That Happened: Smith College Rejects a Transgender Student


ColumnChecking a box on a government form doesn’t make you a man.

While I was a student at Smith College in the late ‘90s, there were rumblings about whether a woman who had started identifying as male should be allowed to stay in school. There were debates about why someone who didn’t want to be a woman should be allowed at a women’s college. With perspective, I can see that I didn’t know shit.

As this woman was coming to the realization that she identified as male, or more likely, was finally in a place where she felt safe enough to live as she was, who were any of us to say she didn’t want to be a woman? To make a safe place unsafe? I was annoyed that the T was tacked onto the LGB. Didn’t we have enough problems without adding in a group even more stigmatized than we were, I thought?

To be fair, at 19, my understanding of transgender could be summed up in two words: drag queen. I didn’t have the exposure or information that I have now, but I am still ashamed to have had any question in my mind about whether or not this student should have been on campus. I even am more ashamed of Smith. It seems, despite the fact that kids are transitioning younger and younger and gender is increasingly seen as fluid, Smith has gained no perspective in the intervening years. A recent 17-year-old applicant from Connecticut, Calliope Wong, was denied a review of her application because she was born a male.

Calliope’s social security information identifies her as male, so her federal application for student financial aid form does as well—this, not discrimination, is the issue, according to the College. “Someone whose paperwork consistently reflects female identity will be considered for admission,” Laurie Fenlason, Smith’s vice president for public affairs, told ABC News.

The college says it allows students to transition from female to male after being accepted. But, the school doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with that policy either. Last year, the administration did not allow male transgender student tour guides to host prospective students overnight.

As one professor rightfully said when asked about the Calliope Wong situation, Smith has always been at the forefront of challenging gender roles and supporting lesbian and bisexual students. I think Smith should stay at the forefront, not hide behind paperwork and tighten its pearls.

I understand why Smith is seeking a definitive standard. Relying on how a person is legally categorized keeps the school from having to review applications from men who live as men, just want to go to Smith and say they identify as women (a small group, I’d assume). But this is a blanket approach to a problem that has already been solved by the admissions process itself.

At any school, judgment and opinion play a part. Kick-ass test scores, a 4.3 GPA and a four-page extracurricular resume don’t guarantee anyone a spot at Smith—and not having those things doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection letter. I never would have gotten into the school if the admissions team defined me by my credentials alone. As a transfer student, I wasn’t your typical well-rounded type-A Smithie, but I wrote a good essay, was passionate about the school and lucky enough to interview with someone who saw something in me.

Admissions officers are tasked with building a diverse student body that meets the school’s academic standards. So, if applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis as the college says they are, I think it’s safe to assume that a frat boy who calls himself Mary and applies for fun would be easy to identify. It should also, then, be easy for the admissions team to identify someone like Calliope who might miss the mark in one area—being born a woman—and make the judgment call that she’d be a good addition to the school.

While I was at Smith, one of our constant complaints was that the campus was a bubble; we felt we were all living in a fantasy world where everyone was at least a little queer. What I realize now is that the bubble didn’t exist for everyone—and the place I idealized is actually still just a fantasy.

Smith can talk about semantics and point at paperwork all day long. Students can spend Friday tea (yes, that still happens and it’s awesome) debating the finer points of what makes a woman a woman, but the solution is easy: trust women. Trust that women like Calliope cannot be defined by a box on a government form. None of us can.

Image: Daniela Vladimirova