April 15, 2005

"If they want to be boys, they should go to a co-ed school."

What should be done at Smith, which has always been an all-female college, about students, born female, who take on a male, transgendered identity? The Financial Times has an interesting article.
”If they want to be boys, they should go to a co-ed school,” says one alumnus from the 1990s, who did not wish to be named for fear of being labelled intolerant. “Women go to Smith because they only want to learn with other women.”

For these students, who pay $37,000 a year in tuition fees, Smith is first and foremost for women. Women, they say, learn better without the distractions of male classmates, and if an all-women college accepts, teaches and graduates male students, it will go down the path of the other “seven sister” colleges and lose an invaluable part of its heritage. Women’s colleges are an endangered species - Sarah Lawrence and Vassar have gone co-ed and Radcliffe has been subsumed by its former brother school, Harvard.
But the traditionalists at Smith -- according to the article -- are not the dominant culture:
For those students from the progressive, feminist tradition of Steinem and Friedan, Smith’s transgender students fit naturally on a campus that has long been tolerant of sexual difference. Notably tolerant. When the widely read Princeton Review of US colleges is released each year, Smith is regularly rated one of the top 10 most “gay friendly” colleges in the country. Students joke that the college’s motto should be “Queer in a year or your money back”. The campus has long been home to organisations such as the Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Alliance’s Women of Colour Committee. The National Enquirer tabloid once dubbed Smith’s hometown of Northampton “Lesbianville USA” because of its visible population of gay women. (One Smith student told me it is the only place in the US where local 14-year-old boys are mistaken for university students.)

37 comments:

Nick said...

At the risk of sounding interollerant...

"Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Alliance’s Women of Colour Committee."

Shouldn't that be the Handicapped Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Alliance’s Women of Colour Committee? Let's not leave anyone out after all.

Art said...

This article should provide a week's worth of material for Rush Limbaugh. Come to think of it, it will probably provide a week's worth of material for Howard Stern

Richard Fagin said...

A statue of Calvin Coolidge looks out on the Smith campus in downtown Northampton. Couldn't happen to a nicer group of young women. "The business of America IS business", right there in the middle of Marxatopia.

Not Happy said...

At the risk of sounding like a pedant, the FT reporter should have referred to the Smith graduate as an alumna, not an alumnus, since this graduate is presumably female and not transgendered.

On a less trivial and annoying note, I'd say that although these Smith traditionalists appear to be your typical intolerant "progressives", it really doesn't matter if they get their way there. After all, it's a private school, and if they wish to make it a citadel of petty hate and radical feminism, that's their business.

Pancho said...

So....in other words if I'm born "male" but suddenly discover that I'm a transgendered "female" I should have no problem getting into Smith.

Not Happy said...

Another thing: Has anyone else noted how silly the expression "of color" is? It means the same thing as "colored", doesn't it? But the expression "colored women" is considered offensive while "women of color" isn't? That's absurd. The two expressions are identical except for a slight grammatical alteration. One might as well say that the expression "American people" is offensive while "people of America" isn't.

nappy40 said...

"Of color" does not mean the same thing as "colored."

Not Happy said...

Nappy40: What's the difference? Both phrases mean "having colored skin", don't they? People use the phrase "of color" to refer to Asians as well as blacks, Latinos, etc., while the phrase "colored" was traditonally applied only to blacks in this country. But if you were to look up the word colored on yourDictionary.com, you'd see that this is one of the definitions:

"Of or belonging to a racial group not categorized as white."

The phrases still say the same thing when you analyze them grammatically. To say that one is derogatory while another is an expression that non-Caucasians can apply to themselves with pride is silly. This is just another example of ridiculous PC neologisms.

Not Happy said...

Nappy40: One more note: You do realize what the acronym NAACP stands for? Perhaps to be up to date and "sensitive" the organization should now call itself the NAAPC, or NAAAA?

Ann Althouse said...

Undergroundman: I think everyone's noticed the similarity, but there's a non-silly difference that matters to people. The NAACP was (obviously) named back when the older term was a standard one. That the organization doesn't change its name is no reason to expect people not to get rather annoyed if you make that choice of words today. Informing them that they are being "silly" is quite unlikely to be productive. Let's get back to the topic of the Financial Times article and how an all-female college should deal with issues of transgendered identity.

Wade_Garrett said...

This issue came up from time to time when I was an undergraduate at Yale. I forget all of the details, but I believed that a woman who identified as a man was trying to join an all-women's singing group.

My thinking is that universities should do what they can to be sensitive to the needs of their students. However, when you choose to go to a private school, especially a private school with as much tradition as Smith, you need to understand that most of your fellow students chose to attend because of that tradition. If every student had the right to make a small change to the way in which Smith does business, the school would be rendered unrecognizable within five years, and a degree from Smith would mean something different than that which it has meant for so many decades. It is difficult to balance the need to stay current with the need to maintain the traditions that make Smith SMITH and justify the $37,000 price tag.

Ann Althouse said...

Terrence: what you say would make sense if Smith were adhering to such a tradition, but according to the article, it isn't.

Undergroundman said "After all, it's a private school, and if they wish to make it a citadel of petty hate and radical feminism, that's their business." So the question is whether you agree with that.

carla said...

As long as the school doesn't take any public dollars whatsoever, it should be free to admit who it likes.


The moment it takes a single public dollar of any sort however, it should be subject to having to admit everyone who can meet the academic requirements.

lindsey said...

"This issue came up from time to time when I was an undergraduate at Yale. I forget all of the details, but I believed that a woman who identified as a man was trying to join an all-women's singing group."

If a woman who identifies as a man tries to join an all-female group, then I guess I would question whether she truly identifies as male.

I think it's hilarious that you can change your sex to male at Smith, but you can't be an actual male. I wonder what would happen if a male tricked the administration into thinking he was a former woman and was allowed to attend and graduate only to reveal he'd never been a woman. It's not like they're going to give him a physical to check. This is such a potential movie starring Pauly Shore. We can film it in Ann's garage!

Also, does anyone suspect that the people who want the female-male transexual to attend don't truly accept the transgendered person choice to change sex? If they did, wouldn't they tell him that Smith is an all-female school and so he can't attend since he's now male? It's like you can see the gears churning where they're thinking "he's not really male so it's ok" even though the person really wants to be and be seen as male. It's kind of patronizing.

Ann Althouse said...

Lindsey: Great points! It really is a great idea for a movie. Much better than "Soul Man"!

ohnobettemidler said...

I'll take a shot at answering seriously..."If they want to be boys, they should go to a co-ed school" sounds exactly right to me. My gut reaction is, didn't this guy get in under, basically, false pretenses? Identity-wise, that is?

Alternatively, if you end up going to Smith in what was, at the time, good faith - like the guy who said his "identity shifted" - then don't you, in all seriousness, need to maybe remove yourself from the all-female environment for a while and see if that identity "shifts" again before you do anything, y'know, anatomically drastic?

I'm not trying to mock anyone except the individuals in the article. Woman at 18, man at 20? Um, no. You need to be more serious about yourself. And in any event -- if you're a man, then an all-women's college does not "feel like home". Get out.

lindsey said...

It's amazing that C. Thomas Howell actually had a career after that film.

Andrew Shimmin said...

Funny (intentionally?) that "citadel" was the word used. I've never attended a single-sex school, and never wished I had, but I don't see where people get so antsy to have them all integrated. Isn't it possible that there are people who benefit especially from them? Aren't there enough co-ed schools?

lindsey said...

Word to everything Miss Bette said.

ohnobettemidler said...

(lindsey's post wasn't up when I started typing. "I would question whether (he) truly identifies as (female)" - yep, that's the phrase I was looking for.)

Ann Althouse said...

I can see why a woman who wants to re-identify as a man would especially want to be in an all-female environment. With males around, the standard for seeming male would be harder to achieve. And males might tease and mock you or even harass and threaten you -- or you might just worry that they would. An all-female environment might feel safe -- an inviting place to experiment with your identity. Who is hurt if a young person experiments like this?

Not Happy said...

I used the word "citadel" because from what I've read, a lot of these women do have a sort of fortress-like mentality. That is, they view their university as a place where they can exclude men from their lives (excepting the professors and other staff). But if that's what they want to do, let them. As I said, it's a private university, they can have whatever policies they wish regarding gender. It's only at a public school where this sort of thing is unjust.

Andrew Shimmin said...

I wondered if you were punning on the Citadel, the military academy in SC where women were only recently permitted admission. In response to Prof. Althouse, the women who specifically sought out a women only campus are injured, to whatever degree that word even applies. Presumably, they chose Smith because it was women-only. Does it make sense to suppose that choice was based on a strictly biological sex distinction?

lindsey said...

"With males around, the standard for seeming male would be harder to achieve. And males might tease and mock you or even harass and threaten you -- or you might just worry that they would. An all-female environment might feel safe -- an inviting place to experiment with your identity. Who is hurt if a young person experiments like this?"

If you want to be male but are not prepared or capable of functioning in a male environment (which being male would necessitate), then perhaps you should reconsider your choice? Or at least dry run it to see if you can function before taking the leap? If you can't function in an all male environment, you will clearly not be very successful and you are actively putting yourself at physical risk. Best to try to move somewhere the community reflects your own needs. This conversation reminds me of poor Brandon Teena.

I feel like this is leading back to the bathrooms debate. "Who is hurt if a young person experiments like this?" Hmmm... would you now argue differently on the bathrooms issue? You've explained why they'd want to be in an all-female environment, so why shouldn't men use the ladies room?

Ann Althouse said...

But, Lindsey, I think I am being consistent. I think the biological female who role-plays as a male can belong in the all-female institution. As for the biological male who role plays as a woman: I want him to stay out of women's bathrooms. I have never objected to a masculine-looking biological woman using women's bathrooms.

lindsey said...

"I have never objected to a masculine-looking biological woman using women's bathrooms."
No one in their right mind would object to a "masculine-looking biological woman" using the women's restroom, but I thought we were discussing women who got sex changes which is going much further than simply being masculine-looking?

I think I'm getting confused. Aargh.

lindsey said...

Oh, ok. I'm retarded. I guess I'm trying to say that your argument for women identifying as men being more comfortable/safe/etc in all female environments applies equally to men identifying as women. I do agree with you about the restrooms though.

Meade said...

Ah, life seemed so much simpler back on the Indiana farm of my boyhood where we readily determined an individual's sex by a quick look see under his or her tail. And cloistered in the cornfields as we were, none of us had yet heard of Klinefelter syndrome.

By the way, Smith College might wish to take a second look at its statement of nondiscrimination where it claims not to discriminate in its educational and employment policies on the bases of race, color, creed, religion, national/ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation... For clearly (?), it does.

Ann Althouse said...

Lindsey: A lot of the transgendered people discussed in the articles I've been linking to have not had the sex reasssignment surgery. I think the bathroom question is especially difficult, and I have a special problem with anyone with male genitalia using the women's bathroom (though if no one can tell, I don't think it matters).

amba said...

The issue seems simple to me. Maybe I'm missing something.

If you accept the premise that there are transgendered individuals who feel trapped in the "wrong body," and who take hormones and have surgery to become physically the sex they "really are" inside, then male-to-female transsexuals should be admitted to Smith (because they're really women), and female-to-male transsexuals should not (because they're really men).

Ann Althouse said...

Annie: that's a big "if." I'm no expert but the "trappd inside" concept seems to me to be a metaphor, invented to deal with the existing narrow conceptions of sex roles. I'd rather see a broader conception of sex roles than the indulgence in denial and the preservation of narrow sex roles.

Wade_Garrett said...

I am having some difficulty accepting the argument that all of this is merely in keeping with the proud tradition of Smith graduates Steinem and Friedan.

Many readers of this blog are more familiar with the writings of those two great writers than I am, but the reason I admire Friedan and Steinem is that the spent so much of their lives fighting against traditional gender roles and working to expand the rights of women. When women who identify as men say that they never felt comfortable being a woman, and then take hormones to become more manly, that seems to me to be a rejection of Friedan and Steinem.

Admittely I've only met a few of them, but those who I have met seem to reject their female identity because they don't feel comfortable being a 1950's TV housewife. That's fine, nobody wants to be a 1950's TV housewife. But what did feminism seek to accomplish if not empower individual women to find their OWN ways of being women, to define femininity however they wished? Intellectually, I can not help but feel disappointed that these women-turned-men are rejecting Archie Bunker's view of femininity, and not the view of femininity one would associate with a student at Smith in the 21st century.

Secondly, I do not really see what the article sought to convey by explaining how accepting of lesbians the town of Northhampton is considered to be. I've spent quite a bit of time in Northhampton, and I agree that it is very welcoming and accepting of its gay and lesbian population. However, transgendered women are something else; they are women "passing" as men. This is different from being a lesbian, a woman who is sexually and emotionally attracted to other women. I've found that the gay/transgendered alliance is not as strong as most people think, they work together because they are all out of the sexual mainstream and are working to achieve much-needed reforms on many fronts. It just annoys me when people assume that lesbians and transgendered women are either interchangable terms or, in the alternative, natural allies.

Thirdly, though I did not go to a single-sex university, I did go to a single-sex high school, and good friends of mine went to Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Wellesley. One of the great advantages of single-sex education is that is eliminates so many of the distractions students face in co-ed environments. Men don't have to worry about looking macho in front of girls, women don't have to worry about looking 'too smart' or coming across as un-feminine by being too good at math, and nobody has to worry about dressing to impress members of the opposite sex. We had a lot of gay students at my high school, and Smith, Wellesley, etc certainly have their share as well. However, one of the greatest advantage of single-sex education is the freedom from sexual tension and awkwardness it traditionally provides. The University of Wisconsin Law School, for instance, is brimming with sexual tension, and I understand now better than ever the advantages of avoiding it whenever possible!

The students and administrators at Smith justifiably want to do what they can to make all of their students feel comfortable. However, if you make certain students too comfortable, you run the risk of inserting sexual tension and confusion into the classroom, the avoidance of which is a large part of the reason why so many students chose Smith in the first place. I don't know if there is a better way to deal with the issue; Smith seems to be handling it pretty well. But perhaps it is not too much to ask of these two dozen or so students to tone down their outward show of their transgenderedness (for instance, by women not wearing neckties to formal dances, not bringing men in dresses to parties or formal dances, etc) in order to keep the rest of Smith's students from feeling uncomfortable?

I'd like to know what people think about this . . . having gone to single-sex schools for so long I know that this is a difficult and challenging issue.

Ann Althouse said...

Great comments, Terrence. The antagonistic interests of gay persons and the transgendered is something I've rarely seen written about, but I think is the unspoken or privately spoken observation of many people. As I wrote in an earlier comment here, I think there is a broadly shared interest in overcoming narrow sex stereotypes. It's consistent with greater individuality and freedom, which I strongly support. People who want to role-play the traditional stereotypes are going in a different direction, in some ways, although they are engaging in personal expression.

"The University of Wisconsin Law School is brimming with sexual tension." File that under Things I'm In No Position to Know. But your comment makes me think that an all-female law school would be a good idea. There is a longstanding phenomenon of women law students holding back from full-scale competition in certain classroom settings.

Ann Althouse said...

I started a new post for the topic should there be an all-women law school?, so if you have comments on that, please put them here.

HA HA HA said...

It is claimed that the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival does not count transsexuals in either direction as women. They also seem to have an elaborate system of gender segregation to cope with people bringing their male children. It looks as if they're bent on reproducing a scale model of all the idiocies and impracticalities of racial segregation -- but in a caring, nurturing, supportive, and accepting way, of course.

Well hey, my taxes aren't funding it; let 'em go bonkers however they please...

Adam said...

The only note I'll add is that Smith is not a single-sexed environment in its entirety -- it's a proud member of the Five College Consortium with Amherst, ZooMass, Hempshire and MoHo (or, as we used to call it, Daphne, Fred, Scooby, Shaggy and Velma), with full course exchange and a large amount of social interchange between the schools.

I remember being the sole male in an Urban Politics class at Mt. Holyoke. Hell of an experience.

OldTimer said...

I am responding to Ann Althouse's reasonably posed inquiry "Who is hurt if a young person experiments like this?" I respectfully submit that numerous people are to some degree or another. My basis for knowledge is being an '80 era Smith alum who lived through the heyday of campus political correctness and who has had two family members attend Smith since then, one in the '90s and one currently. Here is my rendition of who the hurt parties are:

1) Comparatively conventional students who feel uncomfortable at minimum and emotionally exhausted at maximum from constantly having to navigate a social environment that likes to bill itself as "accepting" but may actually feel weird and threatening, and which constantly tells the conventional student that her ordinary feelings and reactions are indicative of retrograde attitudes and false consciousness. The Smith I remember and the Smith my younger relatives describe is a place where the aggressively edgy establish dominance and control over their environment through in-your-face displays of weird physical appearance and behavior, and loud expression of radical attitudes and opinions. They dare anyone to say or do anything about them. Anyone who takes the bait and accommodates the show-off is intolerant,ignorant, uninformed, hateful, homophobic, racist,classist, etc. Nobody wants to be called any of that, so a sensible student who wants to get along acquiesces or remains silent about her discomfort or opposition. So, while the edgy are letting it all hang out, the conventional students are required to hold it all in. This is psychologically draining. Isolating oneself isn't a viable option because the sixties types who run the place keep enforcing community, and the need for friends at that age is strong. Once, freshman year, another student confessed to me, with pronounced embarassment, that she wanted a guy. Then she told me not to tell anyone. At '80s era Smith, that actually was embarassing. The world was turned on its head.

2) Job-seeking alums may also be hurt, depending on what work they are seeking and where. If it is serious work in a conservativce place where credentials are scrutinized, current publicity undermining Smith's formerly upscale reputation is not helpful. It makes people who don't know you yet look at you funny and wonder about you. People in my workplace saw that show "Transgeneration" on the Sundance Channel and wanted to discuss the binder-burning on the park picnic grill with me.

3) Impressionable, needy students may be hurt. Those who are of the type to adopt the attitudes, opinions, appearance and behaviors of a particular social group in order to fit in and have friends are really open to exploitation. I know people who fell in with a radical crowd and who experimented with lesbianism, and who convinced themselves and others that they were lesbians. Later, they ceased to be lesbians as soon as they found themselves in a heterosexual environment that did not reinforce or promote lesbianism. One friend expressed regret, and is genuinely disturbed about who she once was, or pretended to be. Some people were alienated from their families of origin and never managed to create their own families after college. People are actually writing to the alumnae column about their dogs as the most significant relationship in their lives. I consider this harm.

4) The trans guys themselves may be hurt. Having medically unnecessary mastectomies and taking male hormones cannot be good for anyone's body. Some of these young people are probably experimenting whether they know it or not and some will likely deeply regret the permanent damage they inflicted upon their bodies in late adolescence. Current cognitive research indicates that adolescence actually extends to age 24, so being so sure of who you want to be for decades to come when you're 19 is a mistake. Irreversible decisions should not be made by people this young.

5) Smith College may be hurt. Like the Netherlands, Smith appears to be finding out that its much ballyhooed tolerance and acceptance has resulted in the admission and cultivation of a sizable subculture which seeks to dispose of the core feature of the place: its identity as a woman's college. If it lets that go, it is unlikely to ever re-establish it.