Gender Identity in College and the News

As a high school senior I was clueless about how a women's college could have a student body that didn't exclusively consist of women. Yet, even in the year I was accepted to Wellesley College -- 2012 -- the percentage of Wellesley College students who identified as women was reputed to be under 100 percent. I concluded that this single-digit percentage represented those male students studying at Wellesley through the school's exchange programs with MIT and other schools in a Northeast college exchange program. That this percentage might include transgender male students attending the college never crossed my mind.

I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area, which has one of the biggest, most visible L.G.B.T. communities in the world. But being in the vicinity of trans people doesn't always promote understanding. Before college, I wasn't taught what it means to be trans. I had only seen trans people on television, through movies like The Hangover Part II and Dateline NBC programs. Until I came to campus, where I saw "all-gender" bathrooms, I'd never thought about the implications of being trans. And I wasn't even completely convinced that gender dysphoria -- the mismatch that results when a person does not identify with her biological sex -- was real. But then I met trans Wellesley students whose chosen gender fit them as naturally as my own assigned gender fit me. Whereas before I had questioned the existence of gender dysphoria, I now felt that it was not my business to question someone's gender dysphoria because it would be unreasonable to judge someone for how they dealt with feelings that I had never experienced. The longer I was at Wellesley, the more I felt that an evolution in your understanding of gender identity was a central part of the Wellesley experience. But that was naïve.

In the fall of 2014, the Board of Trustees approved a new admissions policy allowing trans women to apply for admission. Many alumni, students, staff, and faculty members opined that giving more to trans students meant taking something away from cisgender female students -- biological females who identify as female -- from the prefix "cis," Latin for "on this side of," as opposed to trans, meaning "on the other side of." How could a school, that prided itself on teaching students united by their experience of being born female in a male-dominated society, welcome students who were biologically male? Questions like this one led to conversations about how the college had changed since its establishment in 1870 and the future of the school.
But this new admissions policy tapped into a visceral prejudice against trans people. A fellow Wellesley student blatantly told me that she didn't want a transgender roommate. She said that she would feel uncomfortable changing clothes in front of a transgender roommate. She suggested that the new policy would put students at a greater risk of sexual assault. I was stunned to hear someone so smart say that a minority group was predisposed to sexual violence. Didn't she realize that this argument had been recycled time and time again to justify denying rights to other minorities?

Women who support North Carolina's Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act have echoed this student's same belief. It makes no sense and this fear is unfounded, but I understand where they are coming from. Vigilant neighbors, a driveway gate, motion-sensored outdoor lights, a dog that barks even when the wind shifts, and an alarm system protect my home. Yet, I lock the bathroom door when I'm the only person in my house. I know it's an irrational, symbolic gesture -- anyone who managed to break into my house would have no problem with the bathroom door, which is so flimsy that the house cat has been able to jimmy it open. But a visceral fear of someone attacking me when I am at my most vulnerable makes me act in ways that I can't explain. So, I empathize with women who fear sexual violence even when their fear is disproportionate to the actual risk.

Still, FDR was on to something when he warned, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Those of us who are not transgender can't allow our fears of things that we don't understand to affect how we treat people who aren't obligated to defend their existence to us.