This is a REALLY LONG post, but, it’s a fun story. Plus, long posts are okay if you’ve gone on a months-long hiatus, right?
Today, I tore apart a class of future Student Affairs professionals for silencing people who don’t fit into the gender binary. It was beautiful, but it made me realize how much work we have left to do, even among the people who claim to be on our side. It was a group presentation on how gender roles can affect college students. Some quotes from their handout:
· Sex: “refers to the biological difference between male and female.”
· Gender: “a socially constructed distinction between male and female.”
· “Sex and gender are inseparable; those who are sexual males are normally perceived as gendered men and sexual females are normally perceived as gendered women.”
I am ripping my hair out.
The entire presentation talked about gender using the terms ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and never, even once, acknowledged the possibility of something else. Most of the class was spent getting classmates to talk about times they have been restricted because of their gender. You know, Mommy always made me curl my hair in grade school, that kind of thing. Then, at the end of the presentation, someone mentioned that SOME people ACTUALLY think that gender is fluid, and that genders beyond male and female exist. *GASP* They presented this idea by showing a youtube montage of newscasters freaking out about a couple raising a baby without a gender shoved down its throat, and asked us if we thought this was a bad idea.
I’d had enough, and announced I was going to talk now and had three things to say.
One—even this clip about a baby being raised outside the binary shows how much power the binary has over us. All the clips were ranting about ‘his or her’ parents when the reality is it is THEY who are imposing THEIR politics on this child. Some of you have probably never heard of this, but one in every who-knows-how-many babies are actually born with genitalia that are not distinguishable as male or female, or have characteristics of both—and nine times out of ten, that baby is operated on, without the parents’ knowledge or consent, in order to make them appear more ‘normal.’ Those babies never get a chance; this one does. For all any of us know, this child isn’t even male or female to begin with; sex is NOT a binary.
Two—since sex is not a binary, it stands to reason that gender is not a binary either. Viewing it as a binary silences countless voices you could learn from. I didn’t say anything during our conversation because I haven’t been told I’m not feminine enough; I’ve been told I’m not masculine enough to claim the gender I do. Most of you will look at me and label me as a woman, and that’s your problem, not mine. In reality, I don’t identify as a woman OR a man; I am something called genderqueer, and there are a hundred other words I could throw at you if we had time. Tons of people exist outside the gender binary and are silenced by gender assumptions—like the ones you’ve all presented in this class which is supposed to be ABOUT gender assumptions. I don’t mean to call you out, but no one in your group even MENTIONED transgender or gender variant people in your presentation ABOUT GENDER. Maybe women are less valued than men, but gender variant people are invisible in general society.
Three—sometimes, gender and sex ARE binary concepts, but are not at all related. T—, when you said you had to shovel snow while your sister had to cook breakfast every day, it made me think of my partner. When he was a girl, he had to do things like that too. Yes. I said that. When he transitioned to being a man, his parents taught him how to mow the lawn because that’s what real men do. My partner is accepted as a man by everyone who comes into contact with him because that’s how he presents; we call it “passing” and he is lucky enough to do it consistently. But my partner is female. That’s a binary identity in which sex and gender are not traditionally linked. And that’s only one way gender complicates sexuality. He doesn’t identify with words like queer or straight because all of those words immediately suggest a sex and gender that match for the person using them. Likewise, I don’t identify as a lesbian anymore, because that suggests I am a woman and date women, not a gender-variant person who dates other gender-variant people.
I wanted to share my experiences with you all because, someday, you are going to be working at colleges with gender variant people. You won’t even know they’re in the room sometimes, but we’re everywhere. And, if you all talk the way you talked tonight, you are going to be silencing those students the way that I felt silenced during this class.
This, of course, is a paraphrase; I was more candid and less articulate in class, I’m sure, but I did cover every point mentioned above— some better than others.
My classroom was dead silent. All eyes were on me, but not in a look-at-the-freak way; in a oh-wow-I-never-thought way.
My professor, who’s pretty fantastic, chided me for not speaking up sooner. I tried to explain that I’d waited on purpose—if I’d just jumped in ranting about feeling oppressed, everyone would’ve been defensive, and the class wouldn’t have had the opportunity to SEE how the silencing works. But she wasn’t satisfied with that and informed me I would be talking more about my experiences next week.