By Janet Briggs, Devon Campbell, & Sarah Cook, Editors-in-Chief
The original mission of Harpeth Hall as an all-girls school was to uplift those who have been marginalized. While the school claims to support trans students, this support needs to be formalized. Additionally, practices must be implemented to ensure the inclusion of trans students because the assumption that all students at Harpeth Hall are cisgender and female does not accurately depict the student body and ostracizes trans students.
In the 2020-2021 Harpeth Hall Handbook, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statement reads: “Our school community is enriched by diversity as defined by age, ability, race and ethnicity, gender, religion, spirituality, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. The school works to advance the dialogue around equity and inclusion.”
“I as a student have never felt that that statement applies to me,” an anonymous transgender student said. “I’ve never felt that the school community has ever felt enriched by me being LGBT. It has been constricted and divided because of it. The school says they’ve worked to advance the dialogue, and a good first step would be to start it.”
Harpeth Hall has worked to create space for conversations about the experiences of BIPOC students in recent years; however, even at a school where gender issues are a frequent topic, discussions on campus and official school policies exclude transgender students.
Lack of public statement creates uncertainty and fear
According to Head of School Jess Hill, conversations about trans students at Harpeth Hall began within the administration approximately six years ago, and the Board of Trustees formed a committee regarding trans students that is now under the umbrella of a diversity, equity and inclusion committee. Concurrently, Harpeth Hall administrators attended conferences with other girls’ schools throughout the nation, often led by historically women’s colleges.
“What we found from several of the leading girls’ schools is that the best schools didn’t have a written policy,” Mrs. Hill said. “What resonated with us is that transgender issues are more of a personal issue than a policy issue.”
Consequently, the Harpeth Hall website lacks any concrete policy or statement declaring how the school supports students transitioning.
“I don’t know if we need to have a policy in writing, and it’s not that we’re scared to have a policy. Every single person is so different,” Mrs. Hill said. “We don’t want to treat each transgender person the same. Every journey is different. Everybody is different. Part of this work is making sure we respect what each individual wants.”
While the experience of coming out and transitioning is unique to each trans student, the lack of a public statement creates uncertainty surrounding Harpeth Hall’s degree of support for trans students and how the school would react to a trans student coming out.
“I just want a policy. Now if that policy is ‘we don’t accept trans people if you transition,’ that’s a policy,” the anonymous student said. “People can accommodate to that. I sure hope it’s open, but I just want a policy. I don’t want this to fly under the radar, brushed under the carpet and act like these students don’t exist.”
While it is designed to accommodate for individual differences, a case-by-case approach without an overarching statement that clearly states support for students who transition makes trans students feel outcast from the school community, and it indicates a general assumption that all students will identify as cis females for their time at Harpeth Hall.
“The policy of taking trans students on a case-by-case basis is very dangerous, as it gives students the idea that trans students don’t really exist,” the trans alumni said.
“It’s always case by case, and that’s just not right. If we’re not going to have a conversation, and we’re just going to let trans students walk the halls feeling out of their own skin, pretending to be someone who they’re not, being told to be that person that they’re not,” an anonymous student said.
Numerous historically female colleges provide models for public statements that Harpeth Hall could emulate. Wellesley College’s website states: “We support all of our students. Once accepted to Wellesley, every student receives the full support and mentorship of College faculty, staff, and administrators through graduation. If, after being accepted, a student no longer identifies as a woman, the College will continue to support that student.”
“As a school, we want to help support a student, whatever journey they’re on while they’re a student at HH, so we do not have a policy that if a student transitions, they automatically have to leave,” Mrs. Hill said.
Harpeth Hall does not need to change drastically in terms of their attitude towards supporting trans students because, like Wellesley, Harpeth Hall will support trans students after and during their transition. However, the absence of a clear public statement—excluding the publication of this article—leaves trans students uncertain in the security of their position as a Harpeth Hall student.
Students need systems and guidelines to support their identity.
Beyond the policies set in place by the school, simple practices and guidelines need to change to help promote inclusivity for trans students at Harpeth Hall.
Specifically, students should have access to ways to update their name and pronouns for teachers and students to view. Just as students often adopt their middle name or nickname, trans students could easily replace their dead names in Veracross with their preferred name.
Additionally, if there were accessible options to enter pronouns into Veracross, teachers could easily access the accurate information for their classes.
The uniform is another example of the femininity embedded into the rules and expectations at Harpeth Hall. In the past, Harpeth Hall has offered pants as an alternative to the classic plaid skirt, and discussions are underway about potentially adding this option back. This addition is necessary to include more freedom in gender presentation.
Pervasive all girls’ culture isolates trans students.
Groups of students are frequently referred to as “ladies,” and the emphasis on “women in STEM” pervades Harpeth Hall’s culture. While Harpeth Hall predominantly consists of students who identify as female, the perpetual phrases invoking femininity can make trans students feel isolated.
“When that’s every single word, you recognize that it applies to me, they perceive me as that. I’m going to go along with my day, understanding that I’m not exactly where I belong,” an anonymous student said.
Harpeth Hall has an identity as an all-girls’ school, but there are ways in which to make our community more inclusive. It’s clear there is a line drawn for the level of inclusion the school is currently willing to facilitate.
“When I write generically about a Harpeth Hall student, I use she/her pronouns, when I write about our emerging leaders, I talk about girls and young women,” Mrs. Hill said. “That’s part of what I’ve been asked to do to carry the mission of our school forward, and our mission is very clearly a place where we lift up girls. That doesn’t mean we can’t be supportive of any student in our community, but we are supporting them within the context of the girls’ school.”
Curriculum and discussions must include trans voice.
How we talk about women’s empowerment and feminism should also evolve. Modern feminism is built on the ideals of equality for all gender identities, and our conversations around feminism at Harpeth Hall are often from a binary point of view.
“Whenever we talk about feminism, we also have to accept that intersectionality, the fact that there is not always man and not always woman, and that they are just as valuable in the concept of feminism and gender equality as everyone else,” sophomore El Griffin said.
However, the ostracization of trans students at Harpeth Hall has escalated beyond reminders of the overwhelmingly female environment.
“Someone outed me,” the anonymous alumni said. “She was progressive, she was left-leaning, but that was still something she did to me.”
“People told their boyfriends at MBA. Their boyfriends harassed me. They harassed me through my boyfriend. It was, all around, not a positive experience. In terms of the general attitudes around being trans, I would say Harpeth Hall is very negative, and it was mostly fueled by people’s ignorance.”
This alumni’s experience highlights the consequences of failing to educate Harpeth Hall students on transgender issues. Regardless of political ideology, many cisgender students do not understand the gravity of attending Harpeth Hall as a trans student or the danger of outing someone publicly. This ignorance surpasses solely the student body, as the faculty’s knowledge and acceptance of trans students varies significantly.
“I had interactions with some faculty members that weren’t educated on trans topics that said some incredibly hurtful and insensitive things,” the anonymous alumni said. “But there were also faculty members who advocated for me.”
To address this ignorance in the Harpeth Hall community, changes to the curriculum could be the first step towards progress. Our curriculum surrounding the history of women’s rights leaves out many significant figures who were crucial to those movements and part of the LGBTQ community.
“By making that concept seeming so distant, you isolate many students from your curriculum,” an anonymous student said.
Additionally, there needs to be more room for conversations about carrying respectful dialogue regarding the transgender experience.
According to Upper School counselor Amy Knutson, students currently discuss the differences between sex and gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation in Life Balance classes. Naturally, the Life Balance class for freshmen and sophomores would be an excellent place to add a dialogue about holding respectful conversations.
“It does seem like Life Balance could be a good spot because you’d be teaching it earlier,” Mrs. Hill said. “I feel like it would be nice for people to know the respectful ways to talk about it at a young age.”
Clear accountability required to provide safe environment
Creating more transparent accountability for community members so that trans students feel safe coming out at school is critical for Harpeth Hall to live up to their goals of diversity, equity and inclusion when it pertains to gender.
Even if Harpeth Hall creates accessible ways to input names and pronouns for students, trans students currently are afraid of backlash from other students if they switch names or use pronouns other than she/her.
“We would deal with any kind of unkind or, heaven forbid, aggressive behavior towards anyone who is LGBTQ+, just like any kind of consequence for a student,” Mrs. Hill said.
However, a more specific statement pertaining to transphobia that clearly outlines unacceptable behavior towards trans students is necessary. This statement would better promote an inclusive community and could possibly make trans students feel less afraid of harassment should they choose to come out.
Altogether, there are many ways in which Harpeth Hall could better include trans students through transparent curriculum changes and public statements. These changes will not occur overnight, but they are necessary to live up to our founding ideals and to adapt as a historically female institution.