Conforming to the gender binary restricts everybody
We are writing to claim responsibility for the bathroom signs around campus yesterday. Hopefully you all noticed them. As a group project for the Anthropology of Social Movements course taught by Professor Melissa Rosario, we chose to confront the restrictions of the gender binary in an effort designed to start a campus-wide conversation about gender. It was meant to be unexpected. It was meant to get you thinking.
There are groups on campus dedicated to educating students about the spectrums of gender, sex and sexuality. But these messages do not reach everyone on campus. This is in part because the participants in these conversations are self-selecting. For many students it may never occur to them to seek out conversations about gender. Maybe your gender identity fits in with the binary options that society gives us. Maybe you have been privileged enough to have never felt excluded because of your gender expression. Many might see these issues as primarily concerning trans and gender non-conforming people. However, we believe that the gender binary restricts everyone.
There seems to be a growing dialogue at Bowdoin about how our social codes of masculinity and femininity limit our range of self-expression and use of space. Last year an anonymous first-year student wrote in the Orient about the dubious “pretty test” for girls at the doors of male-dominated off-campus houses. In a recent conversation started by the op-ed entitled, “Why we need a Men’s Resource Center,” two male students recognized how men have felt alienated when it comes to discussing issues of masculinity. Both of these articles raised the sometimes tacit, and sometimes explicit ways in which we enforce gender standards within ourselves and among each other every day. They illustrate how every person’s gender identity is held hostage by society’s norms.
By papering doors across campus with bathroom signs yesterday, we hope that everyone was confronted with the fact that gender affects us all in almost every aspect of our lives. We want everyone to recognize their stake in the struggle for society to accept a more diverse range of gender expressions.
Trans and gender non-conforming people showcase the potential for greater freedom of expression beyond traditional maleness and femaleness. In our society, however, these groups have been systemically marginalized for daring to challenge the norms. The lengths to which many people will go to enforce the gender binary has resulted in bullying, harassment and violence towards those who are perceived as its transgressors. In the case of gendered public bathrooms, we see not marginalization, but rather a lack of recognition of their legitimate identities. On campus, for instance, students living in many dorms cannot find gender-neutral bathrooms in their buildings.
Gender issues are everyone’s concern, and there are only gains to be made by engaging in dialogue with one another. Whether or not you came to the discussion last night, we hope this action will inspire you to have a conversation with a friend, a professor, a coach, a family member. Engage with people who do not share your gender identity. Women, ask a man how he experiences expectations of masculinity. Men, ask a woman how her gender influences the way she is treated on campus. Everyone, do not be afraid to ask people what their preferred gender pronouns are and what gender means to them specifically. Think about what gender means to you and ask yourself, when does gender limit you? When does it empower you? As Bowdoin students, we want to challenge ourselves to creatively undo gender oppression on our campus and in our lives.
Talk of the Quad: Sharing unhappiness
I had a conversation with one of my proctees recently that made me angry. Usually after a hard conversation with a resident or a friend, I end up in the same space as that person. If they’re sad, I also get down; if they’re worried, I worry about those same things. In this conversation, though, my proctee was pretty down, and afterward I was angry.
I was angry that in his second semester at Bowdoin he felt pressure to “be OK.” In fact, he felt pressure to be better than OK—he felt like it was his fault for not being happy here. I wondered, how is it possible that someone doesn’t know that people are unhappy at Bowdoin?
Even just among my friends I have seen that Bowdoin students have rough days, rough weeks, rough semesters. So what are we doing every day that gives the impression that we’re always having the time of our lives?
I remember former director of Residential Life (ResLife) Mary Pat McMahon explaining at a ResLife meeting during my sophomore fall that as the first years were settling in and adjusting, it was important to create space for them not to be happy with Bowdoin right away. She said that we should be careful not to normalize any one experience at Bowdoin, especially one of “Everyone loves it here!” Cue the parody of your RA with the constant robotic smile.
Like the dedicated ResLife staff member I was, I internalized this message and tried to carry it forth in my interactions with my residents. (This is why I was so upset that my proctee hadn’t heard that simple statement yet: “You don’t have to be happy at Bowdoin all the time.”)
ResLife doesn’t have a formal mission statement, but I have come to see that its mission is to validate all students’ experiences at Bowdoin and offer support as needed; it is in large part a commitment to empathy.
For my part, I have tried to provide a listening ear to my residents rather than give advice or attempt to solve their problems. I tend to balk at blanket statements like “Everyone should go abroad!” I want to tell people, “No, listen. That doesn’t fit me. My experience is different because I am different.”
So, no, I didn’t tell my proctees during Orientation that classes are hard, sometimes you bite off more than you can chew. I never warned them that eventually even Ladd would lose its luster and every themed party would blur into one sweaty first-year memory. I never said that making the journey to L. L. Bean at midnight isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the Bowdoin Log is entirely overrated, and your floormates probably won’t be your best friends for the rest of Bowdoin.
They didn’t need me to pave a way through Bowdoin for them or to tell them what things to avoid. They didn’t—and still don’t—need me to label their experiences. Instead they’ve needed me every once in a while to listen to their individual frustrations, their successes and their stories.
The work that ResLife does to change campus culture is slow but essential. In the broadest sense, we try to create space for every individual Bowdoin student to be heard and we try to give voice to the multiplicity of Bowdoins that exist for students, good and bad.
At least, that is what I have gotten from my interactions with ResLife staff members, and what I have tried to pay forward, too. It’s slow because it often happens in late night conversations between just two people when one person is stressed, tired and vulnerable. These conversations are often about feelings we’d rather not discuss by daylight. But in the accumulation of all these conversations, these moments, I see change.
On my most optimistic days at Bowdoin, I see us moving towards a culture of greater empathy and acceptance, and of openness to learning from each other—a culture in which we can be more open about being not OK.
It’s tiring, though. Not just for members of ResLife staff, but for anyone who holds someone else’s frustrations, fears or pain. It can be draining and disheartening. I’ve had more than my share of bad days because of someone else’s unhappiness. I see now that my sophomore slump, which, really, could be better characterized as a sophomore series of slumps, was in large part a result of some of those really bad days.
But from where I stand now, at the end of my junior year looking toward a senior year without ResLife, I am grateful, not bitter. It is through these conversations, as hard as they have been, that I have made some of my deepest connections at Bowdoin.
I am honored and humbled by all of the people who have trusted me with their unhappinesses and their bad days. I have basked in the warmth of the intimacy and genuineness of those conversations. I have held them close to me to remind myself on my own bad days that sadness, apathy, anger, loneliness—they’re natural feelings and I am not alone in them.