Updated, 9/12, 10:50 a.m.
Barnard students and campus leaders are hopeful that Mount Holyoke College’s adoption of a formal policy for admitting transgender students will be a model for Barnard administrators to follow.
On Tuesday, Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella spoke about her support for the college’s new policy for admitting transgender students—which formally welcomes applications from any qualified students who self-identify as women—something Barnard students said they want to hear from their administrators.
Jennie Ochterski, Mount Holyoke College ’15 and an organizer with Open Gates MHC, an organization dedicated to dismantling misogyny in queer spaces on campus, told Spectator that Open Gates led a visibility campaign last spring to raise awareness of the need for a transgender admissions policy. The campaign involved taking photographs of students displaying written phrases about why transgender students belong at Mount Holyoke, and Ochterski said hundreds participated.
“We can’t know the impact that our actions had, but I think the visibility helped the campus communications happen,” Ochterski said of Mount Holyoke’s new policy. “It’s an amazing, awesome surprise and something that we really hoped would happen.”
Mount Holyoke is one of the five remaining women’s colleges in the group once known as the Seven Sisters, which also includes Barnard, Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Wellesley.
“Barnard does not have a formal policy addressing transgender students or applicants. Each application is reviewed individually on a case-by-case basis. We are paying close attention to the national conversation about transgender students at women's colleges, particularly as some of our peer institutions announce new policies for their applicants and students. At the moment, our senior leadership is actively considering and discussing the various viewpoints and issues involved, and this year the College and SGA will continue to convene conversations for our community to learn more and weigh in,” Barnard Dean Avis Hinkson, BC '84 and TC '87, said in an email.
Michelle Loo, BC ’16 and Barnard Student Government Association’s representative for equity and inclusion, said she learned of Mount Holyoke’s transgender policy through friends sharing the news on Facebook, often accompanied by comments encouraging Barnard to take on a similar policy.
“Mount Holyoke’s policy change is a great thing to say, ‘Look, they’re doing it, why can’t we do it too?’” Caleb LoSchiavo, BC ’15 and president of GendeRevolution and Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, said.
LoSchiavo said that he expected Mount Holyoke’s policy would be a good first step, but that it would need more revisions. He said that he was surprised to find that the policy was much more comprehensive.
Still, he said the policy’s language, which included phrases like “biological woman” and “used to be” wasn’t perfect.
“I am willing to forgive them, because while a lot of the language is problematic, it also makes things very clear. …This policy outlined very clearly that anyone but cis men could access the space. That’s really what I want,” LoSchiavo said.
Caitlin Lowell, CC ’15 and president of Columbia Queer Alliance, said that conversation at Barnard about adopting a policy similar to Mount Holyoke needs to take into account voices from trans woman not currently admitted to Barnard.
“This conversation needs to be centered around the voices who are currently at Barnard, but also the trans women who would like to be at Barnard but are shut out,” Lowell said.
Loo’s position on SGA, formerly known as the representative for diversity, involves chairing the Committee on Inclusion and Equity, which addresses issues of diversity, including trans admissions.
Loo said that last April’s town hall led by Dean Spade, BC ’97, addressed multiple forms of gender identity and students in attendance spoke at length about support for transgender students at Barnard.
“It was one of the largest SGA town halls, representative of what students were feeling on campus,” Loo said.
Julia Qian, BC ’15 and SGA president, also noted that the attendance of the town hall was higher than she’d ever seen, adding that she understands what a pressing issue transgender admissions is to students at Barnard.
“It’s definitely on our radar this year,” Qian said about SGA addressing the topic. “We need to have an educational discussion on this topic so that students are equipped with the language and necessary knowledge to engage in this discussion.”
Last October, students broached the topic at a fireside chat with Barnard President Debora Spar, who evaded comment in favor of hearing more student opinions.
Loo said that in order to eventually establish a formal policy for transgender students, getting the attention of higher levels of the administration is key. She noted that the town hall was a good first step, and wants to organize more discussion-based events this year to further demonstrate to administrators the scope of student support for such a policy.
Students noted that adopting a policy that would admit transgender students to Barnard could challenge the definition of what it means for Barnard to be a women’s college.
Qian cited a passage from Barnard’s mission statement that says, “As a college for women, Barnard embraces its responsibility to address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency, and to help students achieve the personal strength that will enable them to meet the challenges they will encounter throughout their lives.”
“I do have faith that Barnard stands by its mission statement, and knowing Barnard as an institution for women as leaders in the world, we will not be a follower but a leader,” Qian said.
“This is just another barrier that we have to cross,” Loo said, adding that Barnard has a history of welcoming students who have faced discrimination in other ways.
“It’s just recognizing that gender is a social construction, and that shouldn’t be a barrier,” Loo said.