Feminist, [Cis]Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 7, 2015, 8:48 p.m.

On some level, many students at Stanford are acknowledging the need for more representation of their identities or communities on campus. From the Who’s Teaching Us? initiative to the call for more diverse counselors at Stanford’s Counseling And Psychological Services (CAPS), students are increasingly recognizing that seeing people like them represented is beneficial to mental health, student learning and general well-being. Regarding education, studies like Lizzio, Wilson, and Simons (2002) strongly suggest that “positive perceptions of the teaching environment not only directly influence academic achievement but also, importantly, qualitative learning outcomes.”

Researchers like Kassie Freeman have shown that black representation in the learning curriculum is an important factor in increasing participation and learning outcomes for black students in higher education – I argue similarly that for transgender and nonbinary-identifying (or gender-expansive) students, this applies as well. The insistence on cis-normative and outdated notions of teaching and interacting with gender must be seen as a failure on Stanford’s part to adequately meet the needs of trans and gender-expansive students. Most strikingly, while practically every department suffers from an understanding of gender that erases our existence, the failure on the part of Stanford’s Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program to distinguish itself particularly highlights the progress that remains to be made.

On its website, the FGSS program describes itself as examining “how societies organize gender roles, relations, and identities, and how these intersect with other hierarchies of power, such as class, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and age.” In other words, the program describes itself as being progressive in its understanding of intersectionality, and complex in its understanding of gender. However, the experiences of many transgender and gender-expansive students in courses listed under the program – myself included – have demonstrated a much different reality.

From lecture slides equating transgender people to crossdressers to rudimentary understandings of gender as simply a “male-female” binary to constant misgendering of transgender people in class, professors in courses listed under the FGSS program consistently demonstrate a less-than-basic understanding of transgender identity and gender identity itself. I have seen apathy from professors when their students make transphobic or trans-exclusionary assertions about gender, unwillingness to change behavior or language in response to student feedback and erasure of transgender narratives, experiences and literature from courses purported to be a “comprehensive” study of gender.

I have witnessed almost strict adherence to a perception of gender identity that bears more resemblance to that of ’70s-era second-wave feminism than contemporary understandings of gender and gender identity. In courses listed under the FGSS department, members of the transgender and gender-expansive communities on campus have repeatedly butted heads with the assumption that transgender people are not “legitimate” men or women, the erasure of nonbinary identities from discourse (or only the most cursory of side mentions) and essentialized and outdated notions of “manhood” and “womanhood.”

The study of gender is no different than other academic topics of inquiry. In the same way that professors teaching engineering or neuroscience are expected to keep up with current advances in their respective fields, professors teaching gender and related topics must be held to the same standard. It would be unacceptable for professors in STEM fields to only know of scientific advancements until the ’70s or ’80s – and yet, we hardly bat an eye when professors teaching classes about gender seem frozen at the day they received their degrees.

When students are entering these classes to study gender and are forced to defend their own gender identities, we know that Stanford is not doing enough. I am tired of referring the same scientific studies – some more than a decade old – to professor after professor to prove the same point in class after class. I am tired of being tokenized by professors and peers to explain gender identity, transgender 101 and the summary of all transgender issues in classes that I want to learn from, not teach. Is our existence a “higher-level topic?” Are we finally discussed in a class like “FEMGEN 499X?”

Transgender and gender-expansive students at Stanford deserve acknowledgement, and especially so in classes that blithely slap “gender” on their course name and fail to critically do the concept justice. As a campus, Stanford must move beyond perception of transgender and gender-expansive people as exotic, overly complex or unrelatable. Past our apparently Ph.D-level understandings of gender and reality-shattering identities, we are students. We are here at Stanford to learn, grow and leave this university with the tools to do what we want in the world. When we are told even here, in this university hailed as one of the most prestigious in the world, that we belong on the sidelines or do not even exist, it can be hard just getting out of bed in the morning.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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