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Wellesley’s First World Problem

Wellesley, the elite women’s college, has a problem. As ever, The New York Times reports from the cutting edge of Progress and its discontents [1]. Excerpt:

For the most part, everyone respected his request. After all, he wasn’t the only trans student on campus. Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women. Of those, a half-dozen or so were trans men, people born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies. The rest said they were transgender or genderqueer, rejecting the idea of gender entirely or identifying somewhere between female and male; many, like Timothy, called themselves transmasculine. Though his gender identity differed from that of most of his classmates, he generally felt comfortable at his new school.

Last spring, as a sophomore, Timothy decided to run for a seat on the student-government cabinet, the highest position that an openly trans student had ever sought at Wellesley. The post he sought was multicultural affairs coordinator, or “MAC,” responsible for promoting “a culture of diversity” among students and staff and faculty members. Along with Timothy, three women of color indicated their intent to run for the seat. But when they dropped out for various unrelated reasons before the race really began, he was alone on the ballot. An anonymous lobbying effort began on Facebook, pushing students to vote “abstain.” Enough “abstains” would deny Timothy the minimum number of votes Wellesley required, forcing a new election for the seat and providing an opportunity for other candidates to come forward. The “Campaign to Abstain” argument was simple: Of all the people at a multiethnic women’s college who could hold the school’s “diversity” seat, the least fitting one was a white man.

“It wasn’t about Timothy,” the student behind the Abstain campaign told me. “I thought he’d do a perfectly fine job, but it just felt inappropriate to have a white man there. It’s not just about that position either. Having men in elected leadership positions undermines the idea of this being a place where women are the leaders.”

I asked Timothy what he thought about that argument, as we sat on a bench overlooking the tranquil lake on campus during orientation. He pointed out that he has important contributions to make to the MAC position. After all, at Wellesley, masculine-of-center students arecultural minorities; by numbers alone, they’re about as minor as a minority can be. And yet Timothy said he felt conflicted about taking a leadership spot. “The patriarchy is alive and well,” he said. “I don’t want to perpetuate it.”

A Mr. Kaden Mohamed, née Miss Mohamed, laments the female gaze — and grope:

Trans bodies are seen as an in-between option, Timothy said. “So no matter your sexuality, a trans person becomes safe to flirt with, to explore with. But it’s not really the person you’re interested in, it’s the novelty. For lesbians, there’s the safety of ‘I may be attracted to this person, but they’re “really” a woman, so I’m not actually bi or straight.’ And for straight people, it’s ‘I may be attracted to a woman’s body, but he’s a male, so I’m not really lesbian or bi.’ ”

Kaden Mohamed said he felt downright objectified when he returned from summer break last year, after five months of testosterone had lowered his voice, defined his arm muscles and reshaped his torso. It was attention that he had never experienced before he transitioned. But as his body changed, students he didn’t even know would run their hands over his biceps. Once at the school pub, an intoxicated Wellesley woman even grabbed his crotch and that of another trans man.

“It’s this very bizarre reversal of what happens in the real world,” Kaden said. “In the real world, it’s women who get fetishized, catcalled, sexually harassed, grabbed. At Wellesley, it’s trans men who do. If I were to go up to someone I just met and touch her body, I’d get grief from the entire Wellesley community, because they’d say it’s assault — and it is. But for some reason, when it’s done to trans men here, it doesn’t get read the same way. It’s like a free pass, that suddenly it’s O.K. to talk about or touch someone’s body as long as they’re not a woman.”

I agree with Mr. Mohamed that this is “very bizarre,” but I don’t think we’re talking about quite the same thing. Read the whole account of Wellesley’s cutting-edge agony. [1] Sign of the times. I think Hollins has it right:

A few schools have formulated responses to this dilemma, albeit very different ones. Hollins University, a small women’s college in Virginia, established a policy several years ago stating it would confer diplomas to only women. It also said that students who have surgery or begin hormone therapy to become men — or who legally take male names — will be “helped to transfer to another institution.”

A minor but significant nonetheless sign of the Times: the newspaper of record has solved the challenge by referring without note to these biological women, persons who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery, as men. As far as the Times is concerned, you are a man, or a woman, if you say you are. I doubt, however, that this is a universally applied journalistic principle. I would love to know how the newspaper of record decides to accept a subject’s claim of gender dysphoria, and how it would reckon that the subject is trying to play them. If Biff, a prankish sophomore at Slippery Rock State, announces with a straight face that he is a member of the Genderqueer/Transqueer/Masco-Feminine-American community, and demands access to the girls locker room or he’s going to denounce the administration as a pack of bigots, which pronoun will the Times use to describe him?

First world problems!

Serious point, though: this kind of confusion is the fruit of an ideology that believes reality is plastic, is malleable, and that to deny that assertion amounts to irrational animus. Moral and philosophical disorder as a sign of virtue.

89 Comments (Open | Close)

89 Comments To "Wellesley’s First World Problem"

#1 Comment By Matt in AK On October 16, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Biology deniers.

#2 Comment By Egypt Steve On October 16, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

@ VikingL:

I think here is where we liberals and you conservatives just miss each other. You say:

“Being born of mixed race and considered black is not the same thing as being born white and using hormones to take on black characteristics or even just saying “I may have been born white, but I identify as black and therefore I am black.” The latter is what we’re talking about and thus far it’s not something we as a society accept.”

For me, there’s no distinction between being “really black” and being “considered black.” What I think is that the latter is the only thing that is real. What you seem to assume is that sure, it may be the case that in the Nineteenth Century, people used to consider some people who were really black to be white, and some people who were really white to be black, but that was their problem and now we can absolutely figure out who is what, based on scientific objective considerations. I say the identification of race — what race you were, what race you thought the people you encountered were — was a largely subjective construction all along. Was then and is now.

And I say the same thing about gender identification. X and Y chromosomes, penises and vaginas, are only part of the issue. We are talking about individuals’ subjective, psychological experiences — that is, the experience of being one thing or another, and also perceiving others as one thing or another. And those perceptions, and their interpretations, happen in the brain. And in something as complicated as a human organism, it’s just unrealistic to think that chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormones, and subjective thoughts are going to be identically aligned in each and every case.

But as a materialist, I believe that thoughts and feelings are just as physical and biological as body structures. So, when there is a mismatch — why privilege the gonads over the brain?

#3 Comment By Frank OConnor On October 16, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

“Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad.”

#4 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 16, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

@M_Young, no, there are people who are stubbornly stupid and refuse even to understand what the other side is saying. We’ve already seen at least one example of what I’m talking about in this comment thread. I’m not talking about people like you who understand but disagree.

#5 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 16, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

KD explained in [2] exactly what I was trying to get at. There’s no contradiction at all between socially constructivist and conservative.

I’d just add that you could also say that all the gender play going on over the last twenty years is in our tribal tradition: the Western tribe’s centuries-long tradition of individual autonomy.

#6 Comment By curtis On October 16, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

Hollis has it right. But as soon as there are enough transgender children of transgender parents an institution of higher learning ought to be built to educate them. Ohhh wait, how could a next generation of transgenders transpire?

#7 Comment By KD On October 16, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

The problem with the essentialism/constructivist discussion is that both sides are wrong. There are different social orders–and other social orders possible–but each order shares resemblances to each other, and there is a bound on what is sustainable culturally, just as there is a bound on what is sustainable environmentally.

I bear no animus to trans-people but I view them as victims of a culture of narcissistic consumerism, the solution to which is not to further expand the boundaries of intimate commodification. What might be a compassionate way of working with an individual does not necessarily translate into a sound rule for all. I believe the Western tribe’s tradition is liberty, which degenerates into individual autonomy if the free individual does not voluntarily submit to something beyond him or herself.

#8 Comment By KD On October 16, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

What do I mean by culturally sustainable? A cultural form becomes unsustainable if it creates a civil war, or if a cultural group is too disunited to fend off attackers. I believe the institution of slavery is a good example in American history.

#9 Comment By Pat On October 16, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

“Did you actually read the whole post or did you just go straight to the last paragraph so you could write your “Rod you’re so stupid/bigoted” post?”

I read the whole post, but only the last paragraph related to something that interests me deeply, mainly the way we decide what is ‘real’ and what isn’t for strategic purposes. ‘Reality’ is a big issue for most scientists, I think.

And I hope Rod didn’t take my post as saying that he was stupid or bigoted, because it wasn’t meant that way. I just felt he was engaging in a dishonest debating tactic, and it was one that particularly cheeses me off.

#10 Comment By Pat On October 16, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

Also as a biologist, I’m really confused by the way people are using ‘the biologist side’ in this debate. Especially since much more biology has been posted on the opposing side.

#11 Comment By Lord Karth On October 16, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

KD writes: “I believe the Western tribe’s tradition is liberty, which degenerates into individual autonomy if the free individual does not voluntarily submit to something beyond him or herself.”

Given an environment of plentiful resources (the development of which was one of Western civilization’s signal accomplishments), liberty does not degenerate into autonomy, as autonomy implies the required continued existence of the individual’s relationships with other Humans and with the natural environment. Rather, the danger is the memetic detour into solipsism, a state of mentation (NOT “mind”) in which the individual perceives him-/her/itself as the sole actor on and arbiter of its environment. The individual comes to see itself as all-powerful and the sole legitimate setter of standards and values, without regard to the reaction of other individuals and indeed, the natural environment itself.

“Getting lost inside one’s own navel, and liking the fact” is probably the simplest way to describe it. Or, like Piers Anthony’s description of God in “And Eternity”, a being caught up in rapturous contemplation of Itself, to the exclusion of all else.

It’s what these Wellesleyans aspire to be. Law Unto Themselves. Which is sad.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#12 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On October 16, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

Re: Comparisons to race are silly. Skin color is an ephemeral trait that comes DNA that’s shared between every human being.


You do get that ‘race’ isn’t about skin color, right? It’s a measure of common descent. And it isn’t a ‘social construct’ any more than gender is.

#13 Comment By HeartRight On October 16, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

panda says:
October 16, 2014 at 12:51 pm

“deal severely with deviationists who wish to alter the status quo in other regards.”

So, since gay marriage is now a legal reality in most US states, what should be done to Rod and the other ‘deviationists’ on this thread?

Since exactly when does ‘legality’ over-rule the Common Good, eh?

#14 Comment By VikingLS On October 16, 2014 @ 7:36 pm

Egypt Steve

No, you don’t really get my point. I am NOT subscribing to ANY view of the situation as the correct one. What I am saying is that as a society we have not accepted that a person’s race is subject to one’s feelings about the matter but we have done so with gender. Whether I think that is right or wrong is moot.

My point is that there are some actual considerations about how we deal with a world where gender is changeable in the article which really bear discussion and all of you are flatly refusing to do so as you are more comfortable rehashing tired arguments that bear no real relevance to reality.

#15 Comment By Rombald On October 16, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

I have mixed feelings about this whole area.

On the one hand, the evidence does seem to be that gender dysphoria is real. And that’s not even starting on intersex conditions, in which even one’s physical sex is uncertain.

On the other hand, the people mentioned here sound like the worst kind of spoilt humanities students, from affluent backgrounds, who really just need a good kicking. It makes one wish there was national service, or people could be sent to Maoist rural labour camps for a year, or something.

#16 Comment By VikingLS On October 16, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

“And I hope Rod didn’t take my post as saying that he was stupid or bigoted, because it wasn’t meant that way. I just felt he was engaging in a dishonest debating tactic, and it was one that particularly cheeses me off.”

If he’s neither bigoted nor stupid why do you think he’s being so dishonest?

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 16, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

If there is anything to “trans” other than a figment of the modern imagination, we should find traces in old literature of people with similar dilemmas in ancient societies, and some notion of the creative ways they dealt with their ambiguity.

#18 Comment By AnotherBeliever On October 16, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

Race and gender are both biologically and socially mediated. That is to say, there are definite biological underpinnings, but that’s not the end of the story. Brazilian concepts of race are different from ours, and ours are different from our great grandparents’. Meanwhile, although gender is much more polarized a concept, cultures ranging from Albania to Karankawa Indians have instances of gender bending.

#19 Comment By VikingLS On October 16, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

“Touche, and I concede the point. Still, the idea that white men are being systematically disadvantaged in contemporary society had not ..exactly been missing from these comboxes.”

I appreciate the concession. As to the latter, I doubt most of the people who made that argument would have agreed that Timothy was a white man.

#20 Comment By BadReligion On October 16, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

The world isn’t, and never has been, reflected in Eisenhower-era sitcoms, or Victorian Christmas stories, or whatever other nostalgia filter animates these scolding posts. Gender identity is not sex, and nobody chooses it.

#21 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 16, 2014 @ 11:45 pm

Why did this not become a View from Prytania post? Rod, you missed a golden opportunity!

#22 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 16, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

[3], I shouldn’t have used such a vague term as “social constructivist” (or “conservative” either, for that matter). I agree with everything you say in your reply, including your “both sides are wrong,” if the “constructivist side is defined by people like these at Wellesley.

This whole “constructivism” culture battle is a 1990s thing – the Sokal hoax, etc. Back then, Stanley Fish used the example of baseball. It’s socially constructed, but it’s constrained by objective physical reality: you can’t have the pitcher’s mound a mile from home plate.

#23 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 17, 2014 @ 12:02 am

[4], by “biologist” or “biologism” I mean giving biology a relatively important place in a culture’s metaphysics. For instance, saying that chromosomes determine gender. Supposedly, this high importance to biology (not just in gender) goes back in the Western tradition all the way to the ancient Greeks. In fact, the whole nature/culture distinction is itself an ethnic cultural thing, specific to Western thought from ancient times. That’s what some anthropologists say, anyway.

An example, from my [5], is the elder’s objection that the missionaries brought them the body, not the spirit. Maybe I should have called one side in this debate “bodyist” rather than “biologist,” I don’t know.

#24 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 17, 2014 @ 12:08 am

[6], the reason I think it’s good to rehash tired arguments on this topic is (a) that the question is interesting and (b) that unlike the gay marriage question, the gender question is far from being settled politically. I see this as a cause that the conservative side can still win.

While it’s relevant to ask “how we deal with a world where gender is changeable,” it’s important to remember that we’re haven’t yet fully arrived at that world and the battle is still not decided.

#25 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 17, 2014 @ 12:31 am

I just reread my reply to Pat, above. To clarify: by “biology” I meant biological facts, not the science of biology. That might have been the whole source of the confusion.

#26 Comment By nan On October 17, 2014 @ 1:49 am

Reductio ad absurbum comes to mind. This is just plain tragic–an example of people making their own misery. As a Wellesley alum, I should be disgusted at this example of inability to accept even the most basic truths. Instead, I despair for our country and how our culture is leading us into confusion. Its not complexity, folks, its foolishness.
In my student days at Wellesley, the controversies were about how to truly accept those of other races and what to do if your roommate decided she was gay over the summer. What’s next–folks with species dysphoria?

#27 Comment By Josh McGee On October 17, 2014 @ 7:19 am

“As to the latter, I doubt most of the people who made that argument would have agreed that Timothy was a white man.”

Ding, ding, ding. My joke, at least, was just poking fun that in Timothy’s first foray into politics, he happened to outwardly identify as a demographic that, based on the opposition he faced, carried the least amount of cachet on campus. That unfolding could not have been made funnier had it been written in a sitcom or movie.

I mean, every experienced politician knows that you tell the people whatever they want to hear, and you contort yourself in whatever way needed to look favorable to your audience. And poor Timothy, at Wellesley, chose to campaign on that particular campus as a white man, even though the premise of the story is that we can choose to be whatever we want to be. It is truly perfect comedy.

In the aftermath, I can just hear his campaign advisor saying, “Well, maybe with this constituency you should have run as a Hispanic female lesbian. We could have picked up a few more votes that way. Maybe next time…”

#28 Comment By Alex On October 17, 2014 @ 8:31 am

Siarlys Jenkins:
If there is anything to “trans” other than a figment of the modern imagination, we should find traces in old literature of people with similar dilemmas in ancient societies, and some notion of the creative ways they dealt with their ambiguity.

Indeed we do. The wikipedia article dealing generally with “third gender” is a good place to start – it describes both non-Western cultures that continue to recognize various trans identities and have done so for centuries, as well as evidence in Western antiquity. Some scholars even believe that in translations of historical texts the term “eunuch” has been overused; even where that term is used in the Bible, it might refer not to a involuntarily-castrated man, but to someone who was living out a trans existence. Certainly, some of the pagan cults that existed parallel to early Christianity had transsexual priests – the 2nd-century Christian historian Tertullian wrote about the heathen practice of “a third race in sex, made up as it is of male and female in one.”

#29 Comment By KD On October 17, 2014 @ 9:33 am

The biggest limitation on all these discussion is the insistence on rules for everything. Traditional rules are sensible, pragmatic and social constructive (in the non-liberal sense), but it does not take much to develop a case in which the application of the rule results in a harsh or cruel outcome. Traditionally, application of the rule required discernment and mercy, e.g. ignoring the rules sometimes under the right circumstances–which can never be defined. In a secular culture, bereft of any kind of spirit, we are left only with rules or anarchy, and we are attempting to replace the old rules with new rules which I suspect are much less wholesome for the many, and much less sustainable in the long term. We can witness the sexual revolution becoming the sexual reign of terror on college campuses. What we really lack is wisdom, not new and improved bureaucracy.

#30 Comment By KD On October 17, 2014 @ 9:41 am

We live in a so-called universe, in which we talk about scientific laws and randomness. If it is a uni-verse, and not a pluri-verse, then the order can only proceed from the random (which is undefinable and unlimited), and not vice versa. Likewise, the human law can only proceed from mercy and love, and can only create a just order to the extent that it can be arbitrary.

#31 Comment By M_Young On October 17, 2014 @ 9:53 am

“Brazilian concepts of race are different from ours, ”

And yet, the heavily black (or ‘black’ or even Black or ‘Black’ if you prefer) Bahia is poor, and the relatively white (or ‘white’) if you prefer South is rich.

#32 Comment By KD On October 17, 2014 @ 9:54 am

Law creates a limit on love, which becomes legitimated by love’s willingness to sacrifice itself for the limit.

#33 Comment By M_Young On October 17, 2014 @ 10:58 am

Sailer had a great (naturally) [8] on the actual consequences of treating men who’ve had themselves mutilated as “women’, namely a MMA ‘woman’ who broke the [9]

The victim — ‘never have I felt so overpowered in my life’. Well yeah, your opponent had 25-30 years of testosterone building his muscle and bone mass.

#34 Comment By M_Young On October 17, 2014 @ 11:01 am

The really funny thing is that if a real man walked into a Wellesley class acting on the ‘pants optional’ thing, he’d be torn to bits (metaphorically and perhaps literally) for sexual aggression or some such.

#35 Comment By Christopher On October 17, 2014 @ 2:39 pm


It’s fun to point and laugh when modern left-wingers start trying to decide which minorities are better suited for their campus’ Multicultural Affairs Coordinator.

No argument from me about that.

You’re still wrong about this, though:

Serious point, though: this kind of confusion is the fruit of an ideology that believes reality is plastic, is malleable, and that to deny that assertion amounts to irrational animus.

Ask yourself, if these people ignore biology, how can they tell the difference between a Trans Man and a Cis Man?

Biology, far from being ignored, is at the forefront of trans thinking, because that’s how you know you’re trans. If you really, truly could not see any biological difference between the sexes, you would not even be able to come up with the category of trans, because nothing would be left to separate trans men and cis men.

The position of trans activists like this is that trans people are like others of their gender, except for biology. The reality of biology is acknowledged by the ideology, and in fact that ideology couldn’t exist without intense consciousness of biological facts.

Instead, the assertion is that “Man” and “Woman” should be terms that refer to something other than biology. The argument is about terminology, not the things themselves. They feel that the terms “Man” and “Woman” should refer to something other than biological reality.

Just to be contrary, I think this has a lot in common with Christian ideology. Fer example, Homosexuality is often, in these very comments, criticized because it involves men not fulfilling their purpose. The reality is that many biological men want to have sex with other men. But a common argument here against homosexuality is that there is a kind of Male telos, which is distinct from, and more important then male biology.

In other words, you can be biologically male, but still somehow fail to be a man.

You assert that every biological male is obligated to choose the male telos; the trans man says that even though he’s biologically female, his telos is male.

Both philosophies are grounded in the idea that there is a fundamental “maleness” which is more important than mere biology.

#36 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 17, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

Alex, are you referring to people who claimed to be women in men’s bodies, and men in women’s bodies? Or are you weaving a facile interpretation from the well documented fact that there has always been a small and sometimes prominent minority of the human population that was homosexual? There is a difference, even if one person of a same-sex partnership is dominant and the other submissive.

#37 Comment By Church Lady On October 17, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

If there is anything to “trans” other than a figment of the modern imagination, we should find traces in old literature of people with similar dilemmas in ancient societies, and some notion of the creative ways they dealt with their ambiguity.

Have you read nothing of Greek and Roman and Hindu and other mythologies and all the bizarre sexual things that go on in these stories? I mean, honestly, this sort of thing is widely covered in that kind of ancient literature.

#38 Comment By Carltuesday On October 17, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

The lesson from our recent training seminar at work (govt agency), entitled “LGBT* CO-WORKERS & VISITORS: WHAT THEY WORRY ABOUT & HOW YOU CAN HELP” taught us very clearly the “golden rule of gender”. It is: “remember their gender is whatever they say it is and you can’t go wrong”.

None of those are mockery quotes, but actual content.

#39 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 18, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

Church Lady, you can find any symbolism you want in ancient myths, as Young Earth Creationists and devotees of the Revelation to St. John have proven many times over. Et tu? Much of what occurs in ancient myths is as raw as two dragonflies mating (which ain’t pretty or romantic), but finding evidence of TRANS-sexuality is rather tenuous.