formed. It suggests that if an application has “male” gender markers, Smith can request “letters of support or explanation from health providers, school administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, advisors, clergy, family, employers, etc.” Smith admissions has always been concerned that someone might assert that they’re a woman for the “wrong reasons” –  this eliminates that risk as it would be hard to imagine two trusted adults getting in on such a “scheme.”

Although we know that not every single trans woman will have two adults willing to affirm her identity, it’s certainly a start.

That’s why over 100 students got up at 8:30 in the morning on Thursday, April 24 to rally in support of their trans sisters –  to help make Smith an institution that empowers all women for the world.

However, I have to address criticisms that are often hurled at student organizers: that we’re too aggressive, that the administration is trying its best.

To that, I would say that of course this is not a personal attack on Smith administrators. We are all –  myself included –  a product of the ideologies we have been taught to believe are common sense. These often include inaccurate or harmful ideas about sex and gender that we have to unlearn. We know that many Smith administrators have good intentions and see themselves only as concerned with preserving Smith’s status as a women’s college.

However, the fact remains that Q&A has spent a year and a half trying to get this gender supplement proposal accepted. We met with higher education law experts who validated our sense that this was not actually a legal, or Title IX, issue – Smith College will not lose its status as a women’s college by accepting our proposal. Heartened by this, Q&A conducted several negotiations with administrators, which did result in the change that gender markers no longer matter for Disability and Financial Aid application materials. This year, a trans woman applied to Smith, was accepted and is now a student here. Once at Smith, she personally explained to administrators why Smith’s policy is exclusionary. She urged them to accept the gender supplement proposal. Their reply was that they can’t simply make a supplement for every specific situation in which a student cannot meet their requirements. The big difference here is that these requirements shouldn’t even exist in the first place –  womanhood does not reside in documentation. 

In other words, a huge part of the problem is that Smith sees it as the applicant’s responsibility to meet set-in-stone requirements, instead of Smith thinking about how to create a system that accommodates all women, particularly those who truly need it the most.


I hope you will stand with us. If “women for the world” doesn’t mean all women, it doesn’t mean anything.

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