A Gender-queer Generation

AF's picture

March 26, 2008

Emerging Genres

Professor Anne Dalke

Web Paper 2           

 

A Gender-queer Generation

 

 

It seems in almost every Emerging Genres class, I end up apologizing for broaching a topic that I am uncomfortable discussing. As amiddle class white woman coming from a conservative background, I’ve always been under the impression that I am not supposed to have opinions about things like race, religion, and sexuality. That being said, no one is more surprised than I to find that not only am I now actively participating in discussions about these topics, but I am branching out on my own and choosing to address one of the very topics I am self defined as “ill-qualified” to consider.

            Recently, an article in the New York Times about transgendered students at all women’s colleges was circulated by email throughout the Bryn Mawr community. This article, When Girls Will Be Boys,coupled with a post made by one of my classmates in the Emerging Genres forum cemented my interest in the transgender movement, what is for me a completely novel way of approaching the genre that is gender. Before reading this article,the idea that one can choose their own gender never crossed my mind. I had always assumed gender was a category assigned to each of us at birth, one of the qualities we could never change about ourselves. Since discovering that formany people this supposed truth does not hold true, I have been forced to reassess my own definition of gender and consider what implications redefining this term would have at a place like Bryn Mawr College.

            Unsurprisingly,the first question to cross my mind when thinking of female to male transitioning students, was why they would choose to come to Bryn Mawr, aninstitution dedicated to the education of women. Of course there is always thepossibility that one did not know they identified as male before enrolling,which is completely understandable. However wouldn’t you then wish to transfer to a coed school? Should you transfer to a coed school? Should women’s colleges have to change to accommodate these students? Although I would like to claim I have answers to these questions, or even that I plan to come to some sort of conclusion at the end of this paper, truthfully the chances that I (or really anyone for that matter) will come to a definitive answer in the near future are slim.

            Creating genres or categories “is an inescapable consequence of our biological makeup”(Lakoff 18).  It would seem then that categories, like gender, are a natural part of the way we as humans, or more simply, as animals live and function in the world. For many, gender is one of the first and most clear-cut genres one is exposed to in life. Even in the movies the first thing announced to mother is always the gender of her new child. Since “we cannot as some meditative traditions suggest, ‘get beyond’ our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience,” we must accept the idea that there are indeed at least socially imposed separate genders (Lakoff 19).

            It’s decided. Genders exist in some capacity; but are we, as a society, able to control the definition gender, since apparently the creation of the categories“male” and “female” are out of our control? From my limited readings on the subject and my own feeble opinion I would give a hesitant “yes” as an answer.Gender is a socially imposed category so “if boys and girls are different, they are not born but made that way” (Thorne 2). However, society tells the story of humanity in terms of gender. Men ruled the world for centuries while women were oppressed as the lesser sex. Even today one can find examples of prejudice from both sides. While I will concede that the lines between these two camps are thinning, I do not believe one can effective argue that boys and girls are socialized or brought up to live in the world the same way. Therefore I must conclude that there are, at least for the moment, two separate categories for men and women.

            Obviously then, the role of an all female institution is still relevant in today’s world.Men and women learn differently, mature at different rates, and perhaps most importantly: are taught their gender will directly effect everything about their life. “The belief in natural gender differences still circulates” and until someone finds a way to break through that traditional notion, it is my belief that each one of us should embrace a gender genre (Thorne 2).

            Butwhat about those of us who do not identify with the gender we were physically born with? Over the last ten years, “the growing number of young people whotransition when they are teenagers or very young adults has placed a new pressure on colleges, especially women’s colleges, to accommodate them” (Quart2). And not only that, but even the traditional notion of what it means to be transgendered is changing.

The conventionalthinking is that trans people feel they are “born in the wrong body.” But todaymany students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sexbut to create an identity outside or between established genders—they mayrefuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name butnever modify their bodies chemically or surgically. These students are alsoconsidered part of the trans community, though they are know as either gendernonconforming or gender-queer rather than transmen or transmale (Quart 3).

 

The thought of gender-queerness had never even occurred to me before. Women’s colleges were already facing a mammoth task in addressing the traditional transgender students and their place on campus. How can a single sex institution even begin to think about adapting to a world where its incoming students prefer to live their life without using the traditional gender name associated with that institution?

            While I won’t pretend to fully understand the decision of  a transgendered or gender-queer student to attend an all women’s college, I also do not feel it is my place to tell any person exploring their gender that they should not attend Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr has always been a safe and liberal space for women to explore a range of unconventional topics. And ultimately my research into the ambiguous nature of gender has left me wondering if dispelling gender categories is the unconventional topic for our generation. Shouldn’t an institution that prides itself on being “a place for change” be a part of that movement?

 

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh:The Embodied Mind and Its

            Challengeto Western Thought. New York: Basic Books,3-44.

 

Quart, Alissa. “When Girls Will Be Boys”. New York Times.16 March 2008

            http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/magazine/16students-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

 

Thorne, Barrie. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, Rutgers University

            Press,1994. 1-10.

 

If anyone’s interested a fellow Bryn Mawr student who identifies as transgendered addressed a similar topic this fall: Bryn Mawr Boys: TheTransition of Feminism at Bryn Mawr College

 

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

queering the question

Alexandra--

You know, of course, that you have in me a VERY interested reader of and responder to the questions you are posing here. I'm a member of Bryn Mawr's "transgender task force," which has been constituted to generate policy in response to the questions that have been posed for the College by its transgender students and staff. Just this past week, I spoke on a panel about Gender, Sexuality and Religion, where a lively dialogue took place between a lesbian of my generation, who is worried that the gay movement is being "watered down" by the increasing length of the spectrum of identity positions (LGBTIQQA....) and a queer of your generation, who is refusing categorization altogether.

Several years ago, when I co-taught the core course in Gender Studies here, I called it "Playing with Categories," and introduced gender as one of the numerous categories all of us humans use to structure and make sense of the cacaphony of the world around us. We talked then about the inevitability of our making of categories; about play as a way of unsettling them, and about politics as a way of making them useful, as we put them into action in re-making the world. I'd like to nudge you, in response to this paper, to pay more attention both to "play" and to "politics."

I'd also like to nudge you to think some more about what "qualifies" one to consider any question; what experiences do you need to have, in order to speak to any issue? Wherefrom authority for opinion and policy? Accordingly, I'd also like to nudge you, when you quote from some "authority" (like George Lakoff) to name them and explain why you think what they say is significant (you have a habit of dropping quotes, like meteors, into your papers, implying that what they say holds; why?). Accordingly, I'd also like to nudge you to tell us more about why (he thinks? you think?) "categories are a natural part of the way we function in the world."

(Speaking of authorities, you should also include among your citations Jessy's Queer Polemic, which I take it was one of the original sources that provoked you to want to think about this topic....)

Then: I'd like to nudge you to think some more about the tension between your one claim, that "each one of us should embrace a gender genre" and your later one, that it's not your place to tell anyone that "should not attend Bryn Mawr." Wherefrom the "should" in the first instance, the refusal of it in the second? Wherefrom any imperative?

You speak of Bryn Mawr's "liberal" heritage, but I'd suggest that you are testing out here a radical extension of that history, a frank refusal of the category that has for so many decades defined us.

Wow!...and where to go from here? What are your next steps in thinking...? In queering what you thought you think....?

 

 

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