Should Spelman Admit Transgender Students?

What happens when one of the nation’s best HBCUs directly confronts one of the big social issues of the day?

Wikimedia Commons

The first thing Spelman College alumnae and every other HBCU advocate has to do is decide if its fair to have it both ways. You can’t believe in the school’s tagline “A Choice to Change the World,” you can’t believe in being the world’s greatest resource of education for black women, and you certainly can’t believe in women’s empowerment of any kind, and simultaneously believe that all of these things are conditional to birth gender.

Second, if the HBCU belief system centers around the notion that our schools are no less than any predominantly white institution, anywhere and in anything, then you can’t say its okay for one of our best institutions to be more sexist or discriminatory than any of the Seven Sisters institutions, all of the religious women’s colleges which as of last summer, now admit transgender women.

Spelman should have been the first women’s college to admit transgender women. Bennett College for Women, the oldest of the two historically black women’s colleges, has considered transgender women for admission without press inquiry or alumnae outrage at least since last year.

Dozens of HBCUs nationwide have long admitted transgender women, and while these students have varying views on acceptance and tolerance on campus, rarely has there been a controversy on a student being denied admission on the basis of sexual self-identification.

Most schools cite anti-transgender policy on the notion that women must be protected from men who may present as sexually dangerous to other female students. Except in doing that, schools buy into North Carolina’s bathroom bill logic about sexual identity as an inevitable precursor to sexual deviancy and criminality.

But more importantly, if Spelman were optimally resourced and culturally nuanced to protect the majority students from sexual violence committed by men, then there would be no such thing as #RapedAtSpelman, and the litany of media and community backlash which accompanied it.

If an anonymous tweet can move women to respond anonymously or on the record about similar harrowing experiences in the Atlanta University Center, and generate millions of eyes on a crime that can cripple enrollment for years to come, what results do we reasonably expect for a campaign against transgender women to achieve?

Do we think that keeping transgender women out will increase enrollment from Bible-thumping, rich HBCU graduate mothers and fathers whose daughters are choosing other campuses in greater numbers?

Do we think the the HBCU is last standing moral ground in the cultural war against gay and lesbian lives in black culture? Or have we conceded that the black church is ‘lost?’

From which ever angle we decide to approach this issue, there are few scenarios in which our beloved Spelman or any other HBCU, with black culture at large in tow, wins with the idea that its okay to discriminate, or to express dismay at the flickering inability to discriminate against minorities along sexual or gender lines.

It doesn’t align with our institutional missions; if we replaced the word ‘transgender’ with ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘physically disabled’ or ‘senior citizen,’ this wouldn’t be a debate. Why does one protected class of minority citizen draw more criticism and scrutiny than another?

The Spelman Board of Trustees and President Mary Schmidt Campbell deserves extraordinary credit for the timing, release and process of this announcement. As they did with the Cosby controversy, there is great strategy in taking a thoughtful, collaborative and measured approach to allow for lunatics to oppose it, advocates to support, and for policy to land somewhere in the middle, but still on the right side of justice and fairness.

That is the HBCU way — to drag our own people kicking and screaming out of the way of the rusted, clattering steamroller of cultural conservatism which threatens to make our institutions obsolete. We are far too behind on too many other issues — industrial value, cultural resonance in our own communities, technology, affordability and racial equity — for a topic like genitalia to get the best of our common sense and human decency.