Last week, Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, announced that it would accept trans students applying for the upcoming school year. The decision drew relatively minimal coverage in mainstream media, but follows a contentious year of law and policy conflicts involving trans people.
Particularly in states like North Carolina and Texas, rhetoric falsely portraying trans women as sexual predators has been used to justify legislation barring them from safely using public restrooms and gender-segregated public facilities in general. But while ferocious debate on trans people and bathrooms was erupting throughout state legislatures, gender-segregated schools have been addressing the issue behind closed doors. According to the Washington Post, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Mills College, Smith College, Barnard College and others have moved to open their campuses to all female-identifying applicants. As of last week, Spelman is just the latest.
The point of all-female schools has always been to create spaces for a historically marginalized group to have equal opportunity and fully embrace their identity. Today, while cis women continue to face challenges and confront institutionalized sexism, it’s safe to say that trans women face even more, and need the option of having their own spaces now more than ever. And at a time when trans women of color face higher rates of violence than virtually any other group in America, the historically black Spelman College opening its doors bears even more weight.
Ingrained gender roles as well as ignorance and crude standards for what constitutes gender have yielded discrimination and intolerance toward trans and non-binary people in just about every layer of society, but these issues are particularly impactful in education. Harassment and bullying as well as limited access to the same resources and amenities guaranteed to cisgender students have the power to severely affect trans students’ academic performances and mental health, and the consequences can be long-term ailments like higher dropout rates and difficulties joining the workforce.
The enfranchisement of trans women starts with acknowledging and respecting their identity, and according them the same opportunities as cis women. But progress on establishing equality between cis and trans women has been severely hampered by a bizarre, right-wing narrative that identifies cis women as the victims of trans women. This is despite the objective fact that trans women are far more likely to be harassed and assaulted in bathrooms than to be the perpetrators of these incidents. By and large, there have been more documented cases of Republican lawmakers being arrested for harassing women in bathrooms than of trans women doing so, as there are virtually zero cases of the latter.
The narrative of trans women victimizing cis women has served two purposes in the agenda of conservative lawmakers. First, it’s helped them to portray their bigoted quest to make trans people second-class citizens as a noble, traditional pursuit — think Southern gentlemen rescuing hapless damsels in distress from rape and dishonor, with members of otherized groups cast as the predators. When a group is demonized, its members become exponentially easier to attack, degrade and marginalize without opposition.
Second, the narrative is a transparent attempt to turn two marginalized groups against each other, and in doing so, weaken them both. Trans and cis women face many of the same problems in solidarity, from barriers to accessing crucial reproductive health services, to stigma and threats to their safety simply for making choices about their bodies. In both cases, cis, heterosexual, Christian white males in positions of power tend to be the ones making these rules that often dictate women’s lives. In no uncertain terms, trans women face greater and more widespread oppression than cis women do, but these groups share an ongoing fight for equality in which they must be allies to succeed.
As more anti-trans lawmakers eventually catch wind of the great liberal conspiracy unfolding across all women’s colleges across the country, it’s safe to say they will suddenly turn their noses up to the issue of campus sexual assault — one that they tend to ignore when cis, heterosexual males are the perpetrators, as they so often are.
But if anti-trans lawmakers sincerely cared about the violence cis women face on college campuses, they would work to reform laws and education surrounding consent, advocate for women’s rights and ultimately fight for a culture of respect toward women in all cases — rather than selectively caring based on the gender identity of the perpetrators.
A culture of respect toward women — which is supposedly the oh-so-noble aim of lawmakers who try to bar trans people from using the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity — is not one in which women are infantilized as the victims of mythical trans perverts, but are simultaneously forced to assume responsibility for the actions of their straight, cisgender male predators. For years, this narrative fabricated by the right wing has helped to attack the civil rights of cis and trans women alike — all while selling cis women on the lie that trans women, and not the cis, heterosexual white men in positions of power making these rules, are their oppressors.
When we discuss inclusivity and women’s rights on college campuses, we cannot exclude trans women, whose courage, grit and resilience are a boon to any university that takes them in. Cis women must recognize their own privilege in these cases and stand in solidarity with their trans sisters. That has always been the spirit of women’s colleges — solidarity and sisterhood — and in today’s political climate, this must be the spirit of all colleges.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.