Mills College takes on the nuances of transgender admits
on October 2, 2014
The Tea Room at Mills College is filled with women with laptops open, staring intently at screens. Founded in 1852, the school only admits men as graduate students. An Asian woman wearing a backward ball cap stands to look at her tablemate’s computer; they laugh at something and kiss. A woman adjusts her miniskirt while pushing her pen across a notepad.
At a side table sits a lone male—Skylar Crownover, the student body president. Slim, with spiky blonde hair and dark framed glasses, Crownover wears a Tegan and Sara t-shirt and a maroon hoodie. Ear buds are draped casually around his neck as he studies.
How did Crownover get to be president of a women’s college? Isn’t female leadership one of the reasons women seek out single-sex schools? But Crownover wasn’t always a dude. In fact, he applied to and entered school as a woman, in terms of both his biological birth and his self-identity.
By his junior year, Crownover had transitioned to male, one of several people on the Mills campus who identify either as transgender or as “gender fluid,” meaning their gender expression does not conform to social expectations related to their assigned sex.
“I’d had feelings around gender forever, but I in no way knew that I was going to transition,” Crownover said. “I am from Ohio, and I had no connection to the gay community there. I didn’t have a lot of connection with the trans community. It wasn’t something I even had words for.”
Coming to Mills, connecting with the community and taking classes on gender theory was life-altering for Crownover. “Intro to queer studies blew my mind,” he said. “I had been doing a lot of sort of self-guided research, reading everything I could find via the Internet—and to be in that class and read the theory behind it … Wow!”
Now the campus is making sure people like Crownover feel welcome to study at Mills. In May, Mills became the first U.S. women’s college to create a formal written admissions policy that includes transgender and gender fluid applicants. The policy, which went into effect this semester, is making waves among Mills students and alums who have varying opinions on the topic, and at other women’s colleges, which are considering whether or not to enact similar policies.
The policy states that students who were not assigned to the female sex at birth, but currently live and identify as women, are welcome to apply, as are students who are legally assigned to the female sex, but who identify as transgender or gender fluid. However, students assigned to the female sex at birth who have undergone a legal change of gender to male prior to the point of application are not eligible for admission. Those who transition after enrolling, like Crownover, are welcome to stay and graduate.
Crownover said that having a policy that makes it clear that he is part of the Mills community has been very important in his decision to stay after transitioning. “The more I am able to socially live my life as male-identified, the more I grapple with whether I should stay at Mills,” he said. “But I think that the policy and the way that it is written, has been really influential. It makes it clear that I am welcome to stay and finish.”
The new policy stems from a report created by the college’s Gender Identity and Expression Subcommittee, a group composed of faculty, staff, and students, after conducting year’s worth of research and outreach to establish best practices regarding transgender and gender fluid students. The suggested new policy was brought to the enrollment committee of the board of trustees and voted in unanimously.
“For a long time, students wanted to have a more transparent policy around transgender admissions,” said Priya Kandaswamy, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Mills, who served on the subcommittee. “Really, this is not a new policy for Mills, it’s just that now it’s officially documented. It’s how we’ve been working for a long time.”
It also addressed a practical problem the admissions office and high school applicants had been facing for a long time: For transgender or gender fluid teens, figuring out if a woman’s college is right for them can be awkward or confusing. “When kids are applying for college, they are so young, 16 and 17. It can be quite stressful to call up a stranger in admissions and talk to them. Each year we were getting a handful of calls asking us to clarify our admissions policy in regard to gender,” said Vice Presidents of Admissions Brian O’Rourke. “That’s why a published policy was necessary.”
One concern that Kandaswamy said was expressed by students and alumni as the subcommittee conducted research for their report was whether Mills was moving away from being a women’s college. In 1990, the Board of Trustees implemented a policy to allow undergraduate male students in hopes of bringing more money to the school. The student response is legendary at Mills: protests, barricades and strikes ensued that eventually resulted in a reversal of the decision.
“We strongly identify with our original mission, but we do think that women’s colleges were originally founded to make education more accessible for those who were discriminated against based on gender and today that includes transgender,” said Kandaswamy. “So really we are just extending the mission, rather than moving away form being a women’s college.”
Already, Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts, has followed Mills’ lead, announcing on September 2, during the school’s annual convocation, that a formal policy on transgender students had been implemented. But Mount Holyoke does not disqualify trans men, like Crownover, who have legally changed their sex to male, from applying. Anyone born biologically female, regardless of how they identify, is eligible. Those born biologically male or intersex (with both male and female anatomy), but identify as female, are also eligible.
Smith College, which last year made headlines for rejecting transgender woman Calliope Wong’s application because she was listed as male on her federal financial aid application, is also in the process of reevaluating its admission’s policy. “The admission of trans students at women’s colleges is an evolving and complex issue and people of good intent hold a range of views on the subject,” according to a press release from the Smith media relations team. “Earlier this year, we narrowed the range of documents in the admission process requiring affirmation of female gender. Financial aid documents are excluded from such review, and Smith does not ask for a birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, nor any state-issued official document.” Smith’s board is studying the issue but has no particular timeframe for deliberations.
Wong is now a sophomore at the University of Connecticut and an avid trans rights activists, according to her tumblr website. Reacting to these policy changes, in early September she wrote: “In the past week, we’ve seen victories at Mills and Mount Holyoke, BOTH of which now affirm—in their admissions pages no less—that trans women are eligible for fair application and acceptance.”
In light of the formal policies adapted at Mills and Mount Holyoke, earlier this month, a group of alums and current students at Bryn Mawr, a women’s college in Pennsylvania, posted an open letter on Change.org, asking for signatures in support of an official policy on transgender and gender fluid applicants and students there. Part of the letter, which is addressed to six faculty members at the college, states, “We will do everything in our power to make Bryn Mawr a more welcoming and inclusive environment, and we will hold you accountable for doing the same.”
Even some men’s single-sex colleges, including those that may not have typically had many transgender applicants or students, are prepping responses to the hypothetical situation, “Our policy—and to my knowledge, we have never had a transgender applicant—is that the applicant must be legally a male,” said Thomas Shomo, director of communications at Hampden-Sydney College, a private liberal arts college for men in Virginia. “So if his birth certificate, or high school transcript or driver’s license said that he is legally a male, he would be eligible. If a student went through a change of gender while here, that would not disqualify him from attending and graduating.”
The policy has also sparked a discussion on the Mills campus and among alums. Artist Doug Williams earned his MFA in Studio Art from Mills in 2010 and supports the new policy. “I certainly knew transgender people at Mills,” he said. “I think it sounds like the right move to be able to remain a women’s college while also having a more inclusive view of gender identity rather than relying on what it says on a person’s documents.”
Since transgender and gender fluid students have been at Mills without a formal policy for years, this seemed like a no-brainer to other students. “I didn’t really hear about the policy last year, maybe because Mills was already super open and accepting to everyone,” said Mills senior Allison Ng.
But a panel on the new policy held at Mills during the school’s recent alumni weekend served as proof of some of the difficulty trans and gender fluid students face while on campus. The panel included Kandaswamy, Julia Oparah, an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies, Sonj Basha, a senior at Mills who identifies as gender queer (someone who feels that their gender identity does not fit into the socially constructed norms associated with their biological sex), Sullivan, and Terrilynn Cantlon, a transgender woman who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Mills. Basha and Sullivan prefer the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”
Several times, people on the panel spoke about difficulties they have experienced on the Mills campus regarding their gender identity. “The first day a woman asked me, ‘Are you allowed to be here?’” said Cantlon. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m here.”
“I had a horrible experience here as a masculine person,” said Sullivan. Because the school only accepts men at the graduate level, sometimes people assumed Sullivan couldn’t be an undergraduate. When Sullivan was applying for funding for their senior thesis, a confused secretary warned them that the money was only for undergraduates. “I paused and I said, ‘Well, I am an undergraduate,’” Sullivan said, “and her response was ‘How can that be possible?’”
After hearing the intimate testimonials, some alumnae were still confused about the policy and the gender terminology they were hearing. “I’m not leaving here totally understanding what I’ve just heard,” said Niki Janus, class of 1964. “Like Sonj, I don’t understand who you are. Who are you? I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but since you are willing to be on the spot.”
“Like beyond being a student?” asked Basha.
“Yeah, who are you as a person?” said Janus. (Basha offered to speak with her more after the panel.)
To Sullivan, Janus asked, “If you were born a woman, why do you have a beard?”
“A lot of women have facial hair,” said Sullivan with a sigh. “There’s a whole section in the drugstore to get rid of unwanted hair.”
A older Mills’ alumna in a purple boa, who asked not to be named, addressed Cantlon, saying she was concerned that women who had survived sexual violence might find it difficult to be around people who look or sound male, and then the two got into a debate over whose turn it was to speak.
“I came to Mills so I could talk and not have a man, and I know you’re not a man—” she began.
“Thank you,” said Cantlon.
“Not have a man stop me,” said the woman, “because he knew more than me.”
“I’m not a man, but thank you,” said Cantlon.
“I know you’re not a man,” the woman said. “But you still have enough of the background that you stop me when I try to speak.”
The discussion soon became chaotic, with multiple people in the audience and panel talking at the same time.
“What do we learn here as women? To speak up,” said Cantlon. “What do I get blamed for? Speaking up. How is your speaking up worse or better than mine? This is a real shadowy line, the history of speaking up.“
One of the next questions for Mills will be whether the new policy will encourage more transgender and gender fluid students to join this year’s round of applicants. “I truly don’t know how it will impact this year’s applicants,” said O’Rourke. “We don’t formally track because it would require us requiring students to self-identify—but anecdotally we believe we have about 3 to 5 applicants each year who inquiring into their eligibility.”
The new policy should make it a bit less stressful for any transgender or gender fluid students who are considering applying to Mills. “Transgender folks are just people, and they just wanted to be treated as such,” said Olivia Higgins, LGBTQ education consultant for the Oakland Unified School District. Higgins’ organization, Queerly Elementary, provides services and resources to help schools embrace diversity in sexual identity. “They face the same challenges as anybody else when preparing their college applications—making sure the essay is perfect and recommendations are prefect,” said Higgins of the next generation of college applicants. “That’s what any young person should be focusing on, not worrying about whether they will accepted for who they are.”
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