In late October the College of William and Mary awarded the title of Homecoming Queen to Jessee Vasold ’11, a transgendered student who prefers gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze” (instead of he/she) and “zir” (instead of him/her). Jessee, who does not identify as a woman and dresses according to the “day and occasion”, was pleasantly surprised to receive the title. While W&M’s publication The Flat Hat reports that “the reaction has been positive” on campus, the comments from alumni and students beneath the article shows varying opinions.
Only a month later, a similar event has occurred at Yale University. Lesbian Jen Ivers ’10 was recently elected by her classmates to represent their residential college, Timothy Dwight, in the February 2010 Mr. Yale pageant.
While the rules for both W&M’s Homecoming Queen elections and Yale’s Mr. Yale pageant apparently do not state that one must be a particular sex to enter, this new trend in campus pageants does give rise to legitimate concerns and questions. Yale junior Kevin Gallagher, in his article “The mister in Mr. Yale”, takes up the question of vocabulary and whether the binary language of male and female has any advantages in today’s society. Gallagher concedes that the argument for gender fluidity is a reasonable one in a world where “manly women and womanly men are par for the course.” However, he admits being more convinced of the opposing, equally reasonable argument that “the human species is naturally divided by sex”, and that no matter how fluid gender categories may be, the two sexes “are not interchangeable”.
Gallagher certainly has a point. However, one common critique to his position is that he is conflating gender and sex. One might say that it is obvious that sex — being biological — is indeed not interchangeable, while gender is whatever shade of gray between male and female one chooses to identify. Because gender is contingent on personal choice and feeling, it can be as interchangeable as one desires or experiences it to be. While some are legitimately alarmed by this distinction, arguing that it implies a type of body-self dualism that dis-integrates the person and therefore affronts their personal integrity, let us accept for the moment the suggested sex vs. gender distinction. In the examples above, it would seem that gender neutrality is being asked to have preference over sexual distinction. The “male” in “Mr.” and the “female” in “Queen” are suddenly rendered meaningless.
In numerous other contemporary situations, and common on many college campuses, the situation is the same — subjective interpretations of gender are asked or expected to receive preference over biological distinctions of male or female sex. Certainly the persons who do not identify with their sex unquestionably merit equal respect, but is there a convincing argument for why gender neutrality should supercede sexual distinction in such cases?