At Williams, gender expression isn’t something students typically think about. Though we deal with gender every day – with relationships, sex and good ol’ co-ed dorms – the typical Williams student is blithely unaware that a population with atypical gender expression even exists. Gender-non-conforming students (including both students who identify as transgender and those who merely don’t dress or act in ways typical for their gender) are so few that they’re almost nonexistent.
This differs sharply from the way I grew up. I experienced the eclectic quirkiness of Portland, Ore., where seeing people dressed in top hats or showgirl outfits is quite common. As a city that embraces weirdness of all stripes, queerness is the norm rather than the exception in Portland. The gay and lesbian community in Portland is large and thriving, and the transgender population (those who live as a gender other than the one they were born with) is visible and politically active.
At Williams, the picture’s a little different. Sure, we’re one of the most liberal colleges in the country (which the crowd shouting “Obama! Obama!” at the debates last Friday only confirmed). But the closest that Williams typically gets to gender diversity are bro-tastic pink polo shirts. People at Williams aren’t accustomed to seeing or hearing about those with gender identities that differ from their own and can easily avoid the small queer population if they wish. Gender identity is rarely brought up, but it’s something we need to think about.
Let’s face it: if a gay or lesbian student is ridiculed, harassed or threatened because of who they are, it’s largely not because of their sexual orientation. Sure, the harasser may have a theoretical objection to this person’s choice of sexual partners. But what they’re mostly ridiculing is that person’s gender expression. They’re telling the student that they disapprove of his or her choice of clothing, hair or mannerisms. These things are purely gender – they have nothing to do with the student’s preference for males or females. Nor do they just apply to queer students, by the way. Any student who feels that they should or shouldn’t act or dress in a certain manner is affected by the way this campus perceives gender expression. If you’ve ever felt that people don’t see you as “manly” or “girly” enough (for example, if you feel you have to hide your hobby of knitting or your love of pro wrestling from your friends), then your gender expression is affecting you.
Things get even muddier for transgender students, a population at Williams so small that it’s almost theoretical. It’s tough enough to navigate college as a freshman, but things take on a different tone if you’re also navigating a gender transition or questioning your gender identity. It’s even worse when others misinterpret or misunderstand the student’s gender identity or use the wrong pronouns. Dorms, roommates and bathrooms also add complications. Though I commend the College for the cautious and appropriate way it deals with transgender students, there exists no uniform standard. Things like dorm assignments, roommates and the legal aspects of gender identity are uncharted territory for the administration and the community at large. Once more transgendered students enroll at the College or come out in the existing population, things will change, but we first have to create a welcoming environment.
In order to accomplish this, we must educate ourselves about gender identity and refuse to let friends and acquaintances demean other students. Speak up if you hear someone being ridiculed. If people get the idea that it’s okay to make fun of others for their gender expression – if they assume that no one will say anything – we will have taken a step backward. This goes hand-in-hand with letting yourself be constrained by gender norms. Many of us consider ourselves “individualists” but still let outside pressure decide, consciously or unconsciously, what we wear, say and do. If we’re going to be a welcoming, diverse community, we have to acknowledge that our own gender expression is multifaceted – that is, that everyone, no matter what their identity or orientation, is a little queer.
Andrew Triska’10 is a political science major from Estacada, Ore.