Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Who's woman enough to attend Bryn Mawr?

Tyler Williams, 24, is proud to have a diploma from an elite liberal arts college. Though it can be awkward in job interviews to explain how he happened to receive one from Bryn Mawr.

Tyler Williams, a Bryn Mawr alumnus who transitioned during his undergraduate years, is advocating for the admission of transgender women to the school. Williams is seen with his dog Dutchess.
Tyler Williams, a Bryn Mawr alumnus who transitioned during his undergraduate years, is advocating for the admission of transgender women to the school. Williams is seen with his dog Dutchess.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Tyler Williams, 24, is proud to have a diploma from an elite liberal arts college. Though it can be awkward in job interviews to explain how he happened to receive one from Bryn Mawr.

Yet such conversations are becoming more common as a small but growing number of transgender people are graduating from women's colleges across the country - and, in the process, are raising difficult questions about what it means to be a women's-only institution.

Those include: how to accommodate students who enrolled as women but came to identify as male while on campus, and whether to admit transgender women - people who were raised as male but identify as female.

The debate has roiled the Seven Sisters colleges over the last year, leaving trustees and administrators scrambling to catch up. Now, all three of Pennsylvania's remaining women's colleges - out of more than 20 that, over the years, have become coed or closed - are reexamining their policies around transgender students.

At Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia and Cedar Crest College in Allentown, task forces are being formed. At Bryn Mawr, trustees are expected to clarify their admissions policy by the end of this academic year, if not sooner.

Sixty-two Bryn Mawr students and alumni signed an open letter to administrators last September urging them to make the campus more welcoming for transgender students and to encourage "trans women and people outside the gender binary to apply." After all, some argue, women's colleges were created to provide opportunities for a marginalized population, and gender-variant people could benefit from that support.

Like others in his situation, Williams, who graduated in 2012 and is an entrepreneur living in Center City, didn't set out to be a man at a women's college. He enrolled as a young woman, albeit one who was questioning her gender identity. As a prospective student visiting high school friends at Bryn Mawr, he met several gender-variant people. He was drawn to a community in which gender appeared to be a much more flexible concept than anything he had seen growing up in Harrisburg.

After a year at Bryn Mawr, he was ready to medically transition. He took a year off, but applied for readmission because the liberal arts curriculum still appealed to him.

On his return, Williams found college life somewhat more challenging.

He lived off campus to avoid conflict. When he did go into the dorms unaccompanied to visit friends, students called campus security on him, he said.

And, after observing resentment toward other transgender men on campus who were perceived as feeling "entitled to positions of leadership," he made the decision not to seek any high-profile roles.

"These are women who have chosen to be in a space where they can be the leaders, they don't have to listen to men, or they've maybe come from a space where men are simply triggering to them," he said.

Yet students have successfully advocated for modest changes on behalf of gender-variant students already on campus.

For example, Williams said, when he first enrolled, some dorm bathrooms were designated women-only. Now, the signs read "Bryn Mawr students only."

The school also now offers a one-step process for students to change their name or gender across all campus records.

And, it recently added new signage to single-use public bathrooms around campus designating them as "all-gender bathrooms," a small but significant change that students had sought for years.

The campus' diversity office has assembled resources on preferred pronouns. It also offers training to faculty who, regardless of admissions policies, already find themselves teaching students with a spectrum of gender identities.

But those are the easy problems to solve.

Creating a policy around the admission of transgender women appears to require not only a practical fix, but a philosophical reexamination.

"The question for our community is to figure out what it needs to continue to remain a women's college," said Stephanie Nixon, Bryn Mawr's director of diversity, social justice, and inclusion. "There's not one opinion that has consensus on our campus, or even among our student leaders."

Similar conversations have been taking place around the country, particularly since a transgender woman posted her rejection letter from Smith College online in 2013, and it went viral.

Mills and Scripps, two women's colleges in California, and Simmons College in Massachusetts all rolled out new policies last year clearing the way for transgender women to apply.

In September, Mount Holyoke became the first of the Seven Sisters to explicitly welcome any applicant who "identifies as a female." In December, the president of Barnard College announced that the school would consider creating a formal policy. At Smith, meanwhile, proponents of inclusivity have been holding protests, while detractors have created a Facebook page dedicated to restricting admission to "female-born women."

At Moore College of Art and Design, clarifying the admissions policy is a priority, according to president Cecelia Fitzgibbon.

She said it was too early to say which direction they would go, but noted that at least one transgender man had graduated from Moore recently.

Cedar Crest College, a women's liberal arts college in Allentown, is convening a task force to grapple with the issue, according to Mary Alice Ozechoski, vice president of student affairs and traditional enrollment.

"Currently, we don't have an admissions policy regarding transgender students," she said.

While trustees debate big-picture policy shifts, on Bryn Mawr's campus, change is already coming - along with a growing number of gender-variant students. (The exact number is unknown: Bryn Mawr intentionally does not track this.)

One of them is Whitney Lopez, 29, a transfer student from Community College of Philadelphia. Lopez uses the pronoun them, reflecting that Lopez may feel more male at some times and more female at others.

"Bryn Mawr felt like a really safe space for me to come out to people," Lopez said. "While I was at community college, it was really difficult, because even people who identified as queer didn't seem to understand when I talked about gender nonconformity. It didn't seem that way when I came to Bryn Mawr."

That's why Lopez thinks that all students who are outside gender norms could benefit from being part of this community.

After all, Bryn Mawr is the kind of place where gender is part of an ongoing conversation - where, when it comes to the student-government constitution, students have already made revisions: changing the title of "Traditions Mistress" to "Traditions Mistress/Master/Mistex," and "freshwoman" to the clunky-but-precise "first-year traditional non-transfer student."

One transgender man, who came out his sophomore year, found that a 130-year-old women's college was as good a place as any to transition.

The man, who did not want to be named because his coworkers may not be aware he is transgender, lived on campus until graduating in 2012.

"I know other people have had less than favorable experiences," he said, "but it was a good place for me to be surrounded by people who actually cared and seemed to understand trans issues."

215-854-5053 @samanthamelamed