Moving past gender

Commentary by Sara Riggs for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Sara Riggs

Sara Riggs

Every newborn child is assigned a sex by the doctor based on the external genitalia observed. Although this usually evokes a 50-50 proclamation, there are more than two possibilities. From the earliest moments, gender stereotypes are imposed on the child by use of color schemes, toys, clothes, etc. In most babies’ first years, the gender markers are intentionally imposed by parents and society to match the child’s sex that was assigned at birth. In the case of the intersex infant (one whose genitalia are not clearly defined as male or female), the parents probably opted to choose male or female and then proceeded from there.

As a child ages and develops tastes and preferences, the child may start to realize that the sex assigned at birth does not match how they feel internally. But most of the time the child will self-censure, suppress and perform the gender expected role, hiding more authentic expressions.

As you can see, it’s complicated. We all have to begin shifting our expectations and biases. We have to lose the binaries that never existed in the first place (sexes at birth). We have to understand that gender identity needs to be celebrated and accepted as each individual feels most natural and not impose it and require it to match an assigned sex at birth.

There are other societies and cultures that allow for other gender identities. On April 15, India’s Supreme Court recognized a third gender that is neither man nor woman saying, “Recognition of transgenders [sic] as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.” This is an important step for the world. Throughout my lifetime, I have met people who struggle to fit into their given sex and gender “boxes.” The one thing I have learned is to allow each individual person I meet to define who they are and trust that they know how they feel and what works for them. We need to think of gender as “expansive” and not as limited.

In recent years, the Chief Diversity Office and a team of volunteers (including myself), developed and implemented a “Safe Zone” training unique to the University of Iowa. Although the concept of the “Safe Zone” has been around since the 1990s in many colleges and universities across the United States, there was no set structure or curriculum. Here at UI, the goal of the Safe Zone is to identify allies on campus for LGBTQ students and to provide staff development and enrichment opportunities. The Chief Diversity Office has provided six to eight trainings per semester and next March, the coordinator, Kendra Malone, is putting together a statewide summit here on campus for Safe Zone to help other institutions develop their own training frameworks.

As a state, Iowa has led the nation in being a “safer” place to be gay and trans*. We became one of the first states to allow couples to marry someone of the same sex in 2009. Just this fall, the Human Rights Campaign gave Iowa City a rating of 100. This is based on quite a few criteria for cities and how they support the LGBTQ community. Having lived in Iowa City since 1990 and coming out here in 1991, I have seen many improvements and advancements for my community. At the same time, I see plenty of places for improvement, especially for my trans* friends. At the very top of that list would be public restrooms. Every public building (including our K-12 schools) needs to have gender neutral bathrooms. As a parent of two children in ICCSD, I also believe our schools need to be proactive and have support networks in place to welcome and protect any child who may identify as transgender. Anti-bullying work has begun and needs to be strengthened to create safe schools for LGBTQ kids (and LGBTQ parents and caregivers). We have a long way to go. Iowa City just happens to be one of the better places to live if you are LGBTQ.

I invite you to attend a WorldCanvass discussion of gender and identity at 5 p.m. Tuesday at FilmScene, 118 East College St.

*—The asterisk at the end of “trans” is meant as an umbrella to include individuals who identify as transgender (sadly, it does not include everyone).

Sara Riggs works at the University of Iowa Libraries. She is a community activist and volunteer in areas concerning education and social justice.

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