On a bright, chilly day in late November, Ninotska Love met me at the train station just outside of Wellesley College, where she is a first-year, non-traditional student. Her casual and cute winter gear pairs perfectly with the adorable café she leads me to. “Wellesley is known as the preppy one out of the [Seven Sisters],” she says with a quick grin and a wave of her arm that encompass her outfit, the café, and the storybook street around us.
Indeed, if you’ve never visited Wellesley College, simply imagine the platonic ideal of a small, beautiful, northeastern liberal arts school, and you’ll probably be pretty close. Squint hard, and it might seem like nothing has changed since the school was founded as a women’s college in 1870. But look closer, and you’ll see that the school is grappling with a question that is both bigger than the college and fundamental to its existence: What does it mean to be a women’s school at a time when what it means to be a woman is being redefined?
Ninotska has the honor — and burden — of being the school’s first out transgender female student. Shortly after we sit down, she lists off the reasons she chose Wellesley: “The reputation. The research opportunities. The environment. How all the most important women come from Wellesley!” She pauses for a moment before adding, “And I always considered myself a woman, so I wanted to be in a women's school.”
She quickly elaborates that there are nonbinary and male-identified students at Wellesley, and she supports their right to be there. But for her, part of why she chose the school was the chance to commune with other women in an empowered educational setting — exactly the chance she was denied while growing up in Ecuador. As a child, she attended a gender-segregated Catholic school and can remember staring longingly at the girl’s school across the way. “That stuck with me, that I wasn't able to be there,” she tells me in a quiet, reflective moment.
The road from Ecuador to Wellesley, Massachusetts, was a long one. At 19, Ninotska was kidnapped and held captive by unknown assailants who threatened to kill her over her gender identity. After escaping, she realized she would never be safe where she was, and with the help of her mother, she fled to the United States. Crossing the border without legal paperwork, she ended up in North Carolina, where she cleaned college dorms for a living. “I was like, I don't want to do this, I’d rather go to school,” Ninotska sighs. “That was my dream.”
Eventually, Ninotska made her way to New York, where she got involved in the transgender community. While volunteering as a sexual health educator handing out information in bars, she met an attorney who helped her apply for, and eventually receive, political refugee status. After a few years of saving money and going through the long process of changing her identification, she started at a two-year college program in New York City, where she excelled and was selected for the prestigious Kaplan Leadership Program, which, according to their website, “successfully transfers low-income Black, Latino, and Native American students of exceptional academic merit from New York City’s community colleges to top four-year universities.” From the moment she visited Wellesley with the Kaplan program, Ninotska knew it was the school for her.
At Wellesley, she says, “Everyone has been very supportive, and they understand that I am a woman just as much as they are.” If anything has been difficult, Ninotska tells me, it’s adapting to the wealth and class privilege so many of her fellow students were raised with.
In many ways, it’s a good time to be trans at Wellesley. The campus has acknowledged its transgender students for years, although it has mainly dealt with students who transitioned to masculine-of-center after enrolling. Korrie Xavier came to Wellesley from the Navy, and was out about being transmasculine when he applied in 2001, calling himself “trans-lite” because he “didn’t have the language of nonbinary” at the time. After two years, he took some time away from school and returned to campus in 2009. Korrie said that he noticed significant changes between those two periods. “By the time I returned in 2009, trans felt like old hat,” he tells me via email. “There were a few folx who'd begun transitioning, while students and the language on campus was well into the shift from ‘sister’ to ‘sibling.’”
In another good news for Wellesley’s trans community, the school’s museum, the Davis, recently made its first purchase of art created by and about gender nonconforming individuals: A collection of 12 beautifully rendered portraits from Ria Brodell’s Butch Heroes series. According to a conversation with the artist themself, each painting depicts a real historical figure who fit three criteria: they were “assigned female at birth, presented themselves in a more masculine way, and had relationships with women.” Brodell has been working on the series for years, and has created over 25 paintings so far, some of which are also in the permanent collections of the Leslie–Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, and the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.
Brodell’s painstaking research and attention to craft give the paintings an honorific (or even beatific) feel, making heroes out of individuals whose stories often go untold. Lisa Fischman, the Director of the Davis Museum, told me she knew she had to purchase Brodell’s paintings as soon as she walked into the gallery. “Their insistence on truthfulness is articulated in the quality of the work,” she elaborates as we examine the paintings together. “It’s in the charming details, and in these life stories that Ria has researched so intensively.” For example, Brodell’s “Clara aka ‘Big Ben’” depicts the little known life story of Big Ben, who was at the center of a queer love triangle gone wrong in NYC in 1926.
Lisa says that the response to the paintings has been overwhelmingly positive — even from older alumni, who may not have been exposed to transgender students or issues when they were on campus. When a group of donors visited the Davis, Lisa tells me that the paintings sparked a long, wonderful conversation on pronoun usage, and in particular, the singular “they.” “It was a pleasure to have [the conversation] with people who may not have had it otherwise,” Lisa tells me, and she believes those conversations are critical to “forcing [us] to be more aware and conscientious in [our] relations to other human beings and how they prefer to be understood.” Ria Brodell’s paintings, she says, are exactly the kind of catalyst the campus needs to provoke more of these discussions.
The opinions of alumni on transgender issues — particularly cisgender and straight alumni — are a point of concern for many folks at Wellesley. In a number of off-the-record conversations with staff and students, the specter of alumni disapproval was raised as a reason to proceed cautiously with discussing the growing presence of transgender students at the college. Multiple cisgender alumnae either backed out of being interviewed for this piece or would not speak on the record. Most seemed confused about trans issues, unsure how they themselves thought the school should proceed, and hyper-aware of their own lack of language or queer-sensitivity. Like the alumnae Fischman interacted with at the Davis, they seemed to want someone to talk these issues over with, but were also uncomfortable bringing them up — a catch-22 that has struck fear into the administration at Wellesley. Despite repeated attempts, no one from student life would talk about this subject on the record. However, a number of trans alumni were willing to discuss their experiences with both the administration and their peers.
Hadley Raysor is a nonbinary queer alum who graduated from Wellesley in 2006. Today, they run a dog-walking service called The Dandy Dogwalker, but in 2008, they returned to Wellesley as “the cofounder of a nonprofit collective that worked with single-sex colleges to dialog about making campuses more trans-inclusive.” Over email, they said that while the school was open to talking about these issues, at the time, much more concern was devoted to transmasculine people, while transfeminine folks were left almost entirely out of the conversation (not an uncommon pattern at historically “women’s” institutions, they noted). Hadley’s experiences working with the administration left them “skeptical about trans acceptance and visibility on Wellesley's campus,” but also excited that the school had finally begun to accept trans women like Ninotska, a move they say was long overdue.
Hadley has a quick checklist of things they think that Wellesley could do to further trans acceptance among alumni, including providing “ample education opportunities;” being open and firm about “the direction in which the college is heading” regarding trans issues; using “its ample funds to hire and pay trans women of color who consult on this topic (like Reina Gossett);” and helping alumni groups plan events with trans speakers and on trans issues.
When asked, Korrie Xavier agreed that the school needs to be more firm in its support for trans rights, saying that the “lack of a full-throated embrace of their trans community” is reflected in the confusion that alumni seem to feel. But he’s still hopeful. When he recently attended an alumni event in a private home, initially, he was greeted with suspicion and some confusion. However, “once I explained that I was an alum, everyone just kinda rolled with it.”
Ninotska Love tells me that she too has heard rumblings of concern about how her presence will be judged by alums, but at the end of the day, she’s not concerned.
“I know I was accepted to this school for a reason,” Love says with a relaxed shrug. Ensconced in this cute cafe, surrounded by book and students, she’s in her element, and it shows. Already she can tell that Wellesley is going to be an important step in her life. She’s less concerned about the opinions of cisgender alumni, and much more concerned with doing the work she needs to do in order to one day be included in the video of Wellesley alumni that she saw as a prospective student, which featured Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. “I don't want to be like ‘oh my god I'm the only trans woman of color in my class!’” she laughs, before turning serious for a second. “There has to be one for others to follow.”