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Kari Ross

Views & Voices

Let’s be honest about Salem College

Monday, January 14, 2013

Recently, I read a story published in the Winston-Salem Journal about a discussion currently happening at Salem College in regards to an institutional policy concerning transgender students.

Having graduated from Salem College in 2011 as the recipient of Elisabeth Osterlein Award for my class and having held multiple leadership positions on campus, as soon as I read John Hilton’s article and the comments of a fellow alum about a student’s alleged decision to transition from female to male and the possible transgender policy, I knew could not stay silent.

Not all Salem College alumni share Ms. Webb’s concerns about the transitioning of a Salem student or the discussion of a college policy on transgender students.

Salem College, Winston-Salem, N.C.

The truth of the matter is there is misinformation about what is happening at Salem and what allowing an openly-transitioning student to remain at Salem would mean.

Regardless of whether a student is considering transition or not, such a decision is in no way the concern of the college administration, Board of Trustees, or alumni but a private and personal decision of the individual and their medical professionals that should be respected.

It is not the concern of the college, Trustees, or alumni if a student seeks an abortion, cosmetic surgery, or other medical decisions, and the decision to transition from one biological sex to another is no different. There are state and federal privacy protection laws for this very reason.

While some may argue that such a decision should be a concern under the basis that it affects other students, this cannot be done by sacrificing the personal rights, and even safety, of an individual.

Such disregard for the rights of students considering transition only serves to further stigmatize transgender individuals and creates an atmosphere of hostility and condemnation, something far from Salem’s Statement of Values of “Embracing diversity” and “Exemplifying honor.”

A key aspect of the concerns raised by Ms. Webb and Mr. Hilton’s article is that allowing a student who has transitioned to male to continue their students will prompt the Board of Trustees to change Salem College into a co-ed institution. However, such a concern is completely unfounded. There is a national discussion on both single-sex institutions and co-ed institutions about where transgender students fall in institutional policies.

Smith College, arguably one of the most well-known women’s colleges in the United States, officially adopted such a policy in 2011. Nor does having men on campus risk Salem’s current status as the oldest women’s college in the nation still in operation.

Men 23-years and older can become students at Salem College as part of the Fleer Center for Adult Education. Men Fleer Center students sit alongside traditional undergraduate women students in general education courses required to graduate as well as discipline and major-specific courses. What challenge to our history of educating women does a student who has transitioned to male present that men Fleer Center students do not?

What really is happening at Salem College is that the Administration and Board of Trustees are beginning a dialogue about possibly developing a policy on transgender students at Salem.

After demand to develop an official position and an increase in national discussions on the subject, the Administration and Trustees are giving the issue the consideration it deserves. As a result, current students, faculty and staff received a survey to gauge campus-wide opinion on how a transgender policy would relate to the mission statement.

While no such survey has gone before alumni, President Susan Pauly encouraged alumni to contact the Board of Trustees to discuss the issue. As the Chairman of our Board of Trustees Charles Blixt told John Hilton originally, there is not a timetable for when, or even if, a policy will be adopted.

I believe I am correct in saying that going co-ed is a concern all Salem alums share. I also believe I am correct in saying that many of us will actively fight that decision should it ever arise. But one alum does not speak for us all. What Ms. Webb’s and my concerns do show is that there are gross misunderstandings at play that could impact the lives of fellow Salem students.

Quite frankly it is neither my business nor the business of Annie Grimes Webb if a current student is transitioning. The decision to have or not have any medical procedure is only the concern of the individual student and their medical professional.

It is unbecoming of any Salem alum or student to expose the private life of an individual to the world, especially without their consent or knowledge. Doing so has only served to pull the attention away from pro-active discussion and growth on the subject and turn it into a scandalized media story that is getting out of hand.

While I personally am hopeful about the outcome of the discussion, I am very afraid of what inaccurate and incomplete information on trans issues could lead to as the Board of Trustees considers developing a policy.

Ms. Webb’s assumption and the media stories alleging that a student is transitioning at Salem and will be undergoing “gender reassignment surgery” is one example. There is no single “gender reassignment surgery” that makes someone male after being born female; in reality there is no single transgender identity.

Just as there are infinite number of personalities in the world, this is an infinite number of perceptions of gender. Furthermore, gender identity and biological sex are two different things. There is no single way of transitioning from one biological sex to another, but a wide spectrum of different options for what best fits different individuals according to their own needs.

While this spectrum does include surgical and medical options (such as hormone therapy) for those interested in changing sex, they are not required for someone who is questioning their gender. Sparking wide-spread discussion that later becomes public with such misunderstandings not only perpetuates inaccurate knowledge about trans issues, it also hurts any students who actually are planning on transitioning or simply considering it.

Though I am confident in saying I do not believe that was Ms. Webb’s intent, the adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” rings true.

My thoughts on this issue are not an official representation of the Alumnae Board of Salem College or all alumni. Annie Grimes Webb is also not an official spokesperson of the Alumnae Board or all alumni. But I have spoken with many fellow alums who share my position. I hope that my response will encourage other Salem College alumni to take a stand against the misinformation and misrepresentation of transgender students at our campus.

*Since the pronoun preference of said student is not known, “they/their” is used in order to be gender neutral.

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2 more reader comments:

  1. You can’t have your cake and eat it too… I wish him the best.

    Posted on Monday, January 14, 2013 at 1:11pm
  2. You can’t have it all. If she becomes a man, then she should be treated like a man and not allowed to attend an all female school. She’s basically saying she’s still a female. With male parts. It goes against everything that transgendered people are fighting for.

    Posted on Monday, January 14, 2013 at 1:12pm