Tuesday, March 26, 2013
All-Female Smith College Returns Transgender Women’s Admission Application Twice
Calliope Wong, a high school senior from Connecticut, has twice sent an application to the prestigious all-female Smith College, but her papers have been returned without even an official admissions review. It's not her grades or SAT scores, but her self-identity as a transgender female. Wong, 17, was born male, which her family indicated on her federal application for financial aid in order to coincide with her Social Security number. But her admission materials describe her as female. Smith has told her it cannot process her admission application as a female because the gender markers on her forms conflict. Wong said the college is discriminating against her. The college says it's about paperwork. "Someone whose paperwork consistently reflects female identity will be considered for admission," said Laurie Fenlason, Smith's vice president for public affairs, adding that Wong is free to reapply. Smith does not "decide who is a woman," rather, with regard to admission, it uses information provided by the applicant, according to the policy statement posted on the college website. "Like most women's colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student's application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman," the policy states. Wong's case and more open attitudes toward those who are transgender reflect a growing dilemma for single sex institutions like Smith College. "Smith is very committed to being a woman's college," a professor in the Smith program for the study of women and gender said, requesting anonymity. "But what does that mean when we talk transgender? Smith is on the cutting edge, challenging gender roles and accepting lesbian women," she said. "Compared to the broader world, Smith tends to be out front. But the college is struggling to some degree on how to balance being a women's college and being inclusive." Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Wong's transition from male to female has been "an ongoing and lifelong process," she told ABCNews.com. For the past two years, she has been presenting as female. "From the beginning, I was attracted to Smith as a college for 'iron women,' women who had the willpower and knowledge to effect real change in society," Wong said in an email. "As a third-wave feminist, I definitely saw Smith as a place for the empowerment of visionary, vocal and practical women who worked to close the gap between ideal and reality." Wong said she has received two letters since January from the college. The latest one, dated March 5, says her gender status is not "consistently reflected" in the application materials. She said she had hoped to enroll in gender studies as well as English and writing classes at the Northampton, Massachusetts, school, a former "Seven Sister," a group of historically women's colleges in the Northeast. "I will be taking these plans to another college or university come the fall," she said. Wong has not said where else she applied. Smith spokeswoman Fenlason said, "Every application is considered on a case-by-case basis. A trans-student at Smith, like every student, receives the full support of the college." The college has "diverse and dynamic student body that includes individuals who identify as transgender," according to Smith's website. The college says it allows a student to transition from female to male after being accepted, an issue that caused controversy last year last year when the administration did not allow male transgender students who were Gold Key tour guides to host high school applicants overnight in their dorm rooms. "Smith seems to be saying they welcome trans men but not trans women," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "At its first blush, it appears to be counter to Smith's anti-discrimination policy," she said of Wong's application. "It doesn't make any sense. Smith College is one of the most prestigious women's colleges in the country and the primary purpose of a women's-only education is to really understand sex and gender; So Smith really knows better than that." The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a federal form that can be filled out by the student, a parent or a guidance counselor and does not require official proof certifying gender. Wong said her father filled out the FASFA forms, "according to what he thought was safest and most logical." He marked it male to match her Social Security information, which she said they had not yet had the chance to update. "The crucial part about the campaign … is that Smith College used the FAFSA sex marker as a bar against processing my application," Wong said. She argues that the sex marker on the FASFA form is only used for military Selective Service purposes. "The U.S. Department of Education does not cross-reference FAFSA sex markers with Social Security," she said. "Smith College would not be in any danger of losing federal funding as a historical women's college under Title IX." Under federal law, Title IX bars discrimination against women in educational and sports programs. "Though private colleges are legally permitted to reject applicants for any reason they want, private colleges are not allowed to simply refuse to process applications for any reason they want," Wong said. "Therefore, the FAFSA is irrelevant and should not be used as an arbitrary bar against even processing my application." Wong, who attends Amity Regional Senior High School in Woodbridge, wrote about Smith's policies in her blog on Tumblr while exploring options at the college last summer. She said she will not appeal again to Smith for admission. "However, this does not mean that I am in any way giving up on my cause," Wong said. "I continue working so that others who care about equal rights have access to the truth. And, most importantly, I do this for the transfolk after me, so that they might inherit better policies and a more just system of education." Wong said she had gained the "overwhelming" support of numerous Smith students and alumni, including the chair of diversity at the college. A faculty member confirmed that many student groups had been in touch with Wong and were involved in an "ongoing" debate with the administration. Some students argue that it is also has a "class impact," she said, when those who cannot afford a Smith education must fill out the federal FASFA form for financial aid. But Wong has also received negative responses. "The lack of visibility -- marginalization -- is the root of all social problems for not only me, but all transfolk in society," she said. "Every time I fill out paperwork with sex options of male or female -- get stared at while walking in public -- I feel like the world doesn't yet understand."