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Discussions facilitate deeper understanding of gender

The Diversity and Social Justice Resource Committee (DSJRC), the on-campus task force for transgender issues, released The Transgender Best Practices Report to the Mills community on Feb 25. The report has spawned several “listening circles” about gender expression and identity in many departments on the Mills College campus in the past week.

The initial meeting was an open invitation to the campus to review the report. The attendees were comprised of students, faculty, and staff, who split off into groups and discussed separate sections of the report.  The goal of the meeting, according to facilitators, was to listen to concerns that the Mills community still had after reading the report, and to gather suggestions for what could be improved upon for students.

The listening circles were structured to facilitate open dialogue between students, staff, and faculty about the issues surrounding gender identity and expression in each department. Reverend Laura Engelken said that the listening circles are different from that first report review in that they allow for the community to have conversations about gender in different spaces.

“The listening circles are a project spearheaded by the Division of Student Life, but various groups and offices like APER — the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation — are having the conversations in different settings,” Engelken said. “The idea is really to listen to each other and the campus conversations regarding gender at Mills.”

In APER’s offices, the Mills athletic community came together to discuss ways of being more inclusive to transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in sports. Swim coach Neil Virtue said he felt that the APER listening circle was a success, and that the attendees benefited from it greatly.

“It was helpful for me to hear what people had to say, as it is more representative of some experiences students are having,” Virtue said.

Virtue said that the listening circle was an opportunity for him to grow as a staff member, and it offered space for students to discuss the gender issues present in athletics.

“I also struggled a little with how much to share or not because as a staff member, I really wanted to give space to students and provide my input, keep the event moving along, and try to use potential teachable moments,” Virtue said. “So that was a growth space for me.”

A listening circle facilitated by the DSJRC and Mouthing Off!, Mills’ LGBTQ* club, took place on March 14. Rachel Russell, Programs Coordinator for DSJRC, explained to the group that the purpose of the circle was to explore how students feel about the current gender issues present on campus.

One student, Sophie McArthur, expressed her struggles to change her previous understanding of gender. She said that after making several mistakes with language, and with the help of some of her friends who identify as gender non-conforming correcting her in a way that made her feel comfortable, she was able to think of gender as a fluid spectrum of identity and expression.

“I used to think that there were just two genders, but that changed,” McArthur said.

One of the core questions asked of the group was “What do you think gender means to the college?”

“I think that the administration views gender as a statistic or a selling point for the college, not a personal choice,” one student said.

The conversation also included student concerns on correcting each other on language concerning gender. The conversation went back and forth between students who felt attacked by others over language, and students who felt that others were simply being ignorant. Some students said that people should be educated when they use offensive language, but there is a fine line between correcting someone and making them feel shut down.

“There is correction, and then there is overcorrection,” said Skylar Crownover, Mouthing Off! Vice President.

Several students expressed their questions about the inconsistency between the “all-women’s college” label that is part of Mills’ identity and the diverse presence of gender reflected in the student body.

Russell discussed the hope that Mills will someday change its policies to accurately reflect the diverse gender representation of the student body, and move beyond the definition of a women’s college.

“The mission of Mills College historically was to make education available to those who were denied education based on gender,” Russell said. “But, gender oppression doesn’t just happen to women.”