Inside Higher Ed recently had an article about transgender students at single-sex colleges. Like this piece in the Boston Globe a few years ago, the article addresses the increasingly common practice of re-issuing diplomas to reflect the new names and gender identities of alums who transition after graduation. Deciding who to admit, however, is a more challenging issue for single-sex colleges. Most women’s colleges consider any student who is female on their application to be eligible for admission, and have no policy of excluding anyone who transitions or declares a non-female gender identity once enrolled.
The article mentions the role of Title IX in this regard, stating that under the law, “men’s and women’s colleges may admit only students whose legal documentation shows they are of the gender that a particular institution serves.” I think this representation of Title IX is questionable, however, as I’m not aware of any aspect of the law that invokes a “legal documentation” test for determining a person’s sex. Such a standard would not exactly provide workable clarity, either, because some states make it easier to change one’s sex designation than others. Moreover, the decision to apply for new ID may come at different stages of transition for different folks. So, a “legal ID” test would require an all-women’s school to consider for admission an individual who has surgically and hormonally transitioned from female-to-male, but who hasn’t yet applied for, or received, a re-issued birth certificate (or drivers license, or some other legal ID). And that school would have to exclude someone who has changed his sex designation, but not his body, in accordance with a male gender identity, as well as someone who has physically transitioned from male-to-female but still does not have a female gender marker on her ID.
No court or regulatory interpretation has endorsed such bright-line rules. And I think the law’s indeterminacy around the concepts sex and gender allows all of these hypothetical students make a case for eligibility for admission. A court could interpret Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination to forbid a school from discriminating against someone who is born female but presents as male, if it decides to interpret presenting/identifying as male as an example of gender nonconformity. A court could also interpret Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination to require an all-women’s school to consider a male-to-female transsexual, because she, like other people who identify as female, is a woman. If both were legally required, an all-women’s college would be open to anyone who is now female or who has been female in the past.
Is that a position that all-women’s college could defend? This depends on the reasons all-women’s colleges provide for remaining single-sex in the first place. If the purpose of all-women’s college is to compensate for the male privilege that exists in education and in the wider world, they could certainly accept male-to-female transsexual students on the grounds that they have reduced their access to male privilege by virtue of their transition, as well as female-to-male transsexual students, who have been excluded from male privilege in the past. (For example, a female-to-male engineering student does not by virtue of a college-age transition overcome gender stereotypes that may have obstructed his K-12 education in science in technology.)
The bottom line for now, however, is one the article gets right. College admissions policymakers, like Title IX policymakers will be increasingly confronted with questions about transgender students’ eligibility for single-sex colleges and other single-sex spaces. In my view, they should and can legally strive to be as inclusive as possible.