Girls Will Be Boys
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Graduation, 2001. A crowd at one end of the lawn. Folding chairs in rows across the newly mowed green. Teary faces, fidgeting children. The soon-to-be graduates of a small women's college move slowly through the crowd in white hats and gowns. They ascend a small stage for a certificate marking the end of their undergraduate careers.
The parents of this group in white believe in women's colleges for many of the same reasons they might have 20 years ago. They believe young women have a stronger chance at success, academically and professionally, if they are nurtured in an environment free of gender politics. But many of their daughters are graduating with very different identities; in fact, a whole new kind of gender politics. Some will tell you they are not women at all.
As feminism sees its third wave -- and the voices of students identifying themselves as lesbian, bisexual and transgender grow -- women's colleges are witnessing a cultural transformation similar to the '60s. Many of the 74 women's colleges in the U.S. and Canada are now thought to breed the most radical feminists and counter-cultural types. One of the first questions many students hear when they announce their enrollment in a women's college is "Isn't that a lesbian school?"
And indeed, there is reason for that question. Lesbian and bisexual groups have played a prominent place on many women's campuses since the '70s and queer identity forms the backbone of a large portion of the social activism that goes on there. But as the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation becomes more of an issue, women's colleges are witnessing a new crop of student groups. Transgender organizing is picking up speed and trans alliances are far more vocal than they were just five years ago.
How many transgender students are there in the U.S.? The numbers are hard to record, and university deans and administrators appear reluctant to comment or speculate on transgender organizing on their campuses. While the term transgender applies to anyone who undergoes a shift from female to male (FTM) or male to female (MTF), most associate it with those who don female clothes or traits like Ru Paul.
Until recently, FTM people were relatively invisible. But things are changing fast, especially on America's campuses. Some Americans born between the mid '70s and early '80s are now taking on gender identities as varied as their hair colors. Many will tell you they are simply "trans," but some use words like trannyboy, boydyke, post-genderist, androgyne and genderqueer.
Korey, for instance, was born female but will tell you he is a straight male. The 19-year-old New Yorker says he questioned his female gender identity for years but didn't find the language to describe himself until he saw author and transgender advocate Leslie Feinberg speak. (Feinberg's novel, Stone Butch Blues, is the first step on many trans boy's reading lists. He also has written books about the blurred the lines of gender expression and coined the term "Transgender Warrior.")
Inspired by Feinberg, Korey and his girlfriend began searching the Internet for more clues. Around the same time, he transferred to the women's college at Lesley in Massachusetts and says he didn't think twice about attending a women's college despite his decision to begin "transitioning." Since then, he has taken a gender-neutral name and started testosterone. But he has not had an operation. Like many young "genderqueers," Korey doesn't believe a male physique is necessary to be "male."
Neverthless, Korey ran into some trouble at Lesley University. He was criticized by students and administrators for his gender stance. "The staff reminded me that if I don't identify as female then I need to reconsider why I am at a women's college," says Korey. "It is frightening that I've become a threat."
Korey is probably still a student at Lesley University because there are no policies there regarding trans students. But Paul Karoff, vice president for Student Affairs at Lesley, is concerned. He speculates: "A situation like this is going to raise practical issues that no one has ever contemplated or dealt with before."
As Karloff suggests, the transgender "movement" is difficult to understand. It's based on a language of identity, with which most Americans are unfamiliar. It requires a revision of the use of pronouns, and the inclusion of terms like "hir." Many trans activists seem to spend a great deal of time educating people about this shifting language. Glossaries are popping up right and left. The most comprehensive ones break down the intricacies of "assigned gender," and what it means to be "female-bodied," "pre-op" or "non-op." (The latter refers to the way some trans people position themselves in relation to sex-reassignment surgery.)
But most college administrators are not schooled in these new identity linguistics. In one case, at Moore College of Art and Design, an all-women's art school in Philadelphia, an 18-year-old was questioned in front of a board of administrators. The student claims he was grilled about why he would want to stay in school if he was no longer female, and eventually decided to leave.
Dr. Jadwiga Sebrecht, the president of the Women's College Coalition of the United States and Canada, prefers to see trans identity questions in terms of the law. Asked about policies regarding trans students on women's campuses, she responded:
"Women's colleges comply with government regulations, hence they recognize a person's legal sex status. If the person is a female, in the eyes of the law, then any previous sexual identity is irrelevant. If, however, a person is legally male, that status is the one recognized by the women's college. I do not know of any women's college that has a different policy."
Legal identification may seem to solve the problem, but recent incidents on women's campuses tell another story. In an article appearing in Ms. Magazine last winter, for example, a young student at an unnamed midwestern women's college was told he could stay enrolled as long as he remained a "vagina'd individual." The article did not question how such a thing be regulated, nor did it bring up perhaps the most important point trans activists are raising: that some students see their gender identities as entirely separate from their anatomies.
Colleges like Smith and Mills are at the vanguard of this issue. Trans boys on those campuses are pushing to raise awareness among their faculties and fellow students about alternative gender representation, arguing, "If we are biologically or legally female -- regardless of whether or not we identify as women -- then we have the same rights to be at Smith as do female students who begin and continue identifying as women."
In a statement produced by the Smith transgender alliance, the answer to the question "Why Are We at Smith" reads: "We are a single-sex school, which means that every Smith student's sex is labeled as female. But in our single-sex environment we have a multitude of different gender identities and gender expressions ... The queer-friendliness of this campus, our affinity with Smith's values, and the connections we have made thus far within the Smith community are aspects many of us appreciate. For these reasons, transgendered students remain at Smith despite the difficulties we face here."
If this sounds more sophisticated than an average college student, there's a reason: many trans students are looking at gender in the context of their academic work. Take Ryan. The 22-year-old earned a degree in women's studies and sociology from Smith this May. Like many students, Ryan's academic pursuits lead him to research the history and theory behind the transgender movement. And like many trans boys, Ryan dated a woman who was very supportive of his fluid gender.
If pressed, Ryan says he does not identify as transgender, but is comfortable being referred to as both "he" and "she." He rejects the two-gender approach (and refuses to use the word "transition" because it implies a set binary), describing himself instead as "gender variant" or "gender queer." Still, Ryan is unsure how this approach will translate to his life outside the politically charged, academic bubble of Smith. At school, he says his friends were more than accepting. But he fears that some of that comes from a sense that being genderqueer is "the new cool thing."
"I've sort of reached a point," he says, "where I'm re-evaluating and trying to figure out, without the queer skew of Smith College and Northampton, what I'm all about."
Women's colleges are not the only place where people are transitioning genders. Tucker, for example, began his transition at age 14. Tucker is a traditional transsexual, meaning he is becoming a man physically as well as emotionally. The 21-year-old junior entered Brown University a "male," has been on testosterone for several years and is fairly open about his identity. "A good portion of the queer community at Brown seems to know that I am a transsexual," he says. "I'm used to avoiding pronouns and pretty skillful at telling stories without them."
Many trans guys say they "pass" for their gender of choice easier than their MTF counterparts. In Tucker's case, he wears his hair long and a pearl necklace sometimes as part of what he describes as his "effeminate" appearance. "I find they help me pass better as a man," he says. "If I wore short hair and no jewelry, I might resemble a butch woman or an obvious FTM. But when I accessorize, people assume 'No butch woman would do that...'"
Tucker says cultivating his softer "female" side gives him more options. "I understand something of receptiveness, nonviolence, beauty, cooperation, nurturing. But I construct these as 'gay male' rather than 'female,'" he says. The "male" identity is central to Tucker. To him, it represents autonomy, independence and self-motivation. "I need to have that as a starting point," he says. "Otherwise I would lack the sense of independence to achieve my full potential."
Tucker also believes that more people are identifying as trans than ever before, because of a shift in feminism. "The concept of gender identity and expression, as the transgender movement, defines those terms, is crucial to a healthy feminist movement," he says.
Tucker may be on to something. Third wave feminists' fight for equality is no longer just about voting and reproductive rights; it's about the subtler significance of cultural identity and the place of biology in gender roles. Young trans people are looking closer at the parts of our lives that most of us assume are scientifically predetermined.
But some say they may be zooming in a little too closely. Some, like Ryan, say this breeds an element of peer pressure in the transgender phenomenon. "I do think more people are identifying as 'gender queer,'" he says, "and I think there has begun this weird and really troubling competition -- at least at Smith -- to see who can be the most queer." Ryan points to a growing pattern within the younger lesbian, bisexual and transgender community that, while sensitive to forms of discrimination, has created yet another power structure.
"It's no longer queer enough to be gay or lesbian," he says. "It's a little more queer to be bisexual, and the most queer to be trans. And there is some version of that hierarchy of oppressions that got us into trouble decades ago starting to resurface or manifest itself in this new way," says Ryan.
If what Ryan says is true, why is questioning your gender "the new cool thing?" Are these shifts really happening on a large scale?
Patrick Califia, the author of Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, argues the FTM community is reaching a "critical mass." If numbers are hard to come by, it may be largely because FTMs fill a whole spectrum of identities, ranging from those who call themselves butch lesbians to those, like Tucker, who are transsexuals. What seems clear is that by the time some people are in college, they have been living with gender dysphoria for years.
Califia says that the trans community is now "big enough, and visible enough that people are becoming aware that it's an option, that transsexual doesn't only refer to male-to-females." He also believes that the Brandon Teena Story -- as told by the 2000 feature film Boys Don't Cry and the 1998 documentary about the brutal rape and murder of the same Nebraska boy -- was a "quantum leap forward" for the trans community. Some speculate it is only a matter of time before FTMs start showing up on the popular culture radar more frequently.
Because his movement is still young, however, it is almost as politically charged internally as it is on the outside. Within the "old school" lesbian feminist community, there are those who link men with oppression and look to deny trans people a place in their cultural spheres.
As Califia puts it, "when people identify as feminist, and are critical of the role that males have played in creating patriarchal culture, they may look for ways to express their masculinity without 'becoming the enemy.' But all this is based on a cultural script that says that women are the solution and men are the problem."
Feminism has always been about re-writing these scripts. And in that way this movement may not be so new. After all, young trans people are questioning, unlearning and creating their own culture. Best of all, they force the rest of us into those awkward, gravity-less moments where nothing is what it seems, and the potential for change is more vast than we may have realized.