Should someone who was born a man but now lives as a woman and identifies as a woman qualify for admission to a historically all-women's college? How about those who were born female but don't identify as one sex or the other? Or those who were born female but have undergone medical treatment to change their gender and are legally male?
When people are free to choose how to express their gender identity in many ways, how does a single-sex women's college determine who is eligible to attend and who is not?
Back in 1852 when Mills College was founded as a lady's seminary, none of this was an issue. Anyone born a girl was a girl, period. But over time, gender has become increasingly fluid. We have LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. We have Pride -- this Sunday in Oakland -- which celebrates the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Mills College in Oakland, the oldest all-women's undergraduate liberal arts institution in the West, is attempting to define who is female. It recently became the first women's college to draft admission guidelines for transgender applicants. Starting in 2015, anyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of gender at birth, can apply. Those who don't consider themselves male or female are also welcome -- so long as they were born female. A person born female but who is now legally male may not apply to the undergraduate program though is eligible to enroll in Mills' coed graduate school. Last but not least, female students who are already enrolled and "become male" will be allowed to continue on and graduate.
That would be the case for the incoming student government President Skylar Crownover. The 20-year-old junior was admitted to Mills as a woman but soon after arriving asked to be referred to by the pronoun "he."
According to Brian O'Rourke, Mills vice president of enrollment and admissions, the new published guidelines merely codify already existing practices. The college wanted to go on record as welcoming transgender students as well as those who don't identify as male or female, by spelling out its policies. Three to four students apply ever year who fit that category, and there are about the same number enrolled out of 1,000 undergrads. Although the numbers are minuscule, the college has a gender identity task force that made recommendations for integrating trans students into campus life. One recommendation included was to not allow males transitioning to females to compete on sports team until they have completed one year of hormone therapy.
"Part of Mills' identity as a women's college is to question gender stereotype and traditional gender roles," O'Rourke said. "We see this as consistent in fitting in with our identity as a women's college."
In the past, Mills students have been fiercely protective of the college's single-sex identity. In May 1990, the college trustees tried to boost enrollment by voting to admit men. Students, alums and staff rallying to the cry of "Better dead than coed" shut down the campus for two weeks in protest until the trustees reversed themselves.
This time the college is making national news for its interpretation of what it means to be female at a time of gender fluidity.
Smith, another all-women's college, in Massachusetts, turned away a high school transgender student last year because her financial aid form listed her as male. Students protested.
Mills says it will allow admission regardless of the gender that appears on financial aid forms or other documents so long as an applicant meets the college's stated criteria.
Victoria Kolakowski, Alameda County's first transgender superior court judge, says Mills' proactive policy could make more transgender people feel comfortable about applying to the school.
She remembered the discrimination she encountered at a coed university back in 1989 when she applied for a graduate fellowship in physics. At the time of application, Kolakowski was a male named Michael. After being accepted to the program at Tulane University in New Orleans, Kolakowski underwent reassignment surgery. She says the head of graduate admissions was furious. He told her she had "withheld material information" and withdrew the fellowship offer. He told Kolakowski she would face so much hostility on campus as a transgender person that she would likely flunk out of the program.
"If you are going to invest your time, your money, your everything, you want to know you aren't going to face any unreasonable obstacles to your success," Kolakowski said. " School is challenging enough without having to worry about whether people will be unhappy to have you there."
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.