Barnard professor Dean Spade argues that transgender students should be admitted to women’s colleges and students should support this through activism.
One of the key questions that has emerged in the ongoing movement for equal rights for trans people is whether women’s colleges should admit transgender and gender noncomforming students.
Barnard College was built on Lenape land. It exists in a country that was established as a settler-colonialist project to push the original inhabitants off their land through violence and ethnic cleansing and to use the labor of enslaved people to build institutions, including colleges and universities, to benefit white people. This is important because universities and colleges are a political topic: how and why they were built, who they admit, what they teach, what kinds of jobs they’re preparing students for. The project of a university was designed and is constantly being redesigned, including with feminist resistence from the beginning, such as the movement to admit black women.
What is the role of universities?
Universities are places where policies and innovations are developed, including economic and foreign policy that can significantly harm people. They are also places of active resistance, on topics such as standardized testing, curriculum, ethnic studies and women’s studies, faculty hiring, the relationships between universities and the communities they exist in, and where universities invest their money.
Barnard has to choose constantly who it is going to serve. Is it about serving the Lenape people, or immigrants? Is it about New York City, or is it national? These questions are the responsibility of the people at the universities, who got the chance to attend.
There is still intense marginalization of women in higher education, including sexual assault, classroom marginalization, exclusion from STEM, pay disparities and tenure disparities (especially with women of color). These disparities mean that we still want to have places of higher education to give focus and resources to issues of gender oppression. Women’s education isn’t the only way to do that, but it does have a role to play.
Women’s colleges do not admit transgender women
But one problem with women’s education in the US is that women’s colleges don’t admit transgender women. This is part of the fundamental message of transphobia, which is that trans people are not who they say they are; right now, women’s colleges in the US are saying that to trans women. That is an urgent problem.
One of the things that some of the colleges are saying is that they will let people in if their documents say F. This is wrong for a number of reasons. For one, every identity document-issuing agency in the United States has its own rule about whether and how to change your gender on your document. This includes drivers licenses, birth certificates, benefits cards – every state and agency has their own rules about changing your gender on your documents, and there is no one “legal gender.”
Second, people who are college-aged are very unlikely to be able to change their documents, because many of the agencies require documentation of healthcare that young people, low-income people, people of color, disabled people don’t have equal access to. Much of this healthcare also requires parental consent, and many trans people don’t have support from their parents, especially at a young age.
Lastly, feminists don’t believe the government tells you what gender is! That’s not a principled approach to the project of education against gender oppression.
The argument to admit transgender students
So why should trans people be at Barnard? First, because trans women are women, they are who they say they are. But also because trans people are gender-oppressed, intensely poor, and highly criminalized because of gender oppression – that’s a group of people Barnard should be making space for, because the women’s college is supposed to be about serving those who are gender-oppressed.
Some statistics about the broader context of trans people, from a big survey about the experiences of trans people: 78% of people had been harassed during their K-12 experience, and 35% had been assaulted. 15% dropped out because of that harassment. 90% of trans people have experienced some form of discrimination at their job, or have had to hide their identity in order to prevent discrimination.
Trans people experience double the unemployment rate of the general population, and trans people of color have four times the unemployment rate of the general population. 26% of trans people have lost their job because of their gender, and fifth of trans people have been homeless.
Transgender students fit with Barnard’s stance on gender discrimination
Because Barnard wants to be serving people who experience gender discrimination and giving them access to higher education, it should be admitting trans women.
This isn’t the first time feminism has failed some women, excluded some women, or declared an inaccurately universal experience of womanhood. This has excluded women of color and disabled women, among others. Women’s colleges shouldn’t be trying to use gender definitions or define educating gender-oppressed people using definitions from government or other conservative institutions.
Women’s colleges’ real, aspirational purpose, is to try to serve people who are underserved in higher education. We want to say “how can Barnard be thinking always about how to provide education to people who experience gender oppression and its complicated interactions with colonialism, racism, capitalism, ableism, etc, or who experience hostility within Barnard?”
At the very least, Barnard shouldn’t enforce a deadly transphobic policy of excluding trans women. The logic that says trans people aren’t who they say they are is the same logic that produces marginalization and early death for trans people. We don’t want this institution to align with that deadly logic.
Toward an anti-oppression environment
So it’s key that we not only end that policy but also produce a campus environment of anti-oppression work in which trans students who come here don’t experience discrimination from faculty, staff, and other students. But you also can’t use the need to change the environment as an excuse not to change the admittance policy yet.
Some thoughts on student activism. We live in an era of intense depoliticization of campuses, because of the history of student activism challenging the powerful. They don’t want you to be active, and they’re trying to neutralize student activism. It’s important to study the history of student activism internationally, in New York City, and at Barnard and Columbia specifically. And to figure out what skills people have and what understand they have about how to change things on campus. It’s a trap to say that you have too much work to do activism. The activism is your work. Taking responsibility for the institution and the city is your work.
Q&A with Dean Spade
Q: How would you respond to the argument that’s been about the risk of Barnard losing their legal Title IX status if it were to admit trans women.
A: I think that they should fight. There’s a lot of fear around it, and I wonder if those fears are overstated. If Barnard admits women who previously had not been admitted, they’re admitting women – there’s no single legal standard about who’s a woman. There’s a lot of ways Barnard could support those women who come, and there’s usually something to fight.
Q: What does it say about power in this room when there is no opposing viewpoint to yours being offered?
A: I think that when you invite a speaker to share their thoughts, that’s what they do. The question of power is interesting because I’m standing in an institution with a policy that’s in opposition to what I’m saying, so I’m bringing a resistant view. But you totally don’t have to agree with it, but you all invited me to share my views and that’s why I’m here.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences at Barnard and the kinds of activism you participated in as a student here?
A: I didn’t do anything about this when I was at Barnard. A lot of my focus was on off-campus activism, but I learned a lot from feminist professors here. I wasn’t aware of this issue when I went here, so for me it’s been a learning process. This is coming up at women’s colleges in a different way in part because of where the trans movement is now versus where it was in the 90s when I was here. And I think it’s exciting to see that change.
Q: I’ve heard since my first year two responses to the idea of admitting trans women to women’s colleges. First, “yeah we should admit trans women but we shouldn’t admit trans men or masculine non-gender-identifying folks.” And also “no we shouldn’t, but we should be more of an open space to work with trans men and women on campus.” Could you speak to better ways to respond to those arguments rather than getting defensive?
A: First of all, so sorry someone told you you shouldn’t be here. For me, if the question is about gender oppression and people who are marginalized by various forms of gender discrimination, gender nonconforming people, are part of that. So for me, a principled position is we’re creating a space for people who experience gender discrimination in higher ed, so that includes people who’ve gone through K-12 as girls, as gender nonconforming people, as trans people, who’ve had this range of experiences that comes from living in an environment that tries to dictate gender identity and expression.
So someone who’s a trans man has the weight of transphobia and patriarchy throughout his life, and can benefit from a place that centers feminist and anti-transphobic analysis. If Mills [College] is admitting trans women without regard to paperwork, that’s great, that’s a model other women’s colleges should follow.
The whole question of “sneaking into Columbia”… the whole world of higher ed is so racist and sexist and hierarchical… the implication that people will use trans identity to sneak into school is a transphobic stereotype. That’s not a reason to keep trans people out. That’s a typical red herring on any issue of transphobia: bathrooms, airport security – the implication is that if there’s one trans person with bad intentions, all trans people should be punished and denied access.
What Dean Spade advocates for transgender students
Dean Spade argues that trans women (and trans and gender nonconforming people) should be admitted to women’s colleges for two reasons. First, trans women are women, and to deny them access or to require difficult-to-acquire government documentation of gender is transphobic. Second, women’s colleges are spaces to combat gender oppression and provide resources and access for those who face gender discrimination in higher education, which trans men and gender nonconforming people, as well as trans women, certainly face.
Questions about transgender students to discuss on Ohlelo:
- What is your view on Dean Spade’s arguments about why trans and gender nonconforming people should be admitted to women’s colleges?
- What questions would you have asked him on this topic?
- Has there been progress on this issue since 2014, when Dean Spade gave this talk?
- What other forms of oppression do trans people face and what activism and/or policy is attempting to address them?
- How can feminism be more inclusive for trans women and gender nonconforming people?