Barnard College is considering a new policy to officially make transgender women eligible for admission, following the lead of many other women's colleges around the country and at a time when transgender women and men are increasingly in the media spotlight.
Over the last six months, Barnard has held a series of town hall style meetings for students, alumnae and faculty to debate the possibility of introducing a policy dealing with admissions for transgender women.
Caleb LoSchiavo, graduating this year with a major in psychology, applied to Barnard when they still identified as a woman. Since starting college, they came out as transgender and have since transitioned. They now identify as genderqueer, meaning not fitting strictly into the definition of male or female identity.
Lo Schiavo has been one of the students vocally advocating for Barnard to have a set policy that says transgender women have the same right as any other women to be considered for admission at Barnard.
"Even though [admission] is on a case-by-case basis, there are a lot of barriers that prevent people from accessing women's colleges if there's no specific policy in place," said Lo Schiavo. "When you've gone through life consistently being told 'no' about your identity and your experiences, it's really hard to feel like, 'Well it's on a case-by-case basis so at least let me try,' ... So it's important to have a specific policy admitting trans women."
While there is no policy explicitly excluding transgender women from attending Barnard, this move would mean taking a step that would put an inclusive policy towards transgender women in writing.
"The policy right now, because it doesn't exist, de-facto excludes trans women," said Lo Schiavo.
Barnard administration said that to their knowledge there are currently no transgender women attending Barnard College.
"This past academic year, our Board, senior leadership and entire community have been engaged in a series of town halls and conversations to consider this important issue and to explore what a policy change would mean for the College," said Barnard spokesperson Stephanie Browne in an email to Metro. "We are committed to developing a policy that reflects Barnard's mission, history and core values, as well as the diversity of beliefs in our community."
Women's colleges across the country are re-assessing how transgender women fit into their communities.
Just recently, Smith College announced that it would admit transgender women -- a policy they had previously resisted, the Washington Post points out.
Of the Seven Sisters -- a group of liberal arts women's colleges -- Barnard is the only one that still admits only women, but has yet to put in place a policy for transgender women.
Historically, it was among the last of the seven sisters colleges to admit African-American women, and some students think the administration may not want to be too far behind the curve on this particular issue -- though change can be difficult for older institutions (the college celebrated its 125th anniversary last year).
"We're the last one now in the Seven Sisters to not adopt a policy and so for a lot of people it's like, come on, get with the times, Barnard," said Emma Goss, a graduating Barnard student who has written about the issue for the Columbia Spectator.
Professor Richard Johnson III studies LGBT issues at the University of San Francisco and has been keenly following the transgender policies unfolding around the country. He agrees that the momentum is at a point where Barnard is likely feeling the pressure to make a decision.
"I think honestly so many of them [the colleges] are late to the game," said Johnson.
"You know I believe the matter of trans women has been on the docket of many colleges for the last several years. Perhaps because of the social context of schools such as Barnard some of them might have considered this a touchy issue, however you can't stop progress," he said.
Metro spoke to some students on campus, and found them generally supportive of having a clearly inclusive policy.
"I know they've had a few meetings with alumni and the board and students to talk about it. I didn't get to attend any of them but... I absolutely would be on board. They are women," said Talia Kamran.
"It's like, should women go to our women's college?" she said.
"I think most of the students would be on board with it, I think the pushback is coming mostly from alumni. Its crazy that it's even a question," said Elinor Kirchwey.
But not everyone at Barnard is on board -- though it's not easy to find a vocal opponent to the policy.
"I think the people who are critical of it don't want to be known as critical of it because Barnard's known as being such a liberal place. But I do think there's kind of a silent, but very much prominent group of students and alumni who don't feel on board with it," said Emma Goss, who got some idea of what those opponents might be thinking while while writing for the Columbia Spectator.
Some people feel like a women's college, they support women, they identify as a woman, they should come, and others feel like, to be quite frank I've heard people say 'I just don't feel comfortable having a penis at Barnard. In my hall, in my dorm, that's just not what I came to school for. I came to school to be in an all women's environment.' That's what some people say.
On the other hand, there are student who identify as male, and some students feel they should attend a co-ed college instead of a women's institution -- this is a separate issue from a policy on transgender women, but has come up as part of the discussion.
Most of the colleges that have put in place policies including transgender women so far include a clause that women who come out as transgender after being admitted will still have a place at their colleges, even if they begin to identify as a man or genderqueer, like Lo Schiavo.
At one of the college's town hall meetings in February, Barnard President Debora Spar said, "The biggest point of disagreement I've seen throughout this process is between those who see Barnard as a college for oppressed gender minorities and those who see it as a place for empowering women," the Columbia Spectator reported.
As far as Barnard's alumni go, there are mixed impressions of whether they tend to be more in favor of the change or less so.
"I was surprised actually by how many alums were really supportive and really on board, and really gung-ho about this happening," said Lo Schiavo, "The majority of the opposition that I heard was from students and I think it was coming from a lack of education. Like they were mis-informed and uninformed. And so I think that education is what really needs to happen here."
Some students on campus told us they felt it was the alumnae mostly resisting the inclusion of trans women.
Barnard's Alumnae Association did not respond to a request for comment.
While a policy would be a great step, said Lo Schiavo, it should be just the first step in making trans women feel welcome at Barnard. They also point out that the conversation has so far involved everyone but transgender women -- partly because there are none attending Barnard as yet.
"I think that's a big problem in this case, and in a lot of the dialogue around trans issues in the public, is that a lot of it is people like me. And I think in this case especially it would have been good to hear from trans women about why this matters, what's at stake here," said Lo Schiavo.
Professor Johnson agrees that colleges need to provide more than just an acceptance letter if they want to really accept transgender women.
"It has to be more than just lip service, it has to be that devoted dedication to providing an inclusive environment whether the student be transgender or whatever marginalized groups that individual is coming from," he said. "The institution can't just say 'Oh you know let's create this policy to admit transgender women and then that's it.' There has to be good planning, good research into this, and so on and so forth."
Lo Schiavo says the administration's approach at Barnard has been different from other colleges in that it has been much more consultative and has started conversations along the way that help to educate people about what it actually means to be a transgender woman or man.
"I think a lot of people who are opposed just don't understand that women are women, regardless of what body parts you have or what experiences you have or what the doctor said when you were born," they said.
Barnard's board of trustees will vote on the issue at a meeting in June.
A note about some of the terms used in this article:
LGBT advocacy group GLAAD tells us the word transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms -- including transgender. Some of those terms are defined below. Use the descriptive term preferred by the individual. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.
Trans women are people who were assigned male at birth but identify and live as a woman may use this term to describe themselves. They may shorten to trans woman. Some may also use MTF, an abbreviation for male-to-female. Some may prefer to simply be called women, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.
Genderqueer is a term used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms. The term is not a synonym for transgender or transsexual and should only be used if someone self-identifies as genderqueer.