What does the world look like through the eyes of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning person, and why is it so often harsh? Why are public restrooms so scary for transgender people? What do the newer terms gender fluid, cisgender, intersex and non-binary mean?
About 10 NLU staff and faculty members learned the answers to these and other questions when Amanda DaSilva, associate director of student development, facilitated a training in late January on how to become Safe Zone Allies, meaning participants are willing to offer support to LGBTQ students and others.
The attendees got a sobering look at why LGBTQ individuals might breathe a sigh of relief at finding a safe zone.
In one exercise, DaSilva asked participants to write down five things they most cherish, including a friend, a family member, a possession, a job and a passion, on separate pieces of paper. Then she went around the room randomly crumpling them, to symbolize the crushingly hurtful losses that LGBTQ people sometimes endure when they reveal their sexuality.
In another exercise, breakout groups had to choose a limited number of heterosexual privileges they would most want–from a list which included “raising children without worrying others will reject them because of your (the parent’s) sexual preference,” “being able to see your partner in an accident or emergency,” “adopting your children” and “living openly with your partner.”
Participants learned how people can feel and express their gender in ways beyond the “gender binary,” i.e., the traditional categorization of people into male and female.
A graphic illustration called the Genderbread Person helped participants decipher the many nuances of identity. It portrayed three main criteria of identity, and linked them to different parts of the body.
Gender identify is linked to the brain, and represents what a person understands themselves to be–male, female, or something else. The something else could be gender-fluid or genderqueer, meaning they might feel different ways on different days, or non-binary, meaning they don’t categorize themselves in male-female terms. This is also sometimes called “third gender.” There are also transgender people, who distinctly perceive themselves as being of one biological sex, for example female, even though they were born with the biological sex organs of a different sex, for example male.
Gender expression is linked to how the person presents themselves to the world. If a biological female, she might present as a female, as a male, as a female with some male fashion choices, or in another way.
Biological sex relates to the sex organs one was born with. There are some people born with the sex organs of both sexes, or with some degree of attributes of both. This is described as “intersex,” which replaces the outdated term “hermaphrodite.” There are also people who have various combinations of chromosomes, hormones and primary/secondary sex characteristics, which blend the line between male and female.
The Genderbread person illustration then layers on two other criteria–“sexual attraction” and “romantic attraction.”
The illustration portrays each of these criteria on a continuum. In the case of someone who identifies as bisexual, but not 50-50–instead, they are 65 percent attracted to males but 35 percent attracted to females–the framework of a continuum accommodates that sliding-scale percentage.
The five criteria help to illustrate that a person can, for example, have female biological sex organs, identify and present as a woman, yet have a romantic attraction to men but a sexual attraction to women.
Another example is that a transgender woman (a man transitioning into a woman) may not be homosexual. She may consider herself a woman, in her gender identity, and she may be romantically and sexually attracted to men.
When the group discussed the nature of being transgender, the conversation ran to the fact transgender people have a strong gender identity as the opposite of the sex they were born into. Many assume the dress and characteristics of the gender they identify with, even if they cannot afford the cost of gender reassignment surgery. One of the biggest challenges they confront is which restroom to use when in a public place. If a transgender man, who may still have the biological organs of a woman, walks into a ladies’ restroom, other women present might be startled, or even angry, to see someone who looks like a man walk in. Many transgender people have been verbally harassed, or worse, around the issue of public bathrooms.
DaSilva asked attendees to look at a list of specialized vocabulary used to describe LGBTQ issues and experiences and note any words which stood out for them.
Some terms which stood out for participants included:
- Cisgender, a word used to describe people who are not transgender, i.e., people who identify with the sex they were born into.
- Aromantic and Asexual, to describe people who experience little to no romantic or sexual attraction to anyone of any gender.
- Skoliosexual, to describe a person attracted to genderqueer or transsexual individuals.
The participants received certification as Safe Zone Allies, and agreed to serve as a support and sympathetic ear for anyone in the university community who wishes to talk about these issues. Find an ally to speak to here.
For more information, see:
Be sure to watch the NLU website for postings of future Safe Zone workshops.