Transgendering the Academy: Transgender Inclusion at a Women’s College (Mills College, 4.1.13)

Transgendering the Academy: Transgender Inclusion at a Women’s College
Pauline Park, Ph.D.

Chair
New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)

address to faculty, staff and students at
Mills College
Oakland
1 April 2013

I would like to begin by thanking Prof. Julia Oparah of the department of ethnic studies for her instrumental role in bringing me to speak here at Mills College, my first time on this campus. I’d also like to thank. Rev. Laura Engelken, director of spiritual and religious life in the division of student life, who stayed up late last night to pick me up at the BART station in downtown Oakland at midnight after my flight arrived two hours late; if it weren’t for her, I would literally not be here.  And I’d like to thank Prof. Christie Chung of the department of psychology for helping to arrange my appearance here. Prof. Oparah, Prof. Chung and Rev. Engelken as well as all of their faculty, staff and student colleagues on the transgender best practices task force and the gender identity and expression subcommittee of the diversity & social justice committee have done a superb job in preparing the draft report on inclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming students, and I would like to offer my own thoughts on their assessment and recommendations.

But first, I’d like to offer what I see as a compelling argument for a women’s college like Mills to move forward with transgender inclusion.  While I never attended a women’s college myself, I have spoken at Wellesley College once and Smith College twice — as well as twice at Vassar, which was founded as a women’s college but is now fully co-educational.  And it seems to me that every women’s college in this country will face the challenge of whether to continue to define itself and its mission as focused exclusively or primarily on women and if so, how.

In 1990, the board of trustees decided to admit men to Mills College, but students led an uprising that was instrumental in persuading the board to reverse its decision under the banner of ‘better dead than co-ed.’ We are just a month away from the 22nd anniversary of that political earthquake, but as the college considers the issue of transgender inclusion, it seems to me that it is at an equally important turning point.

The difference is that 22 years ago, the choice seemed a stark one: between maintaining the college’s status as women-only or going whole hog with the admission of men. I would like to argue here that to pose the choice facing Mills today in such terms is to construct that choice in terms of a false dichotomy rooted in the sex/gender binary itself — the assumption that there are two and only two sexes and two and only two genders.

There may well be a genuine dilemma here, not only in terms of marketing and revenue from student tuition as well as alumni donations, but even in terms of core mission, because both poststructuralist theory and feminist theory have posed the question as to how we even define ‘woman’ and whether it is possible or even desirable to maintain and defend a sex/gender binary that divides the world into two and only two sexes and two and only two genders. The reality is that Mills currently enrolls students who no longer identify as women even if they may have — or conversely, those who may have been assigned to the male sex birth but who have come to identify as women. The college also has members of its current student body who may not identify with either side of the binary divide and who may instead identify as genderqueer, gender-fluid, or gender-variant in some fashion.

So I would like to suggest that the choice facing Mills today — which is the same choice facing every women’s college in this country — is not whether the college should remain a women’s college or go co-ed, but rather, if it is committed to remaining a women’s college, what kind of women’s college it intends to be. Because it would seem to me that in order to know what a women’s college is, one would first need to know who is a woman and who isn’t.

The late theorist Jacques Derrida famously asserted that there is an infinite play of signifiers and signifieds such that the relationship between any signifier and signified is arbitrary and cannot be fixed; while I myself do not identify as a Derridean and I think there is reason to doubt that that play between signifiers and signified is infinite, feminist theory of the post-structuralist variety has led many to challenge the sex/gender binary and even to identify it as the source of the oppression of women, of men, and of the transgendered and gender-variant.

Such theoretical considerations have enormous practical implications, including for women’s colleges. If the foundation stone of a women’s college is the assumption that the education of women in women-only spaces is crucial for the empowerment of female students, then any challenge to the notion of a fixity of the definition of ‘woman’ or ‘female’ would seem to threaten the very rationale for a women’s college.  I would like to argue that there is in fact a rationale for a women’s college in this post-structuralist, post-modern era, but that any such rationale must take into account the presence and active participation of those who may not easily fit into the sex/gender binary — those who identify as or are identified as transgendered or gender-variant — or if you prefer, gender-fluid, gender-non-conforming or gender-transgressive. 

The oft-quoted slogan of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s was that “the personal is political,” and I would like to argue that the choice before Mills College is indeed a political one and inescapably so; if the college does not actively define itself for the 21st century, it could be defined by circumstances and by outside forces in a way that would not be flattering for its image. The committee drafting the guidelines on transgender inclusion has taken the first important steps in attempting to reconceptualize and rearticulate the college’s mission as a women’s college, and while I have a few small questions concerning details, I wholeheartedly endorse the second draft of its report as a whole; for the college to fail to take up the challenge posed by that report would be to miss a crucial opportunity to proactively redefine itself and update its mission and its profile as well as its ‘brand’ in the college market; to fail to respond substantively to that report would really be for the college to deny the reality of its own current student body. Rather like the United States military, which operated from 1993-2011 under the law known popularly as ‘don’t ask/don’t tell,’ the college has to date failed to fully recognize its own student body; the process that is now underway with the drafting of this report provides the college with an opportunity to get out ahead of a phenomenon that is affecting every women’s college in the country and even to stake out a leadership position that could bring Mills national acclaim.

So let me spell out some of the details of the process through which a vision of a transgender-inclusive academic institution could be brought about — what I will call ‘transgendering’ the academy. If our goal is to make higher education fully transgender-inclusive, how would we go about achieving that objective? The first step would have to be to gain a full understanding of just what ‘transgender’ means. Many in this audience will have a very good understanding of transgender identity, but for those for whom this is a relatively new topic, I would like to suggest that you imagine a diagram to illustrate the complexity of the community of which I myself am a member.

Picture  the community as a series of three concentric circles, beginning with transsexuals — those who seek or have obtained sex reassignment surgery (SRS) — often described as being either ‘pre-operative’ or ‘post-op,’ as the case may be. While the mainstream media until recently have tended to focus on those transitioning from male-to-female (MTF), there are, of course, many (possibly just as many) transsexuals who go from female-to-male (FTM). While transsexuals are the segment of the transgender community whom many think of first when they think of ‘transgender,’ the term ‘transgender’ is not simply a more politically correct or up-to-date synonym for ‘transsexual.’ In fact, most transgendered people do not want SRS, and most of those who do (viz., transsexuals) never get it — mainly because of the expense, but for other reasons as well.

Encompassing this first circle is a much larger circle, those I will call ‘the transgendered,’ including not only transsexuals but non-transsexual transgendered people as well. The most obvious identity labels in this category of non-transsexual transgendered people are those who identify as — or are identifed as — crossdressers (the old-fashioned term is ‘transvestite,’ though few today use that term to self-identify — except perhaps for Eddie Izzard — and it is now considered overly clinical or even pejorative) as well as drag queens and drag kings — terms best used with reference to performance, whether professional or informal. The ‘transgendered’ in the context of this circles diagram will be used to denote those who present fully in a gender identity not associated with their sex assigned at birth — at least part of the time.

But there are in fact hundreds of different terms which transgendered people use to self-identify, and conversely, many transgendered people do not identify with the term ‘transgender.’ Clearly, the almost bewildering diversity of the transgender community constitutes one of the biggest challenges in attempting to include and serve this population, whether in higher education, health care, or social services.

A still larger category encompassing both transsexual and non-transsexual transgendered people is that which I will label the ‘gender-variant,’ a term that actually has its origins in academic circles but which has come into vogue among activists as well. And just who would non-transgendered gender-variant people be? They would include relatively feminine males who nonetheless still identify as men or boys and relatively masculine females who still identify as women or girls. The term ‘gender-variant is particularly relevant on college campuses, as there are many who were born male and especially female who disdain the sex/gender binary and terms such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that they see as reflecting that binary; many such young people prefer to identify as ‘gender-queer’ and some prefer gender-neutral pronouns.

I contrast these three groups — the transsexual, transgendered and gender-variant — with another group, the conventionally gendered — those who more or less conform to the gender norms of their time and place, and who (by definition) constitute a majority in every society, as every society constructs norms of gender and imposes those norms on its members. What is crucial to grasp is that this diagram is a map of the gender universe; it does not speak to sexual orientation. As most in this audience will already understand, transgendered people are as diverse in their sexual orientation as non-transgendered people and like them, may be heterosexual or bisexual as well as gay or lesbian. And I also need to emphasize that this diagram is simply my map of the gender universe; there are as many different definitions of transgender as there are transgendered people.

The main point is to avoid the narrowing of discourse around gender identity which is constantly rearticulated and reinforced by the mainstream media — the over-reliance on what I call the classic transsexual transition narrative — which focuses almost obsessively on a linear medical transition from male to female through hormone replacement therapy (HRT) towards the end point of sex reassignment surgery; while some do follow that path, most transgendered people do not. Any effort to establish fully-transgender inclusive programs and services on a college campus will falter unless it is based on a recognition of the full diversity of transgender identity, and the truth that there are as many ways to be transgendered as there are transgendered people.

Transgendering the Academy: Campus Policies, Curriculum, Student Services, and Faculty and Staff Development

Having attempted to describe the diversity of the transgender community, I would now like to set out what I see as four crucial elements in what I call ‘transgendering the academy.’ These include: first, establishing campus policies and protocols that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression; second, advancing transgender entry into faculty positions within academia; third, constructing curricula and building academic programs and departments that advance the study of transgender in the academy; fourth, establishing an institutional infrastructure of services for transgendered students, faculty and staff; and fifth, constructing theory that is relevant to activism, advocacy and public policy. I will touch on the first four but devote the bulk of my comments to the last – the task of transforming theory into praxis.

One of the tasks that must be undertaken in order to effect what I am calling the ‘transgendering’ of the academy is the adoption by colleges and universities of policies explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression as well as sexual orientation. I am not currently aware of a comprehensive list of institutions of higher education in the United States or abroad that have adopted such policies, so perhaps the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals (’the Consortium’) could compile such a list.

There is a curious paradox here: where campuses are situated in jurisdictions that currently include gender identity and expression in non-discrimination law, explicit policies that do so are somewhat redundant, as such colleges and universities are then under legal mandate to enforce non-discrimination; that is certainly the case here in the state of California, where gender identity and expression are already in state non-discrimination law, so adding them to college non-discrimination policy would simply state the school’s commitment to abide by existing state law.

But I would argue that campus policies are still useful even in cities, counties and states with gender identity and expression in human rights law, as they represent an explicit commitment on the part of the college or university to transgender inclusion, and they send a signal to transgendered students, faculty and staff that their presence and participation in campus life are valued, as well as sending an important signal to those who would discriminate against transgendered members of the campus community.

Of all the items in the project of transgendering the academy, this is, on the face of it, the easiest: simply adding either gender identity and expression to the college or university non-discrimination policy or — better still — adding a definition of gender that includes identity and expression — requires no elaborate word-smithing or lawyering, merely a commitment on the part of the administration to do so. The difficulty comes when applying such a non-discrimination policy to specific situations such as sex-segregated facilities, including those where there is the possibility of unavoidable nudity (to use a legal expression). Restrooms, dormitories, and gyms and locker rooms are the most significant ’sites of contestation’ (to use a term beloved of post-structuralist theorists). Some institutions, such as New York University (NYU), have adopted policies that specifically require the construction of at least one gender-neutral restroom per new building; ironically enough, at the same time that NYU adopted this policy in 2005, the University Senate rejected the addition of a general policy prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression, despite the university being under a legal mandate from the City of New York to avoid such discrimination since the enactment of the transgender rights law by the New York City Council in 2002.

Explicit campus-wide policies ensuring full access to campus facilities for transgendered students as well as faculty and staff are important but must be drafted in ways that address the potentially thorny issues that arise when it comes to sex-segregated facilities. The rule should be one of reasonable accommodation, backed by an aggressive effort by the administration to ensure full access to such facilities. The prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity and expression must be explicitly included in faculty, staff and student handbooks along with prohibition of discrimination based on other characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, etc. Above all, the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity or expression must be included in legal documents that ensure the right of the student or faculty or staff member to litigate a dispute if necessary; only then can the institution be held accountable, especially in jurisdictions which do not include gender identity or expression in state or local non-discrimination law.

Single-sex colleges must also address the issue of admissions policies, a particularly thorny issue for a women’s college such as Mills; but the inclusion of both transmen and transwomen in women’s spaces is an issue that will not go away, much as many administrators at women’s colleges may wish it to. Clearly, the principle of empowering women through education needs to be subjected to scrutiny, as does the very definition of what constitutes a woman, as I said before, and what provisions must be made to accommodate and ideally to fully include in the life of the college those female-born individuals who transition to male over the course of their undergraduate careers at women’s colleges, as well as those male-born individuals who seek admission to a women’s college as women.

Colleges and universities should also mandate transgender sensitivity training for all staff — and where feasible, provide such training for faculty and for students as well. Where mandatory diversity training already exists for race, ethnicity, religion and disability as well as sex or gender, that training should include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as well. In other words, ‘diversity’ needs to be redefined campus-wide to include diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Another mechanism for enhancing inclusion would be inclusion in a campus-wide census of students, faculty and staff — especially those in leadership positions — that includes self-identification by sexual orientation and gender identity. No doubt such a proposal could meet resistance even at  more ostensibly more progressive colleges and universities. But at the very least, surveys of ‘campus climate’ should include questions about climate for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff.

And yet another important step — cited by the committee in its report on best practices — would concern student identification in the classroom. It may well be that many if not most faculty members at Mills, like at every other women’s college, assume that most if not all of their students are women; instructors may use feminine gender pronouns as the default. But the reality, as I have gleaned from speaking with faculty, staff and students, is that there are a number of students currently enrolled who do not identify as women and do not like feminine pronouns applied to them automatically. And so ‘transgendering the academy’ may require faculty members to revisit this assumption in a way that allows them to see the full diversity of the class before them at any given time. The student you may think of as a masculine woman may identify either as a genderqueer or a transman, but you may not know that unless you engage the student in a conversation, which of course could be awkward and even intrusive if not handled with sensitivity.

Above all, the onus must be on the instructor and not on the student to use the preferred names and pronouns of his or her students, and a campus-wide policy that provides for an alternative class roster at the beginning of every semester should be instituted here. Such a policy is just one of many that would greatly enhance the quality of life for transgendered and gender-variant students at this college with relatively little cost to the school.

The second element in the project of transgendering the academy is the inclusion of transgender-relevant courses in the curriculum of institutions of higher education. Inclusion of a course on transgender issues as a requirement for completion of a major or minor in LGBT studies would also represent a significant advance for transgender inclusion in the curriculum. On the curricular front, at least, there has been some progress over the course of the last few decades, as the number of courses offered at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada — and increasingly outside North America — that include a substantial component on transgender issues has grown exponentially, albeit from a small base. Once again, there seems to be no comprehensive list, which would be very useful for LGBT campus professionals as well as for students and faculty. And all too often, even where transgender-inclusive courses are included in a college course catalog, those courses are offered irregularly and by graduate students or adjunct professors who have little institutional influence and limited ability to ensure continuity in course content from semester to semester.  But where such courses exist, they are primarily in the humanities and to a lesser extent in the social sciences. In other fields, significant transgender- or even LGBT-specific content in curricula is rare. In schools of medicine, transgender-specific content is sparse, and what little there is focuses almost exclusively on the medical aspects of transsexual transition, even though familiarizing physicians and other health care providers with what might be termed the ‘psychosocial’ aspects of health care provision may be as important in ensuring transgender access to quality health care as ‘cognate’ knowledge of the surgical and endocrinological aspects of gender transition. I would suggest that a minimum of two hours of transgender sensitivity training should be required at every school of medicine that offers an M.D.

The diversity and social justice committee’s report on transgender inclusion at Mills notes that there are only a handful of courses at this college that are explicitly transgender-inclusive, despite the plethora of women’s studies and gender studies courses; most such courses, apparently, are taught from a binary perspective, with ‘women’ constructed as ‘cis-gendered’ or conventionally gendered women and no attention paid to the issues facing transgendered women and men in this or other societies. While needing to recognize the principle of academic freedom, the process of fully ‘transgendering’ this college would mean providing faculty members teaching courses with significant gender-related content with the opportunity to rethink their syllabi and course content, perhaps through faculty-wide or departmental colloquia.

Inextricably linked with the issue of curriculum development is that of faculty and staff development. Certainly, one of the biggest challenges in advancing a project of transgendering the academy will be that of transgendering the faculty of colleges and universities, few of whom have many openly transgendered members; even fewer transgender-identified faculty members obtain tenure after having been hired while openly transgendered; and still fewer obtain tenure primarily for research focused on transgender issues. And most theorists who focus substantially on transgender issues are in the humanities, with a scattering in the social sciences.

Then there is the question of incorporating transgender-related material into courses across the curriculum as opposed to developing courses with transgender-specific course content; I would argue that this is to a certain extent yet another false dichotomy: there is no reason not to attempt to do both, and faculty members should have the support of deparments, programs, research institutes and senior staff on campus in efforts to do both.

Perhaps one of the most important issues is that of institutional infrastructure, especially of student services. Here, the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals (’the Consortium’) and its members have played a leading role in developing LGBT student services offices at campuses around the United States. There is much to say about services specifically needed by transgendered and gender-variant students, but given that the primary focus of my talk is on public policy and advocacy, I will touch on only a few programmatic elements that I think are important to the development of infrastructure serving undergraduate and graduate students on campus.

Obviously, a fully funded LGBT student services office with at least one or more full-time staff members is the minimum needed to effectively serve transgendered and gender-variant students. Support groups for those coming out and transitioning are also crucial. Support and guidance in navigating the physical infrastructure of a campus are especially important, including access to restrooms and locker rooms in gyms. Housing is also an important issue, and single-sex institutions — especially women’s colleges are  increasingly confronted with issues of access. Health care is a particularly important and sensitive issue for transgendered students, and the same issues that have come up in the Transgender Health Initiative of New York (THINY) face transgendered students as they attempt to access procedures and care both related to gender transition and not directly gender-related. Offices of LGBT student services can also play a role in assisting transgendered and gender-variant students navigate what might be called the ’semiotics of campus life,’ including negotiating classroom etiquette related to names and pronouns and even posting transgender-affirming signage around campus.

One of the challenges facing offices of LGBT student services is the ’silo-ing’ that often results from the construction of offices of multicultural affairs along identitarian lines, such that the office of LGBT students primarily serves white queers, with little engagement with the offices of African American, Latino, or Asian American students, which in turn are inadvertently relieved of the obligation to serve LGBT students of color within their constituencies. Housing the LGBT student services office within the same complex as those serving students of color — such as is done at the University of Connecticut — can help foster collaboration and collaborative programming, as the Rainbow Center at UConn — not coincidentally under the direction of an African American lesbian — regularly engages in. Mills is well-positioned to do so, with its Diversity & Social Justice Resource Center; the addition of a full-time LGBT student services coordinator would enable the college to do more to advance acceptance and inclusion throughout the college, especially if that individual were fully incorporated into the work of the Resource Center; colleges must work to ensure that LGBT students of color and especially transgendered students of color do not fall between the cracks. ‘Intersectionality’ must not be simply a slogan; it must be a principle upon which the work of student service professionals at colleges and universities operate.

The provision of health care to students as well as faculty and staff is another important element of the project of transgendering the academy; and here, it is important to point out that the issue of access to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is only one element of a much larger picture. In my work with St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan, I and my colleagues developed a draft protocol that would spell out rules for the provision of health care for transgendered and gender-variant patients; I would like to suggest that one of the tasks for this college, should it move forward with the project of transgender inclusion, would be to develop just such a protocol for faculty and staff as well as for students.

Conclusion

As an outsider on my first visit to Mills College, I cannot claim to know this institution well; but as a first-time visitor, I may bring a fresh pair of eyes to the campus as I look at the challenges facing this school; and it seems clear to me that Mills is at a crossroads; the issue of transgender inclusion only forefronts the need to address the issues that the college is facing. To put it rather starkly, it seems clear to me that this institution can either move forward into the future and establish itself as a leader and a progressive voice in higher education or else fall back into a defensive posture that would almost necessarily involve not only denial of the reality of its changing student population but even gender policing of the sort that a progressive institution of any kind should seek to avoid; whatever choice this school makes, it seems to me that the status quo cannot hold.

I would like to see Mills College engage the project of transgendering the academy in earnest, and success of that project can only be premised on a reconceptualization and rearticulation of the relationship between the college’s mission in relation to the education and empowerment of women. Such a change would be perfectly consistent with the college’s commitment to the pursuit of a progressive vision of social justice and social change; indeed, to turn its back on such a change would be to deny the reality of its own student body as well as of this society as a whole as it advances towards greater acceptance of transgendered and gender-variant people. But if the college does take this opportunity, Mills can establish a position of leadership that will redound to its credit as well as potentially increasing its pool of students and further diversifying its student body. There are many details to work out, including many of those spelled out in the committee’s report on best practices; but the first task will be for the college to affirm the principles of diversity and inclusion with respect to gender identity and gender expression; everything else is negotiable.

As the Mahatma Gandhi would say, we must be the change that we seek to make in the world, and that vision of change is what must guide us as we engage in the project that I have called the transgendering of the academy; I urge you all to take up that task here at Mills. Thank you.

Pauline Park (paulinepark.com) is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) (nyagra.com), a statewide transgender advocacy organization that she co-founded in 1998, and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House (queenspridehouse.org), which she co-founded in 1997. Park currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund  (transgenderlegal.org).

Park named and helped create the Transgender Health Initiative of New York(THINY), a community organizing project established by TLDEF and NYAGRA to ensure that transgendered and gender non-conforming people can access health care in a safe, respectful and non-discriminatory manner. And as executive editor, she oversaw the creation and publication in July 2009 of the NYAGRA transgender health care provider directory, the first directory of transgender-sensitive health care providers in the New York City metropolitan area and the first directory of transgender-sensitive health care providers published in print format anywhere in the United States.

Park led the campaign for passage of Int. No. 24, the transgender rights ordinance enacted by the New York City Council as Local Law 3 of 2002. She served on the working group that helped to draft guidelines — adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in December 2004 — for implementation of the new statute. Park negotiated inclusion of gender identity and expression in the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a safe schools law enacted by the New York state legislature in 2010, and the first fully transgender-inclusive legislation enacted by that body, and she is a member of the statewide task force created to implement the statute. She also served on the steering committee of the coalition that secured enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act by the New York City Council in September 2004.

Park did her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her M.Sc. in European Studies at the London School of Economics and her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana. Park has written widely on LGBT issues and has conducted transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of organizations. In 2005, Park became the first openly transgendered grand marshal of the New York City Pride March. She was the subject of “Envisioning Justice: The Journey of a Transgendered Woman,” a 32-minute documentary about her life and work by documentarian Larry Tung that premiered at the New York LGBT Film Festival (NewFest) in 2008.

One Response to “Transgendering the Academy: Transgender Inclusion at a Women’s College (Mills College, 4.1.13)”

  1. J. Prieto says:

    I agree, I was searching colleges and came upon Mills College. I was so fascinated with all I had seen & researched. Then I found that it was only undergraduate to females. I had come across a class about transgender, & was still in thought it was just an open college. Until the realization it was only female, a fear came to me, as may be true for many transgedered folk, was rejection. Heard but not respected for the gender that not only I claim is mine, but on a deep soul level I cannot change. My heart sank just a few minutes ago, all my troubles seem to be coming back all again. With hope my life had just changed, but hey, it’s life. Thank you

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