On Feb. 28, Newton 201 held more people for the Transgender Panel than for any class that day. Students of different majors and faculty members of different departments congregated with common curiosity about a controversial topic.
Senior Ceridwen Troy presented her own perspective, from her personal experience with transgenderism. "In western society," she said, "we have a habit of dividing the world into tiny packages." In many ways, society is divided between male and female, with seemingly obvious and permanent boundaries between them. But society's grouping of male and female by physical make-up, self-identity, and sexual desire is ultimately inefficient. Sex may be clearly divided when defined by chromosomes and genitals. But while sex may be determined by what's between our legs, as Troy explained it, gender is found between our ears.
While identifying one's gender may appear simple, for many individuals the pursuit is deep and complex. Across all cultures, there are those who identify themselves as transgender, feeling that they were inaccurately assigned a gender at birth. Under the umbrella concept of transgender, thousands have expressed themselves as transsexual, transvestite, intersex and androgyne. Against the expectations of western society, and facing the judgments of those closest to them, they express themselves as they truly are.
Every day, transgender individuals feel the discrimination of those around them, even among groups who should be supportive. According to assistant professor of English Dr. Alice Rutkowski, the feminist movement has been skeptical and critical of transsexuals for years, viewing male-to-female transsexuals as unwelcome and female-to-male transsexuals as a kind of traitors. Second-wave feminism particularly valued separatism and claimed that people couldn't reverse the habits of their gender upbringing. According to Rutkowski, feminism is about empowering and redefining women, and "the transgender movement is the next phase" in that journey.
Rutkowski also discussed the criticisms of gay rights activists, many of whom are suspicious that transgenders are trying to "get out of being gay." Having gone through so much in their own struggle for societal acceptance, they fear that the controversy of transgenderism would threaten that which they've gained, and therefore want to correct the assumption that they want to be the opposite sex. However, according to Rutkowski, transgenders and homosexuals have much in common despite their differences, and will hopefully come together in a mutual effort for acceptance and empowerment.
Director of Health & Counseling Dr. Heidi Levine addressed the evolution of mental health perspectives on transgender individuals. Those whose gender did not match their sex were once considered sinful or mentally ill. In 1940, Dr. Harry Benjamin developed the standards of care for transgender individuals. Thirty-nine years later, he published these guidelines for his colleagues and in the 1990s awareness of the issue became even more prominent. The condition is not a mental illness, Levine pointed out, as transgenders are well-functioning in every aspect of life and society. According to Levine, the role of mental health professionals today is to "maximize [transgenders'] overall well-being and fulfillment."
Levine and the panel also addressed ways of communicating with friends and loved ones who have come out. "You don't have to grasp and understand it all at once," Levine said. The person who is coming out inevitably spent years figuring out and struggling with their identity and likely wouldn't expect you to understand their identity in a few minutes. On the same token, the panel also stressed that individuals should not blame themselves for any initial reaction but simply give their loved one space to be themselves, seek to understand their world, and actively show how much they care.
Filling the ears of curious listeners, Troy went on to explain the physical transition from one sex to another, including hormone replacement, various surgical procedures and social conditioning. She also told her own story and answered any questions that audience members proposed. Having changed her name this past summer, she returned to Geneseo in the fall with new challenges of bathrooms, housing and coming out to professors. "I consider the campus a neutral environment," she said, "where I have both several positive experiences and several negative ones."
Most of the students seemed compelled by Troy's account of her life and experiences. "I think it would have benefited a lot had Ceridwen spoken for the whole time," said freshman Pamela Eder.