In 2013, Calliope Wong applied to all-female Smith College in Massachusetts, and her application wasn't even looked at — simply because Wong's paperwork showed that although she identifies as a woman, she was born male.
Wong launched a nationwide protest and, today, largely because of her activism, a group of single-sex colleges welcome transgender women like her.
As LGBT groups mourn the killings of 49 people at a gay Orlando nightclub, many are reflecting on a culture of discrimination, even at some of the nation’s most liberal institutions.
But according to nonprofit GLAAD, which describes itself as the “communications epicenter of the LGBT movement,” there have been huge strides in higher education. Top all-female colleges Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard and Mount Holyoke now all have strong policies supporting transgender women.
"Transgender people are starting to live as their authentic selves at younger ages,” said Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s transgender media program. “Thanks to advocates like Calliope Wong, young trans women can attend any college in the country."
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“And when women's colleges like Smith acknowledge that trans women are women, it sends a powerful message to everyone in this country that trans women should be treated just like any other woman,” he told NBC News.
Wong, now 21, was unsuccessful in gaining admission to Smith, but she just graduated early from the University of Connecticut honors program as a stand-out poet and advocate for those who are transgender.
“This does not mean that I am in any way giving up on my cause,” she said during her earlier media campaign. “I do this for the transfolk after me, so that they might inherit better policies and a more just system of education.”
Smith, which had said Wong’s paperwork didn’t match her self-identified application, changed its policy in 2015. Now anyone who identifies as female may apply, regardless of their biological gender.
Nearby Mount Holyoke was one of the first to change its policy, in 2014.
“Being a woman is not static,” college president Lynn Pasquerella told NBC News. “It’s a social construct, just as race is a social construct."
Wong's case created a “sense of urgency to move quickly and make explicit our commitment to be as inclusive as possible while retaining our mission as a women’s college,” she added.
Since then, about 10 women a year are “actively transitioning,” according to Pasquerella.
In addition to welcoming transgender women, the college supports biologically born women who may transition to male during their enrollment.
“Trans men also have a presence on campus and are fully embraced by our diverse student body,” she said.
Because Mount Holyoke is part of a five-college system with other co-ed institutions, “it hasn’t really changed the feel of the classroom,” she said.
“We are not abandoning our mission,” Pasquerella said. “We understand gender fluidity … It’s complicated and we believe it’s truly a human rights and civil rights issue.”
Wong told NBC News she was unavailable for an interview, but a feature on her this year in UConn Magazine lauded her activism.
Wong, who majored in English and pre-med, said she wants to be a “culturally competent” endocrinologist working with patients with hormonal disorders and those who are transgender.
“I am many other things besides trans,” she told the magazine. “I have a lot of room to grow. As people grow they become more things. It’s our job as people to integrate these parts and to give other people the potential to integrate, too. We have a lot to learn from one another.”