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April 09, 2010
Vol. 51 No. 19

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Panel discusses gender

The Center for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ) organized a panel to discuss gender-related topics, such as gender identity and how people express the gender with which they identify.

The panel was held Wednesday, April 7 at 7 p.m. in Isaacs Auditorium.

Dena Salerno, director of the CDSJ and moderator of the panel, said she hoped the panel would be a discussion between panelists and audience members; a chance for people to "ask questions of each other, express comments and share viewpoints."

She encouraged audience members to consider the auditorium "a living room-ish setting" to facilitate creating a safe space both for panelists sharing their personal thoughts and experiences and for audience members seeking knowledge and insight into the issues.

The panel was composed of three faculty members and one staff member.

The first panelist was Professor of Biology Peggy Peeler said she is interested in sex differentiation, or the distinctions between sex and gender.

The second panelist was Assistant Professor of Psychology Gretchen Lovas, who said she has an interest in the social and emotional realms affected by social norms and expectations of gender.

The third panelist was Associate Professor of Math and Computer Science Annika Miller, who was diagnosed three years ago with Gender Identity Disorder (GID), underwent gender transition and began life as a woman last May.

Finally, the fourth panelist was AmeriCorps VISTA Coordinator of Civic Engagement Andy Nagy '08, who formerly identified as a gay woman, but currently identifies as a straight man who is trapped in a woman's body. He is in the process of completing a medical transition from female to male.

Throughout the evening, Miller and Nagy shared various stories of their personal gender identity struggles and discussed their perspectives about life before, during and after their transitions.

The discussion began with an audience member seeking information about the difference between gender and sex.

Lovas said "sex" is more to do with the difference between male and female, while "gender" is a broader term that is more to do with social constructs of masculine and feminine and the expectations that go with those adjectives.

Another question addressed by the panel was about the ambiguity of terms regarding gender and sex, such as one included in the title of the panel: gender identity.

Salerno explained that gender identity has to do with how one sees oneself, who one sees oneself as.

According to a definition sheet created by Lovas and made available after the panel, "gender identity is the conscious or unconscious identification as biologically male, female, both, or neither; a felt 'body sense' of sex, which may or may not correspond with chromosomal or genital sex."

The concept was expounded upon by Miller, who shared a quote she had heard in the past: "'Sexual orientation is about who you go to bed with. Gender identity is about who you go to bed as.'"

For about the first four decades of her life, Miller was perceived as a male. However, she said that from an early age, she knew that she was female. Until her gender transition last May, she said she was increasingly distressed that people could not see such an important aspect of the person she really was.

"I felt like a ghost, like I was invisible," Miller said of her life as a man. "People couldn't see me, but instead saw a man, and gave him credit for my thoughts and accomplishments."

In 2007, Miller was diagnosed with and sought treatment for GID, which Lovas' sheet defined as occurring when an individual has a gender identity (sense of one's sex) that differs from one's genital or biological sex.

Following the standards of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, Inc., which have been endorsed by the American Medical Association, Miller began cross-gender hormone therapy to counteract the testosterone produced by her body.

"For years my brain wasn't receiving the estrogen it was structured to receive, and was being flooded with testosterone," Miller said. "Once I started taking estrogen, it balanced my brain chemistry and helped me to feel more normal."

For Nagy, he said he always felt "different" when growing up, wondering why he was being pushed toward wearing dresses and learning how to dance when those urges were not present in him at all. He came out as a gay female in high school, but after realizing that identity wasn't quite right either, eventually had a second coming-out in 2008 as a transman.

Though still in the processes of his transition, Nagy said the differences he has personally experienced have been strange at times. Nagy said he is all about equality for both men and women, and one of the most difficult parts of his transition is the changes to do with social constructs of gender.

"It's weird that now when I walk down the street at night, I'm automatically supposed to feel less vulnerable than before due to my white male identity," Nagy said. "Or when I apply for a job, I may begin with a higher salary than an equally qualified female applicant. I'm not okay with that."

Asked if they utilize their previous experiences in their current gender identities, both Miller and Nagy denied feeling armed with a special power or privilege.

"Even as a man, I felt like I didn't understand men," Miller said. But even if she did have knowledge or power that could be used to her advantage, "I didn't wield it; that's just not who I am."

For Nagy, he struggles to understand "the pride women have in themselves, simply because when I was a woman, I never ever felt that."

A major issue that came before the panel was that if research regarding dimensions of sex and gender is ongoing and at time quite difficult to sort through, why even have such an event as the panel to explore and discuss the issues?

According to both Miller and Nagy, the point is to continue gaining existing knowledge about the topic and to seek more understanding.

"What we don't understand, we tend to fear," Miller said. "The more we understand, the more we can gain compassion and understanding, and the world improves."

Nagy seconded: "What we think we know is such a small part and perspective of the whole picture. To try to see that bigger picture is our challenge to continue exploring."

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