Staci Elder Hensley | December 14, 2021
OU seminar says male-female is ‘too limiting,’ marginalizes the ‘gender fluid’
Staci Elder Hensley
The fact that a person is born either male or female is nothing but a false “binary box” established by Western and American societies, and it’s responsible for marginalizing people who consider themselves to be “gender fluid.” To counter this requires university personnel to modify their language and change their interactions with students and others.
That’s the message of a recent University of Oklahoma employee training workshop, “Unlearning Trans and Homonegativity,” offered by OU’s Gender + Equality Center. It’s the latest in a long list of ongoing training seminars offered by the university for campus community members.
The presentation was given by Liv Whitley, the center’s training and development coordinator. Whitley did not share her professional credentials with the audience, but did list her “preferred pronouns” as being “she/they.”
Though the terminology related to sexual identity sometimes changes, OU currently defines the acronym LGBTQ+ as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (or questioning), while the plus sign represents other sexual identities, including “pansexual” and “non-binary.” Whitley also said that the term should be expanded to include people who identify as asexual.
Male or Female Is ‘Too Limiting’
“In its simplest form, ‘binary’ means we have only two options for our self-image, either male or female, which is what we have been socialized into,” Whitley said. “It’s a designation given to you at birth by someone else. This is problematic, because it is not accurate and is too limiting.”
The presentation materials stated that LGBTQ+ people are negatively impacted by being socialized into an environment that only offers two positively received gender options, male or female. Further, it said, to publicly declare one’s gender identity as being outside the “binary box” marginalizes a large swath of the American population. In fact, despite the presentation’s title, even the word “homosexual” is now considered a pejorative due to its prior negative stigma, and should not be used by the general public, Whitley said. The term “non-binary,” in contrast, is both its own category and an umbrella category, she said.
“Our goal is to shift into a holistic model, which we do through education and changing how we speak and interact,” Whitley said. “This is the first step in breaking out of that binary mindset.”
She added that “Gender and sex aren’t the same thing, and it’s very important that we know the difference between the two. Gender identity is how we see ourselves, our innermost self, and this can change over time. Gender identity is something you don’t know about a person until they tell you—you can’t know it by looking at them. Someone can be cisgender and transgender; the idea that you have to be one or the other is not the case,” she said. “All these identities are valid.”
Whitley also introduced the term “intersex,” defined as a way to describe people “born with variations that don’t fit doctors’ expectations of a male or female body.” What these specific variations are was not addressed in the presentation.
“The intersex rate is much higher than people realize,” she said. “It’s as common as being born with red hair.” No research information was provided to confirm this statement, however.
Whitley made a number of additional statistics-related statements during the presentation but offered no sources to back them up. Questions were asked via chat box, but no debate was allowed.
While “white privilege” continues to be a heated topic of debate, Whitley added to the subject by introducing another new term, “cisgender privilege,” into the mix. (“Cisgender” is an individual who “aligns” with his or her biological gender.)
“It’s very important to realize we live in a society created for and in favor of heterosexual, cisgender white men,” she said. “This is very exclusive, which is why we need to educate ourselves and reflect on the ways our socialization and personal experience impact unconscious biases.”
Multiple examples of “cisgender privilege” were cited in the presentation, including:
"You can use public facilities such as gym locker rooms and store changing rooms without stares, fear, or anxiety."
"Strangers don’t assume they can ask you what your genitals look like and how you have sex."
"Your validity as a man/woman/human is not based on how much surgery you’ve had or how well you 'pass' as non-transgender."
Other communication issues, such as the current hot-button “pronouns” debate, were discussed. One participant, an OU professor, asked if these language changes were mandatory for all OU employees and if employees would be discriminated against if they did not follow the university’s definition of “inclusive speech” in the classroom. “In all spaces, the United States does not allow restrictions on an individual’s freedom of speech,” the professor stated.
“We think of inclusion and using these terms as an expansion of free speech, not as a restriction,” Whitley responded.
“I want open debate and comment on these things, not just a chat box,” the professor said afterward. “We need to have conversations where they answer questions and provide data and allow their views to be challenged.”
In a follow-up question-and-answer session, participants largely agreed with the presentation’s viewpoints. One even asked for advice on how to help her 8-year-old daughter “who is non-binary, and the questions she is asked are disturbing.”
Another participant, however, defended the biological reality of male and female identities, stating “My 8-year-old daughter is convinced she’s a mermaid. Should I be affirming that? Is this objective reality? Is it safe for a young developing child to be exposed to this? You honestly do not see any harm in this?”
Another participant immediately disagreed, saying “People’s expression of their identity is reality; it’s not make-believe.”
The presentation included the showing of two short films interviewing five “non-binary” individuals.
“I’m not male, I’m not female—I’m floating around in there somewhere,” one said.
[For more articles about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]
Staci Elder Hensley
Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.