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Women’s Colleges Struggle With Transgender Issues

Women at College

Women’s colleges, established to provide educational opportunities to people who face gender discrimination, are finding themselves increasingly on the wrong side of history as they wrestle with the question of whether to admit women who are transgender.

Women’s colleges are often reliant on “Title IX” funding. Enacted by Congress in 1972, Title IX prohibits all discrimination on the basis of sex. However private institutions, that are single-sex colleges for women such as Smith College in Massachusetts, are exempted and set aside as women-only institutions. Recently, the Department of Education issued a ruling that transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX, theoretically at least, putting to bed fears that admitting students who aren’t “legally female” would cause them to forfeit their Title IX funding.

The issue of transgender students at women’s colleges was already a “fact on the ground” for many of these institutions as they have a growing number of students who are transgender men, students who when they first enrolled were biologically female, and then embarked on transitioning while enrolled in college.

Last year, Calliope Wong, a male-to-female transgender applicant to Smith College was rejected because a financial aid document listed her gender as male. Smith College’s rejection letter indicated that Ms. Wong needed to be “female” at the time of admission. Subsequent to the uproar that resulted when Wong’s rejection went public, Smith College amended their policy slightly, excluding documents that were not specifically related to the admission process such as financial aid documents and disability forms from review for gender non-conformity. The school still insists that all other documents must “reflect her status as a woman,” including school transcripts and letters of recommendation – a tall order given that most high schools refuse to make any changes to gender identification on student records.

The rules for changing gender on official documents varies widely state to state, and agency to agency, with most states requiring documentation that gender-reassignment surgery has been performed. Tennessee takes the incomprehensible position of refusing to change the gender listed on a birth certificate under any circumstances.

Transgender students who wish to be in compliance with documentation policies are caught between a rock and a hard place, as most medical practices will not perform a sex-change operation on those who are under 18 years of age.

Women’s colleges that have found themselves with FTM transgender males within their student bodies have made attempts to accommodate these now-male scholars, with gender-neutral bathrooms and by trying to incorporate more gender-neutral language into school communications. The irony of making changes to accommodate transgender men while excluding transgender women is indefensible.

Women’s colleges were founded to provide a high-quality education to those who were discriminated against based on their gender, and in order to live up to these ideals, they have a moral obligation to serve all women, including trans women.

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