By Abby Mathews
Few students generally engage in discussions about gender variance, [sic] this changed on Thursday however, when dozens of students and community members crowded the Campus Center Main Lounge for the first-ever Trans Panel at Bryn Mawr. Sponsored by Rainbow Alliance, the college’s queer support group, the panel was aptly entitled, “Exploring Gender: Pushing the Boundaries.”
The idea for Thursday’s panel originated at Rainbow Alliance meeting, and was implemented by a six-member coalition within the Rainbow Alliance. According to Amanda Macomber (BMC ’02), who helped to organize the event and facilitate the discussion, the purpose of the panel was to spark “understanding of trans issues and start people thinking about gender not just in an abstract, theoretical way but in the ways that their own genders could be questioned and become more fluid.” Lyon Vick, (BMC ’03) who helped organize and who participated on the panel adds that he hopes the experience will allow students to think about gender in a new way, since gender “should be something freely chosen and not imposed upon you” and that, “even if your gender expression is … normative … [it] is more genuine … when you have examined your options and chosen it of your own will.”
The panel consisted of five individuals who approached gender variation from several angles. Christine Holt, an attorney in the Philadelphia area, addressed the topic from a legal and personal standpoint, while Ben Singer, a trans-activist and academic approached it from a more theoretical perspective. The panel also included chubby sherwood, Juana Rodriguez, a professor from the English Department and Vick, a Bryn Mawr freshman, who both provided a more local perspective.
The panel approached issues of trans-awareness from a variety of standpoints, and, following a brief introduction, were questioned freely by members of the audience. Questions ranged from the personal, such as ‘How did your family react to the knowledge of your gender identity?’ to queries about more global responses to gender-variant persons.
Gender identity is often confused with the issue of variations is sexual orientation, an issue with which the bi-college community is more familiar. In fact, the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation are manifold. Gender identity is, according to Signer, “the
manner in which we think of ourselves, our internal conviction about being man or woman, male or female, masculine or feminine (and both or neither).” Or, as Holt puts it, “Sexuality is who you go to bed with. Gender is who you go to bed as.”
A good deal of the discussion focused on the problems trans-identified individuals have in procuring medical help, legal advice, and even maintaining employment. Unlike other
marginalized groups, transgendered persons are excluded from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and transsexuality and other gender variations are currently classified as
psychological disorders in the DSM IV, making it difficult for many individuals to find medical authorities willing to provide the treatment they need in a manner that maintains personal safety.
Many of these problems are only exacerbated by the scarcity of gender variant individuals, and that those that exist do not form a cohesive group. As Rodriguez states, “identity doesn’t equal politics;” the community is extremely fragmented in terms of a political and social agenda.
Some of these problems have hit closer to home. In discussing the difficulty of finding medical and mental health professionals capable of addressing transsexual’s needs, Vick advises, “Don’t go to the doctor here!”
The major issue Bryn Mawr seems to be facing in dealing with gender-variant individuals, however, is finding a way of negotiating Bryn Mawr’s status as a women’s-only space in a
world of increasingly visible gender fluidity. According to Rodriguez, it is important that Bryn Mawr decide whether inclusion in this space is “about identification or … about something else.”
Indeed, for some, the idea of a women-only space is untenable. As Singer says. “It is very important that we remember that gendered spaces are impossible to maintain as pure spaces,” especially when dealing with persons in the process of transitioning or those who, as sherwood does, define themselves as “non-gendered individuals.”
Vick explains however, that he considers “the point of having women-only spaces is ‘not-male-privilege-only’ and not just ‘women-only,'” and that these groups can consist of “anyone who wants to be included in that space.”
Nancy Monnich, Director of Admissions at Bryn Mawr College, explains that there is currently no official policy regarding the admission of gender variant individuals to the college. She says, “I can’t imagine that the college would not respond thoughtfully,” and suggests that, in the case of a student who had fully transitioned to a female status, there would be no question of admissibility, while androgynous or intersexed applicants might be considered on a more case-by-case basis.
Reactions to the panel were largely positive. Both Macomber and Vick were encouraged by the turnout and quality of questions, though Macomber expressed some concern that “people who really had no understanding of trans issues at all didn’t get all the information they needed because people who were more aware did most of the questioning.”
Members of the audience were generally pleased that the panel had been arranged. Jenny Stoffel (BMC ’00), expressed the hope that the discussion will persuade students “to think about how they deal with gender and gender indicators in their own lives [and] also, how [these issues are] integrated into academics and other disciplines.” Amanda Crosier (BMC ’00) adds, “I thought one of the most interesting aspects was the discussion of women-only spaces,” and asks how “our choice of coming to Bryn Mawr affects gender perceptions.” Melanie Mintmier (BMC ’00) says of the panel, “I thought that it really helped to open up people’s minds.”
Vick hopes that the panel discussion will serve as a springboard for the formation of “a strong trans-activist and gender issues group on campus, which will be able to advocate for things like the inclusion of trans issues in Gender Studies classes…inclusivity in admissions for Trans women as well as education for health center staff.” He hopes that, in the end, the panel “served to open some people’s eyes, and help people realize that, even at Bryn Mawr, gender and the expression of gender is not a given.”
Students interested in joining a Gender Advocacy Group should contact Meggie Burr (email@example.com) or Lyon Vick (firstname.lastname@example.org)