It’s back-to-school season for most and stepping back into the scene isn’t easy for a lot of students—especially LGBTQ students.
LGBTQ-phobias abound in the hallowed halls of higher learning.
Unfortunately, we even have to confront them here in Massachusetts, an A+ queer-friendly state. I pray for LGBTQ freshman students walking into Gordon College. Most will be totally unaware of Michael Lindsay, their college president, and his anti-gay actions.
Gordon College is a small conservative Christian college on the North Shore. It prides itself on upholding the tenets of religious freedom. And in so doing, the college tested its boundaries with the recent Supreme Court case “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.”
With the “Hobby Lobby” case ruling that family-owned corporations citing religious objection could now opt out of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that required employers to cover certain contraceptives for women, Gordon’s Lindsay, along with 14 influential religious leaders from across the country—asked Obama for an exemption banning discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.
The group’s request was written under the guise of religious freedom.
The letter stated the following:
As religious and civic leaders who seek to advance the common good, we write to urge you to include a religious exemption in your planned executive order addressing federal contractors and LGBT employment policies.
This ability is essential in light of our national conversation on political and cultural issues related to sexuality…Without a robust religious exemption, like the provisions in the Senate-passed ENDA, this expansion of hiring rights will come at an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity and religious freedom.
The ban to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the hiring process outraged so many alumni, students, family and friends of Gordon College that a petition was written to Lindsay to rescind his request.
While there are certainly a cadre of LGBTQ- friendly professors, administrators and students at Gordon, it’s not an easy campus to be out on. Paul Miller, a 2008 Gordon graduate and co-founder of the LGBTQ group “One Gordon,” shared with the Boston Globe his hellish experience as to why he couldn’t come out as gay while in attendance at the college: “Lindsay has made Gordon a fortress of faith rather than a place where the doors are open to people who want to be part of a conversation about what it means to be a Christian.”
After graduation Miller worked at Gordon hoping to change things; however, depressed over the school’s unchanging homophobic attitude and edicts he eventually left not only the college but also Christianity: “I wonder, if Gordon had been affirming of LGBT people, if I’d still be a person of faith….And the reason I’m not is the place that provided the most compassionate and intellectually robust and civic-minded Christianity that I’d ever encountered told me that I couldn’t be part of their community.”
Trans students across the country are also discovering they cannot be part of college communities they once belonged to.
When Caleb (not his real name) drove up from South Carolina to his class reunion at an elite women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts this year, he didn’t expect the unwelcoming reception he got from both his classmates and the college. Caleb shared with me his reason for attending a women’s college as an out lesbian undergraduate in the 70’s and now returning as a transman alum in 2014, and he never fathomed his transition would be the primary cause of banishment from the sisterhood that sustained and nurtured belief in himself for years after graduation.
While it’s easy to assume that much of Caleb’s experience of inhospitality at his alma mater would point to a generational divide between women’s colleges in the 1970s to now, unfortunately that’s not the case. In March 2013, Calliope Wong, a transwoman hoping to be one of the 2017 incoming undergraduates at Smith College was denied consideration because her “FAFSA” — Free Application for Federal Student Aid — stated her gender as male.
Today women’s college administrators are having just as much unease and angst with the reality of gender fluidity as they did back in the day with the reality of lesbian and bisexual women on campus. “I don’t want to get to a point where we have a row of guys in the back of the class with baseball caps on,” Smith’s vice president for enrollment told students.
Institutional transphobia is ubiquitous in many of our revered pillars in society, and there’s unabashedly little to no effort to change.
The one institution, however, you might not expect transphobia to rear its ugly head, given its founding principle was to address gender discrimination, is women’s college.
Gender has always been a social construction shaped by factors of race, class, country, sexual orientation and gender identities, to name just a few. From the biblical story of Eve to our present-day, heterosexual male-dominant societies across the globe continue to try to define us women solely by our reproductive and sex organs.
Oddly, one of the arguments for gender discrimination against transwomen being admitted at elite women’s colleges is the misogynist concept we women have fought bitterly against for centuries that states our “biology is destiny.”
While some women’s college won’t admit transwomen because they are not “biologically” female others won’t admit them because they are not “legally” female. “We don’t define what constitutes a woman — we leave that to other entities or agencies to affirm,” Smith’s vice president for enrollment wrote Feldman.
Clearly, this female administrator misses the principle concept of women’s empowerment—that we define ourselves for ourselves.
While Smith and many other women’s colleges have implemented significant hurdles for transwomen seeking admission, Mount Holyoke College, a Seven Sister school just 10 miles down the road from Smith, this fall semester has just opened their doors to trans applicants. The school’s website states in its opening sentence that “Mount Holyoke College welcomes applications for our undergraduate program from any qualified student who is female or identifies as a woman.”
Ironically, another argument used against transwomen is Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Not surprisingly, however, given how privilege is usually doled out and executed, a proviso was granted to elite private institutions like Harvard, and the Seven Sister Colleges, giving them the arbitrary and capricious decision to accept or to reject students on the basis of gender.
This past April, after long and heated deliberations on the rights of transgender students, the Department of Education finally issued new guide rules incorporating the protection of transgender students.
Title IX energized feminist activism, promoted gender equality, debunked prescribed gender roles, and finally put to rest the idea of women as second class citizens.
And there’s no reason to exclude transgender men and women from these same benefits.
While many of these women’s colleges have been perceived bastions of inclusive feminism, especially with the rise of the Second Wave Feminist Movement, unfortunately, they have primarily been an intentionally exclusive women’s country clubs that spoke to Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique of upper-crust “pumps and pearls” wearing white women.
Back in the days, when I was a Wellesley College undergraduate, women like myself—African American and/or lesbian or bisexual—were no more welcomed at these schools than men were. And transwomen, if they were in attendance, were invisible.
The battle to open these colleges’ pearly gates to women of color, and to women of various sexual orientations and gender identities is a fight that shouldn’t still be taking place.
This struggle to accept transgender students and to welcome back transgender alums like Caleb in a steady dwindling sisterhood of women’s colleges should be a no-brainer.
If we’re having this problem of accepting LGBTQ students in Massachusetts—just think of want it must be like across the country.
But as people of faith, I believe, our calling is to help these hallowed halls of higher learning be open admission to all.
Photo via flickr user Ellen Kaufman