I am a complete gender nerd. Show me a culture that's got some basis in gender, and I wanna know more. Wells College is a lovely liberal arts college in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region. For 136 years, it had been a women-only institution. On October 2, 2004, Wells College announced that it would admit men in autumn 2005. Ms. magazine covered it well. Sociologically speaking, Wells is a goldmine of information and politically speaking. Wells could become the earth-shaking epicenter of a consciously gendered culture. There's never been one of those before, ever.
Last February, I spoke at Wells and I learned that a sisterhood had grown up within the college over those 136 years. It wasn't quite family, and it wasn't quite academic community. It was a little corner of the world where patriarchal values didn't hold sway. It was sweet, powerful, and empowering. In response to the co-ed announcement, one student was quoted as saying, "I was crushed. I was crying, and I don't cry very often."
There was an immediate takeover protest at the administration building that lasted over a week and a half. The administration and board of directors claimed they'd done their best to maintain the women-only status of the college. They'd dropped tuition by 30 percent, they'd tried all sorts of new market ploys to get the student enrollment up to the minimum 450 it would take to keep the college from going under completely. Surveys of the day showed that only 3 percent of college-bound women actively sought a women's only institution. Like most things in America these days, money talks. The men were admitted, and here we are a year or so later and there are twenty more students on campus than before, and there are a lot of angry juniors, seniors, and alumna. So, from the focal point of the gendered culture that was and the gendered culture that is now, it remains to be discovered:
1. What's been lost?
2. What's been gained?
3. What can be learned from this?
4. What opportunities exist that would make the most people happier.
Before I presume to address these issues and propose an interesting path for the college to take, you deserve to know who's talking to you. I'm a transsexual femme dyke nerd girl atheist and anarchist. I write books on postmodern gender theory, and I just finished a book of alternatives to suicide for teens, freaks, and other outlaws. I'm also a chronic binge-eater who's been diagnosed with anorexia. I'm 59 years old, a double Pisces with a Taurus Moon. I'm a fan of anything Joss Whedon, Neil Gaiman, and Shirley Manson. I'm a performance artist, a classical Shakespearean actor and I write award-winning pornography. But for purposes of this blog entry, and all my future posts, what really matters is this:
I am not a man.
I am not a woman.
In the battle of the sexes, I'm neutral territory.
Wells College and I have both gone through a gender change, and I've been a tranny a lot longer than the college has. Weird fuck that I am, I've got some experience, strength and hope to share with them. Wells and I have got a great deal in common at this moment in history: We have a heightened awareness of gender as a factor of identity, desire, and power. What's more, each one of us has grown up encultured by our birth-assigned genders into perpetuating a world that lets people get away with controlling people's lives on the basis of their one of only two genders. It's a self-perpetuating system, and Wells College has the opportunity to blow the bipolar gender system wide open and expose it for the fraud it is. Honestly, each of us has far more control over gender than we'd been led to believe.
Gender impacts our identity, our desires, and our power; and the gender change at Wells College has impacted its identity as well as the identity of all its students, staff, administrators and faculty. Furthermore, the desires, dreams, and goals of everyone at Wells has been impacted by the gender change, as well as the power of everyone on campus. But the gender change of Wells College isn't over yet. It's still happening, just like my gender change is still happening.
A gender change is not genital surgery. They don't just cut it off or stick one on and voila, you're another gender. Just so, the admission of male students after 136 years is not the only factor of the gender change at Wells. Gender norms change with time. What makes a "real man" or a "real woman" gets modified by ideas of race, class, age, sexuality, religion, body type and even legal status as a citizen. So, who's to say that for those 136 years there's only been one gender at Wells College anyway, or even one gender at a time?
Any personal or cultural gender change is constantly in flux, and my gender journey over the last two decades has been a process of throwing out what I don't like about myself and keeping what I do like. And that's what Wells College gets to do. They get to direct the evolution of a new gender identity for Wells College: ne that includes everyone without privileging anyone, under any circumstances, because gender is only one of a number of interlocking hierarchical systems of oppression. This goes way beyond any previous struggle for equal gender rights. This would move gender-based politics beyond genitally-assigned gender as an isolated factor of identity, desire or power.
Here's an interesting step that Wells might take: it could advertise itself as the college that's doing its best to create and maintain a community of educators and students who want to live, work, study, learn, and relate to one another outside the mandates of race, age, class, gender, sexuality, religion, body type, and legal status as a citizen. I bet that Wells could re-tool its marketing plan and website in order to actively recruit students who wanted to make a world that's free of those terrible systems of oppression. I'm sure the alumnae would support the maintenance of their sisterhood, even if it included people with penises. I bet there are 450-600 students and families in this country who would support an institution that proudly proclaims an aim like that. I know there are some great women and men there already who'd be so happy to see that kind of student on campus. Freak that I am, that's a school I'd like to go to: one where oppression of any kind is not tolerated. And after living four years in a conscious community like that, then comes the fun part: we'd have 400-600 people graduating into the world each year, ready to help teach the rest of us how to do it. Wouldn't that be a lovelier world? Whaddaya think?