Mark King, BC ’16, is a music major, a resident adviser, and the president of Barnard’s LGBTQ club Q. But if King, who identifies as a trans man, were to apply to be a member of the College’s class of 2020, he wouldn’t be admitted.
On Thursday, Barnard unveiled its new admissions policy: beginning in the fall of 2016, the College will consider admission for any applicants “who consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.” The policy also states that College will continue to use gendered language to refer to its student body as a whole.
The new policy affirms Barnard’s identity as a liberal arts college for women. But, the new policy does say that students who do not transition until they’ve already enrolled will still be welcome at Barnard.
In the past year, King—who said he overall has a favorable view of the new admissions policy—and a number of other Barnard students who don’t identify as women advocated for Barnard to adopt a trans-inclusive admissions policy.
It’s unclear how trans men and gender non-binary students—who have a visible presence in the campus community—will now fit into a women’s college that requires its applicants to ‘consistently live and identify as women.’ And administrators don’t have a clear answer yet, either.
Bold, beautiful, Barnard women
Barnard is the last of the Seven Sisters Colleges that remain in existence and all-women to adopt a trans-inclusive admission policy. The college’s policies have varied—some colleges like Mount Holyoke are opting to consider admission of trans women, trans men, and students who identify as gender non-binary, while others like Smith are choosing to remain firmly all-women and only consider admission of trans women.
“I think in general, all of the women’s colleges have come out of the right place—even if that place isn’t the same for all of us,” Barnard President Debora Spar said.
Spar added that Barnard’s policy is a firm stance to retain its identity as a women’s college rather than become a haven for oppressed gender minorities.
“We’re certainly not disclaiming the second definition, but again, after lots and lots of conversation, we really thought that Barnard’s core mission is about women,” Spar said. “That’s the mission that we are reaffirming.”
“If somebody at the age of 17 or 18 fully identifies as a male, Barnard is probably not the right place for them,” Spar said.
“If somebody at the age of 17 or 18 fully identifies as a male, Barnard is probably not the right place for them.”
—Barnard President Debora Spar
But, how the College will determine whether applicants “consistently live and identify as women” remains unclear.
“What does that even mean, right?” King said. “I’m a trans man, I don’t feel like I consistently live as a man—I don’t know what that would even mean.”
Spar said that while the College still needs to figure out how the policy will be implemented, applications concerning the ‘consistently live and identify as women’ aspect of the policy will probably be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
“I think we’ll have to see how it evolves,” Spar said in an interview with Spectator. “I think the language is quite clear…We will have to see how individual cases present themselves.”
Frances Sadler, co-chair of the board of trustee’s campus life subcommittee that wrote the policy, said that the College currently does not have a clear definition as to how that would be determined.
“I really can’t say what is going to happen, but the policy says, applies to those who consistently live and identify as a woman,” Sadler said. “Maybe it means not as a man, I don’t know…how it will be determined.”
Also included in the new policy is the decision to maintain the College’s use of gendered language. Students will be able to use their individual preferred pronouns, but the student body as a whole will remain “Barnard women.”
“We will continue to assume that our students are females insofar as we use that language,” Spar said.
“It wasn’t overwhelmingly important to everybody that we drop the gendered language and that we become a siblinghood instead of a sisterhood,” Sadler said. “As long as the board consistently wants to affirm that we are a women’s college and not a gender oppressed organization—a place for gender oppressed people—I think that the gendered language will remain.”
“It wasn’t overwhelmingly important to everybody that we drop the gendered language and that we become a siblinghood instead of a sisterhood.”
—Board of Trustees member Frances Sadler
‘Not equipped for men’
“We don’t feel that there are not other opportunities for those people [non-binary, gender non-conforming, or trans men] who consider themselves gender oppressed. There are opportunities for them to get a rigorous education,” Sadler said. “We are not equipped for men and we don’t really intend to be equipped for men.”
Caleb LoSchiavo, BC ’15, who prefers using the pronouns they/them/theirs, said that they support the College’s decision to remain a place firmly for women.
“I have a lot of friends and have heard from a lot of my peers who have said that it’s really, really affirming to come here to Barnard and to hear that ‘she’ is the default pronoun,” LoSchiavo said. “I think that’s really important in a world where the default pronoun is ‘he’ and the default person is man. To have women be default in a space is really rare and really powerful.”
But the new policy also raises the question of what will happen to students who don’t firmly identify as women. Even though Barnard will no longer accept trans men, there will still be population of trans men and gender non-binary students at the College.
“The women’s college shouldn’t change to accommodate the few students who aren’t women,” LoSchiavo said. “I think it’s important to recognize that this is a place that’s in, on the whole, it’s a women’s college and while an individual student should have their identity respected on that greater level, I think there’s a lot of value in womanhood.”
Sadler said that many members of the board had to educate themselves on trans issues, referring to a generational divide.
“I didn’t get the genderfluid stuff prior to this conversation, to our deliberations and conversations. It has been a learning curve for me and the entire board given our generation,” Sadler said. “We only have a few young board members who all graduated in this century and so all the rest of us are from days gone by.”
The new policy does say that students who make the choice to transition while at Barnard will be supported and welcomed into the community. And if those students choose to transfer to a different college, Barnard will provide them with the resources to do so.
King said he didn’t see the point of barring trans men and non-binary students from coming, given the College’s support for those students already on campus.
“There will always be trans men and non-binary students at Barnard simply because there will always be students…who don’t identify as trans men or non-binary until after they get to Barnard,” King said. “Basically, the College is saying that trans men and non-binary students are members of the community and are welcome, supported members of the community, but they can’t be admitted if they identify that way when they’re applying.”
Rebecca Jordan-Young, the chair of the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department, said that while she liked the policy, she hoped it would continue to evolve to be more welcoming to students who don’t clearly identify as women.
“It’s one thing to be by and for women, but it’s another thing to have a mission that is feminist, which I interpret to meaning actually challenging gender inequality and gender hierarchy,” Jordan-Young said. “I’m hoping that this is the first step and this is something that isn’t set once and for all and we’ll keep moving forward.”
Janet Jakobsen, the director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, agreed that she wished the policy would have gone a step father.
“I had hoped for a policy that would be more inclusive,” Jakobsen said. “We have plenty of students at the college now who are, would identify in various ways, as genderqueer for example, or gender non-conforming, and their position in relation to the policy is less clear.”
A safe space?
Many of Barnard’s trans men and gender non-binary population advocated for a trans-inclusive admissions policy—but now their position on campus is unclear.
For students on campus who don’t identify as female and may feel uncomfortable with the use of gendered language, Spar said that it was “something we’ll [the College] have to work through on an individual basis.”
“The use of the language ‘women’ and only that language does tend to erase the existence on campus of our gender non-conforming students,” Jakobsen said.
Jakobsen added that the fact Barnard insists applicants “consistently live as women” had the potential to be damaging—especially since administrators haven’t identified yet determined how they will judge whether applicants ‘live as women.’
“If they had simply said ‘live and identify as women,’ that would be, to me, a very different policy,” Jakobsen said. “The demand for consistency, it seems to me, opens the door to these forms of gender policing that can be damaging.”
Jordan-Young said that she thought that the board may have included that phrase out of nervousness over the possibility that a male applicant could “frivolously” claim a female identity in order to “challenge Barnard’s right to exist as a women’s college.”
“We have plenty of students at the college now who are, would identify in various ways, as genderqueer for example, or gender non-conforming, and their position in relation to the policy is less clear.”
—BCRW Director Janet Jakobsen
“I think that that is not a very real possibility, honestly, and I think that this, my guess is, that that was an attempt to address that,” Jordan-Young said. “This is one of those places where it’s quite possible that what the trustees intended by this and then what other people read into it might be different things.”
Jordan-Young said that she wouldn’t want to see Barnard admissions misuse the phrase ‘consistently live and identify as women’ as a means in which to unfairly question applicants.
“We need to be really, really clear that nobody else has the right to judge anything about somebody’s gender expression, for example, or to judge somebody’s commitment to their gender identity,” Jordan-Young said. “Cisgender women are not asked to meet any kind of bar around how consistent their identity and expression is, and nobody else should be either. Trans students shouldn’t be asked to meet a particular kind of bar around consistency.”
For Kay Ferguson, BC ’18 and the president of GendeRevolution—a trans support and advocacy group at Barnard and Columbia—the College’s use of gendered language felt conflicting.
Ferguson, who identifies as non-binary, said that Barnard often used gendered language as a means in which to homogenize the student body.
“I think that by saying, ‘Oh we’re going to use gendered language,’ they’re just kind of being like, ‘Oh well we can say biological terms and no one will be upset,’ which is wrong and disgusting in my opinion,” Ferguson said. “For a college who’s really focused on women being women and not being the sum of their parts, they do focus a lot on the sum of their parts.”
“I feel like Barnard sometimes focuses on like, ‘Oh, we need to cater to a woman’s experience,’ but not all women are the same,” Ferguson said. “There are many things that make women different and to just say there’s one experience is not right.”
“Gender—and what it means to be female—is changing and growing, and in order for Barnard to continue to support women, as it has done for 125 years, it must also remain open and allow itself to evolve,” Luna Adler, BC ’15, who had recently created a short film urging Barnard to accept trans women, said in an email.
And how Barnard’s campus community will evolve under the new policy remains to be seen.
“I think there’s an educational project here, as well as a project about what student life is like and how student community is built at Barnard,” Jakobsen said. “Whenever you expand the community, you need to ensure that you’re not just allowing people in name, that you’re actually doing the work to include them as full members of the community.”
Correction: An earlier version of a graphic included in the story was mislabeled. Spectator regrets the error.