Dozens of students plan to protest at Smith College on Thursday due to what they say is the women’s school’s refusal to make its admissions process more inclusive for transgender women after students’ negotiations with administrators failed.
The Northampton, Mass., school came under fire last spring for its admissions policy after Calliope Wong, a transgender woman, was rejected because a federal student aid form identified her as male, even though she identifies as female. Since then, activists from the Smith Q&A student organization have pressed administrators to make a key change to the policy, but they said their demands have not yet been met; they will demonstrate as a result.
“We no longer have a working relationship with admissions [officials], and they refuse to negotiate further, so we need to show them that a lot of people care about this and that we aren’t going away,” said Sarah Fraas, a member of Q&A who is organizing the demonstration. “I think if Smith sees that their image as a feminist institution and a welcoming place will be compromised by not changing the policy, that is something they will respond to.”
At issue is the school’s continued demand for consistent female gender markers on admissions documents such as high school transcripts, mid-year academic reports, and three letters of recommendation required for consideration. Activists such as Fraas demand the school allow transgender applicants to submit additional documents that would help to demonstrate their identities as women, considering how difficult it may be for some students to request changes to their gender marker on a high school transcript, for example. In other words, they say letters from teachers, social workers, advisors, employers, and other adult sources confirming the applicant’s female gender identity should be sufficient proof.
“Thinking your average high school can just do that is a total fantasy,” said a transgender student in her first semester at Smith who asked not to be named. “They say all we need is for all the gender markers to be consistent, but they don’t really acknowledge what really goes into that and how hard it is.”
Such changes could be especially challenging for transgender students who do not have the support or resources in their community and at their high schools. This obstacle, and Smith’s refusal to allow the additional documents during the application process, ultimately equates to an admissions policy that is discriminatory, according to Q&A and GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization.
“With the multiple forms and documentation required to apply for college, transgender students may not yet have access to documentation that confirms their gender identity and are therefore unfairly rejected by Smith College,” said Tiq Milan, senior media strategist at GLAAD, in a statement to BuzzFeed. “Smith administrators should end the dangerous message they are sending trans youth and prospective students, and instead have a policy in place that prioritizes applicants’ self-determination of gender identity.”
In its policy, Smith contends that it treats applications from transgender students no differently than applications from cisgender students — on a “case-by-case basis.” The policy states, “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.”
In a January memo from Smith’s Vice President of Enrollment Audrey Smith, the college administrators agreed with Q&A activists to remove financial aid documents — like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms and other documents related to student disabilities — from the list of documents needed to “consistently reflect the candidate’s status as a woman.” Laurie Fenlason, vice president for public affairs at Smith, confirmed the change to the policy when asked by BuzzFeed, but said that no other changes to the policy have been made.
Wong, who now attends the University of Connecticut, told BuzzFeed she is happy to see that Smith has made a step to be more inclusive, but the January policy change is “not enough.” Even under the change, however, if Wong applied with the same application that was rejected last year, she would still be rejected, according to Fraas. “Although Calliope’s FAFSA would no longer be a problem, Smith also sent her application back a second time because a clerical error had left male pronouns in her high school transcripts. This policy about transcripts remains unchanged,” Fraas said.
Fenlason, too, said such an application would not be considered.
Smith would neither comment on the planned demonstration on Thursday nor why the school won’t agree to Q&A’s proposal to allow supplemental documents. According to Fraas, admissions officials said the school cannot make such accommodations for every situation in which an applicant cannot meet its requirements.
“The big difference here is that these requirements shouldn’t even exist in the first place,” she said. “Womanhood does not reside in documentation.”
Elli Palmer, a second-year student at Smith, told BuzzFeed that during negotiations, Dean of Admission Deb Shaver and Vice President for Enrollment Audrey Smith compared making a supplement for transgender students to making additional supplements for students who have other extenuating circumstances like being sick from high school for a significant amount of time.
“The way they treated the idea of this supplement is like being trans is an unfortunate illness you have to work around instead of just being who you are and your most authentic form of yourself,” Palmer said. “The only way you could apply is to apply entirely stealth and hide who you really are. It’s a little bit like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: If you’re not who you want us to believe you are that’s fine, we just don’t want to know about it.”