Sex: it’s complicated

Transgender. Queer. Nonbinary.

Welcome to the new normal. Or what Rona L. Holub, director of the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, calls “The Newer Normal.” It’s the title she’s given to the college’s 16th annual Women’s History Conference, this one exploring global perspectives on sexuality and gender.

The conference, which takes place March 1, will include panel discussions on such topics as law and gender identity, transgendered children, the evolution of gendered language, health and gender identity, genderqueer and nonbinary identities, transgender activism and the history of sexuality and gender. Among the featured participants is Scott Turner Schofield, a performer and transgender activist.

“‘The Newer Normal’ is about the evolution, revolution that will change the face of how we perceive gender and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement,” Holub says. It comes at a time when gays and lesbians have made significant civil rights gains. There are 18 states in this country that now allow same-sex marriage, for example, and that has led to a cultural shift. Gay couples are commonplace in the “Vows” column of the Sunday New York Times – a fact that was alluded to as no big deal on a recent episode of CBS’ “Blue Bloods,” about a family of Irish-Catholic cops. Talk to parents with teenagers, and they’ll tell you that the upcoming generation is equally ho-hum about whether their peers are gay, straight, bi, male, female, transgender or none of the above.

The reality, however, is not so rosy, globally or locally. The “Kill the Gays” law in Uganda, so-called because it originally called for the death penalty for homosexuality; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay crackdown prior to the Sochi Olympics; the string of homicides against gay Iraqi teenage boys who dressed in a Western, punk (or “emo”) style – all these suggest that the world is not ready to accept gender and sexual differences. In this country, 32 states still ban same-sex marriage. Closer to home, a Sarah Lawrence student was physically attacked off-campus by a motorist hurling anti-gay slurs.

“There’s new violence when things change,” Holub says.

She understands that these are challenging times even for people of good will and part of the challenge begins with understanding the language and the etiquette. What, for example do you call your son’s same-sex partner upon marriage? Are they partners still? (That might imply business partners.) Are they husbands? Spouses? What about your daughter’s same-sex partner upon the wedding day? Are they wives? Do we just wait to follow their cues?

And what about the terms? What does it mean to be transgendered? Nonbinary? Queer? Holub knows these are loaded words.

It used to be that transgendered meant only transsexual, “someone like Christine Jorgensen or Renée Richards, who wanted to alter their bodies to be the opposite sex,” Holub says. Nowadays, to borrow from Ira Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so.

“It’s very complex,” she adds. Some transgendered individuals want to change part or all of their bodies to conform to the gender they perceive themselves to be. Others don’t.

What is clear, Holub says, is that “the transgendered are making people think about gender in a transformative way.” Indeed, she adds, “What if one doesn’t choose to be either?” That’s where the term “nonbinary” comes into play, for those who opt out of considering themselves male or female.

And what of queer? It used to be a pejorative term exclusively and is still used as such. But Holub says queer – as in the Q that sometimes now appears at the end of LGBT – stands for “questioning. It embraces all of the people who don’t fit the norm, the people who cross the lines of what’s expected of them.”

In that sense, she says, Sarah Lawrence has always had a queer identity as an academic institution willing to challenge conventional behavior, establishing the first women’s history program to offer a graduate degree, in 1972. But it’s not your grandmother’s women’s studies program anymore.

“It’s a very significant time,” Holub says, “with things changing overnight, and it will be interesting to see what happens.”

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