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A (Hopefully) Inclusive Conversation About Right Relationships Between Cis and Trans Feminists

S. Yaeger's picture

Several weeks ago, a user of the website TUBLR posted about Bryn Mawr’s  policies regarding trans women.  She called the school out for a number of things.  Students, myself included, responded pretty quickly to defend the school and to explain that the Bryn Mawr community is largely welcoming to trans individuals. 

I have been thinking about the exchanges we had since then and I have come up with many questions.  When I was trying to decide what to do with this web event, I planned on writing a paper exploring my thoughts on a possible right relationship between cis feminist activists and trans feminist activists.  Then, the thought occurred to me that doing so would be a little pointless if there were no trans female voices involved.  I thought of the question recently raised in class about how to humanize someone you don’t know. 

So I contacted the trans woman who had posted on TUMBLR and asked her if I could interview her for my paper.  She agreed and I planned on interviewing her via email and writing a paper based on our interview.  Something about that didn’t seem quite right to me.  I had recently conducted interviews for a paper in another class and I hated the process of treating peoples’ narratives like data.  I hated the idea of creating a closed conversation that would then be  presented through the filter of me. 

So, I asked if we could talk via Serendip, and the young woman, Autumn, agreed.  I will be aking her questions below and she will be responding to them.  Hopefully this will enrich the conversation on campus and also help to create a better understanding for all involved.




Autumn, welcome to Serendip and thank you for agreeing to participate in this project with me.  To begin, can you offer us your ideas about Women’s Colleges and how they are exclusionary?  Also, what are your thoughts on the responses you received?


Anne Dalke's picture

"Discriminating Gender" Colleges?

S. Yaeger--
I'm struck, first, by your hatred of "creating a closed conversation that would then be  presented through the filter of me" ('filter of me' is such an interesting version of the language we've been using in the other class, that 'you're the research instrument'--since I don't see a way to not be a filter. But maybe that's an individual challenge, whereas moving into a form like this Serendip dialogue is part of a collective shift... which I think is pretty profound!)

The other structural issue here is the awkward unreadability/the out-of-orderedness of your dialogue--how to fix that? 

Moving on to the fascinating details of your and Autumn's conversation (welcome, Autumn!).... I think another possibility, aside from those the two of you are exploring here, is Judith Butler's idea (reported on in an interview in the College News this week) that we need to "enlarge the definition of woman," and to acknowledge that it, like all categories, is porous; that the identity "woman," like all identities, is transitional, contextual, fluid, revisable (I am thinking of the "wobbly" identity of so many youth today). That would be a challenge to the essentialist notion that any one is "really" one thing, occupies only one closed category.

I'm struck that Autumn, in advocating for the inclusion of transwomen @ BMC, leads w/ the declaration that transmen should be excluded; I'm also struck by S.Yaeger's notion that admitting any men would invalidate the category of a women's college (sounds like the old "one-drop" rule), though we already have men (faculty, staff, grad students, Haverford undergrads) here now; do you think that there a "tipping point" in this regard?

Finally, I'm intrigued by the notion of a "marginalized gender"-only college; how about, instead, we keep on working on making this a place that is welcoming to all people who have been discriminated against on the basis of gender? I'm thinking of the evolution of the field of Women's Studies to Feminist Studies to Gender Studies to Gender and Sexuality Studies...mightn't it be time for Women's Colleges to undergo (or name the fact that they have long been undergoing) such a shift?

Autumn's picture

I think the self-selection

I think the self-selection conflict comes down to what the school wants to be seen as. If the school would like to retain its women-only identification, it would need to allow trans women, while disallowing trans men and non-binaries. If the school allowed trans men and still identified as a women-only college, that would be equally cissexist in the notion that trans men are really still women. The second option, I guess, would be more of a "marginalized gender"-only college, in which only marginalized gender identities would be admitted, basically everyone except cis men. That is vague, however and in my opinion kind of impractical.
Self-selection does not matter much. The trans man is a man, and being a man, he has to realize he does have conditional male privilege. The trans man is not re-identifying himself by selecting the women-only college, in the same way that a cis man is not becoming a trans woman if he decided to apply to Bryn Mawr. In both scenarios, the applicants should be turned down to maintain the women-only space.

Autumn's picture

I think it's really up to the

I think it's really up to the school. If they would like to accept trans men and non-binary people, then they can't - or, shouldn't - call themselves a women only college, because that would be false. I see this as having two viable scenarios:
1. The college renounces its "women-only" status and accepts non-binary people and trans men, thus allowing everyone in. Because at that point, if you can allow trans men, you would theoretically also allow cis men. Unless the college decided to go in some sort of marginalized-gender/gender-identity-only route, which would still be legitimate, or
2. The college upholds it's women-only status and accepts trans women, still excluding trans men and non-binaries.

As to your question about self-selection, the person's identity is the same whether they choose the school or not. A cis man could apply to the college if he wanted to, but that doesn't mean he is able to be accepted. Likewise, a trans man can apply to a women-only college, but he should realize that because he is a man, he will not be accepted.

S. Yaeger's picture

Your response raises so many

Your response raises so many great questions about the ways in which gender is defined in the U.S.

1. I think, but am in no way certain, that the college would have to let go of its status as a womens' college if it allowed anyone who does not fit the "legal" defintion of female.  If that happened, the college would have to consider cis men for admission because, as I understand it, the only way to be exclusionary to any group is to exclude all of that group as it is legally defined. This is obviously problematic and  I'm really struggling to find out what, exactly, makes someone legally female, but I have a strong feeling that it is more related to birth assignment than identity.  Likewise, I have a feeling that the college can't legally challenge a trans or non binary student's application as long as they were assigned female at birth, or are still legally considered female.  (I'm still in the process of researching all this).  That kind of puts the college in a bit of a stranglehold. 

2. I'd rather see the inclusion of non binary individuals and trans men than the exclusion of them, but I would also like to see trans women included as well.  I think the idea of a school as a safe place for those whose gender is marginalized is a good one, but  I am not sure if that would be possible from a legal standpoint.

3. This leaves me with the question of legal definition. Do you think we will see, in our lifetimes, a change in legally defined gender to reflect the fluidity of gender?  What are some ways that you think people could be advocating for such a change?

Autumn's picture

1. I've heard that as well,

1. I've heard that as well, unfortunately. I think if the college would like to continue abiding the law, it should change its identification. As in, not call itself a women-only college and realize that either a) it is cissexist for naming itself as such and b) the law is cissexist for regulating it in that respect.

2. I'm not sure where I stand on whether all women or every marginalized identity is a better option. I think all of the groups do need a safe place, but an all-women approach is a really effective idea. I would feel sort of othered if the college decided that they have to let every marginalized gender in just because trans women wanted admission to the college.

3. I honestly doubt it. The commercialization of LGB rights effectively destroyed the future of all other GSM people (that's Gender & Sexual Minorities), because since other identities are now "obscure" and don't fall under the strict binary that the public has been taught, we are even further marginalized. In my opinion, the way to facilitate this change would be through support from the "LGBT" community, which is extremely cissexist and transmisogynistic. The trans community is a tiny one, and in order to overturn legal sex, it would have to then overturn birth assignment, which isn't legal, that's purely medical. Meaning we would have to petition national, maybe even international medical groups like the APA and whatnot. And those organizations are extremely cissexist - in fact, some of the worst cissexism and transmisogyny I have dealt with has been from medical and psychological "professionals".

Autumn's picture

Well first off, thank you so

Well first off, thank you so much for allowing me to share my views in a forum such as this.
Women-only college is an amazing idea. The problem is, most all of the colleges I have encountered that masquerade as "women-only" are not so. Many "women-only" colleges are extremely transmisogynistic and cissexist. I have heard, on a number of occasions, of these colleges allowing trans men or nonbinary people into their college, while still excluding trans women. First off, trans men and nonbinaries should not be allowed in the space if you would like to call yourself women-only (they do need a safe-space, yes, but they need one that reaffirms their identity). Secondly, trans women are a heavily victimized group of people, and a feminist-oriented college is a place where there is potential for safety and understanding of their situation. Not many places are safe for trans women (and I know this), and the fact that a college's doors are shut on them because of their gender identity is no way to be inclusive, it's no way to operate a "women-only" college in the slightest.

S. Yaeger's picture

One of the questions that

One of the questions that comes up for me out of your answer is the question of self selection.  If the trans men and non binary students at Bryn Mawr have self selected into the school with the knowlege that the school identifies as a women's only college, does the college's administration have a responsibility to re-indentify itself?  Or is the student body working to be inclusive and to acknowlege their gender enough?