I pride myself on having a peculiar sense of fashion, but no item of my wardrobe elicits quite so many stares or guffaws as one simple black T-shirt declaring, “Uptown Girl: Barnard College.” The joke is obvious: I don’t look like a Barnard student in some noticeable regards, and, in fact, I’m not. But the humor accompanies a more serious point, which is that there is a very poor reason why I could not possibly attend Barnard. And it’s one that proves detrimental to Barnard’s own goal of providing a liberal arts education to women.
Let me explain terminology before I go further: trans*-rights activists distinguish between birth assignment on the one hand and gender identity on the other. Birth assignment is the “M” or “F” a medical official gives you at birth based on some external physical features. Gender identity is how you, as an agent with power over your own life, body, and presentation, see yourself and your gender. If your gender identity matches your birth assignment—for example, you identify as female and you were assigned “female” at birth—you’re cisgender or cis. Some of us have a more complicated situation whereby our gender identity can be divorced from birth assignment in a variety of ways. A person whose gender identity is disjunct from the birth assignment is called transgender or trans*. (The star is a fill-in-the-blank; for a lengthier and more detailed glossary, check out http://transcolumbia.wordpress.com.)
The fact of trans* identities complicates what it means to be a women’s college because it complicates the category of “women”: We can’t assume that anyone who identifies as a woman received a female birth assignment. Still, whether Barnard should be a women’s college is not at issue in this op-ed. How the college enforces that prescription is. De facto if not de jure, Barnard discriminates based not on gender identity but on birth assignment, i.e., what in the end determines whether or not you can appear in the pool of Barnard applicants is not whether you identify as a woman but rather your legal status—again, the “F” on the birth certificate.
So—back to the T-shirt—the reason why I couldn’t be a Barnard student is not that I don’t identify as a woman, but that I didn’t receive a female birth assignment. The mechanism is simple: Barnard requires that you submit the Common App. The Common App requires that you register your sex as that which is present on your documentation, even if your legal sex conflicts with your gender identity. If you register as “male,” you cannot submit an application to Barnard College.
This policy is backwards. It negatively affects transwomen—those who identify as women but did not receive a female birth assignment—many of whom cannot change the legal sex listed on their documentation without fulfilling expensive and arbitrary requirements, and some of whom live in states that never allow for changes in documented sex. The result is that Barnard College—the women’s liberal arts college in New York—is simply not an option for some women, including the transwomen with whom I went to high school. For a world-renowned institute of higher learning to have a more regressive policy than the Girl Scouts of the USA, which explicitly allows all girls, regardless of birth assignment, to take part in its activities, is baffling. Simply put, in order to fulfill its own mission, Barnard should open its doors to all women, regardless of birth assignment.
I anticipate two objections to my argument. The first is that I have emphasized the wrong piece of the identity puzzle: Someone might think that the question of whether one is or is not a woman or man is decided by what sort of body one happens to have, that there are clearly such things as male and female bodies, and so for Barnard to exclude transwomen doesn’t count as excluding women at all. To which I reply: claptrap. Emphasizing some paltry physical characteristics over the agent’s sense of their own identity is to deny that person control over their own life—it’s tantamount to erasure, to pretending that their identity is not fully real. That response both is and does wrong.
The second objection is that the logistics of allowing transwomen to apply to Barnard are difficult to work around. This is reasonable—I am not sure what kind of process the college could implement to make sure that women who are not documented as women can apply. But logistical difficulties are not reasons to refuse to try, and certainly not reasons to be covert about policies toward transgender students. Barnard should re-examine its application policy, and soon.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in classics and philosophy, and is the co-chair of GendeRevolution