When Ninotska Love donned her tight red dress and Selena sunglasses to graduate from Wellesley College in May 2020, it was a monumental day. She had moved to the U.S. in 2009 to flee gender persecution in Ecuador, unable to speak a word of English. But after spending almost a decade working as a waitress, going to community college, and dreaming of attending the prestigious women’s school, she was now among its graduates, which include Nora Ephron, Diane Sawyer, and Hillary Clinton, the latter of whom Zoomed into Love’s pandemic-era graduation. “They told me to dream big,” Love says of the Kaplan Educational Foundation, which helped her apply to the school. “So that’s what I did.”
Love’s 2017 acceptance to Wellesley was a personal milestone — but it was also a pivotal moment for the school and other universities of its kind. Love was one of the first trans students to be admitted to the college, which, for more than 200 years, only accepted cisgender women — and one of several trans women to break through the barriers of a traditionally women’s college. Over the years, Wellesley and other institutions have become more inclusive. But in recent weeks, the cracks at the Massachusetts college have begun to show as trans students and the administration grapple over just how to refer to and represent their increasingly diverse student body.
Love, now 33, was visiting a friend on campus on March 14th, yet another major day in the school’s history. Students were voting on pressing questions put forth by members of the school community: Should “language used at Wellesley [be] more inclusive of nonbinary and trans students” — meaning, should they stop calling their community “women”? And should the admissions policy “shift to allow trans men and nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth to be accepted?” Currently, there are trans men attending the school who came out while enrolled there, but they are not permitted to apply to the school, nor are non-binary students who are assigned male at birth.
For many students, the answer seemed like an obvious “yes,” since Wellesley already has trans men and non-binary students among its ranks. (The student body includes around 2,500 people, but a rep from the college tells Rolling Stone that there’s no official count of how many trans students are enrolled.) However, the administration doesn’t agree. Although the poll came out in favor of trans-inclusive language on Wednesday, the community was told a week before that regardless of the results, nothing would change. “The results of the vote on this ballot question are nonbinding and will not impact any of the policies or practices of the College or of student organizations at Wellesley,” President Paula A. Johnson wrote in a March 6 email to students and alumni. “Wellesley is a women’s college that admits cis, trans, and nonbinary students — all who consistently identify as women.”
Members of the Wellesley College Government Senators conceived the ballot in early February. And although they knew the vote would be non-binding, students hoped the result would demonstrate support for the trans community and lead to real change. “My hope is that these conversations will continue to be had beyond the Ballot Question,” Cricket Liebermann, one of the authors of the ballot, told Wellesley News earlier this month. “Even more so, I hope students are respectful of our many trans and nonbinary sibs and alums in these conversations.”
Despite support for the ballot — the numerical results of which are not public — the administration is holding firm. President Johnson declined an interview with Rolling Stone following the vote, directing us instead to a March 15th statement: “We acknowledge the result of the non-binding student ballot initiative. Although there is no plan to revisit our mission as a women’s college or our admissions policy, we will continue to engage all students in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong.”
Love, for one, isn’t satisfied with Johnson’s response. “I admire her. I know her personally; she has always been very kind to me,” she says. “But [in the letter, she’s saying that] everyone on campus identifies as a woman, which is not the case. She’s erasing all of these identities.” Other non-binary current students who spoke with Rolling Stone agree. Jess Stoker, 22, found Johnson’s initial email “demoralizing”; SJ Stephens, 22, wonders if they made a mistake attending Wellesley (although they wouldn’t give up their community in retrospect); and Greysea McCooe, 21, echoes a sentiment held by everyone Rolling Stone spoke to: “You already have a college that is not a woman’s college; that is a college for women and gender minorities. We don’t stop existing just because you don’t acknowledge us.”
For many decades, women’s colleges have provided education to people who might not otherwise have access to higher learning due to traditional gender roles — namely, women, who were meant to raise families, not get degrees. Colleges like Wellesley were initially founded “out of a desire for women to have spaces where their voices were not only heard but centered and uplifted,” says Abbie E. Goldberg, professor of Clinical Psychology and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Clark University who studies trans students and their role in higher education. However, Goldberg adds, trans students have always attended these schools — whether they were formally recognized or not. “For as long as women’s colleges have been around, they have been a sort of a refuge, or safe haven for many different marginalized groups,” Goldberg says. “Trans students have always existed, and they certainly probably have existed in higher numbers at women’s colleges because of the perceived safety of those environments, compared to environments that were dominated by or inclusive of cis men.”
The debate over who could formally attend women’s colleges entered the public discourse around 2013, however, when a trans woman named Rose Wong was rejected from Smith College after the administration found that her stated gender identity did not match the gender she checked on her financial aid form. Thousands rallied behind Wong on Change.org and other platforms and Smith eventually changed its policy to admit trans women in 2015, but by then, Wong had already matriculated at the University of Connecticut. Six years later, Wong died by suicide, but not before seeing the first out trans woman graduate from Smith. In a university thread celebrating the milestone, Wong replied, simply, “Good.”
Since 2014, when Oakland, California’s Mills College became the first women’s college to formally accept trans and gender-fluid students, more than 20 schools have expanded to more trans-inclusive policies. Still, what that means isn’t exactly consistent. Mount Holyoke is a prime example of inclusivity, according to Goldberg. Per their website, they identify as “a women’s college that is gender diverse” and “welcome applications from female, transgender, and nonbinary students.”
However, many schools, including Wellesley, will only “consider for admission any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman,” according to the school’s official language — and students say that language is not representative of the reality of the campus population. Whether they came out as non-binary during their tenure at Wellesley, like Jess Stoker, or came to campus not identifying as women, like SJ Stephens, regardless of the language on the school’s website, these students do attend the college. And President Johnson’s email has only made them feel more excluded. “[The president’s] remarks, in my opinion, are incredibly damaging,” Goldberg says. ”If we’re parsing out which trans people can attend and which trans people can’t, that says to trans people that they are not valued. … We’re actually just imposing certain value judgments about what kind of trans people are acceptable.”
Aaron Garber-Paul knows all too well what it’s like to go to a school that didn’t know what to do with his existence. Garber-Paul, 40, was one of the first trans men to graduate from Barnard College, in 2006. Although his uniform at the time was a three-piece suit and a green mohawk, when looking for a school, his goal was to go somewhere where he could go unnoticed, in a sense. “The thing I was looking for when I went to college was a place where I could fly under the radar enough to be safe,” he says. “I think it’s really different now. I think what I hear trans people asking for is more like human rights. They want to survive, but they want to do more than just survive.” Going back to Wellesley and their recent vote, Garber-Paul adds, “The question there is not, ‘Do they change their language?’ For me, the question is, ‘Are they welcoming trans students? Or are they just tolerating us?”
That’s a question students are currently grappling with. On the one hand, trans students have found in Wellesley somewhere where they feel safe and free to be who they are. “There are very few places where it is really possible to explore your existence and your understanding of your identity outside of the context of cis-hetero patriarchy and male-dominated spaces,” says McCooe, who opines that they have found their community on campus. “And there are very few places where you can explore your sense of self in a way that feels safe.” Stoker, too, says they were able to find themselves at school, far from the conservative confines of their Ohio hometown.
Still, trans students have dealt with their share of blowback during their time at Wellesley. “Of course I faced transphobia,” Love says wryly, recalling Reddit threads at the time of her admission arguing that she had taken the place of a “real woman.” She also remembers hosting a prospective student who was horrified that trans women attended the school, unaware of who she was speaking to.
Though the mood on campus is overwhelmingly trans-positive, some have still faced pushback in official channels for calling out what they see as transphobia. Toni, 23 — who asked to use a pseudonym as they’re not out to their family — recalls getting in trouble for breaking the school’s honor code right before their 2022 graduation after an online tiff with a classmate. Wellesley students all pledge to follow a certain standard of behavior, and if someone feels that this standard is violated, they can appeal to a committee of students and faculty for help.
The student who reported Toni gave a speech toward the end of the year in which she referred to Wellesley students as “women,” which rubbed Toni and other audience members the wrong way. “There was just kind of a ripple of annoyance that went through the audience,” they recall. “We’re at this event that’s supposed to be a celebration, and now somebody has, once again, completely misgendered a huge portion of the population here.” After a back and forth on Instagram during which Toni called the other student a TERF, they were called before the Honor Code Council to discuss the situation. In the end, Toni was found blameless, but the damage was done.
“I had to go through this multiple-hour conversation rehashing and explaining to a roomful of people why me calling somebody transphobic isn’t offensive,” an event they say tainted their feelings about their alma mater. “It’s hard because the students who are at Wellesley and who have attended Wellesley are some of the best people I have ever met,” they add. “And I have so many lovely memories. But it really feels like those memories are in spite of the institution, and not because of it.”
Now, students are dealing with that same kind of cognitive dissonance. Graduation is just months away for people like Stoker and Stephens, but there have been sit-ins every day since President Johnson’s email calling for recognition, and students don’t intend to stop. Stoker, who waits tables off campus, says the most common question they get from customers — after what they’re doing after graduation — has become whether they would still attend Wellesley today. “It’s a complicated question because I stayed at Wellesley because of the people that I met and the professors that I met,” they say, trailing off. “It’s… a complicated question.”
As for Love, who made history just a few years ago, she doesn’t understand why the administration is tying itself into knots over semantics. “At the end of the day, this is all about education,” she says. “Your sexual orientation, your gender is not going to take that away from you. It’s not going to take your intelligence away from you. You’re going to shine regardless.”