Skylar Crownover is walking me through the lush tree lined streets of Mills College, and through buildings with red clay roofs.
Students constantly wave hello as we make our way to the center of campus. Crownover is a junior this year, and the current student body president.
“I just feel so lucky that i get to learn on this campus,” he says.
But its not just because of the academics or the beautiful setting. One of the reasons Mills is so important to Crownover is because the college mission now explicitly supports his current identity as a transgender man.
That means Crownover was born female, but identifies as male. Today he is wearing baggy jeans, a red t-shirt, and has spiked bleached-blonde hair. Crownover prefers to use male pronouns like he, his or him. Even though Mills is a women’s college, It welcomes transgender or gender neutral students. On September 1, Mills formally clarified its admissions policy. Now it says that students with a wide variety of preferred gender pronouns - or PGPs - are allowed, and encouraged to apply.
The mission of an all women’s college was originally to provide access to higher education for the oppressed gender, Crownover tells me.
“When Mills was founded that was women, and now moving forward in society if we're updating that mission it’s providing access to higher education for the oppressed genders,” Crownover says.
Including women. But also genderqueer students, gender-questioning students, gender-neutral or gender non-conforming students. And transgender students, like Crownover. Crownover says the policy is about more than just who gets to go to school here.
“I have been asked by various people, ‘why are you at Mills, if you identify as not a woman, why are you at Mills?’ And I think having this policy in groundwork, finally written down allows me to say officially ‘Because the mission of the school supports my identity and who I am as a person. That’s why I’m at Mills.’”
Figuring out who you are can be a big part of a college experience. Crownover thinks the new policy will let students feel more comfortable being themselves as soon as they step foot on campus.
“So I can walk into any space on campus and say, ‘Hi my name is Skylar Crownover and PGPs are He, Him, His. And nobody is going to look at me like I have two heads,” he says.
Brian O’Rourke, the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Mill, says he understands the college application process is already very daunting for students.
“To then have to call up a stranger in the admission office and say,
‘Am I eligible? I'm interested in your school but would you even accept me?’ makes it even more confusing,” says O’Rourke.
O’Rourke emphasizes that enrolling students with a wide range of gender identities doesn’t mean Mills College is going coed.
“We are exceptionally proud of our identity and history as a women’s college,” says O’Rourke. “[P]art of the reason that we've moved forward with this policy is because we believe it’s important and it’s in the DNA of women’s colleges to question traditional gender roles and gender stereotypes and gender identity.”
O’Rourke says that Mills typically hears from three to five students per year who say, “I identify as gender-neutral or I was born a female but am considering a transition to male. If I’m admitted now, will I be able to graduate?’ And of course our answer was and continues to be yes.
Two years ago, Sonj Basha was one of those students.
Basha meets me next to Mill’s century-old bell tower, El Campanile. Basha is a senior and identifies as genderqueer or gender non-conforming. That means that Basha’s preferred pronouns are neutral gendered, or non-gendered - they or them as opposed to he or she.
Basha played a big role in shaping the new policy. At its core, the policy says if you are legally male - say on a birth certificate or changed birth certificate, and you identify with the male gender - you cannot apply to the undergraduate program. If you fall into any other category, you’re welcome to apply. For Basha, having this clarity would’ve made a big difference for their first year at Mills.
“It would have prevented me from almost dropping out, which I did my first semester,” they say.
Then, they weren’t sure if they were welcome. Now, with the policy Mills is even better fit.
Still, Basha says there’s still a long way to go. Like admission to college, the new policy is just the beginning, the first step toward changing the campus climate.
“I've had experiences in the classroom that put a really bad taste in my mouth,” Basha says.
Like being called by the wrong pronoun by a professor, Basha says, or not having access to gender neutral bathrooms on campus.
“Things that are so deeply ingrained in how we are socialized in the rest of the world. A lot of it has to do with language, not just honoring someone's identity but really working on deconstructing how we make assumptions about people on the most basic level.”
Basha says this can be solved by educating staff, students, and professors. And they hope other single sex colleges will catch on. Especially at schools like Smith which denied a transgender student admission last year. Earlier this week, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts announced it would adopt a similar admissions policy to Mills.
“We're just making it known that part of a civil rights movement that’s currently happening is a queer rights movement, and that people who don’t want to be going to coed colleges and to be experiencing all of the oppressive dynamics that happen within that binary have a place to go, and not all colleges do that,” Basha says.
Mills, Basha says, is place where they can be themselves, regardless of their identity.