Two months after Salem College announced it was developing a policy on transgender students, a letter from the chairman of the trustees is being interpreted by some in the college community as an indication that no overt policy will be adopted.
The letter never uses the word “transgender,” and school officials won’t say whether they still plan a policy.
Charles A. Blixt, the chairman of the school’s board, says in the letter sent by email Feb. 22 that the board “had carefully considered all input from members of the Salem family, including faculty, staff, students and alumnae; reviewed the policies of other institutions, specifically women’s-only colleges; evaluated legal responsibilities; and discussed best practices in higher education.”
Noticeably, the letter doesn’t say what subject the “input” was about, or what types of policies or practices were reviewed.
It does say that the board, after “lengthy discussion and due consideration” had reaffimed that it “values its students as individuals” and that “the wellbeing of all students is of paramount importance.” It also says that the board reaffirmed that "it has no intention of admitting men to Salem's traditional undergraduate program or becoming a co-educational institution."
Salem spokewoman Michelle Melton would not discuss the implications of the letter for transgender students or say whether Salem has transgender students. When asked why the word “transgender” wasn’t used in the letter, Melton said, “Does it need to be?”
“The trustees have affirmed Salem's mission to admit only women in its undergraduate traditional degree program,” she said. “Salem will not discuss its students.”
Blixt could not be reached for comment and did not respond to requests for an interview through the school, and other Salem board members referred questions to Blixt or Melton.
Letter draws mixed reaction
Salem is not the only school to grapple with the issue of how to deal with transgender students -- defined as those whose gender identities or expressions don’t match their birth sex. Transgender people may identify as male, female or neither -- and may or may not choose to change their bodies surgically or hormonally.
Increasingly, schools across the country are discussing such issues as housing for transgender students, bathroom and locker room access, as well as athletics.
But debate can become especially complex at women’s colleges because of their mission – and their proud tradition -- of serving women.
Emotions ran high at Salem after an alumna sent an email in January worrying about the school’s future as a women’s-only college because she had heard that a transgender student planned to have surgery to become a male and wanted to remain at the school afterward. The school did not comment on that issue other than to say the school would remain all-female and would not discuss specific students, and other students and faculty said the alumnae’s information was wrong.
Salem allows men in some classes if they are 23 or older, but they cannot live on campus.
The recent statement from Blixt has drawn varying interpretations from Salem alumnae, faculty and national advocates for transgender people.
“I find it disappointing, as they do not address the issue of transgender and gender-nonconforming students,” said Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a nationally recognized expert on transgender issues on campuses, “No one is suggesting that they admit men.”
In many cases, students who ultimately identify as transgender haven’t settled on a gender identity when they arrive at college as 18-year-olds, said Beemyn, who identifies as transgender.
But the student may affirm an identity during the college years, Beemyn said.
That means that college officials are more likely to be dealing with an existing student, rather than a prospective new one, on transgender issues. The question at single-sex colleges has been whether those existing students can remain enrolled, particularly if they begin the process of gender reassignment.
Alumna Kari Ross said she also wished for a stronger statement from Salem.
“To me what the statement does is ignore the issue at hand,” said Ross, a 2011 graduate, who as chair of a Salem judiciary council had asked school officials to make a statement on gender diversity. “It’s just pushing it aside and forcing (the school) to deal with it later.”
Ross said she’s glad that school officials at least didn’t say that transgender students would be expelled. But the board’s actions still leave those students in a vulnerable position, she said.
“There are students at Salem who are constantly worried that one day, the school’s going to kick them out,” she said.
Chastain Kornegay, 22, a senior who will graduate in May, said that most of the students she knows support having a transgender policy consistent with Salem’s “inclusive environment.”
“It’s something that we have been talking about for a really long time,” Kornegay said. “I’m expecting to hear about it in the near future – sometime before I graduate.”
Jacqui Causey-Byers, 40, also a senior, said she’s not sure what policy she would like to see, but that the board has left unanswered questions. “I know what it says,” she said of Blixt’s letter. “I don’t know what it meant.”
She hopes to hear more from the board, she said, but thinks that may be “idealistic.”
“I think the statement was possibly meant to reassure the more conservative members of the community,” Causey-Byers said. “I’m very much hoping that it’s a work in progress and not a situation where the fire got a little too hot.”
Others in the Salem community praised the board’s efforts.
“I am proud to say that the Board of Trustees of Salem Academy and College has issued a reaffirmation of the College's mission,” said Traci Porter, an associate professor of biology.
Elroi Windsor, an assistant professor of sociology at Salem and an expert on transgender health issues, said the board had done a good of listening. “I trust that in saying ‘the wellbeing of all students is of paramount importance,’ the board will support all admitted students,” Windsor said.
“I interpret the board's message as in line with most other women's colleges that have similar policies that result in valuing all students, including those whose gender journeys end up differently than where they started.”
Women’s colleges vary in policy
Beemyn said most women’s colleges permit a student to graduate despite no longer identifying as a woman.
“By and large where things stand … most women’s colleges have a live-and-let-live policy when it comes to students they have admitted,” Beemyn said.
The situation is dealt with informally.
“Pretty much, they don’t put things in writing,” Beemyn said. “This is a pretty touchy subject for most women’s colleges. They’re walking a fine line there. Putting it in writing holds things up to scrutiny.”
The true test of Salem’s attitudes, Beemyn said, is how transgender students are treated down the road.
People outside the transgender community may wonder why a student who no longer identifies as a woman would even want to remain at a women’s school.
Beemyn said students often have attachments to schools that transcend gender. They’ve formed friendships, for example, become involved in campus activities and invested themselves in an academic program at a particular school.
“There are some legitimate reasons why someone might want to stay despite the obstacles,” Beemyn said. “I think they should have that right to stay there.”
Beemyn did say that students should be counseled so that they understand the difficulties they could encounter and can decide for themselves whether the women’s campus environment is still the best place for them.
And then there’s the question of whether a person born a male who later identifies as a woman can enroll at a women’s college?
“I think that’s an issue that some women’s colleges have really not addressed,” Beemyn said.
Salem’s board was apparently the first among women’s colleges in North Carolina to seek input on transgender issues.
Stanley Viltz, the associate provost for student affairs at Bennett College in Greensboro, said development of a transgender policy hasn’t been an issue there.
“I know we have females that present as male,” she said. “They might wear men’s clothing. I don’t think we focus on it, to tell you the truth. It isn’t disturbing to us, if you will. We know it exists in the world.”
A person who identified as male would not be allowed to remain in a residence hall at Bennett, she said. But Viltz wasn’t sure where in the gender-reassignment process a student would have to be when asked to leave a dorm.
Melyssa Allen, the news director of Meredith College in Raleigh, said she’s not aware of the issue having been raised there.
“I’m sure our campus will be watching Salem,” she said.
Two ends of spectrum
Elsewhere in the country, Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., -- both women’s colleges -- have transgender policies with sharply different approaches.
“Smith does not maintain records related to the gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation of its students,” the school’s policy says. “Once admitted, any student who completes the college's graduation requirements will be awarded a degree.”
Hollins’ policy, adopted in 2007 and now under review, says that if an undergraduate undergoes sex reassignment from female to male, “she will not be permitted to continue attending Hollins beyond the conclusion of the term in which sex reassignment is initiated, and under no circumstances will such student be allowed to graduate from Hollins.”
The university considers sex reassignment to have occurred when an undergraduate student “self identifies” as a male and has hormone therapy, undergoes surgery or changes her name legally.
Patty O’Toole, the dean of students at Hollins, said the school’s policy is under review at the request of a faculty member. She described the transgender debate as a “mission issue.”
“One thing for sure is that all colleges and universities – not just women’s colleges – must address those challenges, when they appear, in an effective and forthright manner,” she said.
A number of coed schools in North Carolina, including Wake Forest University, have nondiscrimination policies that include gender expression.
Angela Mazaris, the director of the LGBTQ Center of Wake Forest, said Wake Forest has “only a handful” of transgender students and does not have any more specific policy addressing transgender issues.
She has done a “needs assessment” of areas where a transgender student or employee might face obstacles on campus. “We have not made any formal policy changes around those areas,” she said.
Mary Martha Whitener Beecy, the president of the Salem College Alumnae Association and a board member, predicted that Salem will emerge stronger after the transgender discussion. The discussion helped put Salem at the forefront of alumnae’s minds, she said, and alumnae have found common ground in continuing support of Salem as a women’s school.
“We’ve been through a lot in 240 years,” she said.