Wabash Student Senate votes against resolution to admit transgender students

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What defines a Wabash man?

This is the question that students of Wabash College are now trying to answer. On Feb. 23, the Student Senate of the all-male institution voted almost unanimously against a resolution that would encourage the Office of Admissions to actively recruit transgender applicants. The only person who did not vote against it was first-year senator Corey Leuters—and the only reason for this is because he brought forth the resolution, so he had to abstain from the vote.

After Leuters proposed the resolution in a Senate meeting in the week before, the topic was tabled for a week so that members of the Senate could discuss the issue with their constituents and have some time to mull it over. During this time, multiple polls were sent out to members of the student body asking whether they were in support of this resolution. The decision was sound: the answer was ‘no.’ 

Leuters is also a member of ‘shOUT, Wabash’s primary LGBTQ activism organization. ‘shOUT, which stands for Wabash Out, was formed in the 1990’s and initially held its meetings in the homes of professors to ensure the safety of those involved. Members of the student club had been having discussions about transgender admissions for some time before drafting the resolution. Though ‘shOUT did not expect the resolution to pass, it did what ‘shOUT wanted it to do: it started a conversation.

“I have absolutely no regrets bringing forth the resolution,” Leuters told The Bachelor, Wabash’s student newspaper. “This is the beginning of a larger conversation. I am honestly surprised that it has gained the popularity that it has – although it mostly seems controversial to others. But I’m happy that it’s being discussed. “ 

As is the rest of ‘shOUT. The group has dedicated itself to keeping these conversations going and creating as much of a change as they can on Wabash’s campus as quickly as possible.

“We all just want the world to be better right now, and that impatience is sometimes our downfall,” said senior and former ‘shOUT president Michael Smith, “so what I work towards, and what ‘shOUT is working towards is not ending all of Wabash’s problems, but starting a conversation about them and acknowledging that they exist.”

But not all students want to be having this conversation. Wabash junior Audie Kaufman wrote an opinion piece in The Bachelor shortly after the resolution was shut down, stating that this is not a topic that Wabash should be discussing at all.

“It seems highly disruptive to the culture of a male-only education for the student body to support a current cultural trend that supports confusion of gender,” Kaufman wrote in his piece. “Furthermore, it is unproductive to push for the admittance of women who claim to be men, not only because it would cease to make Wabash an all-male school, but it would utterly distort the nature of authentic manhood on campus.”

Wabash junior Ben Cramer, who is also a member of ‘shOUT, countered Kaufman’s piece with his own in the same issue of the school’s publication.

“We can pontificate all day about what being a Wabash Man entails, but I think all can agree that there’s more to our experience here than our collective Y chromosomes,” Cramer wrote. “Wabash College is the Liberal Arts College for men, not males, which is a significant but tricky distinction,” adding that a ‘man’ refers to one’s gender while a ‘male’ refers to someone’s physiology.  

But the definition of a ‘man’ is unclear. Kaufman—like many other Wabash students who did not want the resolution to pass—does not think that a transgender man can truly be a man without having the genetic structure of the male; that is, he believes the two are one and the same.

“I fully disagree with the idea that somehow somebody’s perception in their mind changes their biological and genetic nature,” Kaufman told The DePauw. “Honestly the only common denominator when it comes to manhood is that genetic [component]. You are genetically male or female.”

Of course, this scenario is entirely hypothetical—as far as Kaufman knows, Wabash has not had any transgender applicants in recent years. However, were the hypothetical to turn into a reality, Wabash may be forced to become coeducational, due to the college’s reliance on a piece of 1972 legislation that allows for the school to discriminate against women in admissions because it has a tradition of being all-male. While supporters of the resolution say that “male” can be expanded to transgender males, opponents argue that, because the clause was passed in the ‘70’s, before the idea of being transgender became widely known, it could never have been intended to include transgender men as well.

Because the law does not define its own terms, and Indiana does not have clear laws on the subject, the issue remains unresolved. 

However, under a piece of Title IX legislation from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, passed in April of 2014, all schools—including single-sex institutions—are prohibited from discriminating in the process of admissions based on gender identity.

The guidance reads: “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and Office of Civil Rights accepts such complaints for investigation. Similarly, the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations."

The DePauw reached out to Wabash’s Title IX coordinator and several administrators for comment. All either declined to comment or did not reply to the request.

Smith is wary of Title IX’s ability to implement the clause because the University has not yet—at least to his knowledge—faced the issue of whether to admit a transgender student. Nonetheless, he, along with other members of ‘shOUT, are in the process of putting together a dossier with communications they’ve had with students regarding the issue, screenshots of social media posts and emails that urge people to vote against the resolution. Smith said that the dossier will include “screenshots from the Dean of Admissions, saying we accept males by birth only.”

“Title IX issues are famously hard to enforce because it takes a very concerted effort on the administration to launch into those investigations and make sure that these things are happening,” Smith said. “[We’re] getting that all together and giving it to out to the Title IX coordinator so that she can have an investigation, and where that goes is to be seen.”

One of Wabash’s most notable alumni, Andrea James, has been working with ‘shOUT on poster campaigns to showcase to the Wabash community what it means to be transgender in the hopes of educating campus about these issues. James, who is now a writer, producer, director and activist, attended Wabash from 1985-1989, before transitioning to a woman in 1995. It was only in her final year at Wabash that she told her classics professor, John Fischer, that she felt more like a woman than a man. 

Upon hearing the Student Senate’s decision, James was infuriated.

“Any citizen of the world and student of humanity must surely know that trans men are notable among men, in that they have made a commitment to the lived experience of masculinity worthy of the commitment to knowledge and community I have often seen among Wabash students,” James told The DePauw via email. “It's rarely comfortable to be on the wrong side of history, and it only gets more uncomfortable over time.”

Kaufman feels very differently.

“At what point is a line drawn, and how is corruption prevented to stop a young lady from lying about her ‘perceived gender’ in order to attend our renowned college?” he wrote in his opinion piece in The Bachelor. “How can the administration handle any such woman who does so and authenticate the false claim? Will the fraternities, religious organizations, sports, etc. that disagree full-heartedly with this move and its implications be forced into silence about their disagreement?”

Some members of the DePauw community are feeling the effects of the rival college’s conservative decision. One DePauw student, who wishes to remain anonymous, identifies as non-binary—meaning they sometimes identify with one gender over another, and sometimes they identify with both. They believe the geographic proximity of the two campuses can cause the mentality to travel to Greencastle.

“Knowing that a school that you are in such close proximity with is unwelcoming towards people outside of the gender norms is disheartening because you hope that it won’t be the same here, but you definitely feel like it is because the school is mostly white, it’s relatively conservative, there isn’t much diversity in that sense and there’s definitely a lot of unwelcoming vibes towards people who are not considered ‘normal,’” they said.

Although DePauw has a long history of admitting transgender students—in fact, the school was named among America’s best 100 campuses for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in “The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students” in 2006—Director of Admissions Cindy Babington says there is more work to be done.

“There are and have been ongoing conversations at DePauw about how we can be more inclusive of transgender students, faculty, staff and guests,” Babington told The DePauw via email. “Those conversations are happening in regards to campus climate, housing, programming and direct services—to name a few. Each student is an individual, so generally, we’ve gone the route of getting to know what a student’s specific needs are, rather than making policies based on assumptions.”

Some outlets for students on the gender spectrum or for those who wish to learn more about LGBTQ issues on DePauw’s campus include LGBT Services, located in the Reese Hall offices, and United DePauw, campus’ LGBT and Ally student organization. Students may also reach out to Vivie Nguyen, the LGBT services coordinator, or any of DePauw’s counselors at the Wellness Center.

Additionally, Nguyen says that next year will be the first year that incoming students can opt into a trans-inclusive housing opportunity. The University is also in the process of working on bathroom facilities to be accessible to all identities.

“I hope that Wabash's decision helps us decide what kind of campus we wish to be,” Nguyen said. “That we can talk about this and ultimately commit to creating a campus community where people can be themselves, and feel good and accepted for it.”

While the decision at Wabash is set for the time being, Smith believes that if members of the college receive proper education and are willing to open their minds to the idea of what a “man” could be, then in a years’ time, the resolution may pass. 

“If Wabash is committed to the founding principles held by those men who knelt in the snow in 1832 and admitted students only on those factors, our freshmen would be white men who are heterosexual, devoted to becoming ministers or teachers, fluent in at least Latin and Greek and ready to get a liberal arts education,” he said. “We shouldn’t be worried about someone’s station at birth. Rather we should be worried about what type of man this college can make them into.”