Gender, Social Justice

Redrawing the borders of female

Barnard’s exclusion of trans-men and non-binary folks leaves more to be desired.

Barnard College, a private women’s liberal art school in New York, has recently announced that it will begin to accept prospective students who identify as trans-women. The school welcomes those who “consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.” Existing students who transition from female to male will be, and have been, allowed to continue their education at Barnard, but new applicants will not be accepted. Alongside their barring of trans men, Barnard also will not be accepting non-binary or genderqueer students either.

The new policy at Barnard is not based in legality or paperwork, but more progressively in self-identification. If the applicant applies as a female and refers to herself as female, then they are eligible.

The decision was a necessary one, but whose exact parameters were difficult to decide on. Other women’s colleges have varied policies on gender identity, and Barnard’s new policy takes a step towards normalizing rules inclusive towards gender diversity. While some colleges have more inclusive policies – Mount Holyoke accepts all students excluding cis males – others take more moderate or strict stances.

I feel that Barnard’s exclusion of trans-men and non-binary folks leaves more to be desired.

In a cultural sense, I deeply appreciate that fact that they’ve begun to accept trans-women into their definition of “women.” Often, feminist spaces exclude trans-women but turn around and accept trans-men by citing “female socialization.” Barnard’s acceptance of trans-women helps reinforce inclusive feminism, and acknowledges that the trans woman narrative is part of the diverse female experience.

Trans-women have a very important narrative to offer feminist studies, and I think the inclusion of trans students would greatly aid in the expansiveness of their peers. On the other hand, I wonder if Barnard is going to process their trans identifies as strictly female in order to maintain politeness. I’m not a trans-woman, so I’m not going to speak out on how I feel this should be handled. All I know is that trans-women occupy a specific subset of academia that should be classified under women’s studies, but is often relegated to the LGBTQ+ genre.

On the other hand, I feel that nonbinary and trans-men have a lot to offer critical feminist studies. While I understand that Barnard wants to stay an exclusively female space, I also feel that by analyzing the struggles of these genders we can learn a lot about how we code femininity. The most pertinent example I can think of is being read as female. When someone reads you as female, you tend to learn a lot about how this person processes your body. Despite the fact that neither of these genders should be read as women, it’s possible to still have an invested interest in women’s studies as a way to understand themselves.

Jennifer Boylan, a transgender woman and also an English professor at Barnard, said that she preferred the “most inclusive policy possible,” which would mean a policy that accepts transgender male and non-binary students.

President of Barnard, Debora Spar, told the New York Times about the decision that required more than a year of discussion, “When I first started hearing from trans students, I think as a human being, I couldn’t help but sympathize. I think once you understand the human dimension of this, you want to do the right thing. The harder question then is, what is the right thing?”

It is my belief that this new development will greatly help to open the minds of a generation, and will aid in redefining our cultural definition of “woman.” With the inclusion of trans-women, it is my hope that students can get more involved with non-bio essentialist studies that focus on “female” as defined by its social factors, actions of its oppressors, and the conditions of all who identify under its label.