When you create an account on the Common App, you must select your sex. An info button says that federal guidelines mandate this to be the “legal sex” of all applicants—the one on their birth certificate. There is an option to “provide more details about your sex or gender identity” in the additional information section.
Having selected “male,” one cannot apply to Barnard using the Common App: a little notice in red pops up saying “Barnard College is a female-only college.” An option to “request information,” redirects you to a Barnard page whose blurb ends: “Note that Barnard is a College for Women.”
For a woman whose birth certificate says male, though, disappointment is likely.
While Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, California, runs into the same “female only” issue on the Common App as Barnard, the college’s website encourages applicants to contact the admissions office to get around this or other conflicts between “the student's self-identified gender and the gender that appears on legal documentation.” Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts, which wrote a similar policy, states that the admissions office “knows only if an applicant identifies as transgender.” Scripps, the women’s college in the five-college Claremont, CA consortium, requires that your common app gender be listed as female, but allows contradictions between that designation and other legal documentation. At Barnard, there are no such assurances.
Students for a Trans-Inclusive Barnard (STIB), founded in October, wrote a petition (technically a ‘statement of support’) last semester asking Barnard to write a policy explicitly stating that transgender women are welcome to apply to, and attend, the College. This semester will see a series of town halls (open only to Barnard students, parents and “alumnae”) and an online comment form (open to Columbia at large) in the run-up to Barnard’s trustees making a final decision. The town halls will be closed to students without a BCID; since there are no trans women on Barnard’s campus, the issue will be decided without their direct input.
“It’s a little awkward for me to have the humanity of people like me, and our sense of belonging, be part of a campus conversation,” said Jennifer Finney Boylan, Barnard’s Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence, who will teach two creative writing classes at Barnard per year from this semester. Professor Boylan, a transgender woman, said she hoped that “people will be respectful and understand that these are people’s actual lives we’re talking about.”
It's unclear whether Barnard has ever considered, or even received, an application from a trans woman. According to Admissions, at present admission for transgender students is “decided on a case-by-case basis.” According to Lhana Ormenyi, BC ’17 and STIB member, this rule “isn’t good enough, because of the difficulty it takes to change your legal gender, to have all that paperwork.”
Many states will not allow a person to change their gender marker on their birth certificate, or require therapy, hormones, or other medical procedures. According to an ‘FAQ’ Google doc issued by STIB, it “comes down to two main blocks: parental support and finances,” which are especially hard to secure by the end of high school. For this reason, says Lhana, “It's really important that Barnard follows the models like Mills and creates a policy that allows for the admission of trans women.”
Lhana personally would like to see a policy that, like Mount Holyoke’s, “basically includes anyone but cis men [biological men who identify as men] and leaves room for people who are assigned female at birth but don’t identify as such.” As she put it in her response to the STIB online survey: “The reasoning for this is simple: trans women, trans men, non-binary people, and cis women all face gender-based oppression and deserve a space that affirms their identity and their right to explore and investigate gender, both theoretically and personally.”
The other colleges that have adopted a policy have taken Lhana’s stance: they explicitly state that people assigned female at birth who identify as male or gender nonconforming are welcome to apply. Dean Spade,a Barnard alum affiliated with Columbia Law School who is known for transgender activism, gave a talk at Barnard in April 2014 (titled “Gender & Barnard: What Does it Mean to be a Women’s College?”) in which he said: “Trans people are gender oppressed people, and that’s what I see a big part of being a women’s college is about.” Women’s colleges are often perceived as safer for gender minorities; the recent policies at women’s colleges have officially endorsed that.
However, the petition put forward by STIB refers only to trans women. Given that the final decision rests with the trustees, Lhana said of STIB’s petition that “there is definitely a worry that we don’t want to confuse the administration, to be honest. We’re taking it one step at a time.” But the petition does not dictate the form of the policy, and should they choose to write one, the trustees can include applicants with identities other than female.
Mills College was the first to write an official policy in August. It states that the college shall not discriminate against applicants whose gender identity does not correspond to their legally assigned sex, and that Mills “admits self-identified women and people assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary.”
Meanwhile, at Mount Holyoke, a policy written in September outlines a list of people eligible for admission. In addition to those people included in the Mills policy, Mount Holyoke’s also explicitly allows any applicant who is “biologically born female; identifies as a man” and “biologically born male; identifies as other/they/ze.” The list of people not eligible for admission reads “Biologically born male; identifies as a man.” This is also the position taken by Scripps, which in December 2014 adopted a policy accepting applicants who “report that the sex currently listed on their birth certificate is female” and/or those “who self identify as women.” Government issued documentation is not required to verify sex or gender identity.
Janet Jakobsen, a professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies and director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), said, “I know that there’s been some conversation between women’s colleges, as there naturally would be. You kind of feel like maybe you could come to some agreement. But each situation is different, like our situation in the classroom is different. Our relationship to Columbia is different.”
Professors Jakobsen and Boylan see the Barnard-Columbia relationship as proof that writing a transgender admissions policy would not lead to any changes at Barnard. The way Professor Jakobsen sees it, “The full range of gender expressions is in our classrooms and we need to be aware of that.” If the policy comes in to place, she said, “It’s not as if we are suddenly going to be admitting gender nonconforming students. We have many gender nonconforming students right now. They have historically been part of our community.”
Professor Boylan also pointed to the Barnard-Columbia relationship. “There’s definitely a boogey man that usually people in conservative circles like to raise, the issue of ‘a man in the women’s room,’ some sort of predator. And that’s really something that doesn’t exist, and people need to let go of that,” she said. “If you go to Barnard now, you’re likely to be in a class, for one thing, with Columbia men.”
However, with regard to the Barnard-Columbia relationship, Professor Jakobsen said she had heard arguments that writing a policy might entail specific legal issues for Barnard. She added, however, that she hadn’t seen proof that this is the case. An FAQ put out by STIB cited the Harvard Law Review and Mount Holyoke in its statement that “The concern that women’s colleges can’t admit trans women because of Title IX has no basis in the actual law.” However, the note sent to “members of the Barnard community” by President Spar announcing the town halls mentioned “legal issues” and Barnard’s “legal dedication to educating only women” as considerations to be explored. Dean Spade says in a video hosted on BCRW’s website: “there are often a lot of ‘legal reasons’ why change can’t happen, [but] there’s usually something you can fight.”
With regard to the legality of a policy addressing the eligibility of trans men and gender-nonconforming people, Barnard’s former president, Judith Shapiro, referenced legal issues in a November 2014 essay for Inside Higher Ed (titled “I am Woman. Hear Me Reason”). Rather typically of much of the press surrounding the issue of trans admission at women’s colleges, the focus was not on trans women: “One can well understand why a women’s college would want to be open to them,” she wrote. Much of the article instead looked at the “general category of biological/anatomical women who already self-identify as men by the time they apply to college.” Shapiro stated that while women’s colleges would have no legal basis for denying admission to such students, there might be “philosophical” reasons for doing so.
Shapiro concluded that should a college “decide that gender as a basis for admission [...] no longer makes sense in this day and age,” they “could then decide that it no longer wishes to be a women’s college.”
Professor Jakobsen rejected Shapiro’s position, pointing to Scripps’ statement on their policy as proof of overcoming the “X or Y, oversimplified” logic whereby “it is either trans inclusion or women’s college.” The way Professor Jakobsen sees it, “We’ve developed ways of thinking about what the openness of our campus means while at the same time being a women’s college,” she said, “so I don’t actually think that that’s a real stretch for us. For other places, I don’t know, but for us, I don’t think that it has to be.”
The percentage of a potential incoming class whose admission would be dependent on such a policy would undoubtedly be small, although Lhana said she “wouldn’t call it [the drive for a policy] fringe”. But the implications are potentially large. There are currently several trans masculine-identified people at Barnard, and have been for some time, without causing a Barnard identity crisis. Since there is no official policy, Barnard has not had to acknowledge that fact and define its approach.
It is for this reason that some commentators have seen the act of writing a policy as a public articulation of precisely how an institution defines a women’s college. Professor Jakobsen pointed to a recent New York Times Magazine article as an example of that kind of reasoning. The article discussed how Mills recently changed its chant from “Strong women! Proud women! All women! Mills women!” to “Strong! Proud! All! Mills!” Maddy Popkin, BC ’14 and former SGA president, suggested in an October 2014 Spectator interview that Barnard could embrace the “strong, smart Barnard student” over the “bold, beautiful Barnard woman.” That idea is perhaps more contentious than the idea of strong Mills students, since Barnard’s historical distinction among the Columbia undergraduate colleges relies on a particular idea of “woman” as a separate and definable entity.
According to Lhana, who is co-director of “Beyond Cis-terhood,” this year’s gender-inclusive V-Day production, the historical idea of woman can and should be redefined. “What we’re trying to investigate is what this idea of sisterhood means—especially with a women’s college that goes back 150 years. How does this legacy change?” She said the petition was absolutely part of that effort.
Professor Boylan, when asked whether there could be a conflict between two elements of Barnard’s mission statement—its stated aim to educate “young women” specifically and its “responsibility to address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency,” said, “We’re getting a little bit into the mandate of Barnard, and I want to be respectful of the community I’m joining.”
She instead stressed the fact that when discussing this issue, the need for a women’s college should not be overlooked. As a professor of English, she said, “When I came out as a woman [...] I didn’t command the room in the same way I did when I was a boy. If people think the fight for equality is over, they’re just not paying close enough attention. As long as women are not equal, the fight goes on, and from the standpoint of transgender women and transgender people, there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
“If you’re a trans person, going through transition can be the great dragon you have to slay in your life,” she said. From the point of view of a trans woman, she said, “I think to be welcomed in a community of women, to learn what it means to be part of a community of women, would be incredibly powerful. I should say, not only for transgender women but for all women.”
She added, “The good thing about this conversation is that we can think about what it means to be a woman in this culture, at Barnard, at Columbia. I hope that we come out on the other side of this a stronger community, a place that celebrates the complexity of women’s lives and what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.”
“We are still a women’s college—that isn’t necessarily going to change,” said Lhana, “but the meaning of sisterhood and womanhood is going to evolve.