Sociology lecturer’s transgender lesson stirs controversy, causes administrative investigation

Geneseo’s administration is currently investigating adjunct professor of sociology David Sorbello’s presentation on sexuality, which included a quiz entitled “FEMALE or SHEMALE: can you tell?” in his Introduction to Sociology course on Oct. 18, per SUNY procedure. 

The investigation began as a result of student outcry over the professor’s use of the derogatory term “shemale,” and the perceived disregard for trans-individuals. 

This presentation was made in a class devoted to sexuality, gender and the differences in morphology between male and females, according to psychology major junior Emily Andrews, who is in Sorbello’s class. The quiz, which was not graded, asked students to determine whether individuals were cis-women or trans-women based on headshots. 

“A lot of people were really uncomfortable during the quiz,” Andrews said. “Sorbello would make comments like ‘Ooh I wouldn’t want to go to the bar with you,’ gesturing toward one of the people on the screen. Several times throughout the quiz he said something along the lines of ‘This is a lesson to you that you shouldn’t get too drunk so you don’t bring home the wrong one.’” 

Sorbello also showed a video from “The Maury Show,” where audience members judged whether people in swimsuits were “men” or “women,” according to Andrews. When the class concluded, Sorbello asked early childhood education major sophomore Jillian Sternberg, who took the pictures of Sorbello’s presentation, to speak with him about using her phone during the class, according to anthropology major senior Jessica Friedman. Sternberg had asked Friedman to join her in talking with the professor about how they thought the quiz was transphobic.

The students spoke with Sorbello for approximately an hour, as a third student stayed behind as a witness upon Sorbello’s request, according to Friedman. 

“It was kind of heated … because [Sternberg] called him an asshole and said she was going to report him, and that kind of got him heated too,” Friedman said. “He said his reasoning for the quiz was ‘part humor, part to teach sexual dimorphism,’ but he kept avoiding the question. He kept thanking us for talking to him, but he kept emphasizing that we were the only ones to have had a problem with it and … it was as if he was trying to dismiss our feelings.” 

Sorbello argued that he was trying to teach both sides, but Friedman and Sternberg felt that was a false equivalency. 

“I don’t know what the other side to that even is,” Friedman said. “There’s no both sides to whether ‘shemale’ is an appropriate word to use or whether you should point out who is trans and who is not.” 

 In the same course taught a day later by Sorbello, the quiz in question was not administered, according to early childhood education major freshman Victoria Navarro Monzon, who attended the lecture. Although she noticed that Sorbello had the tab open on his computer, he introduced the same topic without the quiz. 

An image of the presentation taken by Sternberg circulated through social media on Friday Oct. 20. Soon after its circulation, President Denise Battles sent an email to all students and faculty, a formal investigation by the college began and multiple petitions were created by students.

The investigation by the college is currently being conducted based on the SUNY system’s formal Discrimination Complaint Procedure, according to Interim Chief Diversity Officer robbie routenberg. The formal process involves the president outlining a list of around 10 to 15 members of the campus community and the complainant and the respondent each choosing a person from that list. Those two people will then choose a third to round out a group of three who impartially fact-find. The investigation has 15 days after a week of deliberations to select the panelists, and then Battles has 10 days to respond to the report produced by the group, according to routenberg. 

“The tripartite panel does all that neutral fact-finding, which turns into a report and their impression is of if the allegation is substantiated or not,” routenberg said. “Battles can agree or disagree with the panel and the formal process lies with the president. She would use her best judgment … to make a proper determination.” 

As the administration begins to investigate the allegations concerning Sorbello, many students have chosen to express their thoughts of the situation through petitions. One petition, created by political science, chemistry and economics triple major sophomore Jasmine Cui, broadly called on the school to condemn hate in a proactive way and is signed by 166 students as of Thursday Oct. 26, alumni and community members. Another, submitted by anthropology major senior Amelia Stachowiak on Geneseo Speaks, requested that the college immediately dismiss Sorbello and has been signed by 227 students, as of Thursday Oct. 26. 

“I figured it would be a good way to see that the students cared and since they gave us the forum, I thought it would be a wise choice to use it,” Stachowiak said. “Sorbello took it beyond just using the quiz or making a comment. It was combined with things I’ve heard in the past and he’s an adjunct so I don’t see why Geneseo would keep him on.” 

Another petition, submitted by Navarro Monzon to Geneseo Speaks on Wednesday Oct. 25, alternatively calls for the administration not to dismiss Sorbello, which has 10 signatures as of Thursday Oct. 26. In the petition, she contends that the school should consider disciplining Sorbello, but not to the point of dismissal. 

“In class, I feel the way he’s being viewed is not the way he is,” Navarro Monzon said. “He obviously should be in trouble, but to fire him is a lot … I’ve never been personally offended or uncomfortable with anything he’s said in the classroom.” 

Beyond the individual petitions, students have had varied reactions to the spread of this news. Sociology major senior Taylor Goddard felt that Sorbello’s history of similarly insensitive comments indicates his failings as a professor. 

“I took a class with Sorbello last semester and on the first day he was saying how race was an illusion,” Goddard said. “It was a process like that with him saying overtly insensitive things throughout the class … As a sociology major, I haven’t come across someone being that insensitive in the sociology department.” 

Psychology major junior Rebecca Licciardi agrees that some of the reactions to Sorbello’s quiz were certainly warranted, but believes that students who posted about it should have used official channels. 

“Obviously I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly how the sociology professor presented it, but he could have presented it better,” Licciardi said. “I also think that it was inappropriate to immediately jump to social media, and that the student who captured the photo should have gone to administrative officers first before they went to the public.” 

Communication and international relations double major sophomore Leliana McDermott stated that Sorbello brought the students’ criticism upon himself.

“This is ridiculous,” McDermott said. “You really have a doctorate in sociology and you’re sitting here using transphobic slurs? [Students] didn’t ruin your career, you did.”

One way the administration should respond would be to require professors to receive safe zone training, according to Pride Alliance president junior Daniel Kahl. 

“I’ve been pushing for about a year and a half now for mandatory Safe Zone training for faculty,” Kahl said. “I don’t necessarily think that it would work for everyone, but I think it’s important that people can’t plead ignorance in these cases … The college can hold them personally responsible for what they say.”  

Sorbello and several administration officials did not reply to multiple requests for comment about the specific details of the investigation. 

Sociology and psychology double major junior Vanessa Cepeda expressed optimism for how the administration will handle the situation. Cepeda, a member of the Bias Response Group, believes the administration’s work concerning the issue was more substantial than she had previously thought.  

“I walked into a meeting [of the Bias Response Group] a little scared because it feels like nothing is being done, but walking out of it I felt a lot more confident,” Cepeda said. “I consider myself an activist on campus so being able to hear the process that’s actually occurring right now, I’m very confident that this is being followed in the right manner.” 


Associate news editor Zainab Tahir and editor-in-chief Annie Renaud contributed reporting to this article.u