If a student comes out as a gender other than female after being admitted to SEM, they should be able to continue their education here.
Transgender students are well-integrated members of the SEM community; they went through the application process just like everyone else. They have friends at SEM. They are involved and passionate about SEM activities. Even aside from these considerations, I fear the amount of damage that could be done by removing them from a school in which many feel comfortable and accepted far outweighs any benefit to the school achieved by keeping it strictly all-girl. Despite the need for an inclusive, accepting transgender student policy, the impact on the SEM community and mission cannot be overlooked. Such a policy for transgender students would be challenging a nearly 170-year-old tradition of educating women. As the mission statement says, SEM is a school meant for college-bound young women. If SEM has boys, some worry that SEM will have to become co-ed.
Gender identity is a person’s sense of being male, female, or another gender. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), transgender people are people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans men are men who were assigned female at birth, and trans women are women who were assigned male at birth. Nonbinary people are people whose gender identity does not fit in the categories of male or female, also referred to as the gender binary.
This spring, the SEM board of trustees decided to form a policy regarding transgender students and a committee of administrators, teachers, trustees and the head of school was convened. The committee has held a town-hall-style meeting with parents meeting and written a letter to parents and alumnae about the evaluation of our policy. Head of School Helen Marlette explained that the school’s practice regarding transgender students is no longer sufficient. “Our current practice is to deal with students on an individual basis, and it has become apparent that we need to provide more clarity. This unclear practice no longer fits our times or our needs. In fact, in some instances, it is not healthy for our students, difficult for our faculty, and erodes our sense of community,” she said.
Though SEM is the only independent girls’ school addressing transgender student policy in Western New York, it is far from the only independent girls’ school forming trans policy in the nation. At the Westridge School in Pasadena, California its 2015 gender identity task force concluded “We are a school for girls but will be as supportive as possible of anyone who is questioning or transitioning from being a girl to a boy while they are here at Westridge, or who self-identifies as a girl when going through the admissions process.” The Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, Massachusetts’ policy depends on a student’s age when coming out. If the student is a senior when coming out, they will be allowed to continue enrollment. If they are not, they will generally be advised to seek a co-ed environment.
Schools internationally are also forming policy. St. Clement’s School in Toronto, Ontario’s policy offers admission to anyone identifying as female during the application process and has many resources available to support a student who transitions after admission. St. Paul’s Girls School in London, England stated that students could be formally recognized as a boy or gender neutral after age 16. As long as transgender students don’t transition medically or legally, they are allowed to remain at St. Paul’s Girls School. More sample policies can be found on The National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS) website.
Transgender policies are meeting an urgent need. According to Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization advocating for the end of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) students in schools, there are approximately 150,000 transgender individuals between the ages of 13 and 17 in the United States. 75% of transgender students admitted to feeling unsafe at school in the 2015 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN. This study was conducted online and included students from grades 6-12 in both public and private schools. School culture and environment can have a huge impact on a transgender student’s experience.
While transgender students coming out (using “they” or “he” pronoun and changing their first name) while attending SEM is a new development this year, there are graduates have come out as transgender since graduating from SEM. Andrew Buscaglia ‘13 said he realized that he was transgender during the end of his freshman year. He always knew something was different about him, but he didn’t necessarily have the language to express it. “One of my friends in the grade above me asked me if I was trans so I had to Google it and find out,” he said. Though he did not transition while at SEM he did petition to wear pants to commencement.
*Chris, another transgender graduate, also took a while to define his identity. Like Andrew, he realized he was transgender towards the beginning of his SEM career but did not come out or ask for a male pronoun until leaving SEM. “It took a lot of questioning yourself and the people around you” he explained.
Dylan Trolli ’15 explained that while SEM was very accepting of lesbian and bisexual students during his time there, the term “transgender” was not a term that many students were familiar with. “I feel like if someone was out as trans, it would have been a topic that caused issues due to the lack of education about transgender individuals,” he said.
Even if SEM created a policy that allowed transgender students to stay after coming out, SEM could remain a school targeted at girls and focused on female perspectives. The school would not stop using female-centered language like “ladies” to refer to students. There would also be outside obstacles for trans students. For example, SEM only has girls sports teams. The Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association does not allow boys on girls sports teams, so trans boys would not be able to play sports for SEM.
Though these considerations pose challenges for transgender students, they should not get in the way of inclusive policy. There will most likely never be a large enough population of trans students at SEM for it to conflict with the mission statement. SEM would remain a school devoted to empowering women.
There are transgender students at SEM right now, whether they are out or not. They are playing on the sports teams, participating in clubs, and learning in the classrooms. They haven’t affected SEM’s mission to educate women in any negative way. They are a part of the SEM community just like any other student.
If transgender students are frustrated by SEM’s focus on girls, they have the freedom to leave. If they are okay with it and want to stay, they should have the freedom to stay. SEM should give them the agency to decide for themselves whether or not they want to stay at SEM.
*Some names have been changed or shortened to protect the identities of the trans students.