By Dot Brauer
When I presented on issues facing LGBTQ college students at UVM’s Mental Health Matters conference this spring, I knew I had my work cut out for me. When the feedback was mixed, I wasn’t overly surprised.
My job as director of UVM’s LGBTQA Center requires me to know a lot about this topic, but bridging gaps between different levels of awareness that people bring to these topics is much more difficult than it used to be. I started providing education on how to be an ‘ally’ to LGB people before T and Q were in the vernacular. It was more than 25 years ago and terms like genderqueer, fluidity, and intersectionality hadn’t been invented yet.
The Complexities of Gender Identity
High school and college students today are reading, writing, talking, and living gender and sexuality in ways that go beyond concepts previously only hinted at by philosophers like Foucault and Butler, and scientists like Kinsey. Increasingly, these young people understand better than their elders that ‘identity’ is best understood through a lens of intersectionality. For example, if you are trying to understand someone’s gender, you need to also take into account their age, race, ethnicity, health status, religion, etc.
If this sounds impossibly hard, find a comfortable chair and plan to spend a good deal of time learning about what is becoming a new way to understand the complex diversity of human existence.
Gender is just one facet of this complexity, and gender itself is complex. Young people today are exploring their genders in ways that explode my generation’s understanding of gender as: binary (either man or woman), universal (people everywhere are the same) and fixed (stays the same throughout your lifetime). What is crucial to understand about this trend though is that large numbers of their peers fully support their explorations and that support makes this more than just a passing fashion.
A New Attitude on Gender Issues
Increasingly, the younger generation believes that many (if not all) previously established notions about humans and society should be open to question and critique. Ideas about science, government, war, economics, race, religion — that my generation took for granted — are being questioned not only by academics but by the public at large, especially the younger public. Young people are completely rejecting the premise that traditional notions of gender reflect human nature in some essential immutable way. Students I encounter are more than open to the idea of gender as a lived experience that can’t be bounded by the limitations of a universal, fixed, binary concept.
Some young people choose to educate themselves at length about how gender was reified by the scientific revolution and institutionalized by 19th century industrialization, but most simply find the idea of gender being more flexible and complex intuitively reasonable. But what they find intuitive, many older adults find confusing, and even frightening.
Some older adults actively resist change using whatever access they might have to personal or institutional resources, while increasing numbers of young people are moving on by tackling an array of projects: establishing nouns and pronouns to describe more genders; providing education about the differences between gender expression, gender identity, sex, and sexuality, and asserting the rights of themselves and others to choose whether and how to align their self-identified gender and their gender expression on any given day.
People who assume all of this is a fad will ultimately find they were mistaken. These ideas are working their way into and through human societies all over the world. Readers for whom these ideas are new, might be confused when they realize that once the idea of fixed, binary gender is off the table, traditional notions of sexuality must be abandoned as well. If gender (mine and my life partner’s, e.g.) exist beyond a binary and are not fixed for our lifetimes, what language would we use to describe our relationship?
Like the lack of nouns and pronouns for gender, our language also lacks words for describing relationships beyond heterosexual (a relationship consisting of two different sexes) and homosexual (a relationship consisting of only one sex). And this last sentence highlights another point of confusion: sex and gender should not be confused to mean the same thing, but the two ideas are commonly assumed to always be aligned and therefore interchangeable.
What we are living today is nothing short of a social revolution that has come quietly into our towns, schools, and homes. The Internet has provided an unprecedented forum for people to communicate with each other across the miles and over time. Today, people exchange ideas that may have been confined throughout centuries to the isolated imagination of one person here or there. Blogs, discussion boards, and social media provide places where people share feelings of not fitting into accepted norms; feelings people in previous generations hid in shameful secrecy.
Before the Internet, people who are now being referred to as ‘gender non-conforming’ were worse off than the Whos of Whoville. At least the Whos had each other and when they combined their voices, they were heard and even the monkeys realized they existed. What if the Whos were isolated from each other, all on separate dust specks on separate flowers? Internet communication created a virtual Whoville where people who previously felt isolated by their differences to find each other, and then to join their voices, and ultimately to ‘prove’ their existence.
Gaining a Voice
Today, gender non-conforming people have a greater chance than ever to learn of the existence of other people like them and now that they have heard each other and we have heard them, their existence among us is unlocking gender constrictions that have bound humans in problematic assumptions, frictions, and fictions for centuries. I predict that similar social revolutions are coming soon, in the way humans see race, ethnicity, ability, and so many other categories of human experience.
It is true that it feels more challenging than ever to bridge the differences in understanding that exist between generations. Explaining even a portion of such complex ideas doesn’t fit neatly into the 50 minute power point presentation that have become the go-to tool of today’s professional development. But the Internet has given voice to a vast chorus of insight.
As we surf this wave of change together, we all need to stay open to new ideas and models for how we can best teach ourselves and each other about this revolution we are living.
Dot Brauer has served as the Director of the LGBTQA Center at the University of Vermont since 2001. She holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology from Antioch New England and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program at the University of Vermont.