Wellesley Slights Transgendered Alum, Sparks Debate About What it Means to be a "Women's College"
All Wellesley alum Tim Chevalier wanted to do was help interview prospective students for his school. What he ended up doing was sparking a debate about transgendered graduates and the meaning of single-sex education.
When an email went out from the Oregon Wellesley Club last year seeking alums of the women's school to help interview prospective students, Chevalier expressed his interest. After a few exchanges with the local alumnae coordinator, Chevalier, then a graduate student at Portland State University, set up a coffee meeting and gave the coordinator a heads-up: although he had used female pronouns and a traditionally female name while attending Wellesley, he had since transitioned and is now male.
What followed could be called as a comedy of errors, if the emotional stakes weren’t so high. In a series of blog posts from the fall of 2010, Chevalier wrote that he met with the school's coordinator, who informed Chevalier that he would not be allowed by the admissions office to do any one-on-one interviews, because of his transgendered status, though he would be welcome to participate in other alumnae events.
However, the meeting was followed by a phone call from Wellesley’s assistant director of admissions, who told Chevalier that there in fact was no policy against trans alums doing recruiting, and he would be allowed to conduct one-on-one interviews after all.
But then there was another about-face from the school: in January, the director of admissions told Chevalier, once and for all, that he would not be allowed to conduct interviews, stating that the focus of such interviews should be on students, and that Chevalier’s male identity would be a distraction.
An email to the Wellesley College Office of Public Affairs seeking comment was not returned; however, in a post to the internal Wellesley Official Announcements bulletin board, which was forwarded to Chevalier, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid wrote that he wanted “to offer some clarification in response to the discussion regarding a decision by the Admission Office not to allow a transgendered male alum to serve as an interviewer. The decision in this case was influenced by our tradition of having women serve as alumnae interviewers. The question raised in this discussion is whether this decision was based on a policy of not permitting transgendered alums to interview prospective students. The answer is: no, because no such policy exists.” Later, the dean followed up: “An important component of the admission interview is that a prospective student leaves with a clear understanding of the value of attending a women’s college. One thing we do insist on is that the interviewer strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college.”
Chevalier argues that if he were to appear as the public face of the college, even in a limited capacity, it would draw positive attention to other male students and alums of Wellesley. “I know there are quite a few Wellelsey alums that have transitioned,” he told AlterNet. “There are two others in my class, and I’ve heard that between three and twelve trans students are currently attending Wellesley.”
How has Wellesly treated its transgendered students and alums in the past? A 2008 trans alum, Warren Kunce, was featured in a positive article in the college’s alumnae magazine, and other trans students at Wellelsley were included in a 2008 New York Times article, “When Girls Will Be Boys,” about trans students at women’s colleges. Bathrooms in many of the dorms are now classified as “Wellesley” and “non-Wellesley,” rather than “women’s,” “men’s,” or “co-ed.”
Elsewhere, the issue of trans students at women’s colleges remains a hot-button topic. Around the same time Chevalier started blogging about his experience, a transgendered Smith junior named Jake Pecht requested to be part of the college recruiting process by hosting a prospective student in his dorm. According to an essay he wrote for the Smith college paper, Pecht works as a campus guide for the admissions office but was not allowed by the office to let a prospective student stay in his dorm. He writes that he would have emailed prospective students and told them he was male and offered to find them alternate lodging if they were uncomfortable, but the admissions office refused to budge. According to the school paper, the issue has yet to be resolved, though a petition has gathered over 1,200 signatures, and many students are calling for a dialogue around the matter.
Smith’s official policy states that “Once admitted, any student who completes the college’s graduation requirements will be awarded a degree” – presumably meaning that if a student chooses to transition after starting school, and completes the necessary coursework, he or she would be allowed to remain enrolled at the school. An article about Chevalier in the Wellelsey News quoted a student who enrolled at the college in 2002, left after a year, transitioned to male, and then returned to finish his degree in 2008. He is scheduled to graduate this year.
Males are not an uncommon presence at many women’s colleges. Wellesley participates in a college exchange program with MIT that allows both male and female MIT students to enroll in classes at Wellesley (and vice versa) and has admitted male students as part of short-term, twelve-college exchange program. Women’s college campuses are certainly nothing like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival -- a music festival that admits only “womyn-born womyn,” and operates a seperate “Camp Trans” for attendees who are not “womyn-born womyn”). Rather, men teach, work, and spend time on women’s college campuses on a regular basis.
Much like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has become a hotbed of debate about the “womyn-born womyn-only” admissions process, Chevelier says he sees the same thing happening at Wellesley. “I don’t know why a young person who transitioned to being male would want to attend a women’s college,” he told AlterNet, “but I could easily imagine a situation where a young person who transitioned to being female would apply to Wellesley.”
The college does not require students to undergo any sort of physical examination when applying to or enrolling at Wellesley, but Chevalier says he fears that a slippery slope of anti-trans attitudes might lead to “panty checks.”
On his blog, Chevalier quoted a Wellelsey student who stated, wrongly, that “All Wellesley students, to the best of my knowledge, are biologically female at the time of admission.” He pointed out the obvious flaws in this logic; namely, that “biologically female” is a transphobic term, and without invasive exams prior to admission, there is no way to tell whether a student has a certain chromosomal makeup.
Chevalier says that he’s not “asking for any change in college policy. I'm asking for honesty about the de facto policy that already exists, a policy that involves admitting men. And to me, honesty about that policy can't mean that the administration accepts the academic, social, spiritual, and financial contributions of male and genderqueer students while telling the general public that it's ashamed of them.”
Whether Chevalier gets that level of honesty -- or even merely clarity about the admission office’s rules -- remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that this incident has touched off yet another debate about what being a “women’s college” really means.