Challenging the way we think about gender

November 18, 2016

Students, faculty and administration talk about gender and sexual minority issues on campus


It’s a story that begins the moment a baby takes its first breath—and often long before that. “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” Blue or pink. Trucks and trains, or dolls and dresses.

“We live in a dichotomized culture—and I think we’re taught and encouraged to play up the differences and downplay the similarities,” says Alissa Overend, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. “We put so much emphasis on the differences between masculine and feminine, but we’re finding consistently that people don’t necessarily fit into those categories. Not only do all of us have feminine and masculine qualities, but at the level of gender and sexual expression, there is such plurality,” says Alissa.

So, what if you don’t fit into the binary construct of gender?

Elliott Chiles lives that experience every day. The fourth-year Sociology student brightens up the room with a shock of candy-apple-red hair and a friendly smile, and opens the conversation with this: “I’m a very open person. There’s nothing you can ask that will offend me.”

So we jump right in with, “Do you find yourself explaining sex, gender identity and gender expression a lot?” Elliott’s answer is yes, but not necessarily in the way you might think. 

Sex and gender 101

Sex and gender are often used interchangeably, but they’re independent concepts: sex is about biology and gender is cultural.

“Sex is typically your biological sex—genitalia, chromosomes, hormone levels,” says Alissa, who teaches SOCI 301: The Sociology of Gender. “We assume that male and female are a given, but even at the level of biology there is a range and plurality. Roughly one in 4,000 infants is born with an intersex condition—the current term for what used to be called hermaphroditism.”

Even doctors, scientists, endocrinologists and neurologists end up debating exactly what female and male categories are, adds Alissa. “Is it based on genitalia alone? If you have a reproductive system, are you female? What about people who have gone through a hysterectomy or are infertile, but are otherwise feminine—are they not ‘female?’ Or is sex better measured at the level of hormones? Women and men both produce estrogen and testosterone, so at what level does the production of one hormone render you ‘female’ or ‘male’?”

Gender, on the other hand, is about culture. “Gender is about how someone identifies,” says Alissa. “Whether a person wears masculine or feminine clothes, uses masculine or feminine pronouns, or tries to eke out a space between the gender binaries.”

But what makes something masculine or feminine differs from culture to culture, and can change over time.

“The idea that gender is a social construction to me is an obvious statement if you look at it historically and cross-culturally,” says Alissa. “If gender were 100 per cent biological, we would see much more consistency across time and culture. But we don’t. I like to use two examples. We think of cheerleading and high heels as quintessentially feminine, but historically cheerleading was a male-only sport and men were the first gender to wear high heels. Constructions of gender have and will continue to change.”

“I spend a lot of time talking about the differences and intricacies of sex, gender, gender role, gender identity and gender presentation, but not usually because I am explaining myself or answering questions about me,” says Elliott. “I identify as nonbinary, and I prefer they/them pronouns. But on the outside I look pretty much the way people might expect me to—except for the weird hair colours.”

Usually, Elliott goes on to explain, the questions being asked are about someone else.

“ The moment someone is curious about learning and they’re met with ‘Don’t you already know that?’ is the moment they’re not curious anymore.” Elliott Chiles 

“I’m easy to talk to, so I’m often used as a liaison for family and friends. People ask me things like ‘Why does he think he’s a girl?’ or ‘Why does she think she’s a boy? Explain it to me. I don’t get it.’ I talk about gender a lot in varying contexts, but I never really get tired of it. Because the moment someone is curious about learning and they’re met with ‘Don’t you already know that?’ is the moment they’re not curious anymore.”

So even when questions are asked in ways that aren’t all that delicate, Elliott answers. Because putting a human face on issues someone might not have experienced or understand—and breaking stereotypes—is important.

“I am what I like to call a ‘daywalker.’ I have a very supportive family and employer, and I’ve never experienced bullying or discrimination based on my gender identity, but I’m very aware that a lot of people do.”

Elliott says that being able to pass as a female and walk the halls without fear is a privilege that comes with responsibility. Launching into an explanation of Gender 101 and terms that fall under the gender and sexual minority umbrella is something Elliott does on the regular (if you need a crash course, check out the glossary below). So is providing a gentle correction or nudge when someone uses the wrong name or pronoun.


Biological sex | The physical characteristics a person is born with. Biological sex does not equal gender.

Cisgender | A person whose gender identity matches the biological sex. Often abbreviated to “cis.”

Gender identity | A person’s internal sense of gender, which may or may not be the same as one’s biological sex. Gender identity and gender expression are often closely linked with the term transgender or trans-identified.

Gender presentation/expression | How people present their sense of gender to the larger society. The physical manifestation of a person’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc.

Nonbinary | A person whose gender or sexual identity is not defined in terms of male and female, or homosexual and heterosexual.

Transgender | A person whose gender identity, outward appearance, expression and/or anatomy does not fit into conventional expectations of male or female. Transgender and trans-identified are commonly used synonymous terms. Slang definitions can include “TG,” “T,” or “gender queer.”

Elliott’s birth name appears as a default in the return email address on MacEwan emails, so first interactions usually require a correction. While Elliott is pretty easygoing about it, being outed every single time you send a message can quickly get exhausting.

“For me, changing my name was a choice—it wasn’t borne out of trauma,” says Elliott. “But for people with a different experience, even saying their birth name is traumatic. They’re trying hard to distance themselves and move past that—and providing that level of comfort is important.”

It’s one of many issues the university’s Gender and Sexual Minorities Working Group is working to address.

“Changes to the human rights legislation to include gender identity and gender expression means that we need to focus on these issues, but it’s more than that,” says Michelle Plouffe, vice-president, general counsel and compliance officer. “We have a responsibility to remove barriers and give people a safe place.”

Introducing gender-neutral washrooms in 2015 was a move that garnered a lot of public attention. While it was a good start, Michelle says the university’s efforts needed to happen on a much larger scale.

“We can’t just focus on little areas within the institution, and we can’t address the concerns on a piecemeal basis,” she says. So the university created the Gender and Sexual Minorities Working Group which is made up of students, faculty and staff.

In a matter of months, the working group has organized a panel discussion on gender and sexual minorities, and is leading a number of initiatives behind the scenes—implementing changes to information systems that will allow students to designate their preferred name, evaluating whether gender markers on forms are really necessary, establishing education programs and best practices, and looking at the university’s policies to determine whether they are gender neutral and inclusive.

“A lot of things are happening at once, and we’re working closely with students—they are progressive, they are the experts on this and we need to follow their lead,” says Michelle. “Ultimately, we want our students to feel that this university is a safe environment—in every respect.”


Check out the latest episode of our Clock Radio podcast where we explore the issue of consent and how it connects to the university's inititaves to end sexual violence on campus. 

One of those safe spaces for LGBTQ students is a club called InQueeries.

Carson Ames, a fourth-year Bachelor of Commerce student, says that while he knew about the club for at least a couple of years, he didn’t really understand what it had to offer.

“I wish I had known more about InQueeries before I came out,” he says. “I thought I would have to tell my friends that I was going to the meetings, but now I know that’s not the case at all. It’s a safe space where anyone can drop in and talk about their concerns or share their opinions without being judged or persecuted.”

Having a place where he could talk openly about LGBTQ issues, find like-minded people and hear their stories of struggle or success is something Carson appreciates in a way that he never realized he would.

“In most of my conversations about these issues with friends and peers, I find myself educating and answering questions. That definitely has a place and is very much required, but having somewhere I can go and talk to somebody who understands is huge.”

It has also been an opportunity for Carson to learn—something he encourages other people to do too.

“We are a very diverse group of people—probably one of the most diverse out there—and the issues we talk about can be complicated and difficult to understand,” says Carson. “InQueeries has really opened my eyes. Trans issues, for example, are some of the biggest we face right now as an LGBTQ community. These are human rights issues, and they affect everyone.”

Grammar gaffs—changing pronouns

“Don’t get the pronoun wrong or they’re going to freak out” and posts with similar sentiments are something Carson says he’s seen often on social media.

“I haven’t met a single person who is actually like that,” he says. “People who have different gender identities are very good at making sure you know that from the start, and I’ve never seen someone freak out if you get their pronoun wrong. As long as you’re being respectful and trying, then slip-ups are no big deal.”

Elliott agrees.

“I understand that they/their isn’t a commonplace pronoun and it can feel weird. It’s hard to change, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

Alissa says it’s really no different than the shift from chairman to chairperson or fireman to firefighter.

“It may be awkward at first, but the more we use it, the more we get used to it. It’s the youth movement that drives the language around new terminologies—gender queer, gender identity, transgender—and I think we’re in the midst of an educational process.”

Building opportunities to understand and express interest in trans issues—and all issues connected to gender and sexual minorities—is something Carson says the club would like to expand for both people who identify under the LGBTQ umbrella and those who don’t.

“People seem to have a lot of opinions until they actually meet someone who is part of a gender or sexual minority, and then everything changes,” he says. “We’re an open club—you can come and hang out, and learn whatever you want regardless of whether you identify as LGBTQ or not. That’s totally fine. We especially encourage students who are in education or policing or child care to come and talk to us, to learn and to get educated. You may not realize it, but you will probably talk to someone every day who is affected by these issues.”

“ People seem to have a lot of opinions until they actually meet someone who is part of a gender or sexual minority, and then everything changes.” CARSON AMES 

If registrations for courses connected to gender and sexual minorities are any indication, these are issues that many students are curious about and interested in.

“Students are asking for these courses,” says Alissa. “The Faculty of Health and Community Studies runs a human sexuality course and it often fills within hours. We also have courses on gender in sociology, anthropology, English, history and philosophy.”

A new gender studies minor being proposed for the 2018/19 academic year will tie together all of these courses offered across faculties.

“Knowledge is a political tool—it’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to teaching,” says Alissa. “Legislative acts go a long way—legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005, for example, changed something that was once seen as deviant into something we now see as legal. And while there’s a place for policy, education is critical. Opening up discussions, understanding the roots of these issues, and bringing materials and lived experiences into our classrooms—those things trickle down.” 

Whether in classrooms, clubs, boardrooms or hallways, these conversations are happening more often, says Michelle.

“These efforts are meant to be long term, but I’m already seeing a lot of excitement and people having freer conversations on campus. If someone is part of a gender or sexual minority and they come to work or study here, I hope that they feel this is a safe environment—that it’s a safe space in every respect. That they are comfortable and able to express and be accepted for who they are. It really comes down to something very basic—being kind and treating people as we should, without discrimination.”

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