California’s Mills College has become the first all-women’s university to explicitly state it welcomes self-identifying women whether they were birth assigned female or are women who went through or are in the process of gender affirmation treatment, a landmark moment for trans inclusion in higher education.
The policy, which is the first of its kind among the 119 single-sex colleges for men or women around the country, went into force on August 27 and means that any young trans woman who has applied to the college will no longer be barred from entering the single-sex institution.
The new policy states that applicants who weren’t “assigned to the female sex at birth” but who self-identify as women are welcome. Perhaps even more impressively, the policy states that applicants “who do not fit into the gender binary” are eligible if they were assigned female at birth.
In fact, the policy is just as kind to trans men. While those who transitioned prior to enrolling will not be admitted, those who were already enrolled in Mills prior to transitioning will be allowed to stay on their course and can graduate. No longer, then, will they face the prospect of having to forfeit their education to live gender-aligned.
Estimates suggest that at Mills there are about three to five undergraduates every year who either identify as trans or something other than their birth-assigned sex. The new policy is actually not the start of Mills’ accepting atmosphere. Students say that Mills has run this kind of policy for a while, but this marks the first time it has been codified, a process that carries its own value for prospective students.
Brian O’Rourke, vice president of enrollment and admissions at Mills, spoke about that with SF Gate, saying: “The purpose of the policy is that we didn’t want students to feel excluded in the application process…and reaching out to a stranger in an admissions office can exacerbate that stress.” As such, having the policy written down makes a clear statement that the student will be welcome and can open up about her or his identity.
This move though was actually prompted by Smith University’s rejection of a student on grounds that she wasn’t birth-assigned female. Smith, which has developed a reputation as an institution for encouraging strong women, rejected Calliope Wong when she attempted enrolling because, despite having evidence of her commencing a gender affirmation, her federal financial papers listed her birth assigned sex as male — thus speaking to two problems, one about Smith and the second about the still cumbersome lengths one must go to change gender markers.
A year on and Smith, while saying it continues to look at the issue, has so far refused to budge. Its current policy says it expects applicants’ transcripts and financial documents to reflect the applicants “status as a woman.” Defining trans women out of that is obviously prejudiced and has sparked a backlash among pupils and some members of the faculty.
Trans students may face a number of challenges when attending university. If they are subject to sex-segregated facilities in co-ed universities they may have to fight to use the gendered facilities that align with their presentation, a battle that can disclose their past to other students and lead to harassment and discrimination.
They may also face the challenge of finding universities that can cover their transition-related medical care — for instance, finding on campus counselors who are able to give trans affirming care. They might also have concerns about gender affirming housing, gender affirming athletics programs and more.
That said, there are a number of co-ed universities that already provide this kind of inclusion and, if you are a prospective student who is trans or does not fit the gender binary, you can find help and more resources here.
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