The Coordinate System and Beyond: What HWS can do Better
As a transgender student, I despise the coordinate system. That is not to say that I do not recognize why it exists, nor am I ignorant of the struggle it would take to remove it. So, this article shall be separated into two parts: The Issues with a Coordinate System, and Beyond the Coordinate System. So often when trans issues are mentioned, they are reduced to one issue. At this school that issue has become the coordinate system. While it is certainly flawed, and should be changed, my goal is to raise an awareness of many issues transgender people on campus face so we may chip away at what problems we can. I will not in this essay argue for why trans students deserve to be happier here, nor that they deserve to have their genders respected. I would encourage a reader who does not agree with these sentiments to seek out further information before continuing to read.
The Issues with a Coordinate System
The first issue with the coordinate system comes from how structure informs conversation. This is not always an issue, as many of my cis female classmates have pointed out. By framing our school as a school for men and a school for women, women are more present in the minds of their peers, and have more access to their own spaces. That all said, the coordinate system’s feminism is trans exclusionary. Firstly, students who do not ascribe to the male or female gender are put in a confusing position. There has been some push to change diction like “Hobart men” and “William Smith women,” since neither school is comprised entirely of men or women respectively. This is an important push, and does aid slightly in making transgender students feel more included. That said, the idea that Hobart and William Smith can ever be torn from their gendered roots is too idealistic, especially when people who are assigned male at birth are put into Hobart, and people assigned female at birth are put into William Smith. The structure of HWS focuses our conversations around how men and women interact, which excludes not only transgender people, but also intersex people. So, either the claim that the structure of HWS’ ability to support conversations about women and men is right, which implies that structure has an important impact on the conversations we have, and the coordinate system discourages conversations about transgender people, or the claim that structure has an impact is false, and this system does not benefit women, and is a worthless symbol of the transphobic view that only men and women exist.
The second issue with the coordinate system is the pressure and focus on gender that it creates. Some have argued that this system is good for trans people who identify as men or women because it allows them to be themselves and be supported in a same-gender community. I fully acknowledge here that my viewpoint alone is not sufficient to cover this argument, as I am not a man or a woman. That said, from my many conversations with my transgender friends both at HWS and elsewhere, the response has not been positive. The issue is that the system then places a dichotomy on students. They must be perceived as male or female, a Hobart student or a William Smith student. This disallows the existence that many trans people visually take, which blurs gender, and forces them to assert their gender immediately, lest they be pegged as “from the wrong school.”
The third issue with the coordinate system is degrees. If a transgender person goes to school here, they are forced to get a degree from Hobart or from William Smith. Not only does this present problems for people who write “Hobart and William Smith” as the college they went to, which does not legally exist, and could cause problems with applications to jobs or graduate school, but this also presents a major issue for transgender people. Which degree do I get? The idea that one can just receive a degree from the college closest to their gender assumes several things which are not always true. Firstly, it assumes that transgender people are out as transgender to their parents and community, and that those groups will be supportive. Someone who was assigned female at birth and decides to graduate from Hobart risks the Hobart community or their family finding out. This risks great violence against them if their parents are unsupportive. A friendly reminder: transgender homelessness is common, conversion therapy still exists in America, and transgender people are often victims of violence. The other option, taking the degree of the gender one has been assigned at birth, could cause great mental suffering for the transgender person themselves, who would have to pretend to be cisgender in order to graduate, instead of not having to deal with gender at graduation at all. There does, so I have been told, exist a system in which people can change their school of graduation after they graduate, which, while not a fix, is helpful. I have heard rumors of a possibility for graduation with a joint degree from Hobart and William Smith. I have heard these rumors the entire time I have been a student here, though, and have yet to see a friend be able to graduate with a joint degree, so if this possibility does exist, I love and support it, but as of this moment, I remain skeptical of its existence, and still take issue with the fact that a student has to out themselves to whoever would be able to change their degree in order to get the degree they want.
Beyond the Coordinate System
As promised, this article will not only cover the coordinate system. I understand that for many, other than expressing their discontent, there is not a way to make actionable change to this system (while all are able to support change, not everyone has the power to make it). There are other ways the campus can make transgender students feel more safe, though, and I would suggest that these actions be taken to the extent to which we are able, in order to make this school a safer place.
Firstly, there is an issue of curriculum. There is a lack of transgender scholarship read in classes. This is not limited to just scholarship about being transgender, but scholarship by transgender authors in general. In my experience, to say that no scholarship by transgender authors exists in one’s field is to avoid looking. Transgender scholars do not only work in LGBTQ theory, they are also present in Physics, English, Biology, Mathematics, Anthropology, Media, and many other fields. The lack of discussion of transgender texts in classes perpetuates the lack of conversation around transgender issues, and the invisibility of transgender people. If we are never able to be seen holding the power of being able to be scholars who can use our knowledge, people will not think of us as important, if they think of us at all.
Secondly, there is a lack of information about transgender people in general. This issue is partially related to the lack of discussion we have, but also informs the discussions we do have. If we had more discussions about transgender issues on campus, specifically in our classrooms, but beyond as well, we would know more about transgender people. Our current conversations often contain deadnaming (the process of referring to a transgender person by the name they were assigned at birth and have since changed, unless it is explicitly for their safety or by their own request), improper use of grammar or terminology when referring to transgender people (i.e. transgenders, transgendered, “the surgery,” “became a man,” “wants to be a woman,” etc.), use of “he or she” as the non-gender specific pronoun, and too much focus on the body and its changes instead of identity. This list is not exhaustive, but serves to provide examples. The issues in our conversations about being trans seldom come from any malicious intent, but often from a lack of information.
Thirdly, we need to have a transgender person (or even better, multiple people) in a position of power. While I cannot and would never claim to speak for everyone who works at HWS, I can say that I am not aware of any out transgender people who have a position of power here. A transgender person with power would be able to represent and address student concerns to the administration, as well as be a person whom transgender students could feel safe around. One of the largest issues for transgender people is being able to feel safe.
Primarily, transgender people want to feel safe and welcomed at the Colleges. Our current system, while it has taken some steps in the right direction, still needs to continue to move forward in order to create a place where transgender people can feel safe. There are a myriad of issues I did not discuss here: bathrooms, healthcare, housing, college placement/registration, name changes, social stigma, intersectional issues, etc. I do not want this article to be seen or thought of as a list of instructions. Let this, and the other articles here, be the start of our conversation about how we can make HWS a better place. Coordinate system or no, let’s do what we can to make a difference. I think the best place to start is to ask transgender students. But it is also important to ask faculty and staff, too. Their day to day lives are different. They see the Colleges from different angles, and thus see different possibilities for change. We all need to work together to make HWS feel like home.