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Pusch discusses gender at SMC

Nicole Zook | Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Transgender individuals are often surrounded by common misconceptions about their attitudes and feelings, said Rob Pusch, an adjunct professor and instructional designer from Syracuse University at Saint Mary’s Monday.Pusch traveled to Saint Mary’s to share the results of his recent research project involving transgender college students.”Anybody who goes to college, that’s sort of an interesting time in your life,” he said. “The assumption is that you aren’t struggling with this, so that makes it more interesting.”Pusch said the idea that college-age people are too old to question their gender is a common misconception. He discussed other false impressions, including beliefs that there are more male-to-female transgender people than female-to-male, that people only become transgendered after they discover they are gay or lesbian and that all people want to transition fully from one gender to another. Pusch said many of these stereotypes exist because much of the public misunderstands transgender individuals and uses many important terms interchangeably. He explained that while sex is a biological category, gender is a social category, providing identity based on a “sense of oneself as a particular gender,” he said. “I like to think of male as the sex category, and man as the gender category,” Pusch said. “We think of transgender as being a much broader category than transsexual. It’s anyone who transcends the traditional bounds of being a male or female.”Pusch enlisted eight college-age transgender participants of various status, year and gender for his research. He allowed the participants to “self-identify” their gender and encouraged them to engage in discussion on any topics they liked. Much of the discussion centered around body image, he said.”In our culture, we make the body and gender so important that they had to talk about it,” Pusch said. “In the beginning, a lot of people focused on the body. They were heavily interested in ‘passing.'”He explained that three levels of transgender with various degrees of association exist – full-time, part-time and pre-transgender individuals. At each level, there is an increasing concern with “passing” as a person of the desired gender in public.”There’s still anxiety about passing,” Pusch said. “Even though the body is not a barrier for passing, they still see it as a problem on a personal level.”Pusch said in order to pass, many change their names, dress, actions and even mental state. Physical changes are also likely to be made, including small adjustments like electrolysis and hormone intake as well as major physical modifications, all of which contribute to the stages of transgender, he said.”There is a question of when transition begins,” Pusch said. “It doesn’t just happen when you come out.”Pusch’s group also focused on public perception of the transgender community, especially those members who may not identify as either female-to-male or male-to-female but as a “third gender or gender-queer.””Our culture isn’t set up to handle anybody who isn’t either a boy or a girl,” he said. “People get confused, and they don’t like it when you confuse them about gender.”Pusch urged the audience to be sensitive to the transgender community, saying his study participants each dealt with a lack of recognition.”A lot of people say, ‘I’m transgendered, I’m not a man or I’m not a woman, I’m something else,'” he said.