Briar Harrison's backpack proclaims pride in the trans-community on Mount Holyoke's campus. (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH)
This fall, Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts became the second all women's college in the U.S. to begin accepting applications from transgender students. Thewas received positively on the South Hadley campus, but it's also raising questions about Mount Holyoke's identity as the oldest women's college in the country.
When Mount Holyoke president Lynn Pasquerella made the announcement during this year's convocation, tears welled in her eyes. Shethat the school was adopting a new policy welcoming applications from any qualified student who is female or who identifies as a woman.
It's a little complicated, but what it all means is that Mount Holyoke will consider a student's application even if they were biologically-born male, but identify as a woman. The policy also includes biologically-born females who identify as males.
"In the past, the Common Application would have kicked out anyone who checked the male box on the application," explained President Lynn Pasquerella. "Now we have a section on the Common Application that allows them to talk about their gender identity."
Gender identity is something students at Mount Holyoke, a school with a vibrant gay and lesbian community, have long discussed in the open.
"One thing that we're talking about is that people of multiple genders have always gone to Mount Holyoke," said Jennie Ochterski, a senior at Mount Holyoke.
Ochterski leads a group dedicated to the full inclusion of transgender women at Mount Holyoke. She and other students have been advocating for changes in the college's admissions policy, and she says their hard work has finally paid off.
"Mount Holyoke can be this pioneering progressive change and hopefully spread that message to other women's colleges across the country - that trans women do belong in women's spaces like Mount Holyoke," said Ochterski.
Jenny Ochterski (right) and Briar Harrison (left) are student advocates for the transgender community on Mount Holyoke's campus. (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH)
Now that the college has formalized its policy on admitting transgender students, it's grappling with certain realities - like bathrooms, dormitories, and educating students about transgender issues. That's why Jennie is writing a weekly newspaper column, allowing students to ask questions.
"Trans 101, with Jennie," Ochterski explained. "So, starting at the beginning, the word transgender is an adjective that describes a person whose gender does not align with the one they were assigned at birth."
Getting students to understand that basic information is one solution to overcome discrimination against transgender people - something sophomore Briar Harrison copes with everyday.
Even at Mount Holyoke, where gender is discussed freely, Harrison says it's difficult to be part of the community.
"If I go to class, and a professor uses the wrong pronouns for me, I have a choice: I can sit quietly and not say anything, but it's going to trigger me. It's going to distract me and cause me to feel anxious, depressed, and take me out of the frame of mind I need to be in to learn," Harrison said. "If I choose not to fight it, it will never get better. But at the same time, fighting is tiring."
Walk across this idyllic campus, and you'll find most of Briar's peers empathize with that struggle. At the campus coffee shop, junior Maddie Gordon says she welcomes the new admissions policy.
“I have tons of gay, lesbian, transgender friends and you know you don’t even think about it when you’re in class," Gordon said. "You’re just thinking, ‘That person next to me has a wonderful point.’ So your sexual orientation never plays any type of thinking into how you treat people during class or even after class.”
Few students were willing to express their opposition on the record, but some did tell us they are transferring. Others said the administration failed to seek student feedback, and to answer their questions about roommates.
On the other side of campus, Emma Bickford says she chose Mount Holyoke after she visited the school and fell in love with the community.
Surrounded by women, the sophomore from Sandwich, New Hampshire says she feels safe here, and she wasn't happy to learn about the new open admissions policy. She recalled the day the announcement was made, and the student audience cheered.
“I did not erupt," Bickford said. "I was sitting with a couple of my friends and they share the same feelings that I do and we just kind of sat there.”
Bickford describes herself as traditionally conservative. For her, gender is a straightforward issue.
"To me, if you are still legally a man, even if you identify as a woman, you are not a woman," Bickford said. "So this is an all-women’s school and I just don’t think you belong here."
President Lynn Pasquerella says the school has heard similar concerns from alumni disheartened about the decision, but, she insists, those women are in the minority.
For more information about Mount Holyoke's new policy, listen to our extended interview with Mount Holyoke's President Lynn Pasquerella.