From Gender-Specific to Gender Spectrum
Scott Turner Schonfield 02C
by Stacey Jones
In most people’s consciousness, gender is a simple concept. There are men and there are women. The Center for Women (CWE) aims to complicate that notion—often referred to as the "gender binary"—in order to reflect the very different ways that gender is experienced by real people. "Because of their track record in bringing people from different backgrounds together to discuss difficult issues, we were thrilled about the idea of working with Emory's Transforming Community Project (TCP) to see if their model for dialogues about race could work for gender," says Dona Yarbrough, director of the CWE and a specialist in gender studies.
“In English, as in many languages, we can’t really be spoken of as ‘human’ until we are gendered,” says Yarbrough. “ ‘It’ is typically reserved for non-human things; humans must be ‘he’ or ‘she.’ At the CWE, we are trying to provide more expansive and inclusive ways to think about gender, but this is difficult when even the core features of our language reinforce strict gender boundaries. While people continue to propose gender-neutral singular pronouns like ‘ze,’ these words haven’t become mainstream—in part because gender is such an entrenched concept.”
The TCP Community Dialogue on Gender was created through a partnership between TCP and the CWE and is part of TCP's expansion into dialogues on a variety of issues, including sexuality and the Middle East. The first gender dialogue was held in spring 2010, with a second taking place this fall. CWE Assistant Director Sasha Smith, who served as cofacilitator for both sessions, says the group used the Office of LGBT Life's "Safe Space" training as a jumping-off point for introducing a new language into their conversations about gender. The dialogue's goal is to challenge participants to move away from binary thinking about gender and to look at how questions of power and violence affect gender. The syllabus examines Emory's gender history, from its origins as an all-male college to the present day, when the University protects people from discrimination based on their gender identity and gender expression.
The TCP Gender Dialogue has some familiar elements that carried over from the dialogues on race. The syllabus includes an examination of “Kitty,” the enslaved woman whose ownership by Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first chair of the Emory Board of Trustees, brought about a split in that church that lasted nearly 100 years.
Soon after Emory became coeducational in 1953, the Wheel produced the feature “Girl of the Week,” a cringe-worthy effort by today’s standards that features provocatively posed female students and young female staff who the paper’s editors apparently found appealing. By 1998, the Office of LGB Life was seven years old and had decided to add “T” to its initials to recognize transgender individuals. And, as recently as last year, the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns changed its name to the more inclusive President’s Commission on Sexuality, Gender Diversity, and Queer Equality. But as LGBT Life Director Michael Shutt acknowledged to the Wheel last year, “We’re ahead of the game, but we have a long way to go. A gender binary is so institutionalized. We’ve taken on name changes, we've taken on policies, but now it’s ‘What’s next?’ ”
A start is recognizing how complex life can be if one steps outside the gender binary. For example, transgender people who transition from one gender to another (e.g., someone raised to be a man who later identifies as a woman) have to think about whether to risk negative, sometimes even violent, reactions from friends and family. They have to weigh what it might mean to begin an entirely new life with a new identity. What about getting a passport? A job? How can past school or birth records be changed to reflect a person’s current gender identity? TCP participants watched the documentary Transgeneration, which was featured on the Sundance Channel, and looks at the lives of several college students who are in the process of gender transformation. They read several personal accounts, including that of Scott Turner Schonfield, who graduated from Emory College in 2002 but began his college career as Katie Lauren Kilborn, and the participants were visited by Dani Harris, an intersex Atlanta police officer.
The first gender dialogue went well and participants were enthusiastic, according to Jyotsna Vanapalli, who oversees the TCP Community Dialogues as assistant director in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. “We’re hoping to have it run every year. Right now the plan is once a school year with the gender dialogue in the fall and sexuality in the spring,” she says, adding, “but there is so much demand for the gender dialogue that, if the Center for Women can support it, we can do it every semester.”
The CWE continues to expand the "gender dialogue" in numerous ways, most recently by cosponsoring a daylong visit by Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in September and a "Conversation on Intersex Identity" in October. "We are also supporting the World Professional Association for Transgender Health symposium that will be held at Emory next September," says Yarbrough, who is a member of the symposium's organizing committee.
Stacey Jones serves on the Center for Women Editorial Board and is the immediate past chair of the CWE Advisory Council.