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What Do Women’s Colleges and Religious Schools Have in Common?


Women’s colleges around the country are grappling with a generation that comes out and transitions earlier in life.

CREDIT: Flickr / velkr0

Domaine Javier was impressed enough by California Baptist University’s nursing program to transfer from Riverside City College, choosing the private religious institution over the public Cal State—San Bernardino.

Despite her affinity for the program, she was expelled this summer, a few months after appearing on an MTV reality program called “I’m Passing As Someone I’m Not.”  During the program, Javier revealed that she is a transgender woman.

As a university affiliated with the Southern Baptist Conference, Cal Baptist has strict rules governing social conduct, although none explicitly barring transgender students. And because it’s a private institution, it is exempt from California laws banning discrimination based on gender identity.

It’s not only religious schools that take advantage of this exemption, or have anti-trans policies in general. Women’s colleges around the country are grappling with a generation that comes out and transitions earlier in life—and frequently in college.

Virginia’s Hollins University has one of the more extreme policies, requiring the expulsion of trans men who begin transition either through taking hormones, having surgery, or undergoing a legal name change related to a female-to-male transition. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that the policy has drawn scrutiny from, according to the university, “students and others.” While no-one has been forced out under the policy, several students have cited it in their decision to transfer.

Hollins is an unusual case, as many trans men find women’s colleges welcoming when they come out.

Sebastian Barr, a Smith alumnus who came out in his senior year of college, was greeted with support and affirmation from fellow students, faculty, and even administrators.

“I think that the idea that there would ever be a policy that someone should transfer is absurd,” Barr told Campus Progress.

But women’s colleges, with their desire to offer a refuge from a male-dominated culture, are a particularly thorny issue. Unlike religious schools, they discriminate not based on someone’s transgender status, but on their gender identity: men are not welcome for their imposition on women’s space.

“The reality here is that women’s schools are here to give women the opportunity to grow, develop, and learn separate from male privilege and patriarchy,” Barr said,  adding that he would feel comfortable with women’s colleges excluding trans men who identify as men on their applications, but allowing trans men who come out in college to stay.

Erin Buzuvis, an associate professor of law at Western New England College, wrote on her Title IX blog that the Hollins rule may also run afoul of Title IX, which offers exemptions for private colleges solely in matters of admissions: 

Even if Hollins could legally exclude applicants because of their sex (either their natal sex, or their transitioned sex), this exemption does not give a women’s college license to discriminate against students who have already matriculated by expelling them because of their transitioned sex.

Time will tell whether this particular reading of Title IX will cause problems for Hollins, or if they will review and revise their policy before it comes up in the courtroom.

Other women’s colleges like Smith and Wellesley don’t allow students and alumni who are transgender men to fully participate in certain events, like hosting prospective students or conducting alumni interviews.

The situation for trans women can be equally frustrating: Applicants to Smith and Barnard, among others, must be consistently labeled female on all official documents — a daunting task for young trans women.

Tangent, a trans student group at Smith, states in its mission statement that Smith’s identification of woman-ness with legal sex is problematic: “For Smith to truly fulfill its intended duties, we need to re-evaluate the inhabitants of our space and include the rest of the population of women who are routinely excluded from women’s spaces.”

Women’s colleges, at least, are said to be negotiating how they deal with the needs of transgender students. Not unexpectedly, there is no such response from conservative religious institutions, and there is no legal recourse for students like Javier: State nondiscrimination laws do not apply to private religious institutions like Cal Baptist.

Though Javier was devastated by her expulsion, she’s received support from friends, family, and classmates. She is back at Riverside City College this fall, and intends to enter the nursing track there in a year.

“This totally ruined my career path,” she said.

But she’s persevering, like many other trans students who find that their status disrupts their education.

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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