Several weeks ago, the tiled paths of Cross Campus were once again transformed into a platform for political debate. It was another chalking.
Most of us are so used to these events that we barely pay attention to Yalies’ special combination of inflammatory rhetoric and saccharine kiddie-colors. But this time, it was a new message: “Gender Binary Got You Down?” “Two just isn’t enough,” “F— your gender,” and even “Gender = barf.”
Since then, I’ve been talking to classmates about the chalkings, and there seem to be two prevailing sentiments: irritation and puzzlement. Most people don’t know what the campaign was about, much less the identity of the group responsible –TGAY.
TGAY –Trannies and Genderqueers At Yale –is the latest addition to the family of Yale LGBT groups. TGAY is a group for gender nonconformists (a term general enough to cover transgender, transsexual, the intersex, and even such old-fashioned radicals as lesbian feminists) and people who affirm gender nonconformity.
Fair enough; but even when I tell my classmates this, most of them still don’t have any idea what that means, or why they should care. So then I explain to them that it means anyone who doesn’t feel she or he (or “ze,” the gender-neutral pronoun used by some activists) fits comfortably under either the category “man” or the category “woman.”
But don’t we all deviate from society’s gender ideals in some way? Yes, but relatively few of us feel that these deviations are large enough that we no longer fall under either category. Few of us have seriously inspected this system of categorization, which tells us what to think, how to behave, and whom to desire based on a few (but admittedly significant) details of our body type.
TGAY is a group of people who do, though, and the chalking was meant to inspire others to start thinking about these issues as well. True, much of what was written was misunderstood or dismissed by passers-by. But rather than a sign of failure, I think the curious looks and puzzled, sometimes derisive, remarks were a sign of success –they show how little is known about these issues, how much they needed publicizing.
It reminds me of what Myles Gideon ’02, TGAY’s founder, said when asked what ze was planning to do this year with TGAY: “I don’t know yet. It doesn’t really matter; the most important thing to me is just that there be a group like this at Yale.”
The irony is that just before this latest skirmish in the sex wars broke out, a recent article in Rolling Stone touted the extreme liberality of the Yale campus and the complacency of its queer population.
Although readers of the yale.soc.queers newsgroup are familiar with some of that article’s shortcomings — it’sfunny how good gay life at Yale sounds if you only interview middle- and upper-class white gay men — that’s only one queer world at Yale. But it’s the only one many straight Yalies know of.
So it was a shock to some to see signs of dissatisfaction. “Why are they so angry?” is a question I heard several times.
Exhortations to “F— your gender” — a rallying cry lifted from the work of transgender activist and theorist Kate Bornstein — notwithstanding, TGAY is not an angry organization, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell in my limited time with them.
But angry? Not so much.
Anyone who interpreted “Gender = barf” as angry must not have seen the dozen or so parallel equations of “Gender = diarrhea” and “Gender = your mom” clustered around it.
But then that’s where things did take a wrong turn. Too many students let their own prejudices prevent them from having to grapple with the actual message and intent of the chalkings. It’s far easier, after all, to dismiss a publicity campaign as the rabble-rousing of another disenfranchised minority than to stop and think about its message.
It’s that kind of prejudicial thinking, activists contend, that is fundamental to the way gender itself operates. After all, what is gender other than a specific and elaborate prejudice that draws conclusions about another human’s mental capacities and dispositions based on certain physical characteristics?
I’ve occasionally made use of gender-neutral pronouns in this column. I’ve done that less to promote politically correct language than simply to draw your attention to our compulsion to know the gender of any person we encounter. When that compulsion is blocked, it generates a radically disproportionate irritation. Most of us consider gender to be irrelevant to many parts of a person’s life — intellectual ability, suitability for athletics — yet the compulsion to attach every person to a gender, whether in face-to-face interaction or in a third-person discussion, endures.
Why? Asking this question is the other goal of TGAY’s chalking. One was celebratory self-visualizing, yes, but the other was to invite others to reflect, inspect, and debate this question, along with all the others it leads to.
The invitation stands.
Josh Wright is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.