Challenging Tradition

Many moons ago…back in the early 90s when I was transitioning, I had an online transwoman friend who lived in England, was blind, and had attended one of the colleges at Oxford.  I don’t recall which college it was, but it was definitely Men Only at the time.  It was Men Only to the point that it refused to recognize any graduates which may have transitioned from male to female, preferring to remove them from the historical list.

I am sure my friend is amazed at how tradition has now been altered at Oxford University.  Amid concerns that its strict academic dress code was unfair to transgender students, Oxford has adopted new regulations removing the requirement that students wear ceremonial clothing specific to their gender.

That is, male-born people will be allowed to sit exams in skirts and stockings and women-born people will have the option of wearing suits and bow ties.

The laws go into effect August 4.  They were proposed by Oxford’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer society (LGBTQ Soc) and passed by the student union.

In future there will be no need for transgender students to cross-dress to avoid being confronted by invigilators or disciplined during their exam.

–Jess Pumphrey. LGBTQ Soc

Under the old rules (called subfusc) male students were required to wear a dark suit and socks, black shoes, a white bow tie and a plain white shirt and collar under their black gowns.  Female students had to wear a dark suit or trousers, a white blouse, black stockings and shoes and a black ribbon tied in a bow at the neck.

Transgender students could seek special dispensation from university proctors, who had the power to punish those who violated the rules.

The regulations have been amended to remove any reference to gender, in response to concerns raised by Oxford University Student Union that the existing regulations did not serve the interests of transgender students.

–Oxford University

I am of the opinion that it is possible to keep elements of tradition in this way while making them unrestrictive to trans students, genderqueer students, or students who wish to wear a different subfusc to that which they’d be expected to wear.

–Simone Webb, LGBTQ Soc

It is interesting that the original Guardian article had to be corrected…after refering to Simone Webb as “he” and Jess Pumphrey as “she”.

More conservative sources decided the title of the article should be something like the Daily Mail’s Men can wear skirts at Oxford University as academic dress code is changed to ‘meet needs of cross-dressing students’.  Some also felt it necessary to track down someone to speak negatively about the change:

If men want to prance around in skirts, that is entirely up to them.

In my day, it would have been unthinkable; men were men and women were women, and we dressed accordingly.  But I think the university is just saving itself from a silly row, and from that point of view I’m on their side.  Why go courting a silly row when they don’t need one?

–Ann Widdecombe, Lady Margaret Hall, ’72

In a related story 16-year-old Ashlyn Parram, who has been undergoing gender reassignment treatment, was told by Giles Academy exam proctors that she would not be allowed to sit for an exam unless she went home and changed to boy’s clothes.  Instead of going home to change clothes, she printed off a copy of the Equality Act, which makes it an offense to discriminate against transgender people, and presented it to headmaster Chris Walls.

Ashlyn was then allowed to sit for the mathematics exam, but was separated from the other students.  She struggled to keep from crying during the exam.  She hopes to go to college to study mathematics.

The way Ashlyn has been treated by the school is just appalling. She’s just a child. If she had been black, or disabled, there would have been uproar.

Giles is not a bad school, but this is about a few bigoted people who need to start operating in this century.

–Miranda Johnson, Ashlyn’s mother

A video report is available at vimeo.

Full report by Alison Mackenzie from ITV Central on Vimeo.

Zinnia Jones has some commentary: