Just 26 years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act into law. Today, gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, and the idea that gender is more than a simple binary is gaining acceptance around the country. Efforts to lift up and support people who identify as non-binary are very much ongoing though, and so over the last few months, Fordham News spoke to members of the community who have had insights to share on the topic of gender, either because of their work, their personal experience or both.
Full transcript below
J.D. Lewis: The eureka moment was in an English class. We were talking about The Merchant of Venice and we were talking about Portia, and the teacher said, “So you have to consider Portia as being a girl in a boy’s body, acting like a boy.” I was like, oh, that’s me. And so that was essentially the point at which I realized this is what my gender is.
Patrick Verel: When President Obama’s Department of Education issued guidance in 2016, that schools should allow students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, it was hailed as groundbreaking by supporters of transgender rights. But when Donald Trump took office in 2017, it only took a month for his administration to reverse course. Fast forward to 2021. Joe Biden reinstituted the guidance, and efforts to lift up and support people who identify as non-binary continue. In June of that year, for instance, the state of New York began offering the option of an X gender to anyone who did not identify as male or female. The federal government followed suit in September, allowing people to choose it on their passports. For those of us who are old enough to remember when President Bill Clinton signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, it’s fascinating how much things have changed. Over the last few months, I’ve talked to Fordham folks who have had insights to share in the topic of gender, either because of their work, their personal experience, or both. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham News.
When I first met J.D. Lewis, a professor of biology at the Calder Center in 2011, they had presented as male. At an event in 2019, Lewis presented as female. We recently sat down to talk about that journey.
Now, you told me that you realized something was different about you when you were four years old, right?
JL: Yes, that’s correct. And so two big events both occurred at the same time. I discovered my profession and I discovered my gender in one day. And it happened when my mom’s older sister was visiting us. And she is a professor, and so she was my motivation to become a professor. And at the same time, I realized, oh, I’m a girl. And at the time, I didn’t think much of it. I’m four years old, and I just figured this is something that happens to everyone. And as I got a little bit older, I start to realize that I didn’t just feel like a girl, but that I kind of fit somewhere in between. And again still assumed this is how everyone felt. And by the time I was starting middle school, I realized, oh, this is pretty unique. And I have to admit that, at the time, because I identified more as a girl, I was hoping that puberty would give me a different body than I have right now and that I would end up having a girl body to go along with my sense of being a girl gender.
And again, at the same time, we didn’t have the language to be able to explain that, and so it was really difficult for me to be able to convey to other people what I viewed as my gender. And it was difficult for other people to tell me what they viewed as. And so, kind of the Eureka moment was in an English class, we were talking about The Merchant of Venice and we were talking about Portia, and the teacher said, “So you have to consider Portia as being a girl in a boy’s body, acting like a boy.” I was like, oh, that’s me. And so that was essentially the point at which I realized, this is what my gender is. Yeah.
PV: So at the same time that you figured out what you wanted to do with your life, you figured out who you were as well. That’s a lot for being four.
JL: It was. And of course, just like my gender, my ideas of what I wanted to be professionally shifted over time. But ultimately, obviously, I ended up becoming a professor, and in fact, that was partly because of my gender identity. I wanted to pick a field where I would be able to be comfortable with the way I dressed, so I knew I couldn’t work in the business world, because I am not comfortable in a suit and tie. And I wanted to be able to work in a field that was less gender-biased, for lack of a better way of putting it, than most of the STEM disciplines. And botany, at the time, was a field that was more open and welcoming to people who were not male. And so that’s how I ended up, partly, as a botanist and how I ended up as a professor.
PV: Really. So that influenced your choice even within the sciences.
JL: Yes, very much so. And then one other part about that is I was really interested in plant reproductive biology because plants can be whatever they want. You can have male flowers, you can have female flowers. You can have plants that produce male flowers some years and plants that produce female flowers some years. You can have flowers that are both male and female. You can have flowers that are male and have other flowers that are male and female on the same plant. You can have plants that have female flowers and male flowers at the same time. I’m like, this is perfect. This is me.
PV: Wow. Okay. That’s amazing. So that’s, what an interesting… and obviously you’ve stuck with it. It’s worked well for you.
JL: It has.
PV: Yeah. What changed for you between 2011 and 2019?
JL: Good question. And I think two things really were what made me change, how I approached this. And one was we had a better sense of what terminology we could use to describe our experiences. And so the idea of gender fluidity, for example, that term became much more commonly used. People started to understand what it meant. And so people could start to use it to identify how they felt because other people would understand what it meant. So I think that was part of it. And another part of it was working with students who were concerned about representation. And I had a meeting with one of my grad students who was lamenting the lack of representation of certain groups. And I realized that I needed to do a better job of representing, that it wasn’t just enough for me to be supportive and to be effectively an ally. That because this is my experience, I needed to be my full self.
PV: Yeah. When was that?
JL: It was about six years ago now, around 2015.
PV: And how do you identify today?
JL: So as a biologist, I view gender from a non-binary standpoint. And obviously, I’m gender fluid, and so I fit within that category as well. But because when I was young, I didn’t identify with a specific gender, now I typically use the term either genderqueer or agender to identify myself.
PV: So I think there’s this assumption that if you feel, as you do, that you aren’t the gender that you are assigned at birth, that you would naturally gravitate towards transitioning, either with things like hormones or with surgery. You’re not interested in that, right?
JL: So I think for a lot of people who are trans in whatever way that they’re trans, transitioning is clearly a critical part of being who they are, right, being their full self. And gender affirmation surgery, clearly, is really important, and hormone therapy can be really important. I think for me because I don’t identify with a specific gender, it makes it difficult for me to decide what I would transition to. And because for me, the fluidity is, okay, so I’m feeling more like a girl today, or I’m feeling more like a boy today, that also makes it pretty difficult to decide what to transition to.
And then another aspect of it is that I’m already fairly androgynous in terms of my build, and so my face is fairly masculine and obviously my voice is fairly masculine. But if you look at the proportions and I’m trying to buy clothes, then women’s clothes actually fit me better than men’s clothes do. And so even before I was open and out, I mostly wore women’s running gear, for example, because women’s running gear just flat out fit me better.
PV: What’s it been like since you decided to be more open about your gender?
JL: So there’s been a lot of support, which has been really nice, and I feel for the most part very welcome. One of the interesting things for me was that, when I was younger, I would be teased a lot. And people assumed that my gender isn’t what was different, that it was my sexuality. And so I was called a fairy a lot when I was very young, and I was called a different F-word when I was older. And that was basically on a daily basis that I would get this. It was whenever I was out and people didn’t know me, I would get the F-word, and it’s like, oh, you think you’re so original. And what’s been interesting, since I started dressing more like how I feel about my gender, is most of those kinds of comments have stopped. I still get death threats, and riding on public transportation can be kind of challenging because you always get someone who’s looking at you like, you don’t fit in.
But for the most part, people have been really supportive, so it’s been really nice. And again, for me emotionally, it’s been much better. So I feel like I am being able to be my full self now, and I’m able to go about my day without worrying about how I look. And to be blunt, before I started dressing the way I dress now, every time I was out, I felt like, I look crazy. I look ridiculous. This is not who I am. Now I feel like whenever I go out, I’m like, I like how I look. I like that people see me this way. And so that’s been a big change as well.
PV: I’m sorry. I have to follow up on this. Death threats?
JL: Yeah. I get people riding on the train who, as they’re walking past, say things like, you’re an abomination, you should be killed, or you’re a Satan worshiper or whatever, right? And it’s kind of like with the F-word, it’s like, oh, you think you’re so original. So. And I actually have had people physically accost me. And so it goes beyond just words, but actually, physically accost me.
PV: And what about here at Fordham?
JL: So for the most part, people have been really supportive. It’s been really nice. It’s been a journey. And I say that because I realize for everyone around me, it’s been a journey as well, right? And so my transition, I try to do over a fairly… and when we’re talking about transition, of course, it’s not from a medical standpoint. It’s more as how I present or how I dress, it’s my hair length, it’s things like wearing makeup. And I realize that for a lot of people at Fordham who have known me for a long time, it is different. And so I realize that it’s been quite a journey for other people as well. And so I feel that my being able to be my full self is a testament to the fact that most of the people of Fordham are nurturing and encouraging about it and are supportive about it.
PV: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great to hear. That’s great to hear. I mean, it’s so disturbing to hear about these kinds of things. You talk about the public transit. There’s this idea that we hold ourselves to, in New York City, that we’re so enlightened, but you know that that’s not the case at all, in many settings with many people. So it’s disturbing to hear that, and I’m sorry to hear that. That can’t be easy, but at the same time, I can’t say I’m all that surprised.
JL: Yeah. And thank you. It is easier in New York, I feel, because New York is very much a you do your thing, I’ll do my thing kind of place, which I think is good in this kind of situation.
PV: That covers all the questions that I have formally written down.
JL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
PV: There is one more though.
JL: Oh yeah, okay.
PV: That I’ve been thinking about, and that is to say your family. Is that something that you feel like you could talk about?
JL: Yeah. I’m willing to talk about that. My ex-wife and I are you get along… well, we co-parent our children pretty effectively. Our kids joke about us being essentially co-workers as parents because we both work together on it. And she’s asked how do I identify, because of course she sees me like this, just like everyone else does. And same answer, right. It’s just kind of like, I don’t really identify with a specific gender. And with my kids, a couple of my kids are queer, and they’re very comfortable with their queerness. And so I, in some ways I feel like that, again, it’s this idea of representation, that for me to be my full self is good for them, because it lets them know that there are people even in our family that are supportive.
PV: Talking with Professor Lewis gave me a great local perspective on the subject. So, for my next interview, I decided to expand beyond our borders. Sameena Azhar, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Social Service works with Khawaja sira, a group of third gender people who have lived in communities in Pakistan since the 16th century. Did I say that right?
Sameena Azhar: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
PV: I did. Khawaja sira.
SA: Khawaja sira.
PV: Just rolls right off your tongue. Yeah.
SA: Yeah, yeah. And the accent is for the a, on the A at the end, so Khawaja sira.
PV: Sira. Oh, okay.
SA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
PV: So now, in my intro, I noted that in the United States, you can now pick a third gender on official documents. That’s old news in South Asia though. Why?
SA: Well, it’s not super old. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India allowed for the creation of a third gender. So rather than registering as an M or a male, or a F as a female, you can register as an E. So this third gender option. And similar policies have also been passed in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, not in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, but the rest of those South Asian countries passed similar policies. Additionally, in India, Hijra are considered a scheduled caste.
So the scheduling of castes and tribes in India is a process that dates back to colonialism, and there were certain groups of people or communities that were considered to be scheduled as caste or tribes. And these individuals in modern India get a sort of affirmative action-style status by the government. So there are social entitlements that are available to them that are akin to welfare or food stamps, allotted seats in the representative government at the local level, so they’re called panchayats, so they’re reserved seats for people that are from these communities. So they’re pretty progressive actions to try to include these folks who are fully socially within South Asian society. And it’s a community that has been really gripped by both a long history of being honored and exalted, and also a long history of being marginalized.
PV: Now, I just spent a lot of time talking about the Khawaja sira and getting that correct, but you just referenced another group in India.
SA: Yeah. So, I mean, we’re basically talking about more or less the similar identities of third gender and gender-nonconforming identities. In India, the nomenclature is most commonly called Hijra.
SA: Right. There’s other names for it in India as well, like Kinnar, Khusra, Aravani. There’s many names for this. In Pakistan, the name is Khawaja siras.
PV: What does colonialism have to do with all of this?
SA: So prior to British colonization, under mogul or Raj, but control, there was much more state-sanctioned support for these communities. So folks who were hijra or Khawaja sira would often work as courtesans or advisors or handmaidens in the royal court. And with the coming of colonization, the identity of being a hijra became criminalized. So in 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act made hijra criminals. And then additionally, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which is borrowed from the British penal code, criminalizes what is called carnal intercourse against the order of nature. Right? So this essentially is interpreted to be homosexuality or more specifically sodomy.
PV: When you talk about these folks that embrace this way of being, are we talking about people who would typically be identified as male embracing femininity or vice versa?
SA: No, typically it is folks who’ve been assigned male sex at birth and identify as either women, or as men and women, or as a third gender person. It’s much less typical, I mean, pretty much, for the most part, doesn’t exist, to have somebody who was assigned female sex at birth, who may identify as a man and be called a hijra. So it is quite specific to what we would call in the West, trans women. But the third gender classification of E does encompass anyone, regardless of whatever sex was assigned at birth, to identify as E.
PV: And how does this all relate to what you do here at Fordham?
SA: So my research really began in south India. My family is from a city called Hyderabad. It’s where I did my dissertation research, so mainly looking at issues related to HIV and gender non-conformity stigma of people who are living with HIV, are HIV positive. And my work in Pakistan has been somewhat of an extension of that. I’m not focusing there on folks who are HIV positive. There’s also a much, much lower prevalence of HIV in that part of Pakistan, so my research there is focused on an area called Swat, which is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwaqua, and that is the northwest province that borders Afghanistan.
So it’s been a very interesting place to be doing research, first through the pandemic, but also through the huge influx of Afghan refugees that have come in the past several months. The focus of those interviews and surveys that we’ve been conducting in both India and Pakistan have been really around trying to figure out how to reduce these experiences of the stigma that people are encountering within their families, within their communities, within employment settings, within healthcare settings, knowing that these experiences contribute also to poor mental health, and most probably acutely to experience the violence or homicide against gender-nonconforming people.
So one of my participants, research participants in India had been murdered during our research, and it really just drives home that these are issues that impact people’s lives in very intimate and violent ways.
PV: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, man, that’s brutal.
SA: Yeah, yeah. Truly was.
PV: Daniel Alexander Jones, a professor of theater who performs under the stage name Jomama Jones, first introduced me to the concept of gender fluidity when I met him in 2013. Now, Daniel, Jomama has been a vehicle for you to try to get people to see both themselves and others in a new light. Do you feel like you’re seeing some of the changes you were hoping for?
Daniel Alexander Jones: Oh, Patrick. That’s a good question. Yeah. I think were you to look at maybe 2010 and look forward at where we seemed to be heading as a nation, we’ve gone in a very different direction.
PV: Do you feel like there’s been a backlash?
DJ: There are people who believe their way of life is threatened by the changes that are happening, or even by, and this may be a more accurate way to say it, the naming of things that have always been there, but the taking up a space around those things, right? We know that those we call trans folk now have always been here, throughout history. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is culturally shaped in such a way that claiming sovereignty and truth and ownership of that identity is going to be a threat to someone for whom that identity’s invisibility is necessary for them to understand themselves, for them to feel their own sense of power, right? When you think about how that’s connected to the last five or six years of our national experience, it’s sobering.
PV: The last time we talked, you said that so much of the conversation about gender fluidity is about how we encounter someone who is different from ourselves, and what happens to us if we fully accept them. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
DJ: This was originally, Patrick, from my perspective as an artist, because I was thinking about, both in my work professionally and also in the classroom, what role curiosity plays. The idea of engaging something you don’t know and being heightened or quickened or energized by the unknown, as much as you are by the process of naming and pointing out the things that you do know. And for an artistic process, whether it be writing or acting or directing, whatever the thing is, vital work depends on that curiosity. And it is that destabilization and the reaching for language to articulate what you’re feeling, the comparison of this new feeling to things you have experienced before. And also, if you will, the surrender into the possibility that that new experience has. All of those things are so necessary.
And what I began to encounter in the classroom, and what I began to encounter professionally even more so, was this sense of, we’ve got to name it and know it. What the problem is rooted in is a kind of taxonomical approach to life. Meaning that, if we think about taxonomy, we think about this idea of naming, delineating, putting things into categories. I’m thinking very often of those butterfly cases. Like those, the people who go out and collect them, and they pin the butterfly, and they name the butterfly, and there’s a sense that it is that thing. But we know that butterflies in life move. What they came from you don’t get in that pinned creature. So there’s so much of the story that’s missing from that pinned moment in time.
And then too, we then begin to think about exemplars of a particular group. Like this is what this type of thing looks like. And the connected part of that is we then begin to assume that something that looks like that, that has the same shape or form or the same name, will have the same content. Why? Well, in part we know it’s because our brain wants to filter out the things that are familiar so that we can pay attention to the things that aren’t. But I think the artist has a responsibility to deliberately engage what we don’t know, to deliberately destabilize what we think we know. It is part of our social responsibility.
And I think one of the things that this question around gender fluidity rubs at is that, if we live in a culture that has defined gender according to these formal shapes, whether they be shapes of thought or shapes of material of the body, we then eliminate the content. And that subjective content is the truth for that individual. So what does it mean that we would center a process by which I can have my observations, but I can’t then overwrite my truth of what those observations mean onto you before I get to know who you are, before I hear from you. Because as is so often the case, especially with folk who are dealing with expressing their own gender fluidity, very often what’s on the inside doesn’t match, quote-unquote, what’s on the outside. And so if I come to you and I have determined your interior by your outside, then I have done a violence to you.
PV: Talk to me about your own journey. How has your act changed since you started?
DJ: I was born into and raised in a worldview that was so profoundly shaped in the macrocosmic way by the civil rights movement, like the freedom movement and the workers’ movement, the grassroots movements that created the community I grew up in. Also, the courage of my parents who had an interracial marriage at a time where that was really forbidden, and the power of my community, which was a black community, working-class in western Massachusetts, that also was the house for a kind of multiethnic enclave. All of that to say that the culture that was born from that mixture of people, and that particular time, was in many ways set in opposition to the world that I entered when I started to go to school, which was a hierarchical world where race had a hierarchy, gender had a hierarchy, class for sure had a hierarchy.
So I had very early on to learn that I knew things about life that many of the people that I was going to meet in this other world didn’t know. And I also had to understand from a very early age, and I’m talking about memories from kindergarten, first grade, second grade, that many of the stories that were in that new world about who I was, about who my parents were, about who the people I loved were, were false. And I had to have the inner resolve, even before I had language to articulate it, to say, that’s not true. They don’t know.
And it’s when I became aware of my sexuality, and I understood that I was gay. What I understood is, just like I talked about those two different worlds, I could also look and say, oh, this is what is posited as being a boy or a girl or a man or a woman or… I could look at what the rules were supposed to be. So again, I came into this all at a time when I was looking around and saying, oh, wow, everybody’s playing this game. Everybody’s adopting these roles. And this person that I’ve known my whole life is now suddenly a jock or a girly girl or whatever. And I’m like, oh, it’s so interesting to see the person I know, take on and perform an extreme version of gender, as a way to get power, as a way to find their security, as a way to name themselves and be part of this larger configuration of students in this public high school.
And I knew it wasn’t me. So if I don’t fit any of these things, then the pressure, which I think is what a lot of young people face, is how do you conform? How do you figure out how to get access to or move in that system? Or the real danger, how are you taking that in, like do you try to fight your way back into the thing? And maybe the blessing and the curse that I had was like I told you, I had an experience and a bodily experience of something else.
One of the things that’s interesting, I’ve been teaching at this Jesuit university, and I hear a lot about the teachings of Christ. And I think one of the primary ideas is that you greet strangers as holy presences, that who you don’t know may be an angel. It’s your responsibility to take care of your fellow human being. Care means presence. Are you willing to be present with another human being? And I’m shocked always by how many people are unwilling to do that. I shouldn’t be shocked, but I remain shocked.
PV: Talking to Daniel shed light on how the culture is changing, but of course, culture can’t thrive if it’s not given the space to do so, which is the realm of law. For that, I turn to Elizabeth Cooper, a professor of law and the faculty director of the Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School. Now you were involved in the passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act or GENDA, a 2019 New York law that was originally part of a previous law that was passed in 2002.
Elizabeth Cooper: I have had the real pleasure of being a member of and an advocate for the LGBTQ communities for many decades. And I remember very clearly when we were trying to get the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, otherwise known as SONDA, passed through the state legislature. And there were a number of advocates that were trying to get the bill passed in its original form. And that would’ve prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is being lesbian, gay, bisexual, as well as on gender expression or identity. And those phrases typically refer to people who are transgender or gender non-conforming. The advocates were told that they could get SONDA passed, but only if they took out the protections for gender expression.
And the advocates agreed to do that with the notion of, we’ll come back next year, get the gender expression non-discrimination provisions passed. Well, it just so happened that SONDA was passed in 2002, became effective in early 2003, but it was not until 2019 that the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act actually was enacted. The law is so powerful, because it prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in employment, in housing, in places of public accommodation, in education, in countless areas, basically adding gender expression and identity to the long list of identities that cannot be the basis for discrimination in New York State.
PV: When it comes to the push and the pull of these laws, you’ve said that Jim Crow laws can be a helpful reference point. Can you explain why?
EC: If you think about Jim Crow laws or Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in employment, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on basis of disability, you have lots of prohibitions on discrimination based on an individual’s identity, their core identity, who they are. Historically, I think the Supreme Court often thought of these as immutable characteristics. Not all of them are so immutable, but they are basically aspects of identity that go to one’s core. They also have absolutely no impact on how well one can perform one’s job. So if you have a person who is an excellent lawyer, for example, it should not matter whether they are transgender or cisgender, meaning that their physiology and their gender identity aligns, cisgender. And so, why should we permit discrimination based on gender identity? It makes absolutely no sense. This has nothing to do, like race, like sex, like religion, with how one can do one’s job.
I think that thinking about this historical context is also helpful when we start to think about the ways in which some people argue that religion or biblical values mean that one should be able to discriminate against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender non-conforming, and so on. It’s important to look historically to the kinds of arguments that were raised against Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination based on race. For example, people argued that it would be wrong to have black people and white people in the same bathroom, that it went against the Bible, that there were risks of violence. There were people who argued that separation of the races was mandated by the Bible. And in this context, I think that we are getting to the point where we understand that gender identity or expression or sexual orientation, this is not a matter of choice or going against God or going against the Bible. This is just a matter of who we happen to be.
PV: It seems like people either are willfully ignoring history or just don’t know about it.
EC: I think most people don’t know about it. I think that the point is just to look at people for the value of, for example, employment, the job that they can do. Why would you ever want to tell someone who’s gender non-conforming that they can’t walk into a movie theater? Or why would it be okay or should it be okay for a doctor to say to a transgender person, I don’t want to treat you?
PV: You’ve been involved in this advocacy for 25 years with groups such as the law school’s LGTBQ student group. How have things changed within the movement itself in that time?
EC: I confess that I am just dumbfounded by the changes that have happened in my lifetime. And when I say dumbfounded, I mean in the best way possible. When I first started teaching at Fordham, I was concerned about coming out. I remember that the LGBT law student group sometimes met off-campus, so its members would not have to worry about being seen walking into a room where people knew that the gay group was meeting.
The attitude today towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender identity more generally, is just striking. I see law students and undergrads. I have a niece who’s 18 years old. I see her and her peers having a comfort with people who are different from themselves. And they don’t look at it as something that should require segregation. They look at it as something to learn about, and they want to embrace the richness of diversity in their lives. So you have straight people, like my niece, joining the high school Gay-Straight Alliance. You have kids coming out as teenagers in high school, sometimes middle school. You have people claiming their gender identity or presenting themselves in gender non-conforming or genderqueer ways much earlier on.
There is a real, tangible move away from understanding gender as a binary. There is a much greater acceptance, understanding and acceptance, that gender, like race, is very socially constructed. It’s not that men don’t typically have more testosterone and women typically have more estrogen, or we have different body parts, but that, in the way we present ourselves, some of our rules are arbitrary. Why should only women wear nail polish? Why should only women wear dresses? Why should only men wear ties and Oxford shoes, right? It has nothing to do with who you are and your core values as a human being. If anything, how much more wonderful this world is when people can be their full selves and live their full lives, whether it is with their families of origin, or in the workplace, or walking down the street in the middle of New York City or the middle of any other small town, anywhere in this country.