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Transgender applicant’s rejection by Smith causes stir

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Smith College Dean of Admissions Deb Shaver, seen here in 2006, told a transgender high school senior from Connecticut that her application was rejected because it did not consistently reflect her identity as a woman.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Smith College Dean of Admissions Deb Shaver, seen here in 2006, told a transgender high school senior from Connecticut that her application was rejected because it did not consistently reflect her identity as a woman. Purchase photo reprints »

“It’s important to recognize transwomen as women” and admitting transwomen to women’s colleges is part of that process, said Jaime Rossow, a junior at Smith. Rossow is co-chair of Transcending Gender, a student organization that provides support to transgender students and their allies.

Students at Smith, a private women’s college, have been discussing whether transwomen should be eligible for admission on and off for years, students say, but one applicant’s story has brought the discussion to the forefront.

Calliope Wong, a high school senior in Woodbridge, Ct., was born male but identifies as a woman, according to a blog she has maintained throughout her application process. She applied to Smith, but her application was returned because the college said that she was not eligible for admission.

Smith students and supporters online have rallied around Wong. A student organization called Q&A — which stood for Queers & Allies until this year when the group was renamed simply Q&A — is coordinating a campaign in support of admitting transwomen like Wong to Smith.

The Q&A Facebook page is full of photos of Smith students and alumnae holding signs urging the school to admit transwomen, and an organizer for the group said members will meet today to plan their next move.

The story has also gained traction with a wider audience online. The story has been covered on the website for the Advocate, a national magazine that focuses on LGBT issues, and several feminist blogs. A student involved in Q&A said that the Facebook page has reached more than 6,000 viewers.

In a letter posted on Wong’s blog, Smith College Dean of Admissions Deb Shaver wrote that “undergraduate applicants to Smith must be female at the time of admission.”

Nearly all of Wong’s application materials list her as a woman. However, on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid she selected the box for male.

“Our expectation is that it is consistently reflected throughout the application that the student is a woman,” Shaver wrote. “Upon reviewing your file, this is not the case.”

Transwomen who have not legally changed the gender on their birth certificate are required to identify as male on the FAFSA form so that they are registered for Selective Service, according to an official from the Department of Education.

Under Massachusetts law, transgender people must undergo gender reassignment surgery in order to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. In Connecticut, Wong’s home state, gender reassignment is also required in order for people to legally change their gender, according to the Department of Public Health website.

Laurie Fenlason, the vice president for public affairs at Smith, said that like other colleges, Smith only admits women, but that the college does not ask for any documentation of a student’s gender and instead relies on the application materials students submit.

“It’s an evolving issue in society,” Fenlason said. “It’s an evolving issue in colleges and universities. It’s an evolving issue in women’s colleges.”

Smith has a Web page about transgender students at the college, but it does not articulate a clear policy for admitting transwomen. It says that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and Smith does not decide who is a woman.

“With regard to admission, Smith relies upon the information provided by each student applicant,” the page reads.

According to her blog, Wong contacted the admissions office repeatedly when she was applying to find out what she needed to do to be eligible.

“It’s just a really messy conversation to have, so I think that Smith is trying to avoid policies that are going to cause a big stir,” Rossow said. “It’s a little bit frustrating to not have concrete policies to work with.”

Smith has a vocal contingent of transgender students who were born female but identify as men. The college has not had any undergraduate students who were openly transgender women, students say.

Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s college in South Hadley, only admits students who are legally women, according to Lynn Pasquerella, president of the college. She said that the college relies on applicants to tell the school their gender.

Pasquerella said that while Mount Holyoke seeks to be as inclusive as possible, the college believes that if they admitted transwomen, they would run afoul of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination but has an exception for single-sex colleges.

“We’re constrained by the law,” Pasquerella said. “If someone is not legally female, we can’t admit them and keep our federal funding.”

Pasquerella said that Mount Holyoke is discussing the implications of transgender students with other women’s colleges.

“We are first and foremost committed to being a women’s college,” she said.

The admissions policy at Mount Holyoke has not been challenged by any applicants, Pasquerella said.

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