Monday, 3 February 2014

Looking Beyond Gender: Inclusivity and Public Institutions

Image courtesy of the U of A's Pride Week
Gender is a social construct. It’s a binary system fostered and maintained in the interests of the dominant, patriarchal structure, forming an asymmetrical power relation that ultimately suppresses those who choose not to conform to traditional and restricted notions of maleness and femaleness. This form of oppression has interacted with heteronormativity to additionally suppress expressions of sexuality.

Unless condemned by those directly affected by its negative consequences, it’s a cultural force that silently and malevolently traps society within a language of oppression and a social and physical sphere of inclusion based on exclusion. When LGBTQ and other gender non-conforming folk are subject to both state and everyday violence, it’s crucial that we go beyond gender myths and scrape past the layers of disillusionment and embrace every expression of gender and sexual identity. 

The university, being a public institution, exists in an interesting position as it has the potential to champion gender-inclusive initiatives on a fairly large scale. Some of you may argue that public institutions, which are often invested in safeguarding the dominant and repressive ideology, are not capable of truly implementing such progressive measures. Based on the momentum already building on our campus, I would suggest that it is possible for institutions to provide the space for action and dialogue that can destroy the shackles of gender oppression.

Here’s how we’re doing it:

First of all, we can’t challenge our misperceptions and assumptions without first opening our minds to the academic information regarding gender. At the U of A this type of work can be found in numerous departments and faculties across disciplines. For instance, the Department of Women and Gender Studies houses a myriad of professors, students, and courses that passionately attempt to deconstruct those gender limitations that result in prejudice, harassment, and isolation. Based on my own experience, your first step to becoming more articulate and informed on gender issues is to enrol in WGS 201. There you’ll learn about everything from heteronormativity to violence against women to queer identities. This department is continuously growing and I take this as a promising sign that gender research and courses have solidified their rightful place at the institutional level, showcasing the power of educational awareness.

In addition, we also see a change in public spaces as the U of A, along with the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Project, have introduced a number of single use gender-neutral washrooms on campus in order to combat the lack of representation and inclusion of gender non-conforming folk. Small yet powerful initiatives like these have the significant ability to expose people to the importance of physical spaces not dictated by the gender binary, therefore preventing these public boundaries and labels from imposing a rigid gender code by marking all bodies as either “man” or “woman.” This rejection of the cultural tendency to divide and segregate individuals based on their perceived or expected gender identity is a crucial step to encouraging gender creativity.

As mentioned, the GBVPP, supported by the Students’ Union, is also doing a phenomenal job of promoting a campus community free of gender-based violence, in part by revealing how limited and reckless understandings of gender create a toxic environment that encourages transphobia, sexual assault, and sexism, among other harmful practices. Their Accountability Action Project, through workshops and Campus Men’s Circles, builds on this momentum by continuing to address the fact that restrictive expectations of masculinity have contributed to these violent realities. The GBVPP embodies a critical stance that ultimately works to bring to light the pressing issues regarding how asymmetrical power structures have been maintained through attacks on women and gender non-conforming folk.

The Institute for Sexual Minority Studies compliments these crucial initiatives by not only engaging in research that aims to promote social change for those gender and sexual minorities that face higher instances of violence and discrimination, but through programs like Camp fYrefly, they provide youth with a sense of acceptance and empowerment that serves the profound purpose of moulding a future where gender and sexual differences are supported, embraced, and celebrated. The Institute has also championed a Safe Spaces Initiative that envisions the university as a place that is intellectually, emotionally, and physically safe for sexual and gender minorities by acknowledging the rights of everyone on campus as this is not always afforded in other contexts. The sheer number of resources and campaigns pioneered by iSMSS is incredibly promising so do not hesitate to explore their website

According to Wade King, advisor with the Office of Safe Disclosure and Human Rights, we also see change being championed by instructors and professors at the administrative and employment levels as committees, such as the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta, address gender issues and ensure that all minority groups are adequately accommodated and respected. By ensuring that these concerns are given priority at the administrative level, gender becomes part of the holistic process of ensuring that this institution is both receptive to gender identities and responsible for the adequate representation of gender minorities in the workplace. This proves that the university is working hard to fully embody its human rights policy as it strives to “meet both its obligations under law and its ethical responsibilities as an institution of higher learning.”

We are capable of dismantling oppressive structures and systems in order to foster a future that is both inclusive and loving for all gender and sexual identities — we only have to look at the empowering actions being done by those on this campus for inspiration and hope.

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What can you do?

Participate in Bullying Prevention Month (February 2014), where your pink shirt (February 26), participate in Pride Week 2014 (Feb. 26 - March 8), attend a workshop, take a class, use inclusive language, and celebrate every member of our U of A community. 

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About the Author














Hey! My name’s Billy – a second year arts student still scavenging through the course catalog for that perfect major. I’ve recently developed a passion for journalism, professional writing and communications and hope to grow along with the team at YouAlberta. If I’m not engrossed in the latest episode of Big Brother you’ll probably find me being too emotionally invested in The Amazing Race or laughing at inappropriate jokes on the Internet.


When not feeding my reality TV addiction or scurrying to finish my latest assigned reading, I’ll be searching our campus for the most intriguing stories about diversity, academic success and the quirks that make our university the gem that it is. As a student communicator I hope to foster a stronger sense of community and belonging by sharing sentimental and inclusive stories to tap into the shared sense of pride we all uphold – I hope you join me!

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