SENATE MATTERS: Our students and the changing conception of gender


Today’s young people, and even some of us not so young people, have grown up in a world where sex does not mean a set of binary categories, but rather only means some kind of intimate contact. That is, sex is a word that English speakers today understand more as meaning and act, while gender is an identity category.

New understandings of gender have resulted in a profound shift away from the body as a meaningful indicator of gender, gender expression and gender identity; they also have resulted in the revision of regulations around sex and gender within institutions, revisions designed to make space for a wider range of human experience and expression.

Academic approaches to gender expose a long history of regulating and resisting the imposition of singular models of gender, providing a critical frame for thinking about gender as both highly regulated and as much more fluid than we imagined.

This means that talking about gender means understanding that gender, for many of our students, is fluid. At Pitt, most student are likely to know someone who is trans or nonbinary or who presents in some such “non-hegemonic” gender identity. And from what we’ve seen in the Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies Program, they’re OK with that.

Even further, non trans-identified students tend to understand their own gender to be somewhat fluid within larger categories, and will talk about femme men who are heterosexual. We can’t actually presume to know what every student thinks, but this view of gender has pervaded our culture enough that most students are at least familiar with the idea. Yet it still seems clear that many people that we share spaces with deeply disagree with this new, more fluid understanding of gender.

These changes — and resistances to these changes — continue to shape the present. As we continue our work in the Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies Program, we look forward to the future changes, and we look forward to generating rich spaces of exchange and advocacy.

We began thinking about writing this Senate column before the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was redefining gender in a way that will erase any category of people that does not align with a gender assigned at birth. In fact, it appears that the administration is attempting to remove the word gender altogether. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for truth, this is like trying to legislate back to a flat Earth by not using the word “circumnavigate.”

We recognize that writing on changing conceptions of gender takes on new meaning with this recent news. On the one hand, we want to use historical evidence to show that, in fact, gender has a long history of change, irresolution and confusion, so we should be curious about how and when gender is made central and for what purpose. On the other hand, we want to validate that something does feel quite distinct about the changes that we are witnessing today, especially given that they are occurring alongside the move toward new federal legislation. 

Scott Kiesling is an associate professor in Linguistics and the fall term interim director of the Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies Program and Julie Beaulieu is a lecturer in GSWS.