Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gender Nonconformance on College Campuses

Alissa Quart's article "When Girls Will Be Boys" in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine discusses how college campuses -- particularly wommen's colleges -- are dealing with gender, its fluidity, and when college kids transition from one sex to another within their single-sex institutions.

There is a "growing population of transgender students at the nation's colleges and universities."

Today a larger percentage of transitions occur in adolescence or young adulthood. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that between a quarter of a percent and 1 percent of the U.S. population is transgender — up to three million Americans — though other estimates are lower and precise figures are difficult to come by.

The author suspects that this may be due to parents who, as opposed to those of a previous generation, "now allow their kids to choose whether they are referred to as 'he' or 'she' and whether to wear boys' or girls' clothing."

Additionally 147 colleges and universities now include "gender identity and expression" in their nondiscrimination policies.

The conventional thinking is that trans people feel they are 'born in the wrong body.' But today many students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sex but to create an identity outside or between established genders — they may refuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name but never modify their bodies chemically or surgically. These students are also considered part of the trans community, though they are known as either gender nonconforming or genderqueer rather than transmen or transmale.

I wonder if this is one logical conclusion of choice feminism in conjunction with the breakdown of traditional gender roles. People can be free to 'perform' any gender that suits them.

'I think gender is a spectrum — gender is more complicated than sex,' Rey continued. He sees everyone, and not just transmen, as having 'their own gender,' just as they might have their own personality or temperament. Rey’s point isn’t merely academic. A good number of gender nonconforming students I spoke to at women’s colleges agreed with him. Most did not have operations but rather defined gender simply by how they experienced it, seeing themselves as existing on a 'gender continuum' with their more conventionally feminine college friends. I met with one such student, Jordan Akerley, a 22-year-old senior at Wellesley. As we sat in the student-run on-campus cafe where Akerley works, Akerely explained what it is like to live out a theory of identity that doesn’t exactly conform to one gender or the other.

I applaud these new freedoms, but worry about what will replace the social shortcut that gender roles allowed for us in the past. Sure, gender is confining, but it also had meaning and served as a discourse and bargaining shortcut. As people become more comfortable with gender fluidity, does that mean that gender roles disappear or will they just morph into something else?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, I loved the article and your question. How does the Marxist response about class resonate with you?

giddings said...

I think the class analysis is fascinating. How the conformity/constraints affect us differently based on race/class/ethnicity/gender/sexuality, etc. This reminds me of Stone Butch Blues and her discussions about being a butch working-class woman. Also, I've often wondered why drag kings tend to conform to a more working class look...? The character Max on the L-word is an interesting middle class technie trannie who is smashing some of those stereotypes/conformation lines.