What It’s Really Like Being Trans Or Gender Nonconforming At A Women's College

In a small city outside of Atlanta, among over 900 other students at Agnes Scott College, Tyler* lives two very separate lives. With friends and classmates, Tyler, a non-binary student who uses they/them pronouns, is known as an out and proud LGBTQ student leader thriving in an accepting community. But within the larger campus — as a student athlete and in other parts of day-to-day life — they must reckon with a community and a country that often forces them to hide; one that doesn't understand or embrace their identity.
“I come back to my dorm some nights and just think ‘I’m not doing it anymore,’” Tyler says. “The only reason I probably don’t quit [sports] is because I don’t want the trans kids behind me or the trans kids that aren’t out publicly now to have to go through what I’ve had to.”
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Tyler will graduate this spring from Agnes Scott, a historically women’s liberal arts college in Decatur, Georgia. But the road to graduation has been bumpy. And their journey is one of many — they are part of a growing number of openly transgender and gender non-conforming students at traditionally women’s colleges across the country. The Princeton Review recently ranked Agnes Scott number four on a list of most LGBTQ friendly colleges, and fellow women’s colleges Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke ranked number two and five respectively, but current and former students say women’s colleges have a long way to go in creating more inclusive spaces.
Women's colleges haven't always been welcoming to transgender and gender non-conforming students. In 2013, Calliope Wong made headlines when she was denied admission to the all-female Smith College in Massachusetts because she was born male. Following a petition from students and attention from high profile organizations like GLADD, things began to shift.
In 2014 Mills College in California became one of the first women’s colleges to formally change it’s admissions policy stating that: “students who self-identify as female are eligible to apply for undergraduate admission. This includes students who were not assigned to the female sex at birth but live and identify as women at the time of application. It also includes students who are legally assigned to the female sex, but who identify as transgender or gender fluid.”
A 2017 analysis by Vox found that about 26 of the nations approximately 40 women’s colleges say they admit at least some transgender or gender non-conforming students. The Common Application used by most major institutions and the FAFSA used for financial aid both ask applicants for their sex assigned at birth or legal gender. Students are able to elaborate on their gender identity in a free response section or supplemental parts of the application.
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Still, admission is just one piece of a complex puzzle. It provides some recourse for students who are comfortable with how they identify when entering college but, many students, including Tyler, are just beginning to explore their gender identity in their early college years.
Tyler admits they never imagined going to a women’s college. “Over my dead body,” they remember thinking. At home in rural Georgia, their family still uses their dead name and thinks of them as “the cute little gay kid.” So when searching for colleges, Tyler says it was important to be somewhere with a vibrant LGBTQ community, even if it doesn’t extend to all aspects of campus life. And as a student athlete, one of Tyler’s biggest challenges has been feeling at home on the softball team.
In 2010, The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) released guidelines for transgender college athletes. The majority of the guidelines concern students who wish to take hormones and aim to address the potentially unfair athletic advantages of doing so. Students who wish to take hormones, the guidelines say, must also receive a diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism.” Many consider these diagnosis outdated. The guidelines also state that a trans male athlete receiving treatment with testosterone may only compete on a mens team or mixed team. A trans female athlete may not compete on a women’s team without completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.
But, Z Nicolazzo, an Assistant Professor of Trans Studies in Education at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, who identifies as trans says the guidelines for transgender athletes are rooted in more than just stigma.
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“Conversations that focus on hormone levels and certain athletes needing to sit out a year...all of this stuff tends to focus largely on notions of femininity,” Nicolazzo says. “These arguments really trade in a pretty regular form of sexism and thinking about how we need to focus more on ‘women’s bodies.’ It comes from this ‘lets protect women’ mentality.”
Additionally, these stipulations do not address the holistic needs of trans and non-binary students. When Tyler decided to use they/them pronouns they informed the athletic director who reminded Tyler that if they were to go on testosterone the entire team would automatically be disqualified from any NCAA championship or title. But for Tyler, being accepted wasn’t about hormone therapy.
Though Tyler says Agnes Scott has its own transgender athlete policy that allows students to wear clothes they feel appropriate and dress in the locker room of their choosing, the guidelines didn’t automatically equip administrators to handle their student’s needs. In addition to being misgendered, and treated like their needs were identical to other transgender athletes, Tyler says the athletic director held a meeting about them with their teammates — without inviting Tyler to attend.
Though Tyler hopes that they can blaze a path to make it easier for future transgender and non-binary athletes and students alike, it’s a heavy burden to bare and can often take a toll.
Abbie Goldberg, a professor of psychology and director of women and gender studies at Clark University in Massachusetts has conducted extensive academic research into how transgender students are treated at the college level.
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“It’s too often that I see people who are vulnerable and uncompinsated being asked to provide their personal stories and information and educate other people. That should be coming from the people in power,” says Goldberg, who recently studied 507 trans and gender-nonconforming students across the U.S. to see how they are treated and perceived on campus.
For Tyler this was all happening at a time they felt especially vulnerable. In the weeks leading up to the contentious conversations with the athletic department, Scout Schultz, a student at nearby Georgia Tech who identified as non-binary and intersex, was fatally shot by campus police. For Tyler, Schultz’s murder was yet another reminder of the dangers that transgender students face.
“I was like ‘I don’t think you understand the importance of the fact that a trans person was just murdered on a college campus down the road...someone I knew. So, please don’t email me about being a trans athlete right now, I cant handle it’,” Tyler remembers thinking.
“It’s something that I don’t enjoy at all anymore,” Tyler says of playing softball. “It is really frustrating since I’ve played it since I was three years old. Once I leave college and I’m in the workforce, maybe I can revive this love that I have for the sport.”
Tyler says that, beyond the struggles of being on the team, the difficulties they faced led them to consider dropping out of school at one point. Goldberg says many of her research participants who did in fact drop out said it was because of a confluence of academic, mental health and financial factors.
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“These things are intertwined,” Goldberg says. “A transgender student is uniquely at risk because of the very gendered nature of college. Some of them lost scholarships because of the gendered nature of the aid or chose to drop out because, mental health services were not equipped to support them or because they were lacking trans specific or LGBTQ support on campus.” Other students she says became functionally homeless after coming out to their parents.
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Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta used to have a decorum guide that stipulated that some events required all white dress: a skirt and shirt, closed toed black pumps and flesh tone stockings. After students raised concerns about some classmates feeling uncomfortable or excluded the requirements were eventually changed. But, the concept of sisterhood remains. Classmates and alum are often referred to as “Spelman Sisters.”
It’s an example of one of the many deeply gendered aspects of historically women’s colleges that can make it difficult for transgender and gender nonconforming students to feel open and accepted.
In May, Keo Chaad O’Neal became the first openly trans man to graduate from Spelman College. O’Neal, who had attended Spelman his freshman year, transferred to a predominantly white institution for a time before deciding to come back to Spelman, reported HuffPost.
“Lots of people believed that because I was trans, I didn’t belong at Spelman but there was nowhere else I would rather be,” O’Neal told HuffPost at the time of his graduation. “People still have their own opinions of me attending Spelman, but it’s because of Spelman why I am who I am.”
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Colleges commonly aim to foster a deep sense of community and loyalty among students and alumni. This can be especially prevalent at small liberal arts colleges and HBCUs, alums say. For transgender and gender nonconforming students this can add yet another complicated layer.
“This whole idea of being a “Spelman sister” or “Spelman woman” for a really long time I didn’t want to lose that,” says K. Richardson, who graduated from Spelman in the mid 2000s and came out as transgender four years ago. “Regardless of how I present or how I identify, it was still a part of me. The biggest part about coming out as a trans masculine or genderqueer person for me was fear of losing all of these relationships that I had developed, including my partner.”
Richardson says letting go of the fear of losing sisterhood was essential to moving forward. Still, they say they recognize that some students who identify as transgender won’t be comfortable with the term “sisters.”
The concept of “sisterhood” is common at women’s colleges says Kristian Contreras, who began in 2014 as Agnes Scott’s Assistant Director for Intercultural Engagement. During her four years as a staff member at Agnes Scott, Contreras led Trans 101 workshops and helped teach students, faculty and alums about the importance of creating inclusive spaces. For example, she asked students to think about who they might be excluding with the homecoming chant: “We love our Scotty sisters.”
“If you spent your first three years at homecoming chanting ‘we love our sisters,’ what if you say ‘we love our siblings’? Does that then dilute your experience at a women’s college?” The answer can be yes, Contreras admits but, she believes resistance often comes from a lack of exposure.
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The opportunity to dispel some of these notions is precisely what makes women’s colleges a unique environment for transgender students. Both Tyler and Richardson credit a gender studies course in college — at different schools and almost a decade apart — with allowing them to begin articulating different concepts of identity.
“What it meant to be a woman drastically changed once I did get to Agnes Scott because I saw women being empowered, speaking in the classroom and it was an environment that allowed for expressions like ‘I don’t know’,” Tyler says. “I finally had a language to describe the way I felt.”
Transgender students at women’s colleges are nothing new. Both Richardson and Contreras were adamant that they don’t know when the first transgender student attended their schools, but both felt that no school should wait until there are five, ten or fifteen transgender students to create spaces where the students feel welcome and accepted.
“There have always been trans students at Spelman and there will always be trans students at Spelman,” says Richardson, who now works as the Coordinator of Campus Engagement and Prevention at the Anti-violence Project. “It’s whether or not they’ll feel safe enough to be able to come out and live out or live authentically as their true self that’s the difference.”
When Spelman was formulating its revised admissions policies they formed a committee which included transgender alum to advise on the policy. But many are still resistant to the idea that educating transgender men and non-binary people should be part of the mission of a women’s college.
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Women’s colleges — much like historically Black colleges and universities — were founded on the idea that previously marginalized communities deserve a place to get an education. In some ways at least there is a notable change on campuses of women’s colleges. Richardson says during their time at Spelman, though gender nonconformity existed it still wasn’t openly talked about outside of spaces like the women’s center.
Even as colleges gradually become more open, Nicolazzo says her research drives home the importance of having what she calls “queer bubbles” for students on campus.
“It’s a place where they can exist and not feel the outward pressures of having to conform or having to cover their identity,” Nicolazzo explains. “Those different bubbles created basically a network around campus places they could go to be themselves and be seen as themselves.”
For Contreras, who left her position as Director of Institutional Diversity and Inclusive Education at Agnes Scott at the end of the 2018 school year to pursue a PHD, small efforts were important in leading to larger acceptance. She made a point to always state her pronouns when introducing herself and start each meeting with a gender-inclusive greeting. But, she concedes that the current American education system is not set up to address the needs of transgender students.
“The shift happens organically,” she says. “But, there will be some who need more time.”
While Tyler says they are thankful for the progress Agnes Scott is making, they believe the struggles they’ve faced extend far beyond campus grounds.
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“The school isn’t ready for gender nonconforming people because the world isn't ready for gender nonconforming people in regards to healthcare or work or livelihood,” Tyler says.
Tyler’s assertion isn’t unfounded — Georgia has a right to work law which prohibits agreements between companies and labor unions meaning jobs lack certain protections for minorities that might be present in Union contracts. Tyler says they are more likely to face discriminatory hiring practices as a result. This summer, they worked with children, and they say that if their coworkers knew they identified as transgender they would’ve been fired. The 2015 U.S. transgender survey reported a 15% unemployment rate among respondents—three times higher than the unemployment rate in the U.S. population at the time of the survey.
For Tyler time is running out. As they prepare to graduate in a few months, the realities and challenges of being a non-binary person continue to weigh heavily on them. Tyler’s sister had a baby as a teenager and Tyler hopes to be able to take custody of the child after graduation. Beyond the need to find steady employment, this means they likely won’t take any steps to legally change their gender, because they worry it could jeopardize their chances at gaining custody.
“This is another really big grow up moment where I figure out what I have to do,” Tyler says of life after graduation. “I want to be somewhere that has a vibrant LGBTQ community, somewhere that I feel safe but ..my future is a question mark.”
*Names have been changed.
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