When I was looking at colleges back in 2008-9, I wasn’t out to myself as transgender and non-binary, let alone queer at all. I’d grown up in simultaneously a very gendered and non-gendered world. I am an only child, assigned female at birth, and grew up competitively horseback riding. I was a Rhetoric and English enthusiast and so many things about Hobart & William Smith Colleges appealed to me—their Writing & Rhetoric undergraduate program, their English department and the small class sizes, the cold weather and beautiful campus, the club equestrian team, and the traditions the Colleges celebrated were among some top factors. I’d grown up with what I now know was gender dysphoria without the language to understand the disconnect I felt from my body, mind, and world around me. I was expected to adhere to feminine gender norms, but the barn where I spent almost my entire time outside of school was a place to escape. Horseback riding, and in particular growing up on a working farm, took me away from the strictly gendered world around me. Horseback riding remains the only Olympic sport where gender does not serve as a basis to categorize competitors.
Though I spent my years at Hobart & William Smith Colleges coming to terms with my gender identity and queerness silently, I still wholeheartedly identify as a William Smith alumni. When I got my legal name change in May of this year and subsequently requested a new diploma, the presidential signatory on the diploma was surprised that I decided to keep William Smith on the name. For me, this wasn’t even a question.
I don’t identify with William Smith as a “women’s college” but rather a liberal arts college rooted in community, resiliency, strength, academic rigor, and empowerment. I do recognize that the things I love most about William Smith may have come to fruition due to the gendered coordinate system dynamics. However, I’d love to see a future where we can move beyond a strictly (binary) gendered system to account for the increased fluidity in gender identity and expression as we continue to challenge cultural hegemony. I believe there remains something unique and special about the coordinate system that I would be saddened to see lost. I believe two separate student governments working together teaches collaboration. I believe that many prospective students gravitate towards and identify with deep rooted traditions of the Colleges separately and as a whole. I also notice cultural differences between the colleges that, again, were likely once rooted in gender that are no longer necessary. When I think of Greek Life and quintessential college sports culture, Hobart College comes to mind. This is the same for the small, more lecture style courses I have sat in. When I think of critical cultural studies and peer-review based seminars that are at the heart of typical Northeast liberal arts colleges’ education styles, I think of William Smith College. This is not to say that William Smith athletics are not equally as rigorous—they deserve the many accolades they have fought for in their own right. And academic experience for Hobart students is equally as outstanding. Both Colleges teach impeccable critical thinking skills together.
However, this is not to say that I think the system should remain the same. I believe that my experience and relation to the Colleges is one blimp in a galaxy of unique individuals—some of whom have a troubled relationship to the binary that the coordinate system presents. I am an advocate for HWS to move toward a more fluid understanding of the present system with greater ability for movement between the two. I often think of what a non-gendered coordinate system would look and operate like. In fact, I was one of the captains of the equestrian team when we were pushing for the team to be recognized as a varsity sport, which was not possible since the team was co-ed. The issue was dropped when the team was unwilling to move to be a women’s team. The team was founded eleven years ago by a Hobart College student. In addition, to go to a single-gender team would go against what the equestrian sport stands for. This presents another issue I faced with a strictly gendered system.
I believe that while the focus is on transgender and gender non-conforming inclusion and affirmation at the Colleges, this issue extends far beyond this one marginalized community. I have cisgender and heterosexual friends whose college experience was strongly imbedded in the college of the “opposite” gender for a myriad of different reasons. I say this to suggest that a more fluid movability and less staunchly gendered system may benefit the Colleges and their students in many unique and promising ways.
There is so much rich, wonderful, and celebratory history embedded in the coordinate system. But as society evolves, learns, grows, and expands, institutions must adapt to accommodate. I look forward to actively engaging with Hobart & William Smith Colleges as an alumni of William Smith, and am excited for what the future brings for the campus and community as a whole. José Esteban Muñoz, a scholar, author, and queer theorist, posits the notion of “queer utopia” through an ever-expanding horizon we continuously strive towards yet never reach as we push boundaries beyond what was thought to be possible. In his book Cruising Utopia: The Then and Now of Queer Futurity, he writes, “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” Let us work towards a coordinate system that imagines and enacts new ways of being with the world, in a sense a new world for the future of Hobart & William Smith stemming from the foundation of our cherished traditions.