So Much for Keeping an Open Mind

A few days ago, Kassy Dillon, recent graduate of the Seven Sisters college from which I graduated had an Op Ed published in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “My Alma Stops Identifying as a Mater” (WSJ December 26, 2018).  In the letter, she chastised Mount Holyoke College for its handling of a recent kerfuffle concerning the roll-out of a new logo that many students found offensive on the grounds that it marginalized the transgender community.

By way of background, Mount Holyoke admits to its undergraduate program “any qualified student who is female or identifies as a woman.”

After the student community – not to mention alumnae – spoke out against the proposed logo, the College took another look and ultimately decided not to proceed. A more detailed explanation of the College’s handling of the issue can be found here.

Hence Ms. Dillon’s essay, and to provide just a bit more color, Ms. Dillon is an arch conservative whose opinions and online presence made her something of a lightning rod during her years at Mount Holyoke – and perhaps that was the point. By the time she graduated, she had firmly established herself in the Twittersphere as the “lone conservative” at a college that since its founding has been about as liberal as they come. That Ms. Dillon chose to attend Mount Holyoke may or may not suggest a desire to stir things up, which in and of itself is in keeping with the Mount Holyoke tradition; that she chose to remain there demonstrates – and she has admitted – that, for the most part, she was treated with respect and tolerance despite espousing positions that were offensive to many in the community.

The same cannot be said for those who commented on Ms. Dillon’s article. While I understand that WSJ readers tend to skew more conservative, I was surprised by the dearth of any serious discussion concerning the salient issue, to wit, how a single-sex college can arrive at a thoughtful and appropriate response to those who are not cis-gender (that is, those whose gender identity matches their biological parts)?  Having read all 127 comments to Ms. Dillon’s article, I can only assume that the answer is, “it shouldn’t.”

There is no question that the issue of gender identity has become one that confuses, upsets, and confounds many.  In my experience, many are uncomfortable or even frightened by those who are non-binary/non cis-gender, largely because they assume – as so many did with respect to gay/lesbian/bi individuals not so long ago – that the non-binary/non cis-gendered want to convert them, have sex with them, or overthrow cultural norms in an effort to upend civilized society.

Others object on the basis of biology or religion.  “It’s not natural,” I’ve heard people say. “It isn’t what God intended.”  Not so long ago, some of these same arguments were used to keep women and people of color from occupying any position of power.

As minority groups who in the past had been marginalized (whether because of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity or religion) fought oppression and began to rise to positions of leadership, however, many came to understand that those minorities were equally capable and deserving of the same opportunities traditionally held by White Christian men, and ceased to feel threatened by their differences.  To be sure, racism and anti-gay sentiment, not to mention bias against certain ethnic and religious minorities, is certainly alive and well in our country – in some respects, bigotry has seen something of a renaissance in the last two years – and there is still much work to be done before we can fairly and accurately state that all who call themselves American citizens enjoy the same rights, freedoms, and protections under the law.

It’s also true, though, that, gradually (albeit, far too slowly) we are becoming a society that has begun to understand that the existence of people whose skin color or sexual preference differ from our own tends to have little, if any, impact on how we lead our day-to-day lives.  The fact that my husband’s co-worker is a devout Muslim matters little to his patients who find him to be, first and foremost, an exceptionally compassionate, capable physician.  The fact that a female colleague of mine is a lesbian does not seem to have undermined her ability to provide caring, high-quality legal services to her many grateful clients.

And so it is, I humbly propose, with this newest of paradigms – gender.  For those for whom the non-binary/non cis-gendered community represents a challenge or a threat, I urge you to consider that finding oneself in such a community is no easy thing, as evidenced by the dismissive and contemptuous responses of all who commented on Ms. Dillon’s piece.  One person commented, “[a]dmitting transgender men will do wonders for the Mount Holyoke football team. It could use a couple of good tight ends.”  Another lamented that it is too hard to keep up with all the “labels” and asked how they were supposed to communicate with someone if they didn’t know what to call them?  [Answer:  The way you would communicate with anyone else – decently, kindly, and respectfully].

To those who pooh-pooh the notion that gender might be somewhat more fluid than originally believed, I ask, who would choose a reality in which one is virtually guaranteed to be summarily discounted and treated, at best, as a silly, self-indulgent, attention-seeker, and at worst, attacked as being a freak, or worse? Indeed, the comments to Ms. Dillon’s article (itself free of cheap laughs and unfunny barbs) harken back to the restroom debates of several years ago and tacitly invoke the entirely baseless belief that anyone who does not identify as a heterosexual cis-gender must be a pedophile.

Which leads us to the question of how Mount Holyoke, or any other single-sex school, addresses the issue of gender in a way that is true to its history as a place where the marginalized can pursue an education, without fear of persecution based upon something they cannot change, and which has no bearing whatsoever on their ability to achieve and contribute.  Most who commented had nothing but derision for a school whose incoming class this year had a median SAT score of 1400 and an average GPA of 3.85, simply because its administrators listened to their students and alumnae (most of whom, I can assure you, had a far different reaction than Ms. Dillon) and did the unthinkable – that is, they dared to consider that perhaps they had made a bad decision, and then attempted to correct it.

Mount Holyoke was established in 1837 for the purpose of providing a college education to women at a time when there were few other such opportunities available.  In the 181 years since it was formed, it, and other all-female institutions, have turned out women who have gone on to inhabit the highest echelons of power in business, government, academics, science, the arts, and virtually every occupation that throughout history has traditionally been dominated by men.  Graduates of women’s colleges tend to earn graduate degrees (especially at the doctoral level) at a far higher rate, are more inclined to pursue careers in STEM, are more active participants in class discussions, are more confident, and have a higher undergraduate completion rate than those who attend co-ed universities.  In short, women’s colleges (much like traditionally Black colleges) have done a very good job of preparing their students to compete and succeed once they leave campus.

Single-sex colleges have also been a place where students can shake off traditional societal norms and celebrate what makes them unique, and while many decry the notion of a “safe space,” who does not attend college with at least some expectation that while there, they will be afforded the opportunity to explore new ideas, and new iterations of oneself, in an environment where everyone else is doing the same thing, and is therefore less likely to be critical? Colleges are supposed to foster and encourage the free exchange of ideas in an ongoing discussion about anything and everything; what better place, then, to tackle the complex concept of gender?

I should point out that the dust-up that lead to Ms. Dillon’s article in the first place concerned the roll-out of a proposed new logo intended to communicate an openness and acceptance of those who do not identify as binary or cis-gendered.  As an aside, my primary objection to the new logo was that it was cheesy and pedestrian, but those who have perhaps greater intellectual heft than I found it offensive to the extent that it was exclusive of those whose gender identity is not merely a question of Male or Female.  All who commented on Ms. Dillon’s article dismissed the discussion that ensued, and the ultimate decision of the College to take another look at the issue, as nonsense, hogwash, the pap of elite liberal Dems who have abandoned common sense in favor of mindless theoretical navel-gazing.  In so doing, they deny the experience of those who come into this world with a biological identity that does not square with their psychological reality.  Why?

Because thinking about what it must be like to not fall neatly into one of two categories requires people to question assumptions they have lived with all their lives and potentially alter the way they behave, and most people – especially those who are closer to the coffin than campus – don’t tend to be very good at doing that.  We don’t like to have our perceptions challenged, especially if doing so triggers a level of self-awareness that may be uncomfortable – as in, are there some parts of me that do not feel exclusively male or female? Are there aspects of my personality that are at odds with what my gender identity would suggest they should be?

It’s always harder to keep an open mind, to allow for the possibility that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in one’s philosophy.  It’s much easier to dismiss out of hand the things that challenge our worldview, especially when they make us uncomfortable or force us to have potentially difficult conversations with our children, but these are not legitimate bases upon which to ignore the reality of people whose only agenda is to be accepted for who they are so they can then be left alone to live their lives in relative peace.

If Mount Holyoke, or any other institution, is trying to make it easier for the non-binary, non cis-gendered to do just that, I say, good on you.  It’s a complex topic, one that presents many issues, but none so difficult that they cannot be addressed intelligently, logically, and compassionately by those committed to equality. For all who had something negative to say about Mount Holyoke, go ahead and pile on – it isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.  Unlike Ms. Dillon, I’m proud that my alma mater stands, first and foremost for the rights of those who are most in danger of suffering behavior that is the result of ignorance and intellectual laziness.  Mount Holyoke has always been on the forefront of social justice – during my years there, for example, it made the decision to divest itself of financial assets that were linked to companies that did business with or in South Africa.  I was proud then, and I am proud now, to belong to a community that takes the time to muddle through hard topics, acknowledges that it occasionally makes mistakes, and is willing to listen to all constituents – even those who express opposing viewpoints.

It’s a shame that Ms. Dillon does not understand that the current, vibrant discussion of gender on campus is merely an extension of the philosophy that underpinned the founding of Mount Holyoke College nearly 200 years ago – providing a place where the marginalized and excluded were invited to accept “the challenge to excel.”  In America, in 2018, we should be pleasantly surprised and heartened when any person or institution makes the decision to be more inclusive and thoughtful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: