I was a Wellesley man over a decade before Ruth Padawer wrote her recent, unfortunately titled New York Times article "When Women Become Men at Wellesley." But I didn't become a man while I was at Wellesley. I don't know exactly when I did, but I know that I was never a woman.
Nora Ephron and I, a Wellesley alum who graduated 39 years before I did, characterized Wellesley as infusing students with "a kind of glazed politeness in the face of boredom and stupidity" during our respective educations. It was this glazed politeness that I saw in the words of some of the trans male students and alums quoted in Padawer's article.
It may surprise some that many students and alums oppose the inclusion of trans women at Wellesley. It may surprise them even more that some of those students and alums are themselves trans men. It shouldn't; transmisogyny — misogyny directed specifically at trans women — is something I've encountered among other trans men from the first day I met a group of other trans men face-to-face. Trans women such as Jos Truitt and Julia Serano, among others, have written about the ostracism and contempt they've faced from trans men.
Padawer quoted one such trans man in her article who "asked not to be named because he knew how unpopular his stance would be." He told Padawer that Wellesley should deny admission to trans women because, "Wellesley needs to maintain its integrity as a safe space for women." I think this man's fear of having others associate his name with his "unpopular" (actually very popular) stance is linked to his contempt for trans women and his feigned concern for cisgender (non-trans) women's "safety." Because this isn't actually about keeping a safe space for women.
So rather than integrity, I suspect that what this student — and many others — value about Wellesley is a form of purity. I am not the first person to propose this — Emma Caterine's "Fear of a Trans College" and Dallas Denny's letter about cis lesbian separatists' ostracism of trans women both explore this theme.
Jonathan Haidt identifies purity — the avoidance of disgust — as a foundation for many people's moral reasoning. I have heard fellow Wellesley alums ask, more than once, variations on the question, "Do you really want students who have 'male' genitals attending Wellesley?" Aside fom the obvious points (first, that genitals aren't 'male' when they're on a woman's body; second, that the invention of clothing millennia ago eliminated the need to care about non-intimate peers' genitals), I think this question appeals primarily to the disgust that the speaker assumes others share with her.
Thus it becomes clear why so many at Wellesley, a self-described "women's college," are comfortable with the inclusion of trans male students but not trans women: Women who have the "wrong" kind of genitals violate the purity of the temple, and must be kept out.
Disgust for trans women's bodies is rooted in transmisogyny, which is misogyny. In their June Advocate op-ed, Fallon Fox and Parker Marie Molloy explained,
Referring to trans women as "men" from birth plays into themes of disgust and discomfort our culture foists upon trans bodies. We're denied the innocence of youth so that we are more easily categorized as deviants. The mental image created of a hairy, sweaty, hulking man — it makes us easier to hate, and it serves as a quick pivot point to the idea of our existence as cartoonishly masculine "men in dresses."
Disgust is political. In this case, the political work it does is upholding male supremacy. How? Well, the assignment of sex to infants at birth is an offer they can't refuse. Masculinity, as we know it, is so fragile that it cannot survive the slightest bit of doubt in its superiority over all other forms of gendered embodiment. By exercising their autonomy to say "no" to that offer, which they never wanted, trans women jeopardize the precarious prestige of masculinity. The punishment they receive is disgust. Transmisogyny, which is fueled by disgust, and male domination are symbiotic, as writers such as Serano, Annetta Gay, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and Natalie Reed have explored.
This brings us back to to the anonymous trans man quoted in the New York Times, who claimed, "Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it's like to be treated as females, and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women." But he's wrong.
Trans women who transition at or before the age of 18 will experience misogyny for their entire adult lives. Yet male students who have a lifetime of male privilege ahead of them condescendingly tell trans women, "You don't understand what it's like to be a woman." Despite his claim of common experiences with cis women, this man doesn't get what life is like for cis or trans women who are different from himself by virtue of their race, social class, ability, nationality, or any number of intersecting social categories. Like me, he actually doesn't get what life is like for women at all because he isn't a woman.
Underneath his glazed, polite words is fear barely concealed by transmisogyny. He fears that if trans women graduated from Wellesley (and they already have; the only question is whether or not to force them to be silent rather than affording them the choice of whether to talk about their trans histories), something would be lost.
Personally, I think that women's colleges still matter because the rest of the world centers on men, and for the few students lucky enough to be able to attend one, women's colleges provide four years during which they don't have to justify their existence or presence in an intellectual space. But people like the anonymous trans man reveal a different reason with their words: Wellesley is valuable because it's not gained by the presence of trans women. This kind of valuation of an institution based on who it excludes cheapens both the humanity of the people who champion it and the institution itself.
For me, my Wellesley education wasn't about not being around women who had a different medical history from mine. Reducing human beings to body parts — less than that, to presumptions about their body parts — is dehumanizing
The debate over including trans women at Wellesley is not the first time the college has weighed the relative merits of purity and fairness. But as Dar Williams sang in Alumnae hall during my time at Wellesly, "Truth is just like time, it catches up and it just keeps going." I think the truth about the nature of transmisogyny will eventually catch up with Wellesley, or perhaps vice versa.
Like so many things, the question is ultimately an economic one. Is the Wellesley board of trustees willing to say to the older alums whose donations constitute so much of the college's revenue, "If you are a transmisogynist, we don't need you money"? So far, the answer seems to be "no."
That's disappointing because their inaction tacitly gives away their belief that the college fundamentally needs to support and recreate transmisogyny in order to survive. Since transmisogyny is misogyny, that is saying, in turn, that a women's college must fundamentally embrace misogyny for its continued existence. I urge Wellesley's students, alums, faculty, and staff to consider being fair to all women, and to interrogate any arguments against fairness that hinge on "purity" or on the avoidance of disgust.
TIM CHEVALIER is a queer transsexual man who lives in Reno, Nevada. Before graduating from Wellesley college in 2001, he was called "the meanest bitch on campus" by one student and "the best female computer science student I've ever had" by one professor. He regrets his categorical failure to live up to either designation. He has previously written for Model View Culture and Geek Feminism.