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Lavender University: Hyacinth Piel on gender ethics
by Derrick Clifton
2014-01-07

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During the latest lecture in the Lavender University series, attendees were invited to consider various moral questions for how people understand and develop gender identities.

Hyacinth Piel, a graduate student in philosophy at University of Illinois-Chicago ( UIC ), addressed key topics during the Jan. 4 talk, entitled "Ethical Problems in Gender Identity Construction." ( Note: Piel prefers the gender-neutral pronouns "ze" and "hir." ) Ze began the discussion by highlighting how traditional gender norms were formed and determined based on sex: male bodies to masculine traits, female bodies to feminine traits.

Not conforming often meant, and still results in punishment and death, creating what Piel described as a system of hierarchies often opposed by feminists.

"The only way any of us ever learned to do gender, or even what it is, is through the exchange and transmission of stereotypes—most or all of which still bear the marks of a bloody history of domination and the interfusion of love with terror," ze said.

The lecture was based on a feminist philosophy class Piel taught at UIC. The course, titled "Sex Roles," was the first time ze included discussion of a paper examining two perspectives of gender identity.

"Two Forms of Androgynism,"—which the late Dr. Joyce Trebilcot, a professor and co-founder of the women's studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in 1975—explores how androgyny challenges traditional gender roles. Piel introduced Trebilcot's paper during the lecture as a reference point to discuss the benefits and criticisms of both androgyny forms.

One such form, termed monoandrogynism, combines masculinity and femininity into one, best possible hybrid for individuals, excluding the problematic or restrictive portions of each. In contrast, polyandrogynism suggests that each person should be able to freely develop and express their gender identity from a range of possibilities and combinations.

During the lecture, Piel said polyandrogynism functions as the "common sense" of trans politics.

"The trans movement is predicated on the idea that regardless of the sex we were born with, if that notion even makes sense, we should be free to present and identify any way we feel comfortable with gender-wise," ze said.

Both types of androgyny were examined for their positive and negative effects, as Piel introduced a few ethical challenges and criticisms of each ideal. In either strain, ze said, there are calls to a certain ideals of excellence.

Monoandrogynism may not be friendly to trans people, Piel posited, because saying there's one, best way to form gender could be more restrictive than the current system, especially for people who come to a self-understanding about their gender identity.

But Piel said ze also wanted to challenge polyandrogynism by highlighting some positive elements of monoandrogynism, from a position that not every gender expression can be tolerated because they're still bound up in an oppressive social system. As a result, ze stressed the need for individuals to examine how they do gender.

"If we just did our genders naturally, we might be reproducing hierarchies that are bad for people. So, we need to be reflective about our own identities and our own ways of presenting," Piel said. "That's, I think, not something that's not talked or thought about enough in the mainstream trans movement, which is all about freedom of expression."

Still, Piel believes that people on the trans spectrum are in an advantageous position to move society forward on issues of gender, because of their double-consciousness on the matter.

"I know the cis[gender] conversation about gender because... it's what's all around me," ze said. "You can't not know that stuff... but you have your own perspective on it. That's a kind of cognitive advantage. That's a broadness of mind that not everyone has access to. "

Piel will continue teaching and assistant teaching while finishing hir dissertation, which will examine sex, what's good about it and the types of attitudes people can adopt towards others' sexualities.

"Most of society's snap moral judgments about variant sexual practices and gender expressions are wrong. Society just doesn't know what makes our differences good," Piel said. "I'm trying to learn to do a queer-friendly ethics that doesn't shy away from moral judgments, even though queer people get burned by moral judgments."

UIC professor Beth E. Richie will present the next Lavender University lecture on Saturday, Feb. 1, titled "Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America's Prison Nation." All upcoming lectures in the series take place the first Saturday of each month at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. To purchase tickets for one of all remaining lectures, visit community.centeronhalsted.org/lavenderuniversity .

For more information, contact editor@windycitymediagroup.com or Lynnea Karlic, Center on Halsted's Director of Community and Cultural Programming, at atlkarlic@centeronhalsted.org .


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