All eyes will be on Spelman College — one of two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) solely for women — as it joins the ranks of all-women’s colleges that officially have an admissions policy for transgender students this 2018-2019 academic year.
Although trans women and other students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) have attended the college since its inception, the Atlanta-based HBCU’s updated admissions and enrollment policy extending admissions consideration to trans women comes with new challenges and expectations from internal and external institutional constituents.
The new admissions policy considering “women students including students who consistently live and self-identify as women, regardless of their gender assignment at birth,” continues the college’s “fervent belief in the power of the Spelman Sisterhood,” wrote Spelman’s president, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, in a letter to the college community last September.
Admitted women students who transition while still a student will be permitted to continue their studies and graduate from the college, according to the policy.
In alignment with Spelman’s mission and policy commitment to inclusivity around the experience of womanhood, college officials have pushed for transgender inclusivity to extend to “daily operations,” says a faculty member at the college, who wished to remain anonymous. This consists of having class syllabi that include “declarations of being an open environment” as well as offering courses that avoid the use of heteronormative language — including in assignments or assessments — and faculty and staff members posting a sign on their office doors to help LGBTQ students feel welcomed.
Last April, a Transgender Policy Task Force made up of representatives from Spelman’s administration, board of trustees, student body, housing and academic departments convened to educate task force participants and members of the Spelman community on issues affecting the consideration of admission eligibility and enrollment of transgender students in the months before the policy announcement.
And last July, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman, launched the Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program and lecture series, giving two students who self-identified as LGBTQ advocates a renewable $25,000 scholarship each.
Guy-Sheftall says that the scholars will “call attention to the importance of making visible the courageous and significant work of LGBTQ scholar activists within and beyond the academy, especially at HBCUs.”
Women’s Center takes leadership role
Significantly, the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman has been at the forefront of transforming the way students and others beyond Spelman’s gates think about critical issues in gender and sexuality studies, human rights, health care and other social issues.
Founded in 1981, it is the first women’s research center at an HBCU and the first to offer a women’s studies major. The center hosted its historic Arcus Project summit “Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity and Progressive Change at HBCUs” in 2011, which brought together nine HBCUs for the first time to examine and discuss a range of issues affecting LGBTQ students on Black college campuses, and gender and sexuality issues in the African diaspora overall.
Under Guy-Sheftall’s leadership, the center offers faculty curriculum development workshops and training that introduce a critical understanding of the new areas of research around gender, sexuality, Black studies, transnational sexual politics and queer and feminist pedagogy.
Three of these workshops were held in the 2017-2018 academic year for members of the LGBTQ Faculty Committee, as well as intensive trainings for faculty who teach African Diaspora and the World (ADW), a required first-year course at the college.
“The hope in these workshops is to center both learning and unlearning — learning the complex ways in which we all engage and embody gender, and the unlearning of the gender/sexual binaries and logics that structure our social, political, economic and cultural world,” says Dr. Munira “Moon” Charania, an assistant professor of International Studies at Spelman and a co-facilitator of the workshops. “The workshops aim to demonstrate, through cutting edge research, theories and pedagogies, that gender and sexuality require capacious understandings (more so than medical, state, and cultural industries would like to admit).”
Still, the workshops are self-selected.
“We’re talking about a small number, maybe 20 out of about 200 faculty,” Guy-Sheftall says. “We’re always very excited, and even that small number has an impact on students.”
Students issue demands
Despite efforts to make the campus more inclusive for queer students, some current students, faculty and alumnae say there is more work to be done.
There have been incidents on campus where LGBTQ students have faced harassment from Public Safety officers when trying to enter campus, and threatening and hateful notes have been slipped under some students’ doors as recently as April, sparking the social media hashtag #SpelSafe.
In response, President Campbell and Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Darryl B. Holloman issued separate letters denouncing the hateful expressions.
Campbell’s letter to the perpetrator concluded: “You are not Spelman College. Spelman abhors your behavior. Spelman will continue to open its arms to embrace all of our Spelman students whatever their gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression. Spelman is love, justice and respect. You, the perpetrator, are not Spelman.”
Some students in Spelman’s LGBTQ organization called Afrekete also say they want more transparency from the administration after having previously received limited or delayed responses regarding safety and other student concerns around queer issues on campus.
Spelman’s administration did not respond to multiple email or phone requests for comment for this story.
Students have also made an institutional push for more awareness about LGBTQ issues, organizations, events and spaces on campus.
“I would really just like it to not be such an underground thing, where I don’t have to hear about [something] that’s happening through my next door neighbor,” says Shannon Shaunice Simmons, a sophomore economics major.
Afrekete’s transgender liaison Theo Triplett, a rising junior English major/Documentary and Film studies minor, says that when he first arrived at Spelman two years ago, he attempted to find people he could relate to.
“Spelman didn’t make it seem like they had a big queer population, and it was only through doing digging myself that I found our LGBTQ organization, Afrekete.”
Spelman alumna Yemisi Miller-Tonnet, a 2017 graduate, says she experienced similar challenges, adding that Afrekete was a bit separate from other organizations on campus, “and not really as institutionally supported.”
It is usually during Pride Week or Afrekete events for Sexual Assault Awareness Week, for example, that students really get to see what Afrekete is about, Triplett says. Student advocacy organizations like Afrekete and AUC Shut It Down have come together to help educate individuals at Spelman and other institutions in the Atlanta University Center around issues affecting the LGBTQ community.
In June, Afrekete issued a list of 17 demands for Spelman to be inclusive, including the creation of a mandatory convocation in August that states how the admissions policy will affect institutional culture and curriculum; inclusivity training for resident assistants and others; and a zero-tolerance policy for hate crimes, especially toward LGBTQ+ students.
Triplett says the administration has been open to Afrekete’s educational resources, policy and campus speaker recommendations.
Regarding the transgender admissions policy, students, alumnae and faculty acknowledge that there has been a misunderstanding and mixed reaction on both sides about the policy, including some negative pushback from the college’s alumnae.
“Several people who have had complaints were complaining that, ‘All of a sudden the campus was going to change,’” says the faculty member who asked not to be named. The policy “is simply an acknowledgment of the population that was already there, had already been graduating, had already been admitted and enrolled. … We felt that it was necessary for us to truly live up to our mission to have a policy and to state that policy clearly.”
Some LGBTQ students note that the policy’s jargon was confusing and that the gender spectrum is more nuanced.
“I think that people’s ideas of trans women in particular are very different from the reality for a lot of trans women, particularly [trans] women of color,” Triplett says. “I think that [people at] Spelman think that, because of people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, trans women have to look a certain way to be women. That’s just not financially attainable for someone just coming out of high school, so I feel like we have to deal with that aesthetic aspect of womanhood.”
Hostility toward people in the LGBTQ community is not specific to Spelman or other HBCUs, says Guy-Sheftall, adding that these campus spaces are a “microcosm” of the broader Black community and larger society.
Last month, the Human Rights Campaign held its second HBCU Summit for College Presidents and Senior Leadership. The day-long meeting was the largest gathering of HBCU presidents discussing LGBTQ-inclusive practices and policies on their campus.
“I see the sort of silence around queer issues as what we experience in Black communities in general,” says Guy-Sheftall. “I think that there’s primary focus on racial issues. I think that there’s a lack of comfort around dealing with intra-community issues.”
Simmons says that students, alumnae and others who have resisted the policy have to acknowledge the “intersections of being Black” — referring to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, a framework to identify how individuals’ multiple identities interlock and affect their power and status in society.
“Even though we teach intersectionality at Spelman, it can be very abstract,” Guy-Sheftall notes. “For example, we might have students who have been taught intersectionality, but they also have learned in their churches or at home that people who are queer are ill, or people who are queer are predatory. It’s not easy to unlearn those deeply held beliefs that you’ve been taught.”
Additional compounding factors that may affect an LGBTQ student’s experience on campus include a college or university’s regional location, its public or private status or if the institution has any religious affiliation.
“Even if they don’t still have that connection, that’s a significant part of the culture of most HBCUs,” Guy-Sheftall says.
In addition, the Women’s Center — through the Arcus Project — has worked to combat HBCU respectability politics around gender and sexuality and has implemented queer studies workshops at Spelman, including a focus on trans studies.
This is, in part, because organizations and institutions like HBCUs in Black communities “still prefer to talk about race, and maybe to some extent class, rather than to talk about gender and sexuality,” Guy-Sheftall says.
“We’ve been at it from the beginning, both in terms of being very supportive of Afrekete [and] having a very robust Arcus Foundation,” she adds. “There are lots of things that we have been attempting to do. Spelman, in that regard, has been the HBCU who’s been out in front of these issues. But we still have, I think, a lot more work to do.”
Efforts to educate alumnae and other community members beyond Spelman’s gate will factor into the college’s efforts to become more inclusive for trans students.
“The institution” — administration, board of trustees, staff, parents and alumnae — “all of those constituents have to be engaged in some very candid political education,” Guy-Sheftall says. “It’s not just a matter of saying to people who have deeply held transphobic and homophobic attitudes, ‘Well, this is Spelman and we can’t mistreat people.’”
Institutional opportunities to approach this “political education” for different groups in Spelman’s community could include collaborating with the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College and engaging with parents when they drop their first-year students off on campus, Guy-Sheftall adds.
“It’s complicated, and it’s not easy,” she says. “It just is going to require a big, and by big, I mean sustained, strategic, robust initiatives, and not just little Band-Aids here and there. The question is whether HBCUs are willing to take that on.”
Bennett College in Greensboro, NC, did so in early 2017, making it the first all-women’s HBCU to implement a transgender policy.
Triplett says he hopes Spelman will follow through with its promises for total inclusivity for trans students.
“A lot of people have been working very hard for a very long time,” he says. “I just want to see my peers be students and not have to constantly be in an administrator’s office because someone else has been wronged.”
This article appeared in the August 9, 2018 issue of Diverse.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon