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Mohar Kalra / Staff Illustrator

I’m standing in the Barnard quad, wrapped up against the first cold day of fall. I look over the shoulders of four prospective students, four nervous parents, and one very excited high school counselor at Aydan Shahd, who’s about to give an admissions tour. Shahd starts the tour off with a quick introduction: “Hi, my name is Aydan. I use they/them pronouns. I’m a junior at Barnard. I’m from Singapore, and I’m majoring in English with a theater concentration.”

No one reacts when Shahd says their pronouns—no one bats an eye. Why would they? The only noticeable response is the guidance counselor leaning over to me to make sure he’s heard the pronouns right—he doesn’t want to misgender them. But there is something, if not surprising, then at least incongruous about this moment. Shahd is there to sell prospective students on Barnard as a women's college, but they're not a woman.

Shahd works as a BSAR—a Barnard Student Admissions Representative. They’re part of the face of the school, responsible for educating prospective students about Barnard and encouraging them to apply. Shahd applied to Barnard and went through their first year as a woman, but they’ve since come out as trans.

If Shahd applied again today, they’d be met with this box in the application portal. And if they answered truthfully—indicating that they do not identify as a woman—they would not be considered for admission.

Arielle Shternfeld
Aydan Shahd

Transgender is an umbrella term. It covers, imperfectly, those who do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, those who consider themselves gender non-conforming or non-binary, and a number of other identities as well.

Barnard now only admits students who “consistently live and identify as women regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.” Though the admissions office is tasked with excluding the applicants who don’t check that box, admissions counselors have worked to include trans students already at Barnard, even as other parts of the school’s bureaucracy have struggled or failed to do the same. What’s at stake is not just whether the school fulfills its obligation to trans students, but what the admissions policy and practices mean for Barnard’s identity as a women’s college.

It wasn’t always this way. That box in the Common App is a relatively recent addition. It and the phrase “consistently live and identify as women” come from the policy the board of trustees crafted in 2015.

Before this, Barnard just checked the gender information on the applicant’s FAFSA and other government documents. This barred trans women and non-binary students assigned male at birth, or at least made the process of applying much more difficult. For the same reason, it allowed prospective students who were genderqueer, non-binary, non-conforming, and trans men to apply—so long as they had not legally changed their gender from a female one assigned at birth. Back in May of 2014, when a reporter asked Deborah Spar, then president of the college, how Barnard handled trans applicants. she replied, “We don’t really have policies.” Spar suggested the school would create some “before too long.” When Spar said this, Barnard wasn’t unique in its lack of concrete policy, nor was it falling behind its peer institutions.

That changed a few months later. The rest of the remaining Seven Sisters women’s colleges (Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley) took action first. In September 2014, Mt. Holyoke released a new, inclusive policy opening admission to all “academically qualified students” except those who were “biologically born male” and continue to identify as men.

While Mt. Holyoke’s policy remains the most inclusive among the Seven Sisters, its stance pushed peer schools to tackle the issue quickly. In the following year, Bryn Mawr and Wellesley decided to welcome applicants who are trans women or gender non-conforming. Smith chose a more conservative approach, adding official language about transgender applicants, but still restricting admission to women, be they trans or cis.

Barnard began holding community forums to revise its admissions policy in January of 2015, but the Trustees did not reach their decision until August that year, making the school the last of the Seven Sisters to adopt a policy.

Among the 40 or so other women’s colleges in the U.S., Barnard’s policy isn’t the most inclusive, or the most exclusionary. Converse College in South Carolina, for example, only admits applicants who can provide legal proof of being women and asks students who stop identifying as women to leave by the end of the term. The most conservative schools, like College of Saint Mary or Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, still haven’t published official policies regarding trans and non-binary applicants.

While Barnard’s newly added transgender admissions language finally recognized women as all those who consider themselves and live as women, opening Barnard to those excluded by the old practices, it officially barred trans men and, implicitly, non-binary applicants who do not identify as women. But, unlike Converse, Barnard pledges to support students who come out as trans while at Barnard. To transmasculine and non-binary students already at the school, this was cold comfort.

Rowan Hepps Keeney, who graduated from Barnard in 2018, remembers Spar’s community forums. They applied to Barnard the year before the policy changed. They realized they were non-binary halfway through their first year, and lobbied hard for Barnard to keep its gates open to people like them. Come August 2015, Hepps Keeney’s hopes were bitterly disappointed. “It’s always going to be a way that Barnard has failed me.”

Through their time here, they continued to be an active advocate for trans issues at Barnard and Columbia. By their senior year, they’d become the leader of GendeRevolution, a group committed to support and advocacy for non-binary and trans students.

This sort of activism is seen as badly needed at a school that has been slow to adapt to the presence of trans students, despite its promise of support for every student. Almost every trans student I spoke to told me about experiences with Barnard’s bureaucracy that, for some, were frustrating—for others painful, demeaning, or threatening.

Most complaints focus on a few Barnard offices.

Residential Life has been another consistent source of frustration for trans students. S. Gooen, who’s transmasculine, said he said he spent sophomore year living on a floor without a gender inclusive bathroom. He was determined not to go through that again and wanted to make sure he’d have access to one junior year. “So do you want to know how I got it fixed?” he asks me, leaning in. “This is more fucked up. I had to register with the Office of Disability Services with gender dysphoria documented by a licensed professional.” The ODS accomodation got him a floor with a bathroom he could use the following year.

On the health front, Shahd feels says things have gotten a lot better in recent years—though not everyone agrees with them. Barnard Primary Care offers hormone therapy services, and the school’s student health insurance covers that as well as gender-affirming surgery. To support trans students’ long term needs, Primary Care also refers trans students to the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ healthcare organizations in New York City. Callen-Lorde provides services to those who need them “free of judgement and regardless of ability to pay.” Trans students seeking psychological services typically go off campus for those as well. Furman, Barnard’s counselling center, has only one counselor with a specialization in the issues facing LGBTQ+ students.

Hepps Keeney and Mo Crist, the current leader of GendeRev, both told me about their frustrations trying to get Barnard approval for GenderFuck—the clothes-optional, sex-positive party GendeRev hosts every year. Even though the group had hosted it safely and successfully in Lerner Hall on Columbia’s campus for years, Barnard was skeptical about allowing the event in the Diana Event Oval. “We made it happen,” Hepps Keeney says, “but there were a lot of comments that were made along the way that did not make my board feel safe, did not make me feel safe, and really made me worry whether this was a safe space.”

One of the only Barnard offices that trans students have described to me as unfailingly supportive is the one tasked with excluding some of them: admissions. While other administrative structures at Barnard were—and still are—struggling to accommodate the school’s trans community, admissions made a space for Hepps Keeney. The office hired, welcomed, and promoted an openly trans student to represent the school—and they would soon do it again.

That wasn’t always so clear. Hepps Keeney’s first-year advisor had told them they’d make a great BSAR, but when the policy changed and they came out the following year, they doubted the office would take them. None of the BSARs at the time looked visibly trans or queer. But Hepps Keeney thought they could be really good at the job, so they applied, hoping to make a difference in the office.

“The day of my interview, I spent two hours with two of my friends trying to figure out how I could look like a lesbian and not a trans person,” they say, laughing. They got the job and realized quickly that the admissions team were sympathetic and welcoming.

When Hepps Keeney asked if they could mention their pronouns on admissions tours their boss “was, from the get-go, super supportive.” I ask Hepps Keeney how things went after that and a new enthusiasm comes into their voice. “They just valued my voice and that was amazing.” After that they worked their way up through the office, becoming a head BSAR by their senior year.

As a head BSAR, Hepps Keeney was approached by Shahd, then a nervous sophomore dealing with some of the same fears about being denied a BSAR position because of their identity. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would want me,” Shahd says, “but [Hepps Keeney was] a head BSAR! So I decided, well if you’re doing it, it’s fine.” With Hepps Keeney’s encouragement, they applied and were accepted. That spring, when the office opened applications for the new summer admissions intern position, Shahd was one of three chosen for it.

“I definitely experienced some imposter syndrome,” they tell me, recounting the stress they felt about sharing their pronouns on a tour for the first time. ‘It was almost like, should I not do my pronouns because I’m not supposed to be here?’”

Eventually, they did start telling prospective students that they use they/them pronouns, signalling that even though they’re responsible for representing a women’s college, they’re not a woman.

Over the summer, Shahd was asked to revise the standard tour script BSARs use. Now, all BSARs are supposed to introduce themselves with their pronouns—a practice that is already the norm in many Barnard classrooms, so it’s hardly a radical change. It does, though, signal to prospective students who are trans or questioning their identities that Barnard is a more inclusive place than the admissions policy suggests.

Shahd saw the results immediately. Even more than before, gender nonconforming and questioning prospective students would come up to them after a tour to ask about what it’s like to be non-binary at Barnard. They remember how good it felt to help these students, to see the value of their visibility immediately. “I think if I wasn’t their tour guide, they wouldn’t have asked their BSAR that necessarily—it’s a tricky thing to ask about.”

Hepps Keeney had a lot of similar moments. “I actually asked my boss, ‘what should I do if someone comes up to me and says ‘I don’t know that I consistently live and identify as a woman, I don’t know that I feel comfortable checking that box,’’ and she told me,” Hepps Keeney pauses and chuckles before going on, “‘Tell them to come talk to me.’”

Hepps Keeney never saw exactly how that conversation with the counselor would go, but from years working in the admissions office they had a good idea of what was said. “It was enough so that I knew she would be able to say ‘Listen, [the box] is a formality that we just have right now, but you are welcome here, and we want you to be here; so if clicking that box won’t cause you [too much pain], then if you feel ok clicking it, that’ll be the end of that.’” Shahd describes those interactions between counselors and students exactly the same way, though they admit they’ve also never been in the room for one.

When The Eye asked Jennifer Fondiller, vice president for enrollment, about how counselors handle those interactions, she admitted that the check box is a sort of formality, but only to a small extent. Fondiller stressed that applicants need to answer the accompanying question truthfully and that the admissions staff checks against the content of other application materials to get a holistic sense of the student’s identity.

Fondiller says that while these conversations are handled on a case-by-case basis, “if a student doesn’t feel comfortable [checking that box], they need to think about why they’re looking at Barnard and what it would mean, what they want out of a women’s college. … If they don’t feel like they can represent themselves by checking that box, Barnard is not the place for them to be applying to.”

Fondiller also reaffirmed that Barnard is fully supportive of any current Barnard student that comes out as trans. But, Fondiller emphasized that the line drawn at the time of applying is a deliberate one—one connected to Barnard’s mission and identity as a women’s college.

No one else I spoke to for this story was happy with the admissions policy as it reads now. While trans students don’t all have the same views on what should replace it, each feels it should be more inclusive.

Fondiller told The Eye that there are no plans to re-examine or alter the policy as of now, but said that the college would keep listening to the campus community. For the moment, it’s up to Barnard students and administrators to keep up conversations about what the policy should be and how it should define the school.

Back when the new policy was first published, Spar and the board of trustees admitted that their definition of “woman” hadn’t been the most nuanced. Spar told a reporter, “I think most of us were raised to believe boys are boys and girls are girls. Period. Full stop.” One of the trustees who helped shape the policy, Frances Sadler, BC ’72, sounded a similar note back in 2015. “I didn’t get the genderfluid stuff prior to this conversation, to our deliberations and conversations. It has been a learning curve for me and the entire board given our generation.”

In Shahd’s eyes, the new policy preserves some of the exact thinking Sadler and Spar claim to have unlearned. Besides, this binary view of gender has hardly disappeared. The New York Times reported this week that the Department of Health and Human Services is considering new legal definitions that would erase trans identities and which could be used to exclude trans people from federal civil rights protections.

When I ask Shahd about their vision of what Barnard is, or should be, as a women’s college they glance away from me again. We’re sitting in their kitchen in Sulz tower. They’re looking out at the Hudson. The sun’s about to go down and its reflection is starting to dance over the water. Our conversation speeds up and slows down as Shahd alternates between passionate, energetic answers and long, considered pauses.

This question—what it means to be a women’s college—is one they think about a lot and actually wrote about for the admissions blog. As Shahd sees it, there’s a contradiction, an incompatibility, between the language of Barnard’s mission statement and its admissions policy. There’s this line they love in the mission statement: “As a college for women, Barnard embraces its responsibility to address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency.” It’s a sentiment Shahd just can’t reconcile with the binary language used by Spar, the board of trustees, and that box on the Common App.

“There is no homogenous ‘women’ group that this college is for, fundamentally,” they tell me. “I think it’s not only silly but antithetical for our admissions policy to say ‘live and identify consistently as a woman.’ What is that? You’re implying a monolithic [definition], you’re implying that there’s some sort of homogeneity that Barnard relies on to operate, which is simply not true.”

“We pledge to look at issues of gender in all their complexity. That’s in our mission statement. It’s not buried anywhere. It’s pretty explicit. Yet, that’s not something we talk about as much. We don’t really interrogate what that means and whether that is reflected in the infrastructure at Barnard or its advertising.”

Shahd doesn’t want Barnard to throw out the term “woman.” They don’t need the school to abandon the all-important “women’s college” brand. They aren’t even proposing new language for the admissions policy—at least not yet. What Shahd does want is for Barnard to honor that “responsibility to address issues of gender in all of their complexity.”

The tour’s wrapping up. We're sitting across from Milbank for this last part. The prospective students are all edging closer to their parents, trying to keep warm. Shahd’s final speech is a rousing one. There’s one bit in it that stands out to me, because it feels like it articulates their vision for what Barnard should be:

“What I love so much is that Barnard really challenges you to rethink and reshape the identities you come in with and to both form a space and a self that has room for everything you want to be,” Shahd says. “This is not a space that I think of as excluding people who don’t fall into a predetermined category of women, but rather of coming together to reshape how we draw those categories for ourselves and for our peers and for our community.”

Have fun leafing through our sixth issue!

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