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Spelman College’s willingness to consider admitting transgender students is an important first step. However, for advocates of transgender rights, the announcement by the historically black college’s president is met with advice and points to consider.
This month, Mary Schmidt Campbell, the institution’s president, announced the convening of a special task force charged with developing recommendations for admitting transgender students in a welcome back message on the school’s website. The task force will present a report of recommendations at the end of the academic school year.
Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan of the National LGBTQ Task Force said Spelman would need to be very intentional in their process and provided a list of resources the institution should consider like public education and training that goes beyond their ‘safe space’ training – a resource provided to faculty, administrators, staff, and students.
“There will need to be accountability measures put in place for faculty and staff who refuse to use personal gender pronouns, as well as seamless integration into campus housing,” Rodriguez-Roldan added in an email to NBCOUT. “All campus forms from recruitment to graduation, to alumni outreach will need to be updated to include questions on personal gender pronouns, changed names, and identity questions that include the wide variety of genders and sexual orientation (if the latter has not been introduced yet).”
Rodriguez-Roldan, who has earned degrees from the University of Maine and University of Puerto Rico (UPR), served as the first openly transgender member of student government during her time at UPR.
She referenced some of the issues transgender students have faced as they attempted to access post-secondary educations by quoting the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. According to the report, 19 percent of respondents reported being denied access to gender-appropriate housing with five percent being denied campus-housing altogether. In addition, 11 percent reported losing or being unable to obtain financial aid or scholarships and all of these issues were based in the students’ attempted to express transgender identity or gender non-conformity in higher education.
Tracee McDaniel, executive director of the Juxtaposed Center for Transformation in Atlanta, believes Spelman considering trans women admission is groundbreaking for an institution based in the south.
She believes the decision sends the right message, “That Spelman is bold enough to discuss trans equality and inclusion and advances our community in the right direction,” she told NBCOUT.
“I have no doubt that this may be a challenging adjustment period. However, if ensuring that trans people are treated equally, not singled-out by the administration and are able to use the appropriate restrooms,” she said. “The concerns about admitting trans women will be a distant memory.”
Recently, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed appointed McDaniel to the Atlanta Citizens Review Board for her work in trans equality.
“As a life-long advocate for the transgender community, Ms. McDaniel will bring an important perspective and a lifetime of experience to this role,” Mayor Reed said in his announcement of the appointment.
McDaniel said the advocacy and activism bug bit her in the early 90’s. She sees trans equality as part of the work for justice and human rights.
“Although I don't believe that the Spelman announcement will totally erase the bullying and discrimination young trans people experience in school, I believe that the positive attention will begin to change minds and facilitate more access,” she said. “None of this will come to fruition unless those in charge are onboard and honestly engaged in the process.”
As an alumnus of the school, Whitney Bond saw the all-female institution as diverse during her tenure there and credits that diversity with helping to affirm her own identity as a black woman. With that said, the 2008 graduate thinks the discussion is an interesting one because, as she puts it, Spelman has had trans students before.
“Because the term trans does not solely refer to the physical transition of male to female or female to male, there have already been students who have come through the Spelman gates and identified as trans,” she told NBCOUT.
The opinions on the topic have run the gambit, from being completely in support of the idea to concerns of uncertainty, Bond reports.
“Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles were not only missionaries who founded our school, but according to some historians, they were also lovers. If the latter is true, I am positive if they were alive today, they would not be concerned,” Bond said. “They began an institution so that young, Black women, who were not allowed to receive an education, could do so. There should be no reason why the conversation should not at least be had.”
Victoria Kirby York, national campaigns director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, believes Spelman is uniquely positioned.
“As one of the premier campuses located in the heart of Atlanta, Spelman would be the first of the single sex campuses to permit transgender students to attend,” she told NBCOUT. “Spelman’s process and decision could have an impact on its sibling campus, the male only Morehouse College. This decision, along with the decisions of other co-ed HBCUs, may also force the hand of historically black sororities and fraternities whose campus chapters (especially at an all-women’s campus) will be grappling with their acceptance policies and whether they want to continue an atmosphere of discrimination against the transgender community.”
According to York, other historically black colleges and universities such as Howard University, Morgan State University, Bowie State University, and Florida A&M University, have passed non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity for their students.
Spelman’s media specialist declined to comment further on the president’s announcement and referred NBCOUT to the original announcement.