The Man in the Women’s College

Aden, who transitioned to male while attending an all-female college, chose not to transfer schools even as he faced harassment and tension from classmates and administration. This is his story.

In 2006, a small, Catholic women’s college in the Boston area announced it was going co-ed and that it would begin admitting male undergraduates the next year. After years of an all-female educational system, the administration wanted to expand, mostly because enrollment numbers were down, and admitting male students would allow for larger classes and greater selectivity.

One of the college’s students was Aden, a freshman studying English. Aden wasn’t sure how to respond to the news about the school’s gender switch. In high school, Aden couldn’t have imagined attending an all-female institution, but an attractive scholarship and a “small-school” feel made the decision-making process easier, and soon Aden found the all-female learning experience rewarding. Still, after a few months at the school, Aden already had some complaints—including its limited English department—but the news of expansion into co-ed territory ultimately pushed Aden into transferring to a different school.

As a sophomore, in 2007, Aden enrolled in another, larger all-female college nearby. “I thought that being in the all-women’s environment would help me to be a stronger woman,” Aden said. “But it became more clear as I was living with all women that my identity didn’t really fit into that category.”

That’s when Aden officially began his gender-transitioning process, living as a male in an academic environment designed for women.

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Aden was no stranger to the LGBT community prior to transitioning. He’d vaguely identified as a lesbian since high school, but he was never sure if that was the right label for him. “I never really committed to coming out as a lesbian,” he said. “I kind of always knew that there was something else. I didn’t want to commit—I didn’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’m this!’ and then change my mind later. I knew that there was something that I wasn’t dealing with.”

“[The dean] asked me, ‘Are you going to get hormones, going to get surgery?’ I was floored. Here I was, a victim of harassment, and she’s asking me what I’m planning to do with my body, which is not any of her business.”

His concept of identity solidified when he attended an LGBT conference with an advocacy organization at his school sophomore year. At the conference, a transgender man spoke about his personal identity struggles. Aden connected with much of what the speaker said, and it sparked him into learning more about other forms of sexual identity.

An epiphany came a few weeks after the conference, when Aden got a haircut that was shorter than he had planned on. “I was looking into the mirror, and I realized as they were cutting my hair off that I looked more and more like my brother. People kept referring to me as male, treating me more like a man, and I realized, ‘Wow, this kind of feels right.’”

Aden told some of his friends about his plans to transition and began actively attempting to pass as male, eliminating female clothing from his wardrobe, using male pronouns and using his new, male name.

At the all-women’s college, he realized that his gender could cause some issues. It’s not that the college could have or would have expelled him for his gender—it received funding for being an all-women’s institution, but as long as Aden’s birth certificate identified him as female, he could still attend the school. Rather, there was a certain level of belonging that came with the all-female territory. But although he briefly considered transferring to a different school, he knew that it would delay his graduation, and since he was already a junior, he decided it would be best to just finish his studies and graduate.

He said some tension came from his social activism in support of transgender rights. “I understood that I didn’t fit in,” he said. “I tried to balance my social activism with staying under the radar, because on the one hand, I really respect all-women’s environments, but there’s a point where I still paid tuition, so I needed to have my identity validated. I knew that I didn’t belong, but I also think that other people definitely felt that there was no need for me to be there. … [And] it was during a time when I was already having such a hard time getting people to understand that I was male.”

Aden didn’t realize how much some other students didn’t think he fit in until an incident in October of his junior year. There had been several instances of anti-diversity speech on campus, and a school-wide assembly was held as a discussion forum of sorts. Aden spoke up about feeling isolated as a man on campus, and later, he heard a group of girls say that they didn’t understand what his identity was about. Aden shared these frustrations on a public bulletin board about the hate incidences, and someone scribbled underneath the message, “I thought this was an all-women’s school.”

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He met with the dean of the college to discuss the incident, but he quickly saw that the dean was hardly supportive of his presence at the school. “She told me, ‘Oh, as an aside, we had this guy who transitioned when you did in your academic career, and he took on a masculine name, and it got really awkward, because no one wanted to deal with him. Can you tell me how far you’re going to go in your transition? Are you going to get hormones, going to get surgery?’

“They were things I hadn’t even figured out yet,” Aden said. “It felt like she was trying to get me to explore my other options. … I was floored—here I was, a victim of harassment, and she’s asking me what I’m planning to do with my body, which is not any of her business.”

Aden wasn’t the only transgender person on campus at the time. His college was similar to many all-female institutions today in that each year, a few trans men graduate alongside a class of women. In 2007, The New York Times reported on men in Aden’s situation, writing,

Same-sex colleges have always been test beds for transformations among American women. … It was, after all, at all-female schools that many young women first began to question the very notion of femininity. … For [some scholars], femaleness did not automatically produce femininity and maleness did not produce masculinity: gender was fluid and variable, something to be fashioned, and could shift in character depending on the culture or the time period. As some see it, the presence of trans students at single-sex colleges is simply a logical extension of this intellectual tradition.”

But no matter how progressive the institution, that “intellectual tradition” comes with some logistical issues in our continually gendered world. Aden was able to avoid some problems with his professors by emailing them at the beginning of each semester, informing them of his different name and pronouns—and by his senior year, the college changed his name on all documents to reflect the male identity.

But his living situation was a unique challenge. His junior year, he lived in a triple with two heterosexual girls who he’d been friendly with sophomore year. They agreed to live with Aden even after learning about his plans to transition. Still, Aden explained, they had all overlooked “the social part of it all. I think they had a really hard time living with a male. In April, I ended up getting an email saying that my roommates felt I needed to move out.” With two weeks left in the semester, Aden moved into a different room. He doesn’t fully blame the girls, explaining that his transition was an emotional, stressful roller coaster and that “they were in for a lot more than they signed up for.” Despite this, the debacle didn’t make him feel any more accepted or welcomed at the women’s college. “It was devastating at the time,” he said. “We had a good friendship, I had thought, so it took me by surprise. … It was a hurtful situation.”

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On campus, Aden also struggled to be heard. “I found myself speaking up a lot because I’d have to kind of say, ‘Hey, I’m here! Transgender people do exist, and you left us out! I’m one of them!’” he said. “They’re very good at [the college] at being open to the lesbian community, but that sometimes takes away from being open to transgender people. We’re kind of the forgotten group in ‘LGBT.’ So I found myself speaking up on transgender days that the community celebrates, getting groups to take us into the count. But it was more speaking up because I had to—if I didn’t, I felt like nobody would really know what was going on.”

Schools throughout the country seem to be growing more aware of the importance of transgender activism on campuses. According to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute, 390 colleges and universities have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and expression, and at least 48 of those schools integrated the language in the past two years. Aden’s alma matter is not one of those 390 schools; despite this, he said that aside from a few incidents and some tension from classmates, he got through his undergraduate education generally unscathed.

“They’re very good at [the college] at being open to the lesbian community, but that sometimes takes away from being open to transgender people. We’re kind of the forgotten group in ‘LGBT.’”

Aden even found some direct support at the college. Shortly after his confrontation with the dean, she left for a different job, and the new dean turned out to be far more helpful and diversity-minded. He also met a girl, Saira, whom he began dating during the second semester of his junior year. Saira identified as straight, which confused some of her friends and family, but Aden said she didn’t let people’s ignorance bother her. “She had a very easy time accepting that I was male,” he said. “I think she got it more than I got it. We never really had a conversation about it. She just understood, and she’s always been able to tell me that she sees me as a male, no matter what.”

Aden graduated in 2010, and now he’s attending a Boston-area divinity school, working toward his master’s of divinity in Unitarian-Universalist ministry. His aim is to use the socially conscious Unitarian-Universalist religion to help LGBT people cope with their identity. The change in environment, where he doesn’t stick out as one of a few men surrounded by women, is doing wonders for him. “Nobody has any idea that I’m trans, so I have a lot of friends who just read me as a guy,” he said. “I’m still kind of learning the social dynamics of settings like this.”

That’s not to say that he’s given up advocacy for sexual minorities. “Now I get to choose what I speak up about instead of speaking up every time because I felt they’d forget me,” he said. “It’s really validating to be at a place where I can choose whether I disclose or not, as opposed to being an activist by default.”

A year after leaving the world of women’s higher education, Aden hasn’t forgotten his academic history. And despite some of the issues he faced there, he very much values the education he received and the experiences that came packaged with that.

“It’s really helped me to become a different kind of man,” he said. “I think if I were at a co-ed institution, I would have tried harder to fit into the mold of what a man should be, stereotypically. And I think there wasn’t that pressure—I could be whoever I wanted to be because I was one of the few boys there. I definitely think it pushed me to go beyond what people expect a man to be.”

 

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About Adam Polaski

Adam Polaski is a writer, designer and organizer for Freedom to Marry, where he works with an amazing team to win marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. He also enjoys the New York Public Library, love stories overall, and the perpetual quest to go vegetarian. Follow him at @AdamPolaski

Comments

  1. This is the kind of content I am glad to see on Good Men Project.

  2. This is a good reminder that not all men experience manhood the same way.

    It also raises a few issues about woman-only schools. On the one hand, it’s terrific that women get to experience an education where they don’t have to be concerned with inter-gender dynamics on top of everything else. On the other, it does suppose the category “woman” to be an obvious and well-defined one, and it simply isn’t.

    Our society is reaching a point where people who are intersex and people who have nonbinary genders are finding our voices. Until now, the common solution was to say “such people are a rare enough exception as to be easily ignored”. Ignorance is no longer an option, so what next? Isolation? Integration?

    The one thing that’s clear is that a birth certificate can only tell you that someone was born, anything more is strictly conjecture.

  3. This article is great and disgusting all at the same time.

    Great in that Aden’s story is fascinating and frustrating, disgusting in that he was not supported by the very community that SHOULD have been among his most vocal allies.

    I wonder how the story would have changed if Aden had been born a man and transitioned to a woman? Would these lovely ladies at the college have welcomed ‘her’ with open arms? IME, women’s only schools are very heavy on liberal politics, diversity, equal rights, feminism and sort of weirdly obsessed with alternative sexualities (Im not saying alternative sexualities are weird, just the fact that sometimes in these environments you get a strange reverse discrimination where heterosexuals are looked down on rather than all things and orientations being equal). Given that this is my experience of all female colleges, I’m stunned that Aden was not publically and loudly supported. After all, this was a (biological) female who was struggling with sexual identity, presumably no different than a female struggling with her identity as a lesbian or a femal struggling with her identity regarding anything else.

    This school should be ashamed of itself. Best of luck to Aden.

  4. I really enjoyed this article. I am having a hard enough time transitioning at my big, co-ed university! Best of luck to Aden as he continues down the road.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Seems like this women-only college failed to do its legal homework. I can’t believe no one ever saw this coming, that someone could be admitted as a female and transition to male. Relatively rare, granted, but this is why colleges have attorneys and consultants on retainer. They must have had all sorts of contingency plans, like for an accidental enrollment of a male student.

    I agree that these gender categories are not as absolute as bureaucracies pretend they are. It raises what seems like a silly question – how does the college know it’s admitting a female student and not a male student? What prevents a “male” student from “lying” or “passing”? I assume the college has to take the applicant’s word for it (and the word of the letters of recommendation), and there’s no DNA test or physical inspection.(Not that those are always precise either.)

    The administration’s approach was out of line, and the student comments were unfortunate. I can see the argument that what he heard from other students was hate speech, but I would cut the students a little slack. They behaved immaturely, but bear in mind that in their minds they signed up for a women-only academic experience. They probably felt a little betrayed, as unfair as that is. I think that’s why the administration panicked a little bit – what will the alumni think? Are the parents going to pull their daughters out? What makes my school special anymore?

  6. Strangely, this article raised for me an entirely different point:

    Are de jure women’s colleges anymore sexist than de facto men’s colleges? Can we even continue in the tradition of allowing specific women’s spaces to balance out the slowly — but surely! — integration of men’s spaces? I mean, my campus’s women’s center deals with gender issues, yet they still call it a women’s center, and consequently men dealing with gender issues are left out in the cold.

    This article raises the situation of an all-female college being unable to deal with a gender-issue about being a guy! (A trans guy.)

    And that situation, while not as bad as other examples I’ve read about integration of transgendered people into the gender movement, does exemplify that women are just as bad as men at discriminating against people who don’t fit into neat little gendered boxes.

    Great article!

    • I like the idea of gender-specific spaces, and I think that they can be really important places for people to come to terms with their gender identities. I also think that if they’re available for women, logically they should be available for men too.

      • Indeed. But the problem is that male-specific spaces are being attacked for being sexist, while women-specific spaces are not being attacked at all. It seems hypocritical to deny a man access to a woman’s college if we can’t deny women access to a men’s college.

        Also, I notice Time says he should have been expelled, and that’s a shame, since transgender people have it hard enough as it is without discriminating against them for their sexual identity.

        The whole issue of transgenderism seems to me as a reason to get rid of gender-specific spaces, because by their very nature they’re discriminatory to people who don’t subscribe to a single gender, and seem only to complicate the problems of sexism.

  7. Is this college women-only ? – Yes, it seems so.

    Are women-only spaces important ? – Yes, at least I have been told so.

    Is Aden a women ? – No, he identified as a man.

    I am not going to say that he wasn’t treated inappropriately and that these students weren’t discriminating or cruel to him, but technically, from the moment he openly identified as male, this college was not his place to be. It seems the only reason why he was allowed to stay to begin with is because, according to his birth certificate, he was female. He basically used his status as a ‘not real man’ to keep his place there and I think he would have been expelled otherwise.

  8. So are all-male spaces inherently misogynist? What are you even saying, man. You need some common sense.

  9. Wait, he’s upset because as a *MALE* in an *ALL FEMALE* school, he was greeted with some level of trepidation and hostility? How is this news? No doubt a biological male would have been driven out with pitchforks and torches.

    • Banana Fish says:

      Yes, but at the beginning of the article it explains that he would have liked to transfer to a co-ed school, but did not want to go through the process again after transferring once. It would stall his graduation. In any case, no one should be disrespected based on their gender in any environment.
      Also, I find your comment about pitchforks and torches propagating the stereotype of militant, misandrist feminists at woman’s school.

  10. wellokaythen says:

    Even women-only colleges are not strictly female spaces in all senses. I don’t know the specifics of the school, but I’m guessing the “women-only” applies most absolutely to the student body, as in “only female students.” I would be very surprised if there were no males at all among the faculty, staff, administrators, subcontractors, board of regents, investors, donors, etc.

    My point is that it is probably already a partially integrated community where men contribute to the larger whole. I know there’s a lot of rhetoric within higher education circles that talks about a college as a “community” of all the people working and studying there. Maybe the student body (so to speak) is a special case and deserves a separate, segregated existence, but I find it hard to believe that the college is a totally woman-only place. (Maybe I’m naïve, but at the very least I assume there are male authors on the class reading lists and some of those authors might actually be treated with some academic respect. If it’s good enough for others in the community, why not for students?)

    If there were absolutely no male employees, no male donors, no males on the governing committees, and no male visiting lecturers, I would actually be very impressed.

    • What do you mean by “impressed”?

      • wellokaythen says:

        By “impressed” I don’t mean ideologically impressed, like “yay, good job!” I mean that it would take a lot of commitment and some serious recruiting policies to make that happen. Perhaps I am indulging in more gender stereotypes, but seriously, no males on campus at all? That would take a massive effort and a massive monitoring system. No males who are construction workers, campus police, emergency workers called to campus, no custodial staff, no physical plant employees, no delivery drivers, no male visiting scholars? Would not even take money from male donors? — that would be really insane.

        My point is that the campus is probably already integrated in some ways, so as I see it the burden is to prove that the student body shouldn’t be also. I meant “impressed” in the sense that a tsunami is a massively impressive force, not that it would be a good thing.

  11. I doubt a trans woman could transition, or be accepted until legally female, in a women’s college, despite living, identifying etc 24/7 as a woman.

    So the condition of entry for a trans woman? 20k $, and the health level to do it (blood clots, overweight, currently smoking, etc and the doc won’t do it). Not to mention, the need to do studies (so transitioning young enough).

    • S. Elizabeth says:

      Women’s colleges base their admissions decisions on the sex of the individual at birth, and to apply to these schools you must submit your social security number or other verification. So no, a trans woman would not be able to be admitted; it would also open a floodgate, and would probably result in the institution going co-ed.

  12. Happily Married says:

    IDK. I feel for Aden, but none of us get everything we want, nor should we. Either postpone the transition until graduation, or transfer to another school. I don’t mean to seem unsympathetic. Consider a student with a serious illness or unusual family emergency. That student must make choices based on the cards he or she is dealt. In a way this is the same thing. Life is about choices. Aden may not have “chosen” to be transgendered, but how he deals with it is his choice. I’m not saying to hide anything. I’m saying show some class. Die to self a little bit. Put a plan in place. That alone would relieve anxiety and be empowering.

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