My Place in the Sisterhood:
One Transman’s Experience at Wellesley College By Ben Geilhufe ‘07
One of my role models passed away a few months ago. I cried within moments of reading the headline: “Transgender Pioneer and Stone Butch Blues Author Leslie Feinberg has Died.” The first time I read Stone Butch Blues, I was sitting in Wellesley’s Jewett Auditorium, waiting for Yanvalou practice to begin. I felt lonely and isolated by my trans-masculine identity. In Stone Butch Blues, I finally saw a reflection of myself in print – something that was phenomenal in the early 2000’s. People like me were not represented healthily on TV, in magazines or in newspapers. Leslie’s book became my bible.
I see people all the time say Feminism needs people like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. Because they are young and famous and outspoken about being girls.
Here’s the thing that’s my problem: I’ve never ever heard a white woman say “Feminism needs black women.” The presence and contributions of black women to feminism is just not important and isn’t seen as valid critiques of either the patriarchy or feminism.
The Women of Wellesley: Beyond Cisterhood by MJ Cunniff '11 (@finishmywords)
I should not be writing this post.
I feel obligated to start with that acknowledgment, how much I am not qualified to speak on this topic: because I was AFAB (assigned female at birth) I can’t speak to the experiences of trans* women. But that’s the entire point – because trans women are being excluded from admission to women’s colleges, they are also being excluded from the conversations taking place about the changing role of womanhood. At least the ones we’re having: on alum discussion boards, on campus, in the advisory boards being formed out of existing members of the Wellesley community.
What conversation about womanhood are we having where the experiences of men – certain types of men, any men – are centered over the experiences of any women?
The recent NYT article does mention trans women, points out Mills’ and Mount Holyoke’s recent (groundbreaking, though maybe flawed) admissions changes, and does admit that on the surface the idea of trans women attending a women’s college is “arguably,” she writes, much more immediately fitting. But this occurs at the end of the article, and there’s no sense of urgency to it: instead we fade back onto an image of students singing brotherhood as well as sisterhood and siblinghood at graduation, a cacophony of individual relationships to gender and to the mission of our alma mater. That end scene is so touching that we almost might forget to consider whose voices are still missing.
And this is something we forget again and again, because it’s too easy to justify focusing on the Wellesley students and alums that are already there: regardless of the details of initial admissions policy, there will always be students who enter Wellesley identifying as women and leave identifying as men, and those students and alums deserve respect. (I want to clarify before I get any further that it would be ridiculous and inhumane to demand someone transfer colleges for questioning or changing their gender identity.) And it’s certainly a more tempting journalistic focus, since the “men of Wellesley” have OneCards and student government positions and can pose on the cover of a magazine. It’s easy to explore how they fit in at Wellesley, how they feel marginalized or decentered; it’s much more difficult to get snappy pull quotes from the people who aren’t even marginalized in our community because they’ve been excluded from it in its entirety.
But this is the vicious cycle: by privileging the perspectives of Wellesley students and alums, we’re inherently privileging the experiences of AFAB people – cis women or trans men – because they’re the only people who get to (openly) attend women’s colleges. We propose a vision of universal sisterhood that includes siblinghood and brotherhood but doesn’t make room for our actual sisters.
Let’s talk about the one perspective we do get about trans women’s inclusion at Wellesley specifically: an anonymous transmasculine student who feels his opinion may be controversial. Likely true, since his opinion is that Wellesley needs to “maintain its integrity as a safe space for women” by preventing trans* women who have not legally and medically transitioned from applying or attending.
I want to be really clear about that moment in the essay, which I think crystallizes the problem: “‘I think we need to keep this a safe space for women by excluding one of the most victimized types of women,’ says a man.” In what frame of reference does this make – to be explicit – any goddamn sense, except for one which implictly denies the womanhood of trans women?
We can play with that scenario: what if a trans* woman (because I refuse to call anyone who doesn’t identify as a man a “male-bodied person” or “biologically male”, even our hypothetical boogeyperson) decided to attend Wellesley as a woman and then return to identifying as male, as unlikely as that might be? How would this be functionally any different from a student who applied as a cis woman and shifted to identifying as male? The logic behind this is that trans men are a “different case” (as our anonymous student claims) because they have been assigned female and treated as girls: that your gendered “socialization,” the first 17 or so years of your life, is what matters in some definitive and permanent way. But the disturbing counterpoint to the idea that being assigned female somehow naturally aligns trans* men with cis women is that it also separates trans* women from cis women, deciding that their male socialization trumps or diminishes their identities as women. (We could make the same case about an admissions policy like Mills that allows AFAB nonbinary applicants but not AMAB nonbinary applicants: this draws an arbitrary distinction based on “birth sex” assignment between two groups of people who very specifically do not identify with the genders they were assigned.)
If we want to talk genuinely about the ways womanhood is “complicated in the 21st century” – the ways it’s always been complicated, that women’s colleges are just now being forced to acknowledge – we have to move beyond the reductive idea that “womanhood” is experienced in the same ways by all women. There is no universal “knowing what it’s like to be treated as female” that magically resides in the genitals or the XX chromosome or the sliver of very specific life experience that any 17-year-old brings with them to campus: who are we to decide that someone assigned male at birth who has fought to identify and live as a woman doesn’t “get” it because their experience of womanhood has so far been different than ours? We should welcome that perspective – just as we should welcome and support other experiences of womanhood that differ from our own.
Can a women’s college take a “big-tent” approach and treat “women and trans* people” as a legible class for admissions? Anyone, in other words, who identifies as or has been identified as a woman – or “anyone but cismen,” which weaves transphobia and sexism into one inextricable gender experience? I think there’s potentially room for this sort of space, if it’s not achieved at the expense of trans* women: but so far it has been, every single time, and that in itself raises potential red flags as to its viability.
I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t discuss the things we have been discussing as a community. The question of whether to switch out Wellesley’s female-centric language for something more gender-neutral has good arguments, I think, on both sides: female-only language at Wellesley erases male students (and genderqueer/nonbinary students), but it also directly challenges the male-dominated language of the entire rest of the world. This will always be a hard balance to strike. But if the conversation repeatedly returns to worries about privileging masculinity at the cost of women, we should turn that reflectiveness just as much onto the topic itself: let’s talk about whether the default “she” does that, let’s talk about whether screaming about sisterhood does that, but let’s wait to have these conversations until all women are present at the table to have it.