Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reflection on Gender and Sexuality by Matt Kellner

The purpose of the Emerging Minds Project (EMP) is to create an intellectually open and dynamic environment for students to learn about and discuss social justice issues of today. Each month, a group of students come together at 5710 to dialogue with an experienced facilitator who works in the field.
This blog is an outlet for each of our members' voices. While this is a collection of their personal thoughts, we hope to display a glimpse of the multifaceted ways that each topic impacts the individual members of the EMP cohort.

*The views and opinions expressed in these blog entries are that of each individual author and do not necessarily reflect a collective opinion of the EMP cohort or that of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.   

     Last Friday, Ms. Rosa Yadira Ortiz from Lambda Legal, an LGBT/HIV civil rights organization, visited our cohort. Our discussion focused on the injustices and discrimination toward the queer community, and particularly toward the transgender community. Prior to the meeting, Rosa sent us a report entitled “Injustice at Every Turn” from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on the plight of transgendered people in our society. The findings are shocking, to say the least: our nation’s transgender population experience significantly and startlingly higher incidences of homelessness, physical and emotional harassment, job discrimination, and suicide attempts than the general population.
     Although these statistics are sobering and paint a morbid picture, our discussion offered what seems to me a reasonable means of combating the epidemic of discrimination against transgender people, and the LGBT community in general. Throughout the evening, Rosa and our cohort talked about identity and the multifarious ways that we can define who we are, in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, and in regard to race, religion, ethnicity, and beyond. Rosa described to us how many people no longer fit neatly within one single category or label; who we are and how we act or define ourselves cannot be reduced to one overarching term and often is dependent on external circumstances. The “Injustice at Every Turn” report corroborated this view, proving that even within the transgender community extensive variation exists among the terms people use to identify themselves. With all this diversity in nomenclature, Rosa suggested that we, as allies or members of the queer community, have a simple responsibility to learn and respect the queer jargon, and I believe that by diligently carrying out this duty, we can help diminish discrimination.
     On countless occasions, I’ve witnessed ignorant comments made about LGBT people. Sometimes these remarks come from a lack of knowledge, and people accidently use dated or offensive terms without realizing the implication of their word choices. Frequently, however, it seems like more malevolent intentions underlie these comments. To me, much of the discrimination toward the LGBT community stems from a problem of vocabulary. For what seems like a large portion of the population, words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “queer” are learned as slurs or are tied to stereotypes. Often, people are unsure of what it actually means to be an LGBT person and, rather than asking, resort to making assumptions or relying on stereotypes. As a result, the queer community and the different groups that comprise it get dehumanized and reduced to simple, negative images. To help us to better understand the LGBT community, Rosa began the meeting with a vocabulary lesson and emphasized the importance of politely asking people which gender pronouns they use or how they identify. It may seem daunting to keep up with the alphabet soup of the LGBT (or LGBTQ or LGBTQQAA or…) community, but I believe reducing discrimination toward LGBT people can start with something as simple as understanding and respecting the language the queer community employs. Instead of assuming heteronormativity or blindly using a term to refer to an LGBT person, one can avoid being offensive by spending just a few seconds to ask a person how they identify themselves. Sure, it may be awkward to ask a stranger their sexual orientation or which gender pronouns they use, but once that person realizes that, by asking, you care about and respect them and their identity, that discomfort will vanish.

It would be na├»ve to think systemic problems, like marriage rights discrimination and social stigmatization, could be solved magically with a simple change of word choice. However, if people are more willing to use the appropriate language, they will see that not every LGBT person dresses or behaves according to a stereotype, but is just another human being with a different, perhaps unconventional identity. Nearly half of all transgender respondents to the surveys used in the “Injustice at Every Turn” report stated that their coworkers and employers “referred to them by the wrong pronoun, repeatedly and on purpose,” and this routine harassment likely led to a sort of dehumanization and further, more serious abuses. We can take the first step to stop this chain of discrimination by educating ourselves and ensuring that our language remains free of ignorances and slurs. Our meeting with Rosa really emphasized to me the importance of language and how we refer to our acquaintances and ourselves. Our words are so potent, and with them we have the power to spread inclusiveness, respect, and support. The minimal effort it takes to ensure that we are using the appropriate language can go a long way, and, after all, being called an “ally” sounds much better than a “trans-“ or “homophobe.”