Trans Women Are Not a Threat to the Mission of Women's Colleges, But Certain Feminists Are

(Photo: Meagan via Flickr)

2011 May Day Celebration at Bryn Mawr College.

The new New Republic is here. After a purge and exodus, the venerable institution purchased by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is back with a thoughtful piece by Monica Potts, initially published under the misleading title, “Trans Activism is Threatening Women’s Colleges’ Mission: Campus fights to erase references to women are indistinguishable from old-school misogyny.” (After ferocious pushback on Twitter and elsewhere, the piece was renamed: “Why Women's Colleges Still Matter in the Age of Transactivism.”) Other than the grammatically incorrect use of “transgendered” (Chris, have your editors use the GLAAD manual, please) this piece is spot-on—except not in the way the author intends.

A little history beyond that related by Potts would include the fact since the turn of the century, trans men have begun transitioning at women’s colleges. Seen as havens where women are safe from male violence, the number has likely increased since this New York Times Magazine article was published in 2008, and while some of the newly identified trans men transfer to co-ed schools, many have also stayed, and that number seems to be increasing. Initially on the defensive—after all, what is an administration to do when a female student chooses to transition?— these women’s havens have compassionately embraced their trans students. Yet, at the same time, they have made it difficult for the trans women to apply and be accepted, forcing them to vault a complex and confusing bureaucracy.

Today that is changing, most recently, as highlighted by Potts, in the case of her alma mater, Bryn Mawr, which has followed Mt. Holyoke, Mills and Simmons. But underlying this differential attitude towards trans men and women is the fundamental belief still present among many women, including lesbians (Smith has a long history as a haven for queer students), that trans women are really men while trans men are still women. Sometimes that is expressed explicitly; other times it is hidden under language that emphasizes socialization experiences and reproductive biology. Potts clearly falls into this camp when she says:

After all, those of us born with a vagina and uterus are the only ones who can be forced to carry a pregnancy to term by the anti-abortion laws sweeping the nation. Is that the sum total of what it means to be a woman? I hope not, but it’s an important part.

And then:

...the problems most women in America—who are born women [italics mine] raised in environments where people recognize only two genders, and are punished for the simple fact of their biology—continue to face.

This attitude is the residual of second-wave feminism, celebrated by Potts, who speaks glowingly of feminism and female leadership. This second wave includes transphobic academics such as Germaine Greer, Mary Daly, Julie Bindel, with Janice Raymond in the lead. Raymond, writing a government-commissioned report early in the Reagan administration, was instrumental in getting the federal government to cut any federal support for trans health care—and access by transgender people to other federal services, At a time there were extremely few out trans women, she wrote in her 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male:

…the issue of transsexualism has profound political and moral ramifications; transsexualism itself is a deeply moral question rather than a medical-technical answer. I contend that the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.

Women like Raymond, who called themselves feminists, poisoned the minds of many of the cisgender lesbians of my generation, by speaking of trans women as male predators, the “avant garde of the patriarchy invading women’s spaces,” and men out to rape lesbians. You can easily find the hate speech by Googling the acronym, TERF, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”

This growing list of women’s colleges being accepting of trans students is evidence of emergent understanding. For instance, there are icons from the 1960s, such as Gloria Steinem, who have repudiated their transphobic comments from the 70s.

Potts ends her essay with this statement:

Women-only institutions can welcome as many male or transgendered [sic] allies who want to join, but they have to support the idea that sometimes women can come first.

While she’s fundamentally wrong in considering trans women as men—this is not true biologically speaking, as gender identity (the sex of one’s brain) drives trans persons to transition, regardless of genital anatomy—I fully agree that “sometimes women can come first.” This is why I believe trans men have an ethical responsibility to transfer from women’s colleges upon completion of transition, just as the women’s colleges have an obligation to admit qualified trans women.

This takes me to Potts’s opinion about inclusivity, which means, as she states beautifully:

Every single work of art—every single institution, every group—can’t be about every person. Inclusivity should mean that every person is allowed to have a dialogue with it, to interrogate it, comment on it, and have the space to create their own art or institution or group to stand beside it.

I agree that the trans men have no justification for demanding the language be changed from sisterhood to siblinghood, or the genderqueer to demand the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Unless the college as a whole decides to become a “college for people of marginalized genders,” which would be an interesting experiment, demanding such can be viewed as misogynistic. But women who are trans, demanding to be seen and respected as women, are not being misogynistic.

I’ve written about the debate surrounding The Vagina Monologues at Mt. Holyoke, the incident related to language used by Planned Parenthood and NARAL, and the underlying recrudescence of political correctness among some younger trans activists. There is a growing environment of self-victimization, with hypersensitivity to triggers and microaggressions, but not all young trans activists in the privileged world of academia fall into that trap.

For me, a proud woman of intersex and trans history, who was born with male genitals as well as a uterus and a female gender identity, I know better than most just how complicated the intersection of the biological and social is in reality. As the first elected trans official in NOW history, I can appreciate the evolution of the women’s movement and the understanding many feminists have today which inspires their political work on behalf of the trans community. We are natural allies, cis and trans women, straight and gay, and we will be much stronger together than apart. We trans women can do our share by accepting the welcoming inclusivity of our sisters without demanding that the language used by women focus on us, and be about us. We can afford to set aside our particularity when needed in support of the universality of women’s liberation and equality.



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