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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”