Beyond the Binary: An All-Day Academic Symposium

This campus symposium aims to educate, spark conversations, and be inclusive

By Nicole O’Connell

While “symposium” may seem a bit of an intimidating word, Worcester State’s upcoming event aims to be welcoming to all. Rethinking Gender: Beyond the Binary will be held on Thursday, March 28, with events beginning at 8:30 a.m. and continuing until 3 p.m. A full schedule is available at the end of this article.

Dr. Charlotte Haller of the History Department and the director of Women’s Studies was on the planning committee for the symposium. Participants in the symposium hope it educates and sparks conversations about gender on the Worcester State campus.

“There are different groups that are going to get different things from it,” Haller said. “My first goal is that any students who are transgender or non-binary feel like Worcester State is a place that is happy to have them here and welcomes them. I also think there’s lots of people here at Worcester State who aren’t transgender or non-binary but who want to be inclusive, supportive, and welcoming, but may feel a little insecure about their ability to navigate what feels like a really complicated and gendered landscape. I’m hoping that this symposium will give them the confidence to live in this amazing wonderful world we live in with all this diversity of expression and experience.”

Dr. Timothy Murphy of the Urban Studies Department kicks off the symposium with, “Everyone’s a Queerdo’: An Anthropological Approach to Gender and Sexuality.”

“My talk will address gender and sexuality from the perspective of cultural anthropology,” he explained. “I will show how gender and sexuality―often misunderstood by the general public as essential/universal concepts―are actually relative to particular places and times.”

Murphy went on to further say that students should attend the symposium to become involved in the “growing movement of inclusivity” and “understandings of gender and sexuality have always been changing, and they will continue to change both during and after our lifetimes. We must raise our awareness of such changes in order to create an inclusive world for all.”

When planning for the symposium began in the fall, promoting inclusivity was an area of focus. Haller knew the events should capture a diverse range of experiences, including different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, while members of the campus community will be presenting throughout the day, the committee was not sure they’d be able to provide a broad enough range of experiences from the campus community who would be willing to present.

Thus, one of the events for Thursday involves film screenings that showcase diverse experiences. Haller, along with Dr. Elizabeth Siler of the Business Administration and Economics Department, will be participating in this event, titled, “Coming Out as Transgender: A Discussion of Three Short Films.”

“Film is a great way to open up our minds and see the world from different perspectives,” Haller explained. “One of the things I think is most educational and most moving is hearing from transgender people talking about their experiences. It humanizes and for me, just any kind of theoretical doubts or concerns I might have just disappear. It’s like, these are people, get over it!”

Preceding the film screenings will be “Pronouns and Gender in Spanish and English” with Professor Vicki Gruzynski from the Library, Dr. Elizabeth Osborne from the World Languages Department, and Dr. MaryLynn Saul of the English Department.

“It’s part of this ongoing culture shift in thinking about being more open to gender identity and different understandings of gender identity,” Saul said. “Our part is focusing on the pronouns, but it’s part of a larger culture shift and you can’t just talk about pronouns in isolation without thinking about the whole cultural shift as well.”

Gruzynski will be speaking about pronouns in general, Osborne will be speaking about pronouns and gender in Spanish, and Saul will be talking about the history of pronouns, going all the way back to Old English.

“When we talk about the use of pronouns and ‘can we use singular they,’ people tend to look at the present day and don’t think about the changes in pronouns throughout the history of our language, as if they never changed before,” said Saul. “Our pronouns in English have gone through a lot of changes. I want people to loosen their grip…Our understanding of the right way to do things changes over time because language is always changing. Whether you like it or not, it’s always changing.”

Though her talk is centered on the history of the English language, the points are applicable to the present.

“I hope it will open up a dialogue and help students think of things in ways they haven’t thought of before. Maybe they’ve heard about singular they, or they’ve heard people say ‘I have preferred pronouns’ or introduce themselves with, ‘I’m MaryLynn Saul she/her/hers.’ Why are people doing that? What are people saying that? If I’m cisgender, why do I need to say what my pronouns are? I think this might help people understand why some of that is happening.”

Murphy, Haller, and Saul’s respective events are being held in the morning, but the keynote lecture, occurring in the afternoon, is also not to be missed. The keynote speaker is Mason Dunn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and co-chair of the Yes on 3 campaign. Though not listed on the fliers around campus, Worcester State will also be welcoming surprise guest Kasey Suffredini, Dunn’s co-chair of the campaign.

“We initially thought we were only going to get Mason Dunn to come,” Haller explains, “but it turns out both of them are going to be there for the keynote to talk about the Yes on 3 campaign.”

The Yes on 3 campaign promoted last November’s vote for the preservation of transgender rights in Massachusetts.

“The fact that they were able to pull off a popular referendum and protection of minority rights is really amazing,” said Haller. “Everyone I talked to was saying the Yes on 3 people have their act together, they’re so great, they’re doing a great job. So, I am thrilled to be able to have them come to campus and tell us how they did it! The work that they are doing for that campaign is so important in being a bright spot in what America is capable of.”

With events occurring throughout the day, members of the campus community are very likely to find at least one that will fit into their schedule. These educational and inclusive opportunities are for everyone and should be taken advantage of.

“This symposium is for everybody,” said Haller. “You shouldn’t feel like it’s not for you. Wherever you’re coming from in terms of how you think about gender identity, I think you’ll find it a really rich, thought-provoking, interesting day.”

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