For many students, senior year of high school is a waiting game to hear back from colleges and universities. High school senior Calliope Wong’s first choice was Smith College, an all women’s school in Massachusetts. But, twice, Smith College Admissions rejected Calliope’s application without being read. The reason? Calliope is a male-to-female transgender woman, who has identified as female through her adolescence.
Yet, to be recognized as a female in her home state of Connecticut, Calliope would have to undergo sexual confirmation surgery: a costly procedure that is not often a realistic option for a teenager. Without this change, Smith College’s current policies make it impossible for Calliope to attend.
The Smith College website offers multiple resources for current students who identify as transgender, and states that, “Smith does not maintain records related to the gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation of its students. Once admitted, any student who completes the college’s graduation requirements will be awarded a degree.”
However, their current policies in place for admission prevent transgender women from attending. Smith further provides a policy regarding women who change their gender identity while enrolled. “As a women’s college, Smith only considers female applicants for undergraduate admission.” Calliope described Smith’s policy as “essentially gate keeping twofold.” Smith does not have any clear criteria for their definition of female, and requires all documents submitted by the student to read “female,” which can cause serious issues with legal documents, such as the FASFA.
After communicating with the Dean of Admissions over the summer between her junior and senior year, Calliope was told that she would be able to attend Smith if she submitted her application with her gender declared as female. Calliope posted on her personal blog that the dean wrote to her, “It seems to me that if your teachers provide the language you suggest, all your pronouns would be female and therefore consistent with what Smith is expecting.”
On March 5, Calliope’s application was returned to her with a letter from the Dean of Admissions, reading,
“We are returning your application for admission…As you may remember from our previous correspondence, Smith is a women’s college, which means that undergraduate applicants to Smith must be female at the time of admission. Our expectation is that it is consistently reflected through the application that the student is a woman. Upon reviewing your file, this is not the case. Your FAFSA indicates your gender as male. Therefore, Smith cannot process your application.”
While Smith was her first choice, there are other schools Calliope is interested in attending.
Back in Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, an all women’s school in the seven sister consortium with Smith, also has language in their policies which could prevent transgender women from attending. A 2011 interview with the college’s admissions office by a Bryn Mawr student revealed that only cisgender women are eligible for admission at the school. Yet, transgender men are eligible if their legal documentation lists them as female. “The policy is basically to have no policy, from what I understand. Everything is dealt with on a ‘case by case’ basis,” said Bryn Mawr student and former BMC Rainbow Alliance President Maria Aghazarian.
Bryn Mawr students are taking steps towards making the school accessible to all women, either cisgender or transgender. A Bryn Mawr student drafted a potential resolution to the university’s policies, which would allow the admission of transgender women without their gender being reflected in all legal documentation.
A Smith College group, Q&A, hosted a letter writing and photo campaign on March 13, where students at the school wrote to administrators regarding the decision to not review Calliope’s application, and took pictures of themselves holding signs in support of admitting transgender women. A Facebook group titled “Trans Women Belong at Smith College,” has garnered the attention of current students, alumni, and students at other women’s colleges. You can check out the photo campaign online here.
The complications of legal gender can put transgender women at a major disadvantage. Women’s college admissions processes which necessitate that all legal documents read “female” are essentially requiring applicants to drop their pants at the door. It’s not realistic to expect young transgender women to have undergone full gender confirmation surgeries at the age of seventeen or eighteen, and they should not be denied equal access to women’s spaces because they have not. Having gender reassignment surgeries are major and costly procedures, and not every transgender individual finds it necessary or desirable to do so. It’s a serious problem that bottom surgery is required to legally change one’s gender to female in many states, and institutions of higher education must work to overcome this inequality, rather than reinforcing it.
There will be other great schools for Calliope, but the unique perspective and talents she could have offered the Smith College community are now lost to them.
Photos courtesy of Smith College Q&A. Image of Smith College Admission letter is from Calliope Wong.