Discussing Gender in Sociology Class

Trigger warning- cissexism

Hoo boy. We just started covering gender in my sociology class. The reading for the chapter on gender was assigned several weeks ago (in the syllabus), so I had been expecting it for a while, but it had been so long that I assumed they must have covered it on the day I missed class. After reading the chapter in the book, it’s one lecture I would have really liked to know was coming, because I anticipated that it would be somewhat triggery.

The book did several things that I liked and several that I didn’t like. The good stuff included clearly explaining the difference between gender and sex and talking about how even physical sex is not clearly deliniated into male and female. They talked about intersex conditions and the case of David Reimer. They even managed to use pronouns in a respectful way. Then they fucked up their earlier appearance of respect by referring to David Reimer as “John/Joan”. They had already done a side note about how David Reimer is also known as “John/Joan”, which I see no problem with, but then they use “John/Joan” like it’s his name. It is NOT.

They also discuss various cultures which recognize some sort of “third gender” outside of just male and female. They talk about hijras, Navjo nadle, and travesti. However, the only place in the entire chapter where they use the word “transgender” is in reference to the travesti, who are prostitutes who dress like women, act like women, and modify their bodies to appear more feminine, but apparently do not identify as women. If you are using the word transgender as an umbrella term, then that word works in that context, but if you are using the word transgender to refer to people whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex, then, well… then that means there isn’t a single mention in the entire chapter about transgender people. This seems like kind of a glaring omission in a chapter which mentions just about everything else I can think of that blurs the lines around sex and gender. The hell? Does the existence of transgender people undermine their theory about gender being entirely socially constructed or something?

Also, the way they discussed sexual orientation made me very uncomfortable. They more or less equate sexual behavior with orientation and then talk about sexual orientation as a social construct. Sexual orientation may very well be a social construct in some sense, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t based on some sort of innate trait. I can totally see how people with a certain sort of pattern of attractions would be labeled in completely different ways in different societies where certain types of sexual behavior are seen as more or less acceptable or desirable, and I can even imagine how different societies might affect how people’s sexuality develops (and especially how people’s sexual behavior develops) by normalizing some types of attraction/behavior and condemning other types, but that still doesn’t mean that sexual orientation isn’t based on some sort of innate trait. It just seems like it would be too easy for someone to read this chapter and then say “oh, sexual orientation is just a social construct (and therefore not real)” or something like that. Also, they barely mention bisexuality, and when they do, it’s only in reference to bisexual behavior (e.g. there’s a paragraph about Kinsey).

So anyway, after doing the reading, I had very mixed feelings in anticipation of what the lecture on this chapter would be like. I still have mixed feelings about it, and we’re probably halfway through covering the topic in class. I was (unfortunately) not disappointed in my suspicion that it would be somewhat triggery. During the discussion about how the essentialist view of gender (which assumes male and female are distinct, clearly separated categories) doesn’t really hold up to reality, one of my classmates said that someone could get a “sex change” and maybe modify hormones or something (they obviously had only a vague idea of how this works), but they couldn’t change their DNA, and that’s clearly the important thing here (and if/when we figure out how to modify DNA, I’m sure they’ll settle on something else as clearly being the real basis for sex/gender *eye roll*). One of my other classmates responded that there are some people with male sex chromosomes who don’t respond to testosterone and appear entirely female (this is called complete androgen insensitivity syndrome–and apparently I know waaaaay more about these things than any of my classmates, and I only know intersex 101 stuff), which implies that sex chromosomes aren’t an infallible indicator of sex or gender. Both of them talked about these things in a way that made it clear that they think these are incredibly rare or odd cases, though. I feel sorry for any other transgender and/or intersex students who might be in my class and had to sit through that (it’s a big class, and, depending how you define intersex and transgender, the prevalence of either might be as high as 1 or 2% of the population, so the chance I’m not the only one is not miniscule).

There was plenty I wanted to say during the class discussion, and there are a lot of things I know about which would have made a useful contribution to the discussion, but I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. Especially not after Mr. DNA-is-what’s-important said his piece. I’m too afraid to out myself as trans in front of the class. Someone else in the class was already outed as gay (her friend decided to bring up the fact that she refers to her partner in a gender-neutral manner while everyone was waiting for the teacher to arrive, and wouldn’t take ‘can we talk about this later?’ for an answer; I wish I’d said something to derail the conversation at the time, because I could see where it was going, but it was already done before I thought of anything to say). I wonder if we’ll talk about homosexuality a bit next class? Perhaps I can counter some of the bile on a subject that doesn’t affect me so directly.

Bah. This post is like 1000 words. That’s how long the English essay I was supposed to have written yesterday is supposed to be. But I’m writing this blog post instead of writing my essay because my sociology class was triggery. Like, my heart was pounding out of nervousness the entire class and I kept anticipating something bad (or something else bad, after the first cissexist comment), and then once it was over I didn’t feel like doing school work anymore. I wish we’d had this lecture around when the reading was supposed to be done because then at least I would have been able to anticipate it.

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5 thoughts on “Discussing Gender in Sociology Class

  1. wow. i can’t believe you had to sit through that! i mean, shit like this happens all the time, but it’s always shocking. internet hugs if you want them! <333

    i totally don't blame you for not wanting to speak up in front of those people. i have trouble speaking up in front of my classmates and we're a small group of people who've been together for 4 years. and they already know i'm trans*, though i'm sure the majority have no clue what that means.

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  2. I ended up skipping class yesterday because I was too stressed out to want to deal with any discussion of gender by a bunch of ignorant college students again. I’m kind of curious what I missed, and I think I would have gone if I were in a better place mentally, but oh well. Missing out on the last straw that causes a mental breakdown > going to class. And besides, I’m a bit more than just one straw away from a mental breakdown, now, which is a good thing.

    And yea, it’s good to pick times and places to speak up. Fighting transphobia/cissexism is important, but so is taking care of one’s self.

    Also, hooray, internet hugs!

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  3. i’m glad you’re taking care of yourself! sometimes, it’s just not worth it to out yourself and try to deal with 10 tons of asshattery. have you considered taking people aside? i have no idea if that’s a good idea in your case, but i have a lot of success talking one-on-one with cissexist classmates. maybe it’d work for you?

    yay for hugs! <3333

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  4. Hm, that could be a good idea, except that I don’t actually know anyone in my class, and I am introverted and shy and stuff, and I usually just avoid talking to people in class. If we did small group type discussions in that class, I would speak up a lot more (and probably be more willing to talk to classmates one on one as well, considering that I’m generally more inclined to approach someone when it’s not out of the blue).

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