Editors' Note: Rhys McGovern is a teacher, and an alum of Smith College. He spends his time reading, singing, and finding new things to learn.
Last Sunday, I attended the Smith College Commencement ceremony. The day was beautiful, and the commencement speech was given by Jane Lynch (who is now an honorary alum of Smith). She was an incredible speaker, as everyone expected, and she stressed the importance and beauty of Smith as a women's institution. She lauded Smithies for their spirit and advised them to enter the world with a "Yes, and..." attitude. She also addressed the assembled student body as "ladies."
To anyone unfamiliar with Smith, this seems an appropriate collective noun. But to me, and to many of the people at commencement today, the word rubs the wrong way. There are so many students of Smith who are not women - men in the School for Social Work, men graduating with a Masters of Fine Arts or a Masters of Arts in Teaching, and students who fit the legal requirement for undergraduate attendance (an F on their birth certificate) who do not identify as women. All of these students were erased in the speech Jane Lynch gave last week - an erasure that undoubtedly occurred many times over these students' tenure at Smith.
As I stood outside the quad after the ceremony waiting for my newly-graduated friends to appear, I saw a graduate wearing a button-down shirt and tie, holding their cap and gown and embracing their partner. They were crying and breathing quickly and shaking. I overheard them say to the person holding them, "I fucking hate this place. I feel awful. Can we go now?"
No one should feel like that on their graduation day.
Walking away from the quad with a friend a few minutes later, I mentioned Jane's slightly frustrating choice of collective noun. My friend paused, then said, "Yeah, that bothered me too. But I have felt uncomfortable many times here, felt like I was encroaching on women's space. Today, on graduation day, I can let this just be a women's space."
Women's spaces are important. Smith is an important women's space. There are students who attend Smith who live and love and work and grow there, who absolutely do not identify as women. All of these statements are true, but the conclusions of the second and the third are at odds with one another. There are individuals who have spent years of their lives working on resolving the apparent conflict, and many more people who I'm sure will approach this issue in the future.
As someone who came to Smith after leaving a school in which I was harassed and routinely felt emotionally and physically unsafe, I know it as a relatively safe space. I love the campus and the people who populate it. I grew in ways I never thought I would, and much of that is due to the amazing women and men and people of other genders I came to know while I attended the school. I am a more whole, more confident, more real person because of Smith. I learned countless lessons about justice and equality. I learned never to ignore discrimination. I learned how to speak thoughtfully for myself and others, and I learned, first and foremost, to listen. I am grateful and honored to have had these experiences, and I am incredibly privileged that I experienced relatively little frustration and despair because of my unusual gender while at Smith.
But last week I was reminded that many Smithies are not so lucky.
I was able to help create change while at Smith. I helped a number of professors learn to ask for pronouns and to understand the importance of chosen names. I am a gender-queer, masculine-presenting person with the chest of someone born with two X chromosomes. Though I was often frustrated with the institution and their occasional, apparently willful transphobia, I walked away from Smith with primarily good feelings about the school.
I will always have to explain why my undergraduate degree is from a women's college. I will always find myself in conversations about women's space, and the fluidity of gender, and how those two things can be coupled safely for everyone involved. And I will do all this with a steady voice and a sure hand and the ability to safely navigate subjects close to my heart; these are all skills I learned during my time at Smith.
For that, I cannot thank and appreciate the college community enough for the support and hard lessons I received while I was there. At the same time, I have to think of the many new graduates I saw today shaking their heads and proclaiming that they couldn't be happier to be leaving. I have to think of the graduate clasping their partner's hand and sobbing - not with relief, but with anger. If Smith cannot be a safe place for trans people, where can we go? If not a women's space for individuals raised as women and now trying to carve beautiful new social space for their chosen gender, then where? If a queer-friendly, social justice oriented, ethnically and socially diverse space cannot recognize the members of its own community who have come here seeking safety and the opportunity for growth, what other space will have us?
I don't have answers to the questions I'm asking, nor to the question of how trans and gender-queer folks fit into Smith as a women's institution. I can say that I hope for a time when spaces for queer folks of all flavors are abundant. I hope for an end to the patriarchal, oppressive societal structure that designates women as a lower social class and endorses fear and violence as responses to unusual gender expressions.
And in my small ways, in the life I'm living, I'm working towards those hopes. Every day I am working for a safer, more equal world - through my unusual appearance, through conversations with people I know and people I've just met, through telling my preschoolers that both boys and girls can have long hair, or earrings, or painted nails, or hairy legs. I am making change the way I know I am best at- one person, one conversation at a time. That is a skill I learned, practiced, and perfected at Smith. I can only hope that someday Smith wil be a place I no longer need to do it.