This week, the New York Times had a fascinating story on the University of Vermont, which has decided to recognize students who do not identify as males or females by a third gender: “Neutral.” The change is the result of a decade of lobbying and internal discussions about how best to include different members of the community. Some of the vexations seem humorous. For example, the school initially spurned the pronoun “they” as grammatically incorrect, instead settling on the pronoun “ze.” (The grammar sticklers eventually came around). Other issues were technical – the policy change required updates to school software to allow for a third gender.
I’m reminded of Russell’s post on the sweeping changes in how this country has come to view same-sex marriage. It has gone from a fringe to mainstream view in little over a decade. As communities start learning how to respect transgender people’s self-conceptualization in a cohesive way, the process may be haltering and chaotic, but I’d venture a guess that the changes will be quicker than we may imagine. There are already models for acceptance as several countries allow people to be identified by third-genders, often rooted in culturally-specific identities such as the hijras of South Asia or the muxes of Mexico.
Recognizing these identities does not immunize people from stigma, of course, but it does acknowledge people as they see themselves. The identities also help alleviate confusion for people who may otherwise feel that they don’t fit into the only possible categories. Rocko Gieselman, profiled in the NYT piece, described their own light-bulb moment:
“Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, ‘Who are you talking to?’”
Being a boy didn’t feel right, either . . . Gieselman began spending time at Outright Vermont, a trans and queer youth center where the gender lexicon of activists and academe is widely accepted. “As soon as I learned about a genderqueer identity, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s the one!’”
As awareness of transgender identities spreads, and the appropriate language becomes more prevalent, growing up transgender may no longer be a matter for confusion. In this regard, the University of Vermont is paving the way for the rest of us in academia and the professional sphere, along with our larger communities.