Trans-woman uses her story to fight for LGBTQ rights
A Day in the Life
Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013
Updated: Thursday, December 5, 2013 00:12
A year ago, 1st semester English major Calliope Wong was just another high school student going through the college admissions process. However, Wong, a trans-woman, had to address one concern that many students don’t even have to consider: would Smith College, an all-women’s college, review her application despite her not being born female?
Although she was met with opposition from the college, the roadblocks she faced and the awareness she has raised for transgender issues have led to her being honored in Out Magazine’s annual list of 100 important LGBT people as a transgender teen activist.
She is ranked among the likes of the Defense of Marriage Act challenger Edie Windsor, “The Butler” director Lee Daniels and “Big Bang Theory” actor Jim Parsons.
Wong says that the process was not “a deliberate political stunt or isolated attempt at getting recognition.” She only wanted her application reviewed by a college she was interested in attending.
“I felt connected to the school in a significant way, especially for its reputation as a progressive, pro-feminist school,” Wong said. “I’d heard sort of mixed reports about their admission policies with regards to trans women.”
Wong began contacting the Dean of Admissions, whose response she called “very vague and nebulous.”
“It stated that Smith College was a women’s college and as such it reviews female applicants only at the time of admission,” Wong said. She was unsure of whether the definition of “female” was decided by the state, the college or her own self-identification.
“The Dean of Admissions seemed to indicate that Smith College would be willing to review my application as long as I had my school forms cleared up with the correct gender markers and pronouns,” she said. Although she was skeptical, she gave it a try.
The college returned her application with a note stating that clerical errors on her application marked her as male, and therefore it could not be reviewed.
“They completely refused to process my application,” she said. “Keep in mind that colleges can for any reason reject a prospective student, but colleges cannot refuse to read a student’s application without just cause.”
Wong began to write open letters to Smith students and alumnae and posted them online. She tried to submit her application a second time, but it was again refused because she was marked as male on her FAFSA form.
“It was unclear to me whether I would be committing federal fraud [by marking female],” she explained, “because on a federal level my gender identity is not recognized as the way I experience it.”
Wong contacted the Department of Education, and was told that colleges could not discriminate on the basis of federal financial aid documents. Wong decided that more people needed to be aware of the problems involved with applying to college as a transgender person.
“I began pitching out my story to mainstream news media as well as feminist publications in hopes that by amplifying the message, even if there was no immediate change on the part of Smith College, there would at least be increased awareness of transgender discrimination on the part of higher education,” Wong said.
Her story was picked up by mainstream news organizations such as the Huffington Post, ABC and NBC. She was contacted by a student organization from Smith College that wanted to work on a photo campaign promoting transgender inclusion on campus.
That same organization, Smith Q&A, began a petition on change.org that has collected nearly 5,000 signatures. “It was a continuation of the effort to at least increase social awareness if not attempt to change Smith’s trans-discriminatory application policies,” Wong said.
Wong said that as far as she was aware trans-women have never been accepted to Smith College as undergraduates. “That was very shocking to me considering that trans-men, who on all legal documents were female, were being accepted to Smith College.”
Wong’s application was never reviewed by Smith College, but she is glad that she has raised awareness for transgender issues.
“I felt there had to be something done to better the educational system for trans-women,” Wong said. “It came from a very sincere place of wanting to leave a better educational system than the one I had to deal with.”
Although Wong made it clear that her application was not a “one-woman social justice crusade” or a publicity stunt. She enjoyed meeting and being photographed by Out Magazine with two other influential transgender teenagers.
One of these teens was 13-year-old Jazz, a transgender girl whose story has been told in a documentary on Oprah’s OWN channel.
“Jazz’s story was very profoundly moving and very informative,” Wong said, “especially for the cisgender [non-transgender] population to hear her story on national television.”
Since arriving at UConn, Wong says that there haven’t been any issues regarding her gender.
“I’m really glad that UConn is an inclusive environment,” said Wong. “I’ve received nothing but support from the administration and everyone I’ve dealt with with regards to campus living.”
However, Wong says that there is more that can be done by organizations such as the Rainbow Center to recognize and advocate for transgender people.
“I think further programming on the part of the Rainbow Center surrounding transgender identity and amplifying the voices of transgender students in general would be a welcome step in promoting acceptance of transgender individuals on campus,” Wong said.