A few weeks ago, I took some much needed vacation time to attend World Pride in New York City and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots – a momentous occasion in US history that many argue sparked the modern LGBTQ+ Rights Movement. Throughout Pride Month, we were reminded of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – Black and Puerto Rican transgender women who started the Stonewall Riots and are the reason why our country has had so much progress when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. At the same time, we were sadly reminded that while some in our community have gained many rights, the reality for transgender folks (particularly trans women of color) is that progress has not been as drastic for their community.
This reminded me of a conference I had recently attended, where admissions officers and college counselors were discussing how we can support transgender students in the college application process. One of the biggest takeaways I took from our conversation was that many transgender students want to know why we are asking about their gender identity and if it will be important when they are applying to us. Additionally, our admissions office is striving to be as inclusive to transgender students as possible, but admittedly do not know all of the answers. Thus, I thought I’d be transparent and share some things that I think about when it comes to transgender identity and applying to college.
Why do we ask?
When we are reviewing applications, our first duty is to try to understand the world in which our applicants are coming from; we want to know the context of your environment so that we can evaluate your achievements, accomplishments, and setbacks within your individual context. For example, if I am reading an application from a student in rural Arkansas who has limited opportunities to extracurricular activities and is working a part-time job to support their family, I would take their circumstances into consideration while looking for markers of excellence in their application and I will understand that their application will look different than students from other parts of the country.
The same is true for transgender students. We know that struggling with gender identity can create a lot of strain in high school that could affect a students’ academic performance, we know that some transgender students experience bullying which could contribute to different behaviors in the classroom, we know that teachers may have bias against transgender students which could come up in their letters of recommendation, and we think that for some students, their trans identity may be incredibly important to who they are as a person as we try to learn more about them.
Do you have to disclose to us? Certainly not. However, do know that if you do disclose, your transgender identity will never be held against you in our admissions process.
Do you have to write an essay about trans identity?
Certainly not! We ask 5 short answer essays in our application, including about the community you come from and a hardship that you’ve had to overcome. For some students, writing short essays about their trans identity to answer those questions is the best way for them to fill out their application. If that’s your case, go for it! These can be powerful and helpful essays.
However, we also know that (like all students), transgender students are multifaceted individuals. We ask a drop-down question about gender identity, and there is also room for additional information on our application. You totally can write an essay about transness, or you can let us know in other places on the application and use your essays to write about other aspects of your life. The choice is truly up to you.
What if I am not “out” to my family/guardians/school community?
This is something that has been on my mind recently when thinking about supporting our trans applicants. Some of our transgender applicants are completely “out” to their communities and are advocates in their hometowns; other transgender applicants have not told anyone in their community and a college essay may be the first time they are disclosing this aspect of their identity.
If a parent/guardian/counselor calls our office to inquire about you – what pronouns should we use? If a student has already disclosed in an application that they are trans, we would hate to misgender them. At the same time, we would never want to accidentally “out” a student to someone in their community. Most of the time, when someone calls, we have no idea where a student is at in their coming out process (and this may change throughout the application cycle, just a like a student’s gender identity may change throughout the application cycle).
One solution is to not use gendered language at all in our communication. This is something we’re always striving for, even though it is challenging because we are socialized to thinking about gender as being binary in so many different ways (I challenge cisgender readers of this post to pay extra attention to how much gendered language they use/see for the rest of the day – it’s shocking when you focus on it!).
For students applying – if this is something you’re concerned about, let us know! We want to be as open as possible, and we will protect your privacy. In your application, or in an email to our office, let us know if you are “out” or not and which pronouns we should use with your family (if you are comfortable doing so). MIT is not a regionalized office, but for other colleges that you are applying to, you can also get in touch with your direct regional representative to tell them more about your particular situation. Just know that college admissions officers want to support you as much as we can during this process, and the more we know the better we can do so.
What about overnight stays?
I do believe that MIT does have a lot of supportive policies for trans students – including that our housing assignments are made by your gender identity. We will never place you in a living situation you are uncomfortable with because of your gender identity (comfortable beds is something I cannot promise).
If you are coming for an overnight visit during Campus Preview Weekend, our Weekend Immersion in Science and Engineering, or any other program run by the admissions office, please let us know if your gender identity is a concern of yours. We have forms where we ask about gender and where you’d like to stay, but we also know that forms and checkboxes are never perfect, especially when it comes to identity. You are more than welcome to call us or email us and talk us through your housing concerns so we can find a host to support you. Also, I personally love it when students let me know about ways in which we can be more inclusive – including on our overnight visit request forms. The onus is on us to make the forms as inclusive as possible to begin with, but we are constantly learning and growing ourselves. Many great steps towards inclusion in our process have come because students have reached out and told us about ways we can be better.
One other area I struggle with during our programming is going around the room and introducing ourselves with pronouns. I used to do this at every event because I did not want students to be misgendered by others. At the same time, I know that it can be a lot of pressure for some students to have to “out” themselves (or lie about their identity) if they do not want to say their pronouns in a public setting. Our Title IX Office has recently come out with stickers for pronouns, so that folks who want to be visible and clear about their pronouns can. I have seen the stickers work well, but I also know that introducing oneself with pronouns can be empowering and a public way to show support for the trans community. My goal is to create the most inclusive space that I can, and I still cannot tell if the stickers or public declaration is the best way to go. In an ideal world, everyone would inquire about other people’s gender all of the time, but as a society we are clearly still far from that utopia.
In conclusion, clearly we all have a lot of growth and learning to do. Our work is not done until every transgender student can apply to our institution and not face any obstacles, barriers, or roadblocks. If you are transgender and would be gracious enough to give me your feedback on our process, including things you did or did not enjoy, I am always excited to listen and learn. I also know that it is not your responsibility to educate me, so I will continue to read as much as I can.
I hang a drawing of Marsha P. Johnson at my desk so that every single day I am reminded of the folks in my community who gave me the opportunity to express myself as authentically as I can today. In Marsha’s memory, I will continue to advocate for the transgender community.