In a manner of speaking: How to talk about gender

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On Monday, April 25, the InSLUsive Language Campaign held a dialogue on gender identity and sexual orientation in the Griesedieck Hall classroom.

The InSLUsive Language Campaign is a new initiative on campus aimed toward encouraging the SLU community to use inclusive language to create a more knowledgeable, understanding environment.

“Our hope is that through these conversations we can build a stronger community here together, and ultimately take this understanding with us wherever we may go after college,” said junior Molly Farmer, Vice President for Advocacy for the Residence Hall Association.

The VP for Advocacy is a new position for the RHA Executive Board. In her inaugural term, Farmer created and now chairs the InSLUsive committee, which is made up of both RHA and non-RHA students.

“After being elected, I wanted to make sure that I made this position one that actually made an impact here at SLU; I wanted to do something of substance,” said Farmer. “After a lot of conversations … our InSLUsive campaign was born, and my committee and I have been working hard setting its foundation.”

Although the dialogue focused mainly on gender identity and sexual orientation, the campaign’s goal is to promote inclusive language regarding all identities and demographics represented at SLU.

“We know words have the power to both hurt deeply, as well as build a rich community, and it is important for students to begin to understand how the words they use can impact others,” said Student Success Coach Amy Ballweg. Ballweg served as a facilitator for the discussion, along with Assistant Director for Housing and Residence Life JJ Janulis.

The dialogue promoted these ideals through discussion about exactly what the terms gender identity and sexual orientation mean.

For the students to understand the discussion topic, a handout titled ‘The Genderbread Person’ was passed around. The handout expressed the differences between biological sex, gender identity and gender expression.

The handout explained that an individual’s biological sex included the physical sex characteristics with which the individual is born and develops, including genitalia, body shape and hormones. The handout also expressed that while an individual may be born biologically as a male or female, it does not mean the individual will identify as the gender traditionally assigned to that biological sex. Gender is not binary and has to do with how individuals align – or do not align – themselves. Along with gender identity, gender expression has to do with the way an individual presents gender through actions, dress and demeanor.

“I always thought of things as binary, and I recently incorporated the middle of there being transgender, but there’s so many other levels to it,” said SLU sophomore Sena Lyons, a participant in the dialogue.

Like many others, Lyons has struggled with understanding the different gender identities and gender expressions, but Farmer believes that is just another reason to continue the conversation about how to express confusion over the topic in a positive and inclusive fashion.

“Gender identity and sexual orientation is one of many important conversations I think we all need to have,” said Farmer. “It is an important topic that is commonly misconstrued or misunderstood.”

In particular, when it comes to sexual orientation, a common misconception is that it is directly correlated to gender identity. A portion of the discussion centered on the idea that sometimes there is no label for how a person identifies with gender or sexual orientation.

“I think that our culture socializes people to think in terms of patterns, which often times includes placing labels on people, putting them into ‘boxes’ and categorizing them,” said Janulis. “We need to move away from trying to ‘figure out how a person identifies’ and simply let people be who they are and who their soul tells them they are.”

The Campaign will have similar dialogues on using inclusive language that harbors understanding.

“I am excited to see what next semester brings for the campaign and subsequent dialogues,” said Janulis.