Reflections on Transitions: How my Transgender Issues Class has Changed in the Last Fifteen Years

Reflections on Transitions: How my Transgender Issues Class has Changed in the Last Fifteen Years

In 1998 I taught a new class at the University of Oregon called “Transgender History, Identity, and Politics.” Back then there were only one or two students who knew what “transgender” meant when I asked them on the first day of class.  The others had enrolled either because the class hours fit their time schedules or because they had taken other classes with me and liked my teaching style (or had received a good grade!).  I have taught the class several times over the past fifteen years, but this term I have noticed a distinct difference; it’s astonishing how the class composition and its general knowledge about the subject has been transformed in such a relatively short time.  Change happens.

At our first meeting we went over an online reading I had assigned in advance about the privileges of being cisgender.  Drawing from the classic article by Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” this website lists the ways in which non-trans people have privilege in a world that is so rigidly committed to the gender binary of male and female.  For example, cisgendered people don’t get asked about their genitals much; trans people do, as others are always wondering if they’ve undergone any surgery to make their transition “real.”  Cisgender people are taken seriously in their gender; trans people have to convince others that their identity isn’t fleeting (and so what if it was?).  Cisgendered people have the luxury of having the pronouns used to designate them in a conversation match their identity.  Some trans people have to constantly correct others about their pronoun usage, or just live with “mis-pronouning,” to use a term one of my students coined.


The class turned to a lengthy discussion of pronouns and how our very language makes it difficult to embrace the idea of transitioning from one gender to the other or, especially, to a genderqueer space in between.  If “he” or “she” doesn’t quite work, what about using “ze” for singular and “they” for either singular or plural?  It’s awkward, sure, but so was “Ms.” when feminists first suggested that appellation to denote a woman, without announcing whether she was married or single.  I can remember those conversations about “Ms.” myself; some people thought that the term would never catch on because people want (and presumably have the right) to know a woman’s marital status. (Even for those of us who lived through these times, it’s hard to believe the extent of this historic sexism!).   Others believed that “mizz” just sounded weird. Using “they” for a singular person also sounds weird and takes some getting used to.  But it can be done, even in writing, where it seems especially grammatically incorrect.

ms magazine

The bigger point is this: my class proved to be unusually well-versed in this conversation.  They had points to make about all the various pronoun options, and none of the discussion seemed to catch them by surprise.  In fact, one student said that at several extracurricular meetings “they” attend, students tell the group their preferred pronoun before the meeting begins.  I have been at some student meetings, both at Oregon and at Harvard (where I was on leave last year) where the organizer did the same thing; as everyone introduced themselves, they announced their pronoun preference.  I hesitate to do this in my own class because I think it might force people to “out” themselves before they’re ready—either as gender variant OR as comfortable in their gender.  But I appreciate the intention that informs the practice, and I can see its benefits.

Granted, we might expect such open-mindedness in university settings, particularly in places like Eugene or Cambridge. But the cultural shift isn’t confined to the classroom. I asked my class how many of them have had this pronoun conversation with their families and friends.  Every single student raised a hand!  This is a huge leap forward, I believe.  These students “get” what fifteen years ago I would have had to spend several days explaining: that neither gender nor sex are the fixed entities that we might have assumed.

pronoun chart

By 2013 most upper division Women’s and Gender Studies students understand the socially constructed nature of gender.  The notion that we “gender” our children from birth is now more generally understood.  Many would agree, for example, that the onslaught of pink things commercially designated for girls only is an unnecessary and often damaging cultural imperative. But even as few as fifteen years ago, some students would have had trouble with this idea, arguing that it’s “natural” for girls to like pink and everything else that goes along with that.  And that any deviation from the gender norm was just plain “unnatural,” particularly if hormones, surgery and bodily modifications were involved.

pink things

Today’s students are much more aware and comfortable with gender and sex variation. Been assigned male since birth but now want to live as female?  Cool!  Need testosterone and chest surgery to be read as male? Whatever. Have a friend who identifies as trans but doesn’t want any medical intervention? Also fine. They’re unfazed by much of it, and that makes teaching this class easier in many ways.  I am not as worried as I was years ago that someone might make an insensitive and hurtful comment to the trans students in the room.  As a class we can more quickly delve into the ethical questions that still demand our consideration: Where do transgender politics fit in the larger political landscape of LGBT activism? How do race and class affect access to medical care? How has our understanding of gender variance changed over time? Should hormones and surgery be available to anyone who wants them, without any gatekeeping whatsoever? How should parents handle the impending puberty of transgender children? What can we do to end the physical violence and administrative abuse that trans people confront regularly? What exactly is “normal” and how might we move forward to embrace difference and promote and protect dignity in all forms?

Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black talks about the importance of transgender history

We have an exciting term ahead of us, and I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be in another fifteen years.

Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.