When I came to Wellesley College, I was excited to join a safe space. A space in which I could share my opinions, debate, grow, and face other viewpoints. It was okay if my peers and I agreed to disagree. However, never would I have imagined that often times, I would feel uncomfortable voicing my thoughts, because they differed from those which seemed to represent the entire student body. I’d question whether or not I was bigoted, ignorant, or prejudiced, and I worked to educate myself whenever I asked these questions. Ultimately, however, I have come to accept that Wellesley is not an ideological safe space for all; we subscribe to unwritten rules of Wellesley College every day—rules about what opinions are okay to make known publicly, and which are not—and this convention proves both isolating and dividing for many on this campus.
The problem has and does manifest itself on the numerous anonymous forums that have knocked our campus off its feet—Wendy Quiet, Wellesley FML, and now, Yik Yak. On each site, I have watched this argument rise to the top: “LGBTQ students have to justify their identity on a day-to-day basis. Straight students don’t. Therefore, straight students have less of a right to complain that this community doesn’t feel like their community.” I’ve heard multiple responses, ranging from: “Straight people are the majority here. How could you not feel like this is your community?” to “Straight people need to stop complaining and start realizing their privilege.” But most upsetting is the quiet reaction: “I don’t feel comfortable vocalizing that Wellesley doesn’t feel like my safe space, when someone chastises me for wanting to call this a ‘sisterhood,’ or wanting to stand up for its status as a college for cisgender or trans women only.” There’s the crux of this issue: if we want this to be a true “safe space,” it needs to be safe for everyone to speak up. A safe space is somewhere every student feels that she can voice her opinion without feeling unsafe or unwelcome doing so. This doesn’t mean we need to tolerate ignorance or bigotry on this campus: it means we need to permit opinions we disagree with, without marking them off as bigoted because we disagree. Otherwise, we risk relegating important discussions to the realms of Yik Yak and Tumblr.
Take the New York Times article that questioned the definition of what it means to be at a women’s college today. In the week following the article’s debut, an alumna visited my philosophy class, and asked us how we felt about the article. I watched silence sweep over half the classroom and resignation sweep over the other half. No one wanted to share an opinion that challenged the piece. But when we broke into smaller groups, I was amazed to hear a majority of my peers slowly voice my own thoughts: “It’s not representative of Wellesley as a whole. Some of us are proud to attend a traditional women’s college. We don’t feel like a vocal minority has the right to demand we change for them.” One student responded to the article over dinner, saying, “If you go to an art school, and decide you want to become an engineer, would you ask that Pratt or RISD change for you? No. You would leave, and enroll at MIT.” Wellesley doesn’t pretend to admit people of all gender identities— just like RISD doesn’t pretend to be an engineering school. Months later, I was confronted with a challenge to the unwritten rules of this campus when chatting with a friend from the class of 2012. I was saddened at her reaction: “It’s so upsetting to watch a few people dominate the discussion at Wellesley. Once you leave, people become comfortable hearing it be called it a sisterhood, or a siblinghood—regardless of which they agree with, and most importantly, stop judging one another for the variety of opinions. It gets better—it’s just sad that it has to happen after we leave Wellesley.”
The problem is not so much that the cisgender community should get to decide what happens to the status of transgender students at this college. It is that the former students are frequently denied the right to express their dissenting opinions and their satisfaction with the college’s policy as it stands. This frustration flourishes when some students deny that this obstacle to open conversation even exists. If this aggression surfaces every time an anonymous forum crops up, and every time that aggression catapults into a heated discussion, it’s impossible to just dismiss the discontent. Whenever a student dismisses the feelings of any group on campus—gay, straight, black, or white, regardless of society’s historic treatment of that group—the discussion becomes inhospitable to someone in the room. This happens at org meetings, in classrooms, in friends’ rooms, and most often, online. The examples are easy to find once you are open-minded enough to look for them, and are not limited to those I discuss above.
Bearing these two conditions in mind, what are we to do about the lack of a true safe space at Wellesley? The students who claim to make Wellesley a “safe space” need to re-evaluate how they define that term. Every student may not have a “stake” in the conversation to the same degree you do (the discussion may not impact her status as a prospective or current student), but it is absolutely ridiculous to exclude her from the conversation altogether, and then to insist that this is still a safe space for her. She, too, is Wellesley. She is just as much a part of this greater community as you are. We need to refrain from making sweeping generalizations about the discontent this campus feels towards the College’s current status as a women’s college, and its current definition of women. Not everyone shares your sentiments—come to terms with this.
Ultimately, we all deserve to feel that this community is our own, regardless of our views or our identities. Who are we? We are the students that are eligible to attend Wellesley College, a women’s college. You may not like or agree with this statement, but it currently applies to admissions at this college. These policies are credible because the trustees and alumnae of Wellesley College decided on them. Until you personally ascend to this board or position, your only option is to comply with these regulations. However, you are allowed to protest, debate, and express your anger in ways that do not endanger the well being of others—but you are not permitted to make me feel helpless in attempting to counter you in the process.
From February 2015 Issue