Smith College Decides It’s Not Enough to Identify As a Woman

With the school year winding down before summer break, many high schoolers will be preparing for the caffeine-induced excitement of university life. A lucky few will be admitted to their top pick of a college, while others (lucky, still, for receiving an education) will learn to love their second or third choice. For high schooler Calliope Wong, however, college plans have been complicated by something much bigger than SAT scores: the “validity” of her gender.

In case you missed Calliope’s story, which first drew attention last summer on her Tumblr page and has been circulating around the Internet since, let’s take a look at some of the highlights:

  • Calliope is a transwoman who applied to Smith College.
  • She was rejected by Smith on the basis of her financial application (FAFSA report), which still lists her as male.
  • Calliope cannot be legally recognized as female in her home state of Connecticut, as well as in Massachusetts where Smith is located, unless she undergoes sex reassignment surgery.
  • While firm in her female identity, Calliope is still a teenager and not yet ready to commit to an expensive, life-changing surgery.

Though Smith College seems adamant that it does accept trans students, the school’s FAQ on the matter is vague about how one documents her female “status”:

Like most women’s colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman.

Calliope believes that FAFSA should not be used as a basis for determining gender. As she wrote on her Tumblr, “The FAFSA sex reported is only used for Selective Service purposes.” And, in fact, it was Calliope’s father who checked “male” on his daughter’s Selective Service form.

Smith, which wants to maintain its own status as a women’s college, would benefit from reexamining the circumstances under which it determines applicants’ gender. Is having female genitalia the bottom line? Trans people would argue that femaleness is not just determined by outward physical characteristics but by a deeper sense of gender identity.

Calliope has since decided on a school other than Smith, but her story is telling of the limitations placed on the trans community, particularly on transteens. Same-sex spaces sound simple enough on the surface, but they fail to acknowledge the undeniable complexity of gender. Calliope’s rejection should serve as a reminder of this, and hopefully prompt a reevaluation of misleadingly simple questions such as, “Who is a woman?”

Photo of Smith College via Flickr user Inkyhack under Creative Commons 2.0