On February 27, “Trans Students Belong At Wellesley” brought a non-binding referendum to the student senate at Wellesley College. The initiative was split into two proposals. The first called for the use of gender-neutral rather than gender-specific language, replacing “women” with “students,” for example. The second called for Wellesley College to adopt an admissions policy that is inclusive of all nonbinary and transgender students, moving away from the current policy of admitting students who “consistently identify as women.” The referendum aimed “to align the College’s messaging with the demographics and lived experiences of the student body.”
There is precedent for this policy. Mount Holyoke, another historically women’s college, has welcomed applications from transgender and nonbinary students since 2014. “Our inclusive admission policy is the 21st century expression of our founding mission to provide an intellectually adventurous education for individuals who have been marginalized on the basis of their gender, gender expression or gender identity,” said Marcella Runell the Dean of Students to ABC News.
In contrast, over the past four years, the Wellesley College administration has doubled down on transphobic rhetoric and language, including penalizing students for chalking the trans flag around campus and for publicly rebuking the term “historically women’s college.” Last year, the college removed a trans flag mural that was painted over a reference to author and vocal anti-trans activist J.K. Rowling, even while students and the Wellesley News editorial board called for it to remain. The referendum was a chance for the school, as an institution seeking to provide an educational experience for those of marginalized genders, to openly and proudly support its gender-diverse population.
In response to the proposed ballot initiative, Wellesley College President Paula Johnson sent an e-mail to the student body and faculty on March 6 reaffirming the administration’s stance in marketing Wellesley as an institution of higher education specifically for women. “The results of the vote on this ballot question are nonbinding and will not impact any of the policies or practices of the College,” the e-mail read. “We are not a ‘historically women’s college,’ a term that only applies to women’s colleges that have made the decision to enroll men.”
There’s just one problem: Wellesley College isn’t just for women. Archival documents and images show that gender diversity has been central to the college for decades, even when the language to describe it didn’t exist. “Trans men and nonbinary students make up an important part of the campus, and they always have,” said Charlie, a trans man and senior at Wellesley College. President Johnson’s reframing misses this critical point, which spread widely through national coverage in The New York Times last week. “Wellesley’s administration is ashamed of them, and no amount of attempted placating will make up for substantive action,” said Charlie.
The referendum passed on March 14. Despite calls to release the full results, the administration has refused to do so. Instead, the chair of political engagement at Wellesley, a student, released a poll that voters could fill out after the official ballot. The student body was overwhelmingly in favor of the referendum, with over 90 percent voting “yes” in the poll. In response to President Johnson’s statement, students organized an ongoing sit-in supporting the trans community on campus. The Wellesley News editorial board released a statement saying that Johnson and the administration “monopolized conversations about Wellesley’s community and future, conversations that should be led by students, who make up the majority of the College community.”
Some student groups and organizations are supporting trans people at Wellesley in other ways. TArchives, an online archive of transgender and nonbinary student experiences at Wellesley, was recently launched for trans students to share their experiences and see those from the school’s past. “The TArchives are an affirmation that trans students not only exist here now, but have for decades. It’s a reminder of our ability to hold space for one another and to love each other as loudly and bravely as possible,” said Juno, fellow co-administrator of the TArchives. TSBAW, the student group that introduced the referendum, has sold “Trans Students Belong at Wellesley” shirts. The group is working to allocate the proceeds to provide gender-affirming care for trans and non-binary students, with the goal of having Black, brown, and Indigenous individuals deciding where it is distributed. For Indigenous students, the debate holds additional weight: Wellesley’s policy and language use is discriminatory toward two-spirit identities.
Regardless of the referendum result, President Johnson told The New York Times, the university will not rethink their position. Wellesley’s Communications and Public Affairs department declined to comment beyond repeating publicly released statements. “The administration continues to say that they are working to support trans students, but that is blatantly false,” said Charlie. “They are looking for small solutions that do not inconvenience them, and when trans students give them actual steps to help, they refuse or ignore them.”
Across the country, anti-trans bills are being signed into law by Republican legislators, jeopardizing access to gender-affirming care and further enabling the verbal, physical, and psychological harm of trans youth. In this increasingly hostile political and social environment, we must push for the acknowledgement and respect of transgender identities. Spaces in which gender-diverse folks are not just tolerated but accepted, loved, and celebrated, are needed more than ever. Following through on the ballot initiative wouldn’t change the demographics of Wellesley College but provide recognition of an already gender-diverse student body. For the sake of current students—and those to come—Wellesley College must do better.