Wellesley College students voted overwhelmingly to pass the Gender Inclusivity Ballot Question, allowing transgender men and nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth to be eligible for admission. The ballot question requested the language used at the college be inclusive of its nonbinary and transgender students, thereby bridging the communication gap over gender-inclusive language between the administration and the student body.
The college agreed to train and teach its staff and faculty about gender identity and pronoun use. However, the college administration’s position on admitting trans men flatly stated, “There is no plan to change Wellesley’s admissions policy or its mission as a women’s college.”
Wellesley is one of the premier women’s colleges in the country with noted alums like First Lady of the Republic of China, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, filmmaker Nora Ephron, television broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and 2016 Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, to name a few. However, like the few remaining women’s colleges, Wellesley will have to rethink its mission “to provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world” in a society that no longer adheres to the traditional gender binary of male and female.
Today more people are identifying as transgender and nonbinary. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center, American young adults under 30 are more likely to identify as transgender or nonbinary than older adults, underscoring changing gender norms. And 44 percent of Americans now say they know a least one person who is transgender, and 20 percent know someone nonbinary, emphasizing these are not invisible demographic groups in society any longer, especially on college campuses these days.
College should be a safe space and atmosphere that engenders a positive sense of self for all students, which is the basis of educational achievement and personal growth. Too often, transgender students on college campuses have to cope with being misgendered, and non-binary students must cope with the annoyance of gender binary labeling. I cannot imagine what it must feel like for transgender and nonbinary students to evolve into their authentic selves at Wellesley and not be acknowledged or affirmed.
However, as an African-American lesbian, I know what it is like to feel uncertain in a space as an individual and part of an identity group and be made invisible or erased because of intentional or unintentional institutional and cultural biases, like the Black church and Black community.
I, too, am a Wellesley College graduate. I was a student there when it was academically and socially unsafe to be openly lesbian. Because of intentional and unintentional institutional and cultural biases, I stayed closeted for fear of stigmatization and discrimination. I didn’t want to be disrespected or treated as an unvalued and unwelcome part of the college community.
I remember those years as if they were yesterday. When I returned to Wellesley College as a Head-of-House, much had changed since my undergraduate years. For example, the freshman class was now called first-year students, and House Mothers, who were administrators of dormitories, were now called Heads-of-House. Having African-American Heads-of-House was no longer unbelievable because I was one, and so, too, was Michelle Porche.
In 1991 the country had evolved further in understanding the fluidity of gender identities and sexual orientations, and the college took a giant step in hiring two out lesbians to run dormitories. Porche, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education, and I, a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity. Porche arrived on campus with her white live-in partner and some disdained interracial couples. I came with my mixed-breed dog, Heaven.
Our hiring was controversial. The Campus Life section of The New York Times that year wrote, “To the administration, it was a ‘great step forward’ to hire a lesbian with a live-in partner as a Head-of-House, but not a good idea to assign her to a dorm with a lot of first-year students” in the article “Wellesley; Counselor’s Switch Prompts a Debate About Gay Rights.” Wellesley survived our hiring, the Board of Trustees didn’t disband, and alums who threatened to withhold their donations didn’t.
The idea of admitting trans men is controversial, too. However, one of Wellesley’s values is gender equality. “As a women’s college, we have always been committed to gender equality as foundational to societal progress,” it states on the college website.
In an open letter to the Wellesley College Community titled “Affirming our mission and embracing our community,” President Paula A. Johnson wrote, “Wellesley is a women’s college that admits cis, trans, and nonbinary students—all who consistently identify as women. Wellesley is also an inclusive community that embraces students, alumnae, faculty, and staff of diverse gender identities. I believe the two ways of seeing Wellesley are not mutually exclusive. Rather, this is who we are: a women’s college and a diverse community.”
Wellesley College was founded in 1870, five years after the Civil War and 50 years before women were allowed to vote, with the understanding that “women,” as defined in that era, were a marginalized group and should have access to higher education. As women, we are a marginalized group still today. And, so, too, are transgender and nonbinary students.