For many Americans, their gender expression hasn’t been something they give much thought to, because we are so heavily conditioned to fit into society’s tidy and constricting boxes of polarizing gender norms.
But for many others, gender is something that preoccupies their everyday thoughts, and they face a constant battle to establish who they are in a society where a harsh binary system has taken precedence. In the last century, people have begun to deconstruct and redefine how they identify with traditional gender roles, and how these labels have ceased to encompass the many ways that humans perform and internalize gender. While the people paving the pathway for understanding gender can’t always define exactly what it is, they know enough to understand that our current definition of gender is not inclusive or socialized properly.
Here at the University of Redlands, there is a minute, however effectively vocal community of transgender students who are bravely establishing who they are, with a majority of the population belonging to the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies college and community. Despite this collective of students trying their best to speak their truth and share their testimony with others, due to the overreaching and deeply ingrained ideas about gender expression in society, many students don’t try very hard to understand or make these students feel welcomed in their own home (see quotes below). As sophomore Marlowe Scully put it, “Institutional support eventually leads to cultural support, and vice versa.”
Scully has been involved in activism for around five years now, and, when I inquired about why they work tirelessly to promote awareness across campus, they described their efforts in this selfless light: “If I’m not creating space for myself, I’m at least creating space for others.”
Their efforts at the moment are mostly to get things started in the correct direction, enforcing the inarguable fact that everyone should have a right to an accessible bathroom that is representative of their gender identity. While they expressed the sentiment that they would like to do more, this struggle to define who they are individually is already extremely tiring when factoring in the fight they must engage in daily, characterized by hostility and blatant ignorance people close and acquainted with them consciously or subconsciously express. Besides being misgendered often in classes and even in close interpersonal relationships, Marlowe shared that their relationship with their parents has become severely strained because of intolerant behavior and refusal to acknowledge and embrace their identity. No one should have to undergo the emotional stress that they have, just because of the way society normalizes and socializes gender.
Gender expression, like stated before, is not as polarized as many would make it out to be and rather, exists on a spectrum. Where masculine-presenting people have traditionally and stereotypically been thought to be aggressive or humorous, and feminine-presenting people traditionally passive or nurturing, these are limiting for someone who feels that they can be both, neither, or some other mix.
This is where non-binary and transgender identities emerge. To clarify, not all non-binary identities must utilize they/them pronouns, just as not all people who use they/them pronouns identify as non-binary. Pronouns are important because they provide people with validation and acknowledgement of their identity in public spaces. As our current society operates, non-binary identifying people aren’t often accepted into any gendered space because of the misconceptions about the fluidity of their gender expression. This is why bathrooms that are inclusive are important to advocate for on our campus. Sharing pronouns in a safe way (making sure everyone’s identity will be respected and upheld) is one of the many ways to promote inclusivity and understanding that respecting people’s pronouns should be more normalized.
Awareness of trans identities is vital to socialization of all youth because it allows them to understand varying methods of expression and how to be accepting and loving to everyone, and also have examples of healthy gender identity so that they can easily define themselves. This cannot occur with our current method of socializing children because anything outside the binary understanding of gender is not accounted for.
Scully shared that they “had never met a trans person before [they] came here,” and, “if [they] had trans support before, [they] would be so much healthier [now].” Without proper exposure, support, and accepting and open established gender norms, people are pushed into adopting dysphoric self-images, and also end up feeling socially outcasted.
The worst part of being misgendered is, “not feeling seen authentically,” as who their internalized identity is. Scully, along with other trans identifying students in the Johnston community, are attacking systemic issues within Johnston by creating a gender theory library for students looking to educate themselves on this topic and ally training for cisgender students looking to help advocate. A program has been initiated within the community where trans identifying students carry around little handheld clickers to count each time they are misgendered or their deadname (the name a trans identifying individual was assigned at birth) is used, and the numbers are then posted publicly for all other students to see. (Some of these quotes are displayed below, and are otherwise posted around both Bekins and Holt.)
While this can potentially contribute to mental health issues by quantifying the frequency of these aggressions, the good it does oftentimes outweighs the harm because it makes others much more aware of this phenomena, and holds them accountable for their actions. This will ensure that people have the least amount of excuses possible for perpetuating micro-aggressions, since many trans-identifying students often feel a sense of reliance on others to validate their identity. No one who is fighting for gender justice in Johsnton is particularly angry about this — they’re justifiably seeking proper integration, respect, and justice for themselves and others who deviate from traditional gender roles.
When discussing gender and body dysphoria, Scully explained, “cis[gender] people don’t understand what dysphoria is,” and offered an analogy to help illustrate this concept. “Imagine you’re squatting in a house, but then someone evicts you from that house but you still live in that house — and that house is your body.”
Because of idealized portrayals around gendered bodies, this causes insecurities to run rampant for many trans identifying individuals. Even looking in a mirror can be a source of pain and discomfort because representations of trans beauty are usually heavily assimilationist (meaning the portrayals stick typically represent bodies as the stereotypes that already exist in the current gender binary) and are not very fluid. Without taking stereotypical beauty standards with a grain of salt and developing a very thick skin to influence healthy self-confidence, many trans-identifying people are left with exhausting and self-depreciating narratives about themselves.
What can allies do to help their peers who go through these internal and external battles?
First off, include your pronouns in any introduction you give regardless of your gender identity. This encourages cultural change and normalizes sharing pronouns so that trans-identifying individuals aren’t forced to come out when they share pronouns, or feel fearful that sharing this information could threaten their safety and social presentation. Additionally, don’t always leave it up to the trans-identifying person to correct others on their preferred gender pronouns. Stepping in with a quick and kind delivery of a correction will suffice and facilitate an environment of support. Additionally, wearing a pronoun pin can alert to others that you are aware of pronoun issues and are seeking to normalize safe space sharing.
As the newest batch of young adults, we have the power to use our voices, especially in a classroom setting, where our instructors set the law of the land and are looked up to as responsible for establishing a guideline for proper conduct. Advocating for peers by sharing PGP’s — preferred gender pronouns — in this environment is crucial for establishing the way instructors treat students and respect them outside of class as well. Being an effective ally ensures that your actions limit the amount of pushback other students feel when they exist in social and public environments.
This section highlights quotes from trans identifying students in Johnston regarding transphobic encounters they have faced in the recent past, collected and compiled by Marlowe Scully:
(Names are omitted out in the interest of personal safety and job security.)
“[Professor] always misgenders me and deadnames me in emails and real life. When I correct him he doesn’t respond to my emails. It makes me feel invisible and like I don’t matter.”
“[Professor] refused to acknowledge his mistake in misgendering me and spelling a name wrong in an eval. He sent me back an awful email. This was almost a year ago. Because of it I still struggle to correct people without having a panic attack.”
“When my mother introduces me, she uses my old name and pronouns before announcing that I’ve transitioned. She will never think of me as myself. She will just think of me as a changed version of my closeted self.”
“My extended family will use my new name. They won’t use my pronouns. They do not care or understand that I am trans*. They are not willing to learn.”
“My psychiatrist, misgenders me in every appointment. My pronouns are on a sheet of paper in front of her every time. She does not see me as an individual.”
“[Counselor at Redlands] misgendered me twice in therapy. I go to therapy partly because of my gender identity. This undermines all of the help he has given me.”
“After my name change, my name is spelled wrong in Moodle. This university can’t even pay attention to what it’s typing.”
“The preferred name change process did not change my name in Moodle, so every time I participate in a discussion, I am outed to my whole class.”
“Because I have not legally changed my name, I have to be misnamed if I want to participate in the CAS commencement ceremony.”
“My poetry teacher: ‘Why do you keep changing your name? *Deadname* is a beautiful name and you should keep it.’”
“My biological dad also has made many many references to trans* people as, ‘that’ ‘it’ ‘those creatures’ ‘those things’ etc.”
“Every class I’ve ever taken outside of Johnston where students don’t know me, I’m misgendered the entire semester. No matter how many times I hear my birth pronouns, it’s always a slap in the face that nobody will ever see me the way I perceive myself.”
“I went to great lengths to get my name changed through Redlands to match my preferred name. Despite this, my deadname still shows up as my actual email address, and my name is listed as my deadname on all class rosters. I’ve had to be deadnamed by JNST professors in front of entire Johnston classes where most people didn’t even know my deadname. I now have to take the extra step before my first class sessions of each semester to get to class before anyone else to tell the teacher my preferred name. I feel like I’m never going to escape something that causes me so much pain.”
“There was a cis man who found out my name was not the name I was born with. When he asked what my ‘real’ name was and I wouldn’t tell him, he took it as a game. For months he would linger by me during classes to try and guess my name, he even went so far as to try and get the professor to tell him.”
“I’ve overheard Johnston students talking about how trans people ‘ask for too much’ in regards to being respected in the community. Cis people were discussing how they ‘don’t feel safe’ here because they’re scared of being ‘attacked by trans people’ for saying the wrong thing.”
These are a few of the many ways that misconceptions surrounding gender and gender presentation contribute to a community on campus that isn’t inclusive, accepting, or respecting of every individual and their unique identity. These are systemic and cultural issues that need to be addressed and changed. Not only does implementing these changes benefit trans-identifying individuals, but it challenges everyone’s rigid conformity to gender stereotypes. This change in mindset will encourage a broad and open discussion for cisgender people to examine the ways in which gender norms as they currently manifest influence limiting beliefs we as a society hold about ourselves.
I leave you with this final call to action; collectively, as a campus that promotes diversity and inclusivity, let’s listen to and speak up for all of our peers at Redlands.
For additional ways you can contribute and support students on and off campus, contact Marlowe Scully – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph by Hannah Sobel