Dean Spade on Trans Students at Women’s Colleges

On Wednesday, April 9th, Barnard alum Dean Spade spoke at Student Government Association (SGA) town hall. At the event, entitled “Gender & Barnard: What Does it Mean to be a Women’s College?” Spade discussed the implications of Barnard’s policy of only admitting students who are legally recognized as women. After a Q&A session, the audience members broke out into small group discussions facilitated by members of FemSex, where we discussed the steps Barnard can and should take to make the campus more accommodating for trans students. As it currently stands, Barnard’s policy regarding admitting trans students is “determined on a case by case basis,” as Dean Fondiller, an enrollment administrator, stated at a recent SGA meeting. For students, this means that all documentation, including financial aid, must indicate that they are legally considered female.

Dean of the College Avis Hinkson, and Dean of Student Life Alina Wong were both in attendance. This conversation is one of many in the context of a national conversation about trans admission to women’s colleges, such as the ongoing discussion at Smith. Many members of the audience were deeply engaged, as the forum was the largest event here that placed the issue of trans students’ rights at the forefront of the discussion.

Dean Spade spoke about the enormous violence and discrimination that trans women confront on a daily basis—an experience that Janet Mock, CeCe McDonald, and other trans women and gender nonconforming panelists discussed recently at the Redefining Realness Salon honoring Mock. Barnard, whose mission claims to provide an education to those who face gender oppression, effectively perpetuates and condones the violence against trans people in denying them admission to the college. Spade addressed the practice of accepting trans women based on their legal status, stating that legal measures are inaccurate and inaccessible. In addition to the ways trans people are denied access to services and face barriers in applying for governmental documentation, Spade emphasized that there is no such thing as “legal gender” and that standards and regulations on changing gender differ from state to state.

Opponents of changing the admissions policy have suggested that in order to accommodate trans women, Barnard would be forced to change its status as a women’s college. Spade questioned the legality of that argument, and said that ultimately, “Barnard should fight those fights:”

Colleges such as Mount Holyoke have argued that admitting trans women who are not legally identified as women would result in the loss of Title IX funding. As students seeking to alter the administration’s policy, however, we can look to other women’s colleges such as Mills College, which is currently pushing to implement policies that admit trans women while preserving their Title IX status.

Spade addressed what he sees as the importance and relevance of women’s colleges, citing ongoing gender oppression in higher education, women’s marginalization in classroom and academic settings, and the gendered pay gap. Spade noted that women’s colleges are a strategy for addressing these issues and providing resources to people facing these particular forms of oppression. However, the problem with the current policies of women’s colleges is that they rely on a definition of “woman” that is transphobic and contributes to the danger and violence that trans women face every day:

Spade ultimately urged students to recall the rich history of activism at Barnard and Columbia and reinvoke those tactics. While this occurs on various levels throughout campus, student activists must constantly strive to promote solidarity across groups, and this town hall provided a rare space in which numerous voices—those of activists, less politically active students, and administrators alike—could openly discuss the trans rights in our own community. Spade addressed the issue of institutional memory, arguing that the lessons learned in activism of decades past must inform students wishing to mobilize around this issue today.

And as we struggle against a transphobic admissions policy that blatantly denies the legitimacy of people’s self-identification, it is imperative that while we may find allies within the administration, we remain uncompromising with the college. As Barnard students, we do not support the administration’s replication of a culture of transphobia and state practices that refuse trans individuals equal access to higher education.

You can watch the full-length video of Spade’s talk here:

Ruth Uruchima is a junior at Barnard majoring in political science and concentrating on race and ethnicity, and Emilie Segura is a senior at Barnard majoring in sociology. Both are BCRW Research Assistants. 

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