“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
It took the Smith College board of trustees over two years to bend their arc toward the justice of instituting a policy that allows transgender women admission. Smith is one of the “seven sisters”, historically comprising some of the most selective all-female colleges in the country.
Withering pressure from Smith’s own student community and from competing colleges was required to bring them from rejecting transgender student Calliope Wong in March of 2013 to the creation of such a policy this week. Ms. Wong, who applied from the state of Connecticut, would have needed surgery to allow her gender change to be officially recognized there. Her admissions committee were unmoved. The reason given for her rejection was that identity documents issued by her state listed her as male. To them, her gender identity was apparently irrelevant. Face the knife or find some other college.
There was an outcry from their own community, including a protest in October 2014, where activists addressed the Smith College board of trustees. According to a report on Buzzfeed, on that occasion the board refused to allow a transgender woman who was present address them, and insisted upon misgendering her. They then dragged their feet for another six months before announcing the policy this week.
After such a delay, you’d expect them to have worked out every detail of how transgender students are accommodated. Not so. Specifics of the new policy are sketchy. Their announcement says only that “Applicants who were assigned male at birth but identify as women are eligible for admission.” Apparently these fifteen words took two years to agree to. That’s less than a word each month. As for details, “President Kathleen McCartney is establishing a working group to develop a comprehensive approach to supporting transgender and gender non-binary students at Smith. The group will extend the expertise that departments across the college, including Residence Life and Athletics, already have in meeting the needs of trans students and ensuring a healthy, welcoming environment for all.” This according to the FAQ on the Smith College website.
So in short, the Smith Board of Trustees took more than two years to write a policy that could be summed up in fifteen words and to charter a working group.
I’m struggling to be charitable. I’m trying hard to figure out why it would take a group of highly educated and responsible adults that long to understand what a valuable gift they are giving young transgender women in access to one of the country’s premier all-female colleges. And to understand how dehumanizing it was to tell applicants they are women in some ways, but not women enough to be considered eligible for admission.
I pride myself on seeing every side of an issue. I’m trying to understand those trustees’ mindset. I really want to find a reason for the delay, other than malevolent intolerance. They’re not making it easy. I hope it’s not because so many of their competitors, including Mt. Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and Wellseley, had all recently agreed to admit transgender women themselves. It’s not a welcoming message to the next generation of bright transgender thinkers to be permitted entry solely because the college was pushed into it. Luckily, Smith has an infinite future in which to show us that transgender women are truly welcome on their campus. If the resulting decision leads to a reputation for treating their transgender applicants and community members equitably and with respect, it will help us forget the negative messages sent out by the sluggish way it arrived.