A five-person panel — tackling issues of sex and gender — challenged the assumption that categories of sex and gender are binaries.
The panel of University of Southern Maine students, transgender rights activists, and an esteemed visiting professor of women and gender studies, gathered Oct. 14th for a discussion titled, “Beyond the Binary.”
“The event was intended to provide a forum where people could have a conversation about the complexities of sex and gender, especially from the perspective of people who live the experience of being nonbinary or trans,” said Wendy Chapkis, a professor of Sociology and of Women and Gender Studies. “We need to be able to talk about these subjects in ways that allow for those complexities.”
Despite commonplace assumptions that there are only two sexes, science studies scholar Natalie Turrin, a visiting professor of Women and Gender Studies, argued “Perhaps the issue of two sexes is just not enough,” she said. “It does not capture the diversity of sexual and biological experiences, anatomies and arrangements that people have.”
Though intersex, trans, and non-binary people are a minority, the need to widen the definitions remains, she said. “Numbers are an insufficient reason to not consider that sex might be more than a binary,” she said.
Quinn Gormley, a USM alumna and the executive director of MaineTransNet, described the practical need to ease some of the difficulties facing people who don’t fit society’s narrow categories. “In white, Western culture, we’re really obsessed with categories,” Gormley said. “We like people to fit in little boxes and we punish anyone who doesn’t.”
Meanwhile, she and her organization have been working to expand existing state law to provide more inclusive identifications of sex and gender. These measures are designed to give people the chance to identify as non-binary on official forms such as driver’s licenses and marriage applications, insurances and medical records. Some documents, such as the driver’s licenses have been changed. Others, like some tax filings, have not.
“We’re living through a really exciting change in our culture right now in how we comprehend gender and celebrate diversity,” she said. “It will be really interesting to see how we do all of this in 30 or 40 years.
Students Tye Lynch and MJ Friedman said most of the USM Community is warm and welcoming to them, but there are challenges. When asked, the students indicated a need for more gender neutral bathrooms and more sensitivity in the use of pronouns, particularly in the classroom.
“There have been many times where I have had to correct people and say, ‘My pronouns are ‘they.’ I am not a guy,’” Friedman said.
Friedman talked about their wish not to be seen as a spectacle just by being themself and dressing as they wish.
In the end, cisgender people will need to continue to adjust their perspectives and make an effort to be more inclusive, while transgender people will continue to speak out and persevere, said Rook Hine, the operations manager at Maine TransNet.
“That is how we change peoples’ minds, and that is how we get to a better society,” Hine said. “It’s person by person by person. We are not the enemy. We are not an other.”