Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Transgender Realities: Student Lives and Community Challenges

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Transgender Realities: Student Lives and Community Challenges

Article excerpt

John S. left behind more than most students when he graduated from high school last year. The stares and jokes in the locker room. The sneaking into the bathrooms when no one else was around. The teachers who either re fused or forgot to call him John instead of Caroline. And a school administration he says not only misunderstood his needs, but also failed to try. "We have to get it out in the open and talk about this at an earlier age. Had that happened for me, I think I'd be farther along in this process," John said. "Maybe rather than just now feeling confident and okay with feeling like a boy, I would be on my way to feeling like a man." (Williams, 2005)

If issues of gender nonconformity had been talked about "at an earlier age," not only would John's experiences have vastly improved his sense of well-being, his classmates would also have had the opportunity to question their own gender assumptions and the gender essentialism that insists on stereotyped sets of behaviors and expectations that are traditionally attached to biological sex. So how do we go about addressing questions of gender identity in the classroom and on the college campus, especially in those courses that do not focus particularly in that area? Coming together from various disciplines and perspectives, members of the Emmanuel College faculty and student body discussed issues that face transgendered individuals and how all members of a college community can be aware and supportive. The result of this collaborative effort is the following dialog about how notions of gender and transgender play out in the classroom, the curriculum, and on campus.

I. Having a Common Language

Most individuals use the terms 'sex' and 'gender' interchangeably. Whether they indeed believe that our gendered behavior derives directly from our genes and hormones, or the terms are used for convenience, the true relevance of these seemingly simple words is at the core of the present discussion. The dominant, or normative, view of gender is as a binary construct--we are male OR female. Even though most people are aware of the more contemporary arguments of gender as a continuum, that does not mean they know the language that acknowledges and identifies the diverse ways that people can define themselves. As such, to have a meaningful discussion about transgender realities, we all should be on the same page.

Sex refers to our biological/genetic status, which itself is not binary; individuals may be male, female, or somewhere in between (i.e. inter-sexed). Gender, traditionally equated with sex, refers to the cultural expectations for male and female appearance, behavior, etc. Certainly one reason people 'confuse' sex and gender is that we don't necessarily know whether people's self-expressions are originating from something biological, something socialized, or (most likely) some combination of the two.

The distinctions of gender become more complicated as we introduce the distinctions between what we may physically be, how we view ourselves, and how we choose to express ourselves in public. Gender identity refers to our psychological sense of self as being a man, woman, or somewhere in between. In this case, people whose psychological sense of self does not 'match' with their biological self are considered transgendered. Transgender has been used as an umbrella construct to describe anyone who violates traditional gender roles (e.g., transsexuals, cross-dressers), but such an overgeneralization tends to confuse people and lead to stereotypes about those who do not fall into neat, binary categories of male or female. This raises an important issue with regards to the power of language to define and normalize. Johnson (2006) has argued that the dominant group is often invisible; for example, if an instructor states that the class will have a discussion about race, students do not assume they will talk about whites. The dominant group is the norm, and the non-dominant groups are 'other. …

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