NEW YORK — On a recent bright spring morning, students admitted to the Barnard College Class of 2019 gathered on campus. As blue-and-white balloons fluttered in the breeze, the prospective freshmen attended panels and lunched on the lawn, chatting animatedly with current students.
There were, of course, young women from a variety of backgrounds, but at least one category wasn’t included: transgender women. Barnard, like other women’s colleges, has traditionally admitted only students born female. But that might be changing.
Next week, Barnard’s trustees are expected to vote on an issue that has arrived loudly and emphatically on the front burner for women’s colleges across the nation: transgender admissions. One by one, schools have announced policies in the past year that address, as never before, the fluidity of gender.
Why the sudden action? “I think certain issues just hit the zeitgeist at a certain point in time,” says Debora Spar, Barnard’s president, who’s led a monthslong effort to explore the issue with her community, including five town halls and a survey that yielded some 900 responses – all of which she says she’s personally read. “History is moving very quickly on this issue.”
Popular culture, too. “Transgender issues have been accelerating in the culture,” says Jennifer Finney Boylan, an English professor at Barnard and herself a trans woman. She points to several recent influential events: Actress Laverne Cox appearing on a Time magazine cover touting “The Transgender Tipping Point.” The Golden Globe-winning TV show “Transparent,” about a trans woman. And, more recently, Bruce Jenner’s transition. “These issues are changing the game,” says Boylan. “It might seem like it’s all happening at once, but why didn’t it happen sooner? I’m delighted that all of these colleges are trying to figure it out.”
Article continues belowBut figuring it out is a complex process, and colleges have arrived at differing (and often lengthy) policies. The most recent: Smith College, which decided in early May to admit transgender women but not transgender men (assigned female at birth but identifying as male). Mount Holyoke, on the other hand, has decided to admit both. “We acknowledge that gender identity is not reducible to the body,” said the school’s president, Lynn Pasquerella, in September.
Barnard, now, will have to determine where to draw the line.
“There’s no one right answer,” says Dru Levasseur, director of Lambda Legal‘s Transgender Rights Project. “It’s a complex issue, and it reflects the complexity of gender.” To those who might argue that the issue affects only a tiny group of people, Levasseur replies that it’s hugely symbolic.
“It really gets to the heart of who qualifies as a woman, and who qualifies as a man,” Levasseur says. “Which makes it so relevant right now.”
Ahead of the decision, The Associated Press sampled some views across the community.