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Wellesley students vote for the school to accept trans and nonbinary applicants

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Wellesley College says it will not change its admissions policy to start admitting transgender men. That is despite a vote by the student body calling on the school to do so.

NPR national correspondent Tovia Smith was on campus in Massachusetts today and joins us now. Hey there.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. So I would like to understand the backdrop here. Explain what led up to this vote.

SMITH: Well, what led up to it was a referendum that took place yesterday that can happen once in the school year. So it was yesterday. And in some ways, what this is about is the very identity of the school, which has been an all-women's college since it was founded 150 years ago. So in that referendum, there were two parts - first, whether the school should stop saying women in its communications and use gender-neutral language instead. I spoke to a student who's nonbinary, Grace McCooey (ph), who objects to messages like, Wellesley is a place for women who inspire.

GRACE MCCOOEY: I felt like I didn't belong here. I felt like it was a mistake, that they were looking to have a college for women, and there are these trans and nonbinary students that keep appearing.

SMITH: So to that, Wellesley president, Paula Johnson, says, yes, the college will do more to recognize gender diversity on campus. But the second part is the sticking point. That's the students' vote to open admissions to transgender men, people who are assigned as female at birth and transition to male. To that, President Johnson is saying, no, Wellesley is a women's college, so only students who, quote, "live consistently as women" are eligible. And under that, she includes nonbinary students and trans women and also students who transition to trans men after admission. But Wellesley says it has no plans to change its mission as a women's college or its admissions policy.

KELLY: So I mentioned you were on campus today. What is the conversation? What are people saying about all this?

SMITH: Mostly upset. The school's not releasing the vote breakdown, but students say the exit polls show it was 90% for admitting trans men and 10% against. This student, Kitty Bwache (ph), was typical of many that I spoke to, saying that Wellesley is already no longer all women because of those trans men who transition after enrolling and nonbinary students.

KITTY BWACHE: They're already here. Like, a lot of my friends don't identify as women. So, like, just excluding them in, like, the admissions policy is just, like, a - it's a transphobic policy.

KELLY: Tovia, what about students who agree with the president, who oppose opening up admission to trans men? Did you speak to any of them?

SMITH: I spoke to one who had qualms about changing the character of Wellesley as an all-women's college. She also felt it's wrong to be drawing a line between cis men and trans men in admissions. She says that doesn't help the cause of equity and inclusion. But she didn't want her name or her voice being used on the air because she didn't want to be accused of being transphobic. And even though students in favor of admitting trans men acknowledged the risk of that, here's how one student I spoke to, Gabrielle Shell, put it.

GABRIELLE SHELL: We don't have a lot of dissent. We don't really allow it. People that are out of the majority are ostracized. So I wouldn't expect someone, even if they truly feel that way, to even want to talk.

KELLY: You know, Wellesley, of course, isn't the only single-gender school dealing with this issue. How are other schools handling it?

SMITH: Many are taking the same position as Wellesley, not admitting transgender men. But in other cases, it's more like a maybe. For example, Bryn Mawr College will accept students who identify as trans men as long as they have, quote, "not taken any medical or legal steps to identify as male." So as they say, it's complicated.

KELLY: So real quick, Tovia, what are the next steps at Wellesley?

SMITH: Students say they'll continue sit-ins and protests. And the school says it'll do more to use more inclusive language, but it is sticking to the current policy of not admitting trans men.

KELLY: NPR's Tovia Smith reporting from Wellesley, Mass. Thanks.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.

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