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Pride University calls attention for gender inclusivity

29 July 2022
Pride University, a coalition of VU Amsterdam, UvA, HvA and InHolland, has already had a lot of t-shirts and banners printed with the tagline X = me, X = us this year. It aims to draw attention to the importance of gender inclusion within higher education during the Pride Week and Canal Parade. Kai Obendrauf (master's student in Artificial Intelligence) and Bee Scherer (professor of Buddhist Studies) consider this is a good start because binary thinking is out of date. "It's not only about recognition, but also about respect for our identity," Kai explains.

Misgendering and gender registration
Yet within the walls of VU Amsterdam, they are still continuously misgendered. "That is very disappointing for a university that claims to be progressive," Bee explains. "As a non-binary disabled trans person, I am still addressed as with my passport gender in emails from HRM  This does not reflect my gender identity and the VU should respect that. " Kai confirms Bee’s complaint. "It would be great if there was a box in the registration form where I could check 'non-binary', or an X.”

Both are aware that VU is working to solve the problem, but feel that the process is far too slow. Bee suspects that one problem lies with the pre-purchased HRM software packages. One gets the impression that they are programmed in such a static way that there’s no room to add more than two gender options.

Kai, who has also worked as a VU employee, shares the same frustration and denounces the signal VU Amsterdam is unwittingly sending. “Requiring gender registration from employees, without providing all options makes it seem like they will only hire people who identify as male or female. If it were up to me, I would focus immediately on how you can create an official third option for individuals who do have a legal X as gender in their passport, so that they can legally register with HRM.

Gender-neutral pronouns and toilets
Luckily, there is also good news. VU students and faculty teachers have recently been able to register their gender-neutral pronouns in the Canvas environment and visibly display them to other visitors. That may be she/her or he/his, but can also be the gender-neutral they/them. Bee understands that, linguistically speaking, the singular they may seem uncomfortable to some people, but explains that these gender-neutral pronouns has been used in the English language since the Medieval Age. "If you talk about me, you should say, 'they said if I could make an appointment' or 'it is their wish that the meeting starts at ten o'clock'. It's not just a matter of getting used to it and moving on. It's also a matter of showing decency and respect toward your fellow human being." "What I do," Kai says smiling, "is if you have a pet, like in my case a cat, practice unfamiliar pronouns on your pet. The longer you practice, the more you will get used to it and be less likely to accidentally misgender other people."

In addition, both Kai and Bee hope that VU will soon make good on its promise to introduce gender-neutral toilets everywhere on the university grounds. It has been high on the agenda for a year now, but apart from two bathrooms in the main building, there seems little progress to be made yet.  When asked why this is so important, Kai answers firmly, "If you have to pee, you obviously want to do it in a safe place. For LGBTQIA+ people, safety is not a given. For instance, neither the men’s nor women’s bathroom explicitly allows non-binary people. "

Bee further adds. "It is a fact that trans, intersex and non-binary people have to deal with discriminatory slurs, social exclusion, and physical harassment on a daily basis. That has an effect on your mental health. All we want is to live our authentic lives and be able to use a public restroom in peace."

Being a good ally
Many Dutch people see Pride Week as one big celebration event. Kai and Bee don’t contradict that, but they emphasize that Pride is much more than just a week of going out and dancing to disco and house beats. For them, this annual event stands for the celebration of equal worlds in which all individuals with all their colourful cultures, sexual orientations, genders, and economic backgrounds are treated with dignity.

There is still a long way to go before that equality will be a reality. The positive news is that more and more cis straight people are supporting the struggle of the LGTBQIA+. Bee says they are pleased with this development but wants to offer one important piece of advice to the new allies: "Do what you have to do to support our struggle, but please note: there is nothing about us without us. By that I mean that you shouldn’t assume what is best for the community. Always ask questions what our needs are. Inform yourself, go to workshops, and help when the community asks. But don't put your own ego first."

It would also help, according to them, if the VU organized workshops on gender identity and the impact of racism, discrimination and marginalization, and mandate staff members and scholars to attend them. "This appears very necessary; for instance, I have noticed that in my case VU colleagues high up have also missed the mark quite a bit when I was inaugurated this year in April. Just before, I had indicated that the press release should state that "the VU has appointed a trans person to the Buddhist Studies chair”. The reaction was rather telling. Surely that is not academically relevant, they said. But, of course, it is relevant! After all, it's about visibility and representation. It matters to all trans and non-binary students and staff, because then they also see that it's possible to break the cisgender ceiling and be proud of who you are."

Reaction VU Amsterdam
Wim Haan, Diversity Officer Campus & Community on behalf of VU Amsterdam, is aware that the implementation of gender registration and gender neutral toilets still requires some consideration. Nevertheless, he is very happy that Kai and Bee continue to bring this up. "That's important, because it's precisely with LGBTQIA+ issues that you as a university run the risk of figuring out for yourself what's best for the community. Personally, I think that compared to other institutions, a lot has happened at VU in recent years to achieve a more inclusive culture for our LGBTQIA+ staff and students, but you certainly shouldn't bask in a 'we're doing so well' feeling. It may be possible to do it faster and undoubtedly better, but that starts with listening carefully and responding appropriately to suggestions for improvement."

In the Pride week prior to the Canal Parade, VU Pride  i.c.w. Pride University and the Student Hotel organizes workshops, guest lectures, speed dates and much more around the theme of gender.