What Happens When Colleges Try to Define Trans Existence?

Morehouse College's decision to become the first all-male HBCU to admit trans men raises questions about how colleges will attempt to define transgender identity for its students.

by Tiq Milan
Apr 18 2019, 5:51pm

Photo by Zackary Drucker via The Gender Spectrum Collection

On Monday, Morehouse College in Atlanta announced that it will start admitting transgender men in 2020. Before the historically Black college made its announcement, other HBCUs, including their sister school Spelman College, had already begun implementing transgender policies—but Morehouse is the first all-male HBCU to do so.

The news was met with some enthusiasm but left many with more questions: What if the person identifies as transgender but isn’t on testosterone or hasn’t had surgeries? What if he’s gender non-conforming? How will they ensure trans men who are admitted are safe?

An ongoing concern about traditionally cis-het institutions beginning to accept people of different gender identities and sexualities is whether such policies could reinforce conventional gender tropes—and how they will or won't make space for people like me who don't fit neatly into one category (I'm binary and masculine). Being cis-passing shouldn’t be the litmus test for who is "man enough" to attend Morehouse.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, including the public reckoning with sexual abuse allegations against R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, have been wake up calls to Black men. The last year has provided more discussions on how to be more invested in an expansive definition of masculinity that's rooted in accountability and empathy. Morehouse, like any other institution, needs to do the work of complicating their oversimplified view of gender and make space for the variety and nuances of masculinity.

Morehouse’s new policy states that, though they still do not allow women to attend, they will "will now consider for admission applicants who live and self-identify as men, regardless of the sex assigned to them at birth." Morehouse will also "continue to use gendered language that reflects our identity as a men’s college."

Additionally, Morehouse appears to constrict the expressions of gender or masculinity students may experience: "All students are expected to continue to self-identify as men throughout their matriculation at Morehouse," the statement reads. "If, during a student’s time at Morehouse, a student transitions from a man to a woman, that student will no longer be eligible to matriculate at Morehouse."

While admirable, one cannot simply allow trans men who fit closest to their conceptions of manhood into their ranks, and not actually rethink how they approach masculinity. A large part of that dialogue is understanding and accepting that no one owns the right to define what masculinity looks like and who can embody it. Furthermore, this new policy can’t be about molding transgender men into a culture of cisgender heteronormativity.

The other side of their new policy is that trans women who begin their transition while at Morehouse aren’t allowed to continue their education—a consequence of policies that are so binary in definition they doesn’t account for fluidity, shifts, or gender non-conformance.

At the same time, I don’t think transgender men who want the Morehouse experience and don't fit their mold should be shamed or deterred. It’s important for us to have access to a pivotal part of Black American culture and we deserve the world class education and community that HBCUs have created for so many Black people for over a century. We, too, deserve to be educated in one of the most storied and revered Black institutions in this country. But this admission change has to be as much about Morehouse men learning from and being inspired by transgender men as it is about us learning from them.

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I worry about toxic masculine culture, or fear of it, that may stomp out any interest from transgender men hoping to attend. I worry that these institutions will make life hell for any trans person who defines their own masculinity. On the upside, Morehouse does state that they will offer "individualized support," which they believe is "an essential part of the Morehouse experience."

What many cis-het men fail to understand is that for many of us, being a transgender man isn’t about mirroring cisgender men and how they move in the world. Many examples of cis-het Black masculinity have been toxic and lack the courage of self-reflection and self-determination many of us want to see in ourselves and our communities.

Yet, I’m going to try to remain hopeful. I know that the whole student body of Morehouse is not a monolith. There are gay and queer men on campus. There are cis-het Black men who are open and ready to understand transgender men as their brothers. I hope that all Morehouse men, who are being groomed to be leaders in our community and the keepers of our culture, will be moved to deepen their commitment to allyship and make space for transgender men as brothers—no matter how they appear on campus.