Dear Dr. Olson,
On September 19, 2013, The Georgetown Voice featured an article about LGBT+ life here at Georgetown University. The feature did a great job of contextualizing the experiences of queer Hoyas, but I was stopped in my tracks when I reached your statement.
“Todd Olson, Vice President for Student Affairs, articulates that in dealing with gender identity, the University stands firm on its view of gender as binary. ‘There is an emerging view that gender identity is sort of something you play with. I think that it is quite a different view than the Catholic view of identity and of human sexuality.’
There are many words to describe this statement: binarism, cissexism, gender essentialism. These are all descriptions of the idea that gender and sex must exist in certain ways, and describe the social structures that reward and punish people accordingly. All of these descriptions are specific types of oppression, and your statement, along with current Georgetown policies, is oppressive.
Gender is certainly something people can and do play with. Some days I wear makeup, some days I don’t. Some days I shave my legs but not my face. Some days I cry, some days I am affectionate, some days I feel particularly athletic. I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who were accepting of how I expressed my gender. I would often wear dresses, I played soccer on the girls’ team at recess, I cried often. My parents themselves modeled how our lives need not be defined in strict gendered terms: my dad usually cooks and washes dishes; my mom throws a football better than I can. They both tell me they love me anytime I call or Skype. It was honestly not until I came to Georgetown that I realized that I was differently gendered than other people—and that this was somehow wrong. Here on the Hilltop I am constantly confronted by others’ incorrect perceptions of me: that I am a man, that I am wealthy or at least middle class, that I am Catholic, that I am (hetero)sexual, that I am completely healthy and neurotypical. With each of these assumptions comes a sort of privilege, but I am still systematically oppressed.
You see, the thing about gender is that it’s not just all about fun. One can certainly play with gender, but oppression of any sort—including that based on gender—is not a playful matter. In an incredibly visible example, DC has one of the highest rates of violence in the country against trans* folk. While I sincerely doubt you have been out committing hate crimes in your spare time, your statement reflects the fact that there is a general ignorance around trans* and non-binary issues.
How could I not expect you to be ignorant though? I doubt you have ever experienced terror at having to use a public restroom. I doubt you ever have existential crises when you wake up because you can’t stand to gender yourself every morning. I doubt you’ve ever had people openly scowl at you or yell slurs like “tranny” or “faggot.” I doubt you’ve ever been discriminated against by your physician based on your gender. I doubt your sexual education—no matter what form it took—was completely irrelevant to your body and your desires. I doubt people ask you “what” you are before they even know your name. I doubt that people ever use the wrong pronouns to describe you, and especially that you have ever been called an “it.” I doubt your emotional wellbeing has been seriously impacted by body dysmorphia. I doubt any of your ID’s are inaccurate, and that you are prevented from correcting them. I doubt you have ever experienced any sort of violence from family, friends, or relatives based on your gender.
These are all real problems that trans* and gender-nonconforming people face. This is not to say that every trans*/gender-nonconforming person experiences these things, nor that you or other cisgender people necessarily haven’t. However, on a systematic level, these are problems that I and others confront on a regular basis. When you write off issues of binarism as “play,” you are merely perpetuating this oppression. Now, I don’t think that you are a horrible person—far from—nor that you mean any malice. In fact, it may even be that you despise binarism, but due to the politics of your office you are forced into certain positions. Regardless, it is unacceptable to allow this binarism to endure.
You may claim that I am scapegoating you, and this is more than fair. Your statement was not necessarily personal, but it did illuminate Georgetown’s institutional position and American culture at large. I am not asking you to immediately grant gender-neutral housing, as you seem to fear, but I demand that at the very least you stop actively oppressing us. There are both cultural and policy changes to be made here at Georgetown (and nationally), and you have the ability to aid in both. By definition, I am not a “Woman or Man for Others,” but you can choose to be a man for others—all others, not just cismen and ciswomen. I sincerely hope that your ears and mind and heart are open, because my voice will not be silenced until these issues of oppression have been addressed. I know that there is only so much you can do as an individual, but I am more than happy to work alongside you to improve Georgetown and work for our collective liberation.