The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a fascinating new article about the new role played by trans men at American women’s colleges. Unfortunately the article is behind the newspaper’s pay wall, but I can give you a few quotes from the article.
The journalist, Ruth Padawer, presents Timothy, one of the trans students of Wellesley College:
"From the start, Timothy introduced himself as “masculine-of-center genderqueer.” He asked everyone at Wellesley to use male pronouns and the name Timothy, which he’d chosen for himself.
"For the most part, everyone respected his request. After all, he wasn’t the only trans student on campus. Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women.
"Of those, a half-dozen or so were trans men, people born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies.
"The rest said they were transgender or genderqueer, rejecting the idea of gender entirely or identifying somewhere between female and male; many, like Timothy, called themselves transmasculine.
"Though his gender identity differed from that of most of his classmates, he generally felt comfortable at his new school."
However, when he became the only one to run for a seat on the student-government cabinet,there was a “Campaign to Abstain” arguing that of all the people at a multiethnic women’s college who could hold the school’s “diversity” seat, the least fitting one was a white man.
However, the New York Times explains why colleges of this type normally is very tolerant of trans men, and why trans men would like to go at a women’s college in the first place:
”As women’s colleges challenged the conventions of womanhood, they drew a disproportionate number of students who identified as lesbian or bisexual. Today a small but increasing number of students at those schools do not identify as women, raising the question of what it means to be a “women’s college.”
"Trans students are pushing their schools to play down the women-centric message. At Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke and others, they and their many supporters have successfully lobbied to scrub all female references in student government constitutions, replacing them with gender-neutral language.
"At Wellesley, they have pressed administrators and fellow students to excise talk of sisterhood, arguing that that rhetoric, rather than being uplifting, excludes other gender minorities.
"At many schools, they have also taken leadership positions long filled by women: resident advisers on dorm floors, heads of student groups and members of college government."
Padawer also tells the story about Jesse Austin:
"Although it may seem paradoxical, Jesse Austin said he chose to attend Wellesley because being female never felt right to him.
“I figured if I was any kind of woman, I’d find it there. I knew Wellesley would have strong women. They produce a ton of strong women, strong in all sorts of ways.” When Jesse arrived on campus in the fall of 2009, his name was Sara.
"Eighteen years old, Sara wore form-fitting shirts and snug women’s jeans, because growing up in a small, conservative town in Georgia, she learned that that’s what girls were supposed to do — even though she never felt like a girl.
[…] “I had no idea that gender was something you could change,” Jesse told me recently. “I just thought I needed to make myself fit into these fixed places: There are boys, and there are girls. I knew I didn’t fit; I just didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
"Around the middle of Sara’s first year at Wellesley, she attended a presentation by trans alums, including one who was in the process of transitioning. As Sara listened, the gender dysphoria she’d always felt suddenly made sense. “It was all so clear to me,” Jesse told me. “All I needed were the words.”
Many trans male students are struggling with the fact that they are students at women’s colleges:
"When I asked Eli [Cohen] if trans men belonged at Wellesley, he said he felt torn.
"“I don’t necessarily think we have a right to women’s spaces. But I’m not going to transfer, because this is a place I love, a community I love. I realize that may be a little selfish. It may be a lot selfish.”
"Where, he wondered, should Wellesley draw a line, if a line should even be drawn? At trans men? At transmasculine students? What about students who are simply questioning their gender? Shouldn’t students be “free to explore” without fearing their decision will make them unwelcome?
“Other trans students have struggled with these questions, too. Last December, a transmasculine Wellesley student wrote an anonymous blog post that shook the school’s trans community.
The student wrote to apologize for “acting in the interest of preserving a hurtful system of privileging masculinity.”
"He continued: “My feelings have changed: I do not think that trans men belong at Wellesley… . This doesn’t mean that I think that all trans men should be kicked out of Wellesley or necessarily denied admission.”
"He acknowledged he didn’t know how Wellesley could best address the trans question, but urged fellow transmasculine classmates to “start talking, and thinking critically, about the space that we are given and occupying, and the space that we are taking from women.”
Then there is the fact that trans men become exotic and popular at these colleges.
“The female-identified students somehow place more value on those students,” said Rose Layton, a lesbian who said she views trans students as competitors in the campus dating scene.
“They flirt with them, hook up with them. And it’s not just the hetero women, but even people in the queer community. The trans men are always getting this extra bit of acknowledgment. Even though we’re in a women’s college, the fact is men and masculinity get more attention and more value in this social dynamic than women do.”
Trans bodies are seen as an in-between option, Timothy says in the article:
“So no matter your sexuality, a trans person becomes safe to flirt with, to explore with. But it’s not really the person you’re interested in, it’s the novelty. For lesbians, there’s the safety of ‘I may be attracted to this person, but they’re “really” a woman, so I’m not actually bi or straight.’ And for straight people, it’s ‘I may be attracted to a woman’s body, but he’s a male, so I’m not really lesbian or bi.’ ”
Photo 1:Timothy Boatwright (center), a trans man, with his Wellesley classmates. Photo: Martin Schoeller for The New York Times
Photo 2: Trans men Alex Poon (left) and Kaden Mohamed at graduation at Wellesley in 2012. Photo from Alex Poon