Gender studies professor comes to UVM

Jean MacBride, Staff Writer

Queer, trans, binary; some people call them buzzwords, others a liberal conspiracy, but to Jack Halberstam they are deeply personal.

Halberstam, a professor at Columbia University, gave a lecture April 19 at the Davis Center. The visit was sponsored by the English department and the James and Mary Buckham fund, said English professor Sarah Turner.

A literary critic focused on gender studies, Halberstam has written multiple books including his most recent “Trans*” which focuses on how queer bodies are currently represented and how they will be understood in the future.

With a feminine voice, a short pixie cut and a serious expression behind huge round glasses, it can be hard to place Halberstam in commonly accepted gender frameworks. Halberstam isn’t worried about this, since he sees binary as a social invention and something to overcome, he said.

During the lecture, Halberstam argued that trans children had not existed until the late 1990’s and criticized people who wished to put children with fluid gender identities into a strict binary.

“Just because a child says they’re transgender doesn’t make it so,” he said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe kids that say they’re transgender, but I am saying we have too quickly rushed in to stabilize their experience of gender ambiguity.”

Halberstam said that children should be free to explore whatever type of gender expression they want without being bound to a predetermined male and female binary.

Later in the lecture, he cited the importance of breaking down the gender binary so all forms of gender expression could be tolerated without scrutiny.

Senior Verana Nelson shared her thoughts about the lecture.

“The possibility of a non-gendered or gender-optional culture is something I’ve thought a lot about,” Nelson said. “I’m not sure it would be possible because gender norms are so ingrained. You would have to start with kids.”

Halberstam used “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, to discuss the importance of trans kinship: the unique bond between gender nonconforming people.

He showed an illustration where a young Alison sees a butch woman for the first time, and talked about the importance of Alison and children like her discovering who they are and who they connect with without parental or societal intervention.

Halberstam praised the #metoo movement but called some of its tactics into question, during an April 20 lunch with students at the Waterman Manor.

“In order to address the issue of unwanted sexual contact we need to talk so guys would also be allowed to define sexual encounters,” he said. “It can’t just be naming accusations and naming people and saying this happened to me.”

Halberstam also visited several English classes, including Turner’s class on literary theory.

“I was impressed by the energy he brought to my classrooms,” Turner said. “I thought the visit was an amazing example of what the English department offers the larger UVM and Burlington community.”

Jackson Evans, a continuing education student, said he was excited about the event.

“I think it’s really important that we keep addressing this issue around campus and I am excited that Halberstam decided to visit,” Evans said. “Having speakers like Jack Halberstam helps the University create a place where all are welcome.”

“We have some people who know a lot about these issues and who are talking about it and some people who are not and may have grown up in a place where diversity wasn’t as important. So I think it’s important that people on campus get on the same page,” he said.