Viewpoint: Transforming gender conversations

BY CULLEN O’KEEFE

Published November 18, 2014

The need for a campus-wide conversation on gender inclusivity became brutally plain to me exactly one year ago today, as I was sitting in the back of 1800 CHEM for what I now wish would have been a regular, banal Orgo I lecture. As the clock slowly passed from minute to minute and the end of class drew nearer, the lecturer uttered the joke that now serves as the inspiration for this piece:

“…because if you did that, you would have told a man he was pregnant!”

An uproar of laughter (or whatever can be said to be an uproar among the semiconscious population of students attending a 9 a.m. organic chemistry lecture) then shattered the decided silence of that day’s audience and in so doing any remaining faith I had in the idea that this campus was a safe place for transgender students. Not only had a popular professor told a decidedly cissexist joke to a lecture of several hundred people, but he had done so on Transgender Day of Remembrance — the solemn capstone of Transgender Awareness Week on which the lives of people killed by transphobic violence are commemorated.

To this particular professor’s credit, he apologized after I pointed out the oppressive nature of this joke and its horrible timing in an e-mail I sent later that day. But, sadly, TDoR 2013 was just the beginning of my still-continuing saga of witnessing firsthand University professors being either neglectful of or aggressive toward transgender people and their lives. After my Orgo I experience last year, two more of my professors told similar transphobic jokes also hinging on the premise that the idea of a pregnant man is an absurd impossibility. Jokes like these ignore and mock the harsh realities of being a pregnant man.

Over the summer I decided to add a Gender and Health minor to my two majors, partially with the hope that being in a department whose academic framework was explicitly anti-oppression and supposedly inclusive would balance out the largely socially unaware curricula to which I had grown accustomed in pursuing Philosophy and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology degrees. I am disappointed to say, though, that my limited time with the Women’s Studies department has been quite amply filled with trans-aggression. Whether it’s the uncritical celebration of the notoriously transphobic Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or the suggestion that “woman” and “man” are the only genders that exist or are worth talking about, in my experience classes in the Women’s Studies department have been as fraught with cissexism as the classes of any other department at this school. I have listened to a Women’s Studies professor imply that all transgender men seek hormone replacement therapy and I have seen the Women’s Studies Facebook page share a transphobic video (hint: women with a penis do not earn any more money than women without a penis) exploiting little girls to sell t-shirts for the notoriously cissexist and racist FCKH8. The casual and uncritical equation of vaginas with womanhood and womanhood with vaginas and the unshakeable focus solely on the lives cisgender women have all been persistent and persecutory motifs of my experience taking Women’s Studies classes here.

I do not for a moment want to give the impression that I believe that it is inappropriate for Women’s Studies classes to talk extensively about vaginas, ovaries, uteruses, breasts or any other particular anatomical feature. I am acutely aware of the social, medical, political and economic injustices perpetrated against people with a vagina, and I applaud the Women’s Studies department for teaching about and celebrating vaginas. However, I firmly believe that it is possible to both celebrate women without excluding women who do not have a vagina and celebrate vaginas without excluding people with a vagina who are not women. On both of these fronts, however, Women’s Studies and our University community as a whole consistently fail.

At the time I am writing this piece, 81 people have been killed as a result of transphobic violence since TDoR 2013. Those killed are disproportionately trans women of color. I pray that no more will be added to that list by the time this piece goes to press. Many more trans people (again, disproportionately trans women of color) are unemployed, homeless or imprisoned. The widespread physical, sexual and economic violence against trans people is made possible through a system of cultural attitudes and practices that ignore and devalue trans lives. And every time someone makes a transphobic joke, equates genitals and gender or simply fails to include the lives of trans people in their gender analyses, they are actively participating in and strengthening that system, indirectly contributing to the body count mourned by all those observing Transgender Day of Remembrance today.

Despite the objections of TIME magazine, discussions about gender inequity are becoming increasingly prevalent both nationally and on this campus, and I have been honored and humbled to befriend some of the most passionate and accomplished feminist activists alive during my time in Ann Arbor. I believe in the brilliance and beneficence of those pursuing liberation from oppressive systems of gender and sex, which is why I believe that we as a campus community are capable of more nuanced and inclusive activism on these topics. So, from this Transgender Awareness Week forward, I urge you, reader, to be mindful of your language and activism when discussing gender and sex, and I call on us all as a community to include and celebrate the lived experiences of trans people as more than just an asterisk to otherwise cisgender narratives. Lives depend on it.

Cullen O’Keefe is an LSA junior.