GSWS major will make students more empathetic, tolerant

By Alyssa Lieberman / Columnist

On the first day of my Gender Studies class, my professor walked us through the standard introductions — what are our names, years, majors but also ­— what were our preferred gender pronouns?

A teacher had never asked me whether or not I was a he, she or a they. However, classes within the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program at Pitt are anything but traditional. Through its curriculum, the program works to undermine traditions — such as assuming one’s gender based off of looks — that exclude non-binary individuals and perpetuate gender stereotypes.

By asking students for their preferred gender pronouns, my professor, Emily Crosby, opened the classroom space to those who may not be cisgender, or those who may not identify with the sex on their birth certificate.

Every school can benefit from a strong GSWS program, as the education leads to understanding and including students who might not fit traditional norms. Thankfully, here at Pitt, the program is even stronger now, as the University is finally offering a full major, instead of just a certificate, to students in gender, sexuality and women’s studies.

As Todd Reeser, a French and GSWS professor, told The Pitt News in our earlier story discussing the new major that, “Gender and sexuality are related to anything you do, professionally or not.”

“Gay marriage, Caitlyn Jenner, Hillary Clinton running for president, reproductive rights — you see it all over Facebook all the time. People may not think about it as gender studies, but it is,” Reeser said.

The GSWS program offers something valuable to every Pitt student, even if they don’t rush to major in it. The program focuses on society’s perceptions of masculine and feminine gender roles that affect multiple aspects of every student’s life. Specifically, classes within the program teach students to critique systems of oppression and wrongs within our society, such as sexism.

An example of this system of oppression, for instance, is the wage gap between the Women’s World Cup and the “regular” World Cup — which we discussed in my Introduction to Gender Studies class. Despite the fact that the Women’s World Cup final was the most watched soccer game in United States history, the U.S. women’s team, which defeated Japan 5-2, earned $32 million less than the men’s team that won the 2014 World Cup.

Along with the knowledge of such oppression, students in GSWS learn to use vital tools to undermine its effects. For instance, simply using the correct language and pronouns can help to alleviate a number of the societal wrongs, as they can weaken labels that are sexist, racist, ageist and homophobic — which further undercut systems of inequality as a whole.

In my class, we discussed issues of white privilege and race, such as the lack of portrayal of well-developed, non-white characters in the media. According to a study released by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2013, “Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8 percent of speaking characters are black, 4.2 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent are Asian and 3.6 percent are from other (or mixed race) ethnicities.”

Gender studies courses teach students to reject these backward norms. Rather, they teach that we should challenge injustice when we see it.

Alice E. Ginsberg, editor of  “The Evolution of American Women’s Studies,” said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, that “women’s studies has historically been accused of focusing on the experiences of white women and not adequately addressing issues of race, ethnicity, class, religion and sexuality.”

Even if previous GSWS courses in academia left out stories of women who did not fit societal norms, such as women of color, queer women or transgender women, GSWS is now centered on intersectionality, or how different systems of oppression and inequality in our society interact.

Pitt’s own GSWS Program reflects this commitment to intersectionality. On the About page of GSWS’ website, the program claims to provide  “opportunities for students and faculty to explore … interactions, and institutions and intersect in complex ways with sex, race, class, ethnicity, ability, age, religion and nation.”

These opportunities will push students to take more courses centered on issues of gender and sexuality, seeing that the program is now more fully encompassing with a major.

The University will see the influence of a GSWS major outside of the classroom as well. By educating its students on how intersectionality influences identity and by exposing them to inclusive spaces, Pitt’s GSWS major will help students realize the importance of recognizing and respecting the diversity on our campus.

This will help to promote and facilitate the culture of inclusivity that has already begun to take hold on our campus, as the major will allow Pitt students to better understand the importance of recent campus inclusion initiatives.

This fall, for instance, the University is finally encouraging students, faculty and staff to use bathrooms on campus as corresponds with their gender identity. Any student who has taken a gender studies course should be able to tell you just how much this new policy matters to non-binary students.

In similarly exciting news, Pitt will offer gender neutral housing next fall in Ruskin Hall.

This is essential in conditioning students to accept all people and to later confront unnaccepting institutions outside of our campus. For instance, at least 13 transgender women were murdered in 2014, and at least another 13 have been killed already this year, according to Human Rights Watch. “Local media routinely misgender these victims, and often police emphasize victims’ arrest records to diminish and miscast the lives of the murdered,” according to the same report.

The realities of these kinds of institutional ignominy toward minority groups is exactly why a major that encourages the study of them, that humanizes them, will help to improve the well-being of all students.

As the GSWS program grows, students will become better equipped to properly address issues of diversity and inclusivity — leading to a more tolerant campus, and eventually, a more tolerant nation.

Alyssa primarily writes on social justice and political issues for The Pitt News

Write to her at [email protected]