After a semester and a half of discussion, Wellesley’s Board of Trustees decided to begin admitting trans women with the Class of 2020. I am proud of our college for this aspect of the new admissions policy, as it ensures that Wellesley is a women’s college accessible to all women. However, I question the validity of the Trustees’ decision to admit only non-binary people who were designated female at birth (DFAB) as opposed to those who were designated male at birth (DMAB), as well the creation of a policy that does not mention the existence of intersex non-binary people and the way in which their applications would be handled by the college.
By admitting some non-binary people but not all, the College again shifts its focus from gender to sex designated at birth and creates an artificial distinction between non-binary DFAB, DMAB, and intersex individuals.
I’ve heard the main argument against the admission of trans women, reading numerous posts emphasizing that they “aren’t really women.” I’ve witnessed people saying how they feel Wellesley caters to the supposed liberal side of the argument without hearing opposing views. However, there is a difference between an opinion and an incorrect statement. There is a difference between a person’s sex designated at birth and their gender.
When I hear people equate gender with sex designated at birth, I’m taken back a few years. Remember when the very existence of global climate change was heavily publicized as some crazy liberal phenomenon? Authorities as high as President Obama have stated that 97 percent of all scientific papers believe climate change is not only real but also man-made, as published in Vol. 8 of the scientific journal, “Environmental Research Letters” in 2013. This is the same standard to which we need to hold sources explaining how gender is understood in the 21st century. The separation of gender and sex, like the existence of climate change or the color of the sky, should no longer be something one must take a stance on. You are either informed by expert opinion or ignorant.
Within academic circles, we are decades past the notion that gender and sex designated at birth are equivalent. We are years past the thought that gender is a binary, constrained to only male and female. These theories are, quite simply, obsolete within the expert community of Women’s and Gender Studies. There are scholars, such as Kate Bornstein, considered one of the most important voices in trans studies, have dedicated their lives to scientifically observing the intersections of gender and sex designated at birth who have come to these solid conclusions. You will not find a WGST course at Wellesley which teaches these outdated ideas; in fact, portions of Bornstein’s “The Social Construction of Difference” are taught by Prof. Irene Mata as an introductory WGST text.
Additionally, the American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization representing psychologists in North America, has for years recognized that gender is not constrained to a binary and is different from sex designated at birth. As a campus community, we need to realize that there are right and wrong ways to talk about gender – recognizing the binary and equating sex with gender denies many people’s right to their identity.
This is no longer a matter of debate, or politics. It is a matter of dispelling ignorance. There is nothing wrong with not immediately grasping that sex describes the physical characteristics typically associated with men and women, while gender is the socially constructed way in which you view yourself and your role in society. There is, however, something wrong with refusing to learn the differences between these terms yet wanting to remain involved in discussion of Wellesley’s admission policy.
If you make no effort to learn the terminology presented, you do not have a place at the table where these conversations are being held. In an effort to educate our student body, the President’s Advisory Committee on Gender at Wellesley hosted “Talking About Gender 101,” a workshop which used the common “Genderbread Person” diagram to present the separation of gender and sex. This proves that, at an administrative level, Wellesley is past the point of believing that gender and sex designated at birth are identical and has moved towards educating those who, understandably, are not yet aware of this fact. Once this is understood, Wellesley’s decision to admit trans women become much less controversial while other aspects of the decision raise eyebrows.
We cannot accept DFAB non-binary people and not DMAB non-binary people while saying we understand the disconnect between sex designated at birth and gender. The separation of non-binary DMAB and DFAB people would make sense under the old admissions policy, but not one proudly claiming to have been based on “an extensive review of educational, social, legal, and medical considerations regarding gender identity,” according to the admissions announcement itself.
This also adds an interesting and as of yet seemingly undiscussed problem when one considers the existence of non- binary intersex people, or those born with both categorically male and categorically female physical characteristics who are non-binary. Under Wellesley’s current policy, who knows where they would fall? Bryn Mawr proved this is an issue important to women’s colleges by stating their position on intersex applicants, that they will be admitted as long as they do not identify as male, within their recent admissions announcement. To avoid downright discrimination, we need to add all non-binary people to our list of potential Wellesley students.
I urge our Board of Trustees to reconvene and reconsider their stance on the matter. I ask my peers to educate themselves further on gender fluidity and its social construction or attend a Wellesley 20/20 meeting if they want to get involved in the movement. There are many important conversations to be had on gender at Wellesley, such as how to make the campus a more welcoming environment for the trans women to come as well as non-binary individuals. In order to have these discussions, we need to move past arguing over the very nature of gender.
Photo courtesy of Wellesley College Public Affairs