The Student Activists Behind Barnard College’s Decision to Admit Trans Women

by Alexa Salvato

On June 4, Barnard College—a women’s college operated in partnership with Columbia University—announced a new policy of admitting trans women. Throughout the last year, student and alumni activists have worked with the Barnard administration to make this change possible.

Barnard will now be admitting students who “consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.” This is a big deal, because it means that students will not have to have full legal paperwork that consistently identifies them as a woman or female in order to be admitted, and the legal documents often depend on physical surgery, which isn’t accessible and/or desired for all trans people. Those official documents can be hard to obtain, especially when you’re a teenager. This struggle was illuminated by trans woman Calliope Wong’s rejection from Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, in 2013; Smith too has since changed its policy to be more inclusive.

Student activists were vital to the movement. A group called Students for a Trans Inclusive Barnard formed about six months ago to organize and inform the public about the process of creating a policy for admitting trans women.

Sarah Shuster (’15), a Barnard student involved the organization, explained that “even though the national movement has picked up speed significantly and Barnard just made this change, there have been students working on this for years.”

The process began by fighting for gender-inclusive bathrooms, bringing alum and trans activist Dean Spade in for a talk, and pushing the administration publicly and frequently for a change.  “The movement to have Women’s colleges be inclusive of trans women has been going on for a long time, Barnard included,” she said. 

Shuster said that students from Columbia were involved as well. “This year Students for a Trans Inclusive Barnard (STIB) was created out of the Columbia trans activist group [GendeRevolution] which worked to consolidate student voices and support. This group created a petition and has done work to educate students and administrators alike. This year we also had multiple forums in which students, alum, faculty, and staff were invited to voice their opinions and have a dialogue on what we thought regarding the admissions policy.” (Check out this article from Columbia University’s student paper that gives a full outline of the movement.)

Other students brought awareness through the arts instead. Luna Adler (Barnard ’15) created a film to bring attention to the issue before the highly anticipated trustee decision.  Adler’s video was a very accessible summary of what it means to be trans, and why trans women should be included in women’s spaces.

she/her/hers from Luna Adler on Vimeo.

“This is totally backwards,” said Barnard alum Ruth (’65) in the film, “because what Barnard has been about is helping women, strengthening women, to define themselves. The ultimate act of self-definition is to assert the gender that you know you should be.”

Shuster is happy about Barnard’s decision and thinks it’s vital that trans women have a space at Barnard. Among other factors, she spotlighted violence against trans women: “the rates of violence that trans women are currently facing has been named a national epidemic, and as a women’s college it is Barnard’s job to support any self-identified woman,” she said. All in all, she thinks the decision couldn’t have gone any other way—“Because trans women are women!”

Image via Angel Franco for the New York Times

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