Our columnist looks at the complicated fallout when trying to create a safe space for everyone becomes a battle of privilege.
If you spend any time in social-justice circles, online or in person, you’ll hear the word “privilege” used in a way that invariably irritates anyone who hasn’t spent much time in social-justice circles. Instead of referring solely to matters of wealth (i.e., class privilege), this originally academic use of the word denotes a whole system of automatic advantages that come with belonging to one group that holds cultural power over another. So you’ll hear about “male privilege” and “cis privilege” (“cis” being the opposite of “trans”) and “white privilege” and “straight privilege,” etc., and you could be forgiven for asking whether anyone left on Earth is not “privileged” in some way.
I’ll resist the temptation to imagine the multi-hyphenate individual who enjoys no privilege at all and concede the point: Mostly, we’ve all got privilege in some areas, but lack it in others. I’m white, straight, and cis, which gives me a great deal of cultural power, but my lack of male privilege becomes obvious when I’m taken less seriously than men saying the same thing, paid less for the same work, or criticized in explicitly sexist terms. Jay-Z has male privilege, class privilege, and Beyoncé-proximity privilege over the likes of me, but I’ll never be harassed by police because of the color of my skin. Who has power over whom is rarely a simple question with a single answer.
In a long article for the New York Times magazine, Ruth Padawer looks at how women’s colleges are dealing with students who come out—or apply—as trans men, and it’s a fascinating look at how privilege in one area can come into conflict with the lack of it in another.
The purpose of a women’s college, in theory, is to shore up young women’s self-confidence and leadership skills—not to mention offer them a close-knit alumnae network—before sending them out into a professional world that’s still dominated by men. In other words, schools like Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke are meant to correct for male privilege.
But then, they’ve also been known for some time as queer-friendly, progressive environments where students can generally feel safe to explore their identities—exactly the sort of place a trans man might prefer to a more traditional co-ed environment, let alone an all-male school (if one would even let him apply). And an institution that espouses feminist values certainly ought to concern itself with the health and safety of young trans people!
It’s just, well, those people are men. At a women’s college.
As Emma Caterine points out in a scathing guest post for Feministing, the first thing to recognize about theoretically “trans-friendly” policies at women’s colleges is that in practice, they exclude women. Because most trans people haven’t transitioned by the end of high school, a young woman who’s still presenting as a young man—or even one who hasn’t yet legally changed her name on paperwork—would not be able to apply to the vast majority of colleges meant to nurture and uplift people of her gender.
Padawer notes that Smith College (after being publicly embarrassed by a trans woman they rejected) will allow applications from students referred to with feminine pronouns in references and on transcripts. Unfortunately, that does nothing for an 18-year-old trans woman who doesn’t feel safe coming out to her parents yet, but could really benefit from the support of a trans-friendly institution. Of the relatively few men’s colleges in the U.S., most are religious, so a young woman looking to explore that identity and perhaps transition during her college years probably can’t find a nurturing environment that only admits people who share the sex she was assigned at birth.
An 18-year-old man assigned female at birth, however, has his pick of excellent schools where he can even take on leadership roles and challenge administrators, professors and peers to stop excluding him with all their talk of women this and women that.
Trans students are pushing their schools to play down the women-centric message. At Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke and others, they and their many supporters have successfully lobbied to scrub all female references in student government constitutions, replacing them with gender-neutral language … At many schools, they have also taken leadership positions long filled by women: resident advisers on dorm floors, heads of student groups and members of college government. At Wellesley, one transmasculine student was a dorm president. At Mills College, a women’s school in California, even the president of student government identifies as male.
Lest I sound like a transphobic asshole, I want to make it clear that I sympathize with young trans men who feel they’re being misgendered when someone addresses a room full of people, including them, as women—and of course they are being misgendered, if one takes such an address literally to mean, “All of you in this room, whom I perceive to be women.”
But I would ask people attending a women’s college to consider for how many centuries female people have been asked to understand that the collective “he” includes us, as do words like “mankind” and “chairman” and “manpower”—not to mention “you guys.” Of course you should make the correct pronoun known to all relevant parties, and expect them to use it when they’re not speaking generally about large groups of mostly women. But when they are—at a women’s college—do you really want to come in as a man and argue that your position as an oppressed minority means an institution devoted to the advancement of a different oppressed group should stop using language that refers to that group?
This is the problem of privilege (and by that I mean the core conundrum it presents, not the problem of using language that irritates some people). When trans men transition, they simultaneously get busted down to one of the most misunderstood and maltreated minorities and promoted to one of the most powerful groups in the world. Negotiating that paradox must be an emotional rollercoaster, especially when you’re young, but it doesn’t change the fact a man who lives in a space specifically designed to be safe and supportive to women will sometimes need to put those women’s needs before his own.
For that matter, so will someone of non-binary gender, not because they have gender privilege over women, but because young women—cis and trans—still need and deserve spaces that put them first. As long as women are underpaid and underrepresented in many of the most lucrative and challenging fields, programs and institutions that value them specifically as women will still have an important place in our society.
Expecting women’s colleges to change the very thing that sets them apart may put a Band-aid on certain wounds of transphobia, but it leaves too many others uncovered, and all of them improperly treated. Young trans women deserve the same sense of support trans men seek at women’s schools; young cis and trans women deserve to revel in sisterhood; and young trans men deserve to feel welcome in all-male and co-ed environments. Creating a campus that gives young people of all genders room to safely explore their identities must be a priority for every college and university, not just those traditionally only open to women.
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