Bryn Mawr Boys

llauher's picture

Louisa “Weezie” Lauher

November 21, 2007

Critical Feminist Theory

Paper Draft

 

 

Bryn Mawr Boys

Transgender Feminism at Bryn Mawr College

Introduction of Goals

Bryn Mawr College is a women’s college that prides itself on its diverse community. This can easily apply to issues of ethnicity, religion, class, race, or sexual orientation. However, recent events, including a visit from renowned transsexual scholar Susan Stryker and the development of a Transgender Task Force by President Vickers and Dean MacDonald-Dennis have raised the question of gender identity and expression being added to this list of diverse traits that Bryn Mawr holds dear as an institution. Due to the way I personally identify, I have a serious personal interest in this on-campus development. More specifically, readings that I have been assigned in this course and others have sparked my interest in feminism in the transgender community. As a Bryn Mawr student who identifies both as transgender and a feminist, I find myself at a great advantage to research feminism as it applies to and is defined by the transgender community. As a student, I have access to texts, resources, and faculty that can help me explore this issue further; more specifically, as a Bryn Mawr student, I have access to a small an unique community- graduates of a women’s college who are now male.

Alumni Interview

I decided that the most valuable resource I have for this project is the alumni population from Bryn Mawr College that identifies as transgender. With the help of Ann Dixon, I posted a series of questions on Athena’s Web, the online alumni network. There are three categories of questions for these alumni to answer; background (which has the responders inform me of how they identify, the point at which they realized they may be transgender, and steps they have taken in favor of this identity), Bryn Mawr (which asks the responders to address their decision to attend Bryn Mawr, their favorite experiences, whether or not they came out as transgender while at Bryn Mawr, how they explain their Bryn Mawr degree in their lives, and changes they think could be made at Bryn Mawr in favor of transgender students), and feminism (which asks alums to define feminism, address the complications of identifying both at transgender and a feminist, how the transition has affected this feminist identity, and whether or not the transgender community defines feminism differently than other communities). Thus far, I have received one response, from an alumnus whom I will refer to as J. J’s responses were surprising, helpful, and brought to light a number of opinions and experiences that I had hoped to learn more about through this interview process.

J is an alumnus who graduated in the early 1990s. His transition began in his mid-30s, and in the last two to three years, he has been on consistent hormone therapy, had chest surgery, and has come out to all friends, family, and coworkers. J traces his knowledge of wanting to be male back to approximately age seven. At that point, genital reassignment surgery and other surgical opportunities for transgender people were only available in some European nations, and therefore did not enter J’s mind as viable options. However, after hearing about two other Bryn Mawr alums who transitioned, J “…realized it was something that [he] could really do and not ruin [his] life.” J’s choice to attend Bryn Mawr is something he describes as “funny.” In spite of adamantly refusing to go to an “all girls school,” J toured Amherst, Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Bryn Mawr, gained admission to all of them, and chose Bryn Mawr. It was close to his family home in Washington DC, it was an institution he was familiar with from having family in the Philadelphia area, and it was a place he felt comfortable. “I visited a couple of times and felt like there would be a place for me there. I hadn’t really fit in in high school, but I felt like I would at Bryn Mawr.”

J sites his involvement in sports as his favorite part of the Bryn Mawr experience. While J did not come out as transgender while in attendance at Bryn Mawr, he does admit there were some interesting manifestations of his gender identity. I have to admit though -- I only played lacrosse because I was a goalie. NO way were they getting me in a skirt! I can say that somewhat in jest now, but it was absolutely true – if I had had to wear a skirt, I would not have played.” J graduated from Bryn Mawr with female pronouns on his diploma. When asked how he explains his Bryn Mawr degree, his response is that he struggles a great deal with when and whether to tell people.

“I still have a lot of Bryn Mawr stuff (mugs, posters, t-shirts) and if anyone asks me about them, I can just say my wife went there, which is true. When I am with my wife and we are asked where we went to college, we say ‘Bryn Mawr and Haverford’, which isn't stretching the truth too much -- she did major at Haverford, and I took lots of classes there. If I'm talking to someone I don't expect to have much contact with, I just say I went to Haverford, and I don't feel too guilty about it. Once, when I was in a situation where I felt comfortable doing so (i.e. I would have been comfortable disclosing my trans status), I told someone I went to Bryn Mawr, and he replied ‘Oh, so it's co-ed now?’ Someone came along and distracted him before I could explain...”

While I found all of these responses and stories very interesting, the most intriguing and educational part of J’s responses came when asked what potential he saw for change in favor of the transgender population at Bryn Mawr.

“Having not experienced campus as a male student or alum, I don't have any specific changes to suggest. I haven't asked the alumnae office to change my records yet, but I hope they will be easy to work with. I have to admit, I’m a bit conflicted about transmen at women’s colleges. I have heard that Smith College is being very accommodating to its FTM students, to the point of changing all bathrooms on campus to be co-ed. I don't know if that's true, but if so, it seems a little overboard. I believe that women’s colleges should be primarily for women, and that male-identified people should be welcomed, but not catered to. That said, I also believe that women’s colleges should be supportive of those students and alums who come to realize that they are not in fact women, in terms of changing documentation, transcripts, diplomas, etc.”

Another interesting response that I received from J came when I asked what the complications are, in his opinion, of a transgender person identifying as a feminist. J sees the idea of gender as a binary and feminism pitting men and women against each other as the primary complication. The issue he finds with feminism is that it assumes that “women” and “men,” as groups that should be equal, are “…discrete, easily definable groups…” J prefers to think and speak in terms of all people being equal, regardless of gender. What makes him most uncomfortable as a female-bodied transman is people who claim the feminist label that view men as enemies. His transition has made him more sensitive to the divisive ways in which feminist ideas can be expressed. He states that he has “… come to understand that progress will be a lot smoother if it can be achieved without alienating a large segment of the population.”

It has been very helpful for me, both personally and in terms of this paper, to have had this interaction with J. His status as an alumnus of Bryn Mawr helps to put his opinions into perspective and allows me to see the impact Bryn Mawr can have on the transgender community. J’s opinions and experiences are applicable and interesting. I continue to hope for more feedback, especially if other interviews yield differing views and opinions.

Texts

One text that I have been especially involved in is Transmen and FTMs; Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities, by Jason Cromwell. Cromwell is himself a transman, and not only uses interviews and experiences with other transmen, but often speaks from his own experiences. The book grew out of Cromwell’s graduate school dissertation. Cromwell includes fieldwork he has conducted in his career as an anthropologist, a guide to transsexual discourses and the “languages of identification”(19), and analyses of other texts, articles, and interviews conducted by and for transpeople. The inclusion of personal testimony in conjunction with text and analysis has made this book much more interesting and bearable for me. I have yet to complete reading it, but it has certainly caused me to question my identity, my assumptions about the transgender community, my personal definition of feminism, and most especially, what my goal is with this project. What was meant to be a quiet, under-the-radar chance at personal discovery is quickly gaining momentum. Another text that I am in the process of reading is an anthology edited by Krista Scott-Dixon, entitled Trans/forming Feminisms. This book includes sections on identities and alliances, inclusion and exclusion, and shelter an violence, and spans topics from transpeople and racialized class politics in the context of transition and embodiment (Bobby Noble) to lawyering for transpeople (barbara findlay). The book varies from emotional personal accounts to case studies and analyses of sexual violence, politics, exclusion, and legitimacy.

Further Research

In addition to further textual research and hoping for more responses to the Athena’s Web interview of transgender alumni, I plan on scheduling an interview with Jenny Rickard, Dean of Admissions. In this interview, I hope to gain a more concrete idea of current admissions policies surrounding gender, including the use of male pronouns on diplomas and whether or not the Admissions Office plans to eventually accommodate male-bodied transwomen. I would also like to interview Chris Macdonald-Dennis, Assistant Dean and Director of Intercultural Affairs. Not only do I feel as though Dean Macdonald-Dennis has an extremely good working relationship with students and a unique view of the student body, but as co-founder of the Task Force, I would like to personally hear from him his goals and hopes for the course of action that this group can take. If possible, I will also try to schedule an interview with President Nancy Vickers, who extended invitations to the Transgender Task Force. I would like to hear from her directly as to her opinions concerning transgender students at Bryn Mawr College, the goals she has in mind for the Task Force, and the action she hopes to take in her final year as President of the College, as well as what she hopes to pass on to her successor in terms of transgender issues on campus. In addition to questions of gender and inclusion, I also plan to ask Dean Rickard, Dean MacDonald-Dennis and President Vickers to define feminism for themselves and hopefully have them answer questions concerning their definitions as they apply to Bryn Mawr’s transgender community. These interviews are only the beginning in what will hopefully become a series of interviews, both with faculty, staff, and students who are transgender allies or trans-identified, as well as those who may oppose the presence of transgender students on campus. I will continue to look toward textual resources, since interviews can be easily misunderstood, but I feel as though the driving force for this project will be the opinions and experiences of Bryn Mawr alumni, faculty, staff, and current students. In addition, I hope that the continuing discussions in this course and others will help me to grow even more confident in the strength of this project, if not in the strength and value of my own identity. I hope that, over the course of my further research and interview process, this project takes a clear form and I become aware of the way in which this material may be presented, because I honestly cannot say what form it may take. However, I have become and will remain confident in the value and the importance of the exploration of feminism as it relates to the transgender community, and more specifically, to Bryn Mawr College.

Comments

Griff's picture

I agree

I agree with Anne Dalke - there's a lot of potential material here, and the product of your research and discussion could benefit both communities. I don't have too much to offer by way of suggestion, unfortunately - just support. Good luck with your project, and keep up the good work!

Anne Dalke's picture

Feminism in Transition

llauher--

Brave, good work, with quite a range of possibilities for you to explore. What seems central here is the interplay you want to keep going between feminism and transgender. I'd encourage you to make your project not just one (as you say in conclusion) that explores "feminism as it relates to the transgender community," but also the reverse: what transgender can teach feminism. How might the political movement alter its aims and evolve in response to experiences such as yours and J's? What shape might "support" take for those in transition @ a woman's college like Bryn Mawr? Taking male-identification seriously, and so requesting separation from the college? Taking personal evolution and choice seriously, and so making it comfortable for those who wish to stay to do so?

I think it's great that you have been in touch with several trans alums, and would encourage you also to talk--not necessarily with "those who may oppose the presence of transgender students on campus," but--with others who, like you, have many questions about the implications of transbois for a "mostly" (?) women's college. You'll see that Rachel's draft, for instance, is asking whether women's colleges make sense in the 21st century. One of the things she'd like to consider is "the idea of females transitioning to males while attending a women’s college....What does this do to the sisterhood...why do they choose to stay at Bryn Mawr? If possible, I would love to sit down and perhaps discuss their thoughts on these questions." Among the interviews she'd like to conduct, she's hoping to talk "with a few people of the transgender community here at Bryn Mawr. I am curious to find out what they might say in response to Bell Hook’s ideas about 'false sisterhood.'"

There's other theoretical work aside from that directly about trans issues which you may find of use; I'm thinking particularly of the essays on Culture as Disability and On the Inevitability of Cultural Disabilities which I've mentioned in class several times. The argument here is that every culture is a nexus of abling and disabling practices--that every value puts into play its counter value (that timed test-taking "creates" learning disabilities, for instance) might be of use to you here, as you think about what is abling, what disabling, in the concept of a "woman's college" (am thinking here of J's observations regarding feminism's assumptions about "discrete, easily definable groups."

Of course it's premature to talk, just now, about how this material should be presented, but I know that the work you are doing will be of use when the task force begins its work.

Very much looking forward to working more with you in this arena--

Anne

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