Geneseo’s international English honor society Sigma Tau Delta decided to not only revolve their lecture series around political and social issues that are relevant today, but to also illustrate how the study of English adds to social criticism.
They kicked off the series by inviting associate professor of English Dr. Alice Rutkowski to speak about transgender topics and literature in a lecture entitled “The Transgender Turning Point” on Thursday Feb. 9.
Rutkowski began working at Geneseo in 2003 as an English professor, but she has also taught classes in women’s studies, American studies and humanities. Her scholarly interests include 19th and 20th century literature, American literature, civil war literature, women’s studies, queer theories and transgender studies.
To begin her lecture, she told the story of how she, as a cisgender individual, became an activist and teacher of transgender studies. It all started 10 years ago when one of her students came out to her as transgender. She had never met someone who was transgender, and so she researched some terms, wanting to be a better educator and friend to this student.
That student—the first publicly transgender student at Geneseo—embarked on a roving education about transgender issues and findings, and in 2006 created an assembly for open conversation about trans identities on campus.
In addition to this experience, in the summer of the same year, Rutkowski attended the National Women’s Studies program in Oakland, California. At the conference, she was introduced to many of the vital issues in trans politics.
“It seemed to me that students needed more background in theory and critical terms to explore gender identity in a setting that both demanded rigorous engagement, but offered a sort of safe place for discussion and exploration and disagreement,” Rutkowski said.
She introduced a women’s studies course that focused on transgender studies in the spring semester of 2008. Even though she was not an expert in the field, she felt as though “it had to be done.”
In fact, Rutkowski pointed out that at least one student from the class every semester transitioned, though not because her course encourages transitioning; rather, because they finally felt they had a safe space to be who they are, according to Rutkowski.
Rutkowski’s main point in Thursday’s lecture was to start a discussion and to increase the knowledge of trans identities on campus. Rutkowski is also the coordinator of the Geneseo Safe Zone Program training. Safe Zone is a program where individuals become allies in their commitment to educating themselves about oppression, heterosexism and homophobia and in their combat of these issues on a personal level.
The Safe Zone program will have a class in the fall semester where students can become trainers. Although students must apply to be in the class, it will serve as a great opportunity to learn more about how to use appropriate language and it will serve as a safe environment for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
Rutkowski mentioned that she was doing a lot of “speaking for” the trans community and ideally a trans employee or professor would be able to be present and to represent his or her own community.
For now, however, Rutkowski is attempting to make waves in Geneseo’s trans community in order to make the campus—and by extension the larger community—more understanding and accepting of trans identities.