The last in a series of five Lunch and Learn presentations at the Hood River Library came Feb. 6, with more than 30 people coming together in the Hood River Library’s downstairs meeting room to learn more about gender identity, the featured topic.
Megan Winn, Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance board member, led the talk, encouraging participants to ask questions or speak to their own experiences.
“I know there are people in this room who could teach this way better than me,” Winn said. “And I know there are people here who are just learning about this.”
She asked those gathered to adhere to four agreements to aid in the conversation: To speak your truth, to stay engaged, to experience and lean into any discomfort and except and accept non-closure.
In short, she explained, sometimes a new idea or topic that pushes us in a direction we’ve yet to think about or experience can lead us to tune out and not be engaged — one of the body’s natural impulses — and that, because gender identity is a big topic, not everything could reasonably be covered in an hour.
Winn had participants introduce themselves and say a few words about why they were in attendance.
“I’m surprised, I thought there’d be like 10 people,” she said to the crowd. “Some of you are at expert level, some are at infant level, and I want to make sure I hit the middle.”
Several said they wanted to learn more about the topic to support friends and family; others expressed a desire to help build a more inclusive community or learn to use the correct pronouns.
“It’s important to show up and normalize the conversation,” said one. “There’s always more to learn,” said another.
Winn noted that while some people shared their preferred pronouns during their introduction, it is a current practice to let people choose for themselves whether they are comfortable with that practice.
She also noted that while the topic is new “for our society,” gender identity and multiple genders “have been represented in our world for a long time,” she said. “We’re acknowledging that this isn’t new and isn’t something that’s been created in the last 20 years.”
Gender identity corresponds with who you feel yourself to be on the inside. Gender expression is how you might show your gender on the outside — clothes, hair, makeup, how you walk or talk.
This can be different from sex assigned at birth, when babies are born and identified as male or female based on genitalia. That can be complicated if a baby is intersex, meaning the person is born without being “entirely aligned male or female,” Winn said. In the past, doctors and parents would decide on the gender.
“The medical community is moving further and further away from surgeries and letting young people experience and determine their own identity,” she said.
Transgender refers to someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth; cisgender refers to someone who does identify with the gender assigned at birth. And nonbinary refers to someone who does not identity exclusively as male or female.
A person may also identity as gender queer — identity that falls on the spectrum between male and female — or gender fluid — identity that changes over time, from one end of the spectrum to another.
“I’ve met trans-kids at age 3, living life with parental support, no big deal,” Winn said. “For some, it’s a big decision, but for others, our gender identities solidify at 2 or 3, and for parents and grandparents and those supporting their own young people, the power of believing, of choice and power and love, is huge … At 2 and 3, little kids start knowing who they are, and that can be difficult for some people to digest. Sexual orientation comes into play at puberty; gender identity starts very young and is completely different than sexual orientation that happens around puberty.
“They might biologically be female, but gender expression or gender identity is gender queer and they might be attracted to women,” Winn said. “Gender identity and assigned sex does not dictate who a person will love or be physically attracted to … We can never assume or know who a person is on the gender identity spectrum unless we ask. The takeaway is that gender identity is really big, we all have one, and making assumptions on folks and who they love isn’t going to get you a lot of places.”
Winn said it’s always okay to ask a person their preferred pronouns, and that if you mis-gender someone, it’s important to simply apologize. “Don’t make the experience about you,” she said, “about how sorry and devastated you are. You’re not helping anyone in the room. Apologize and move on.”
Even if someone shares their preferred pronouns, it’s important to get permission before using those pronouns in other situations.
“Maybe someone is sharing a piece of themselves, but they’re not ready for everyone else to know,” she said.
Winn shared resources for kids, including the Human Rights Campaign, Teaching Tolerance and GLSEN, all of which support youth and/or can train teachers. There is also the website Therapy of the Gorge, which can point kids and parents to therapists trained in gender issues.
“We need to continue to have this conversation,” Winn concluded. “If you’ve learned something new, please share it. And if you’ve learned something about someone’s identity, please have permission before you share.”
Library Assistant Director Arwen Ungar said that, while this is the last in this series of Lunch and Learn presentations, it will begin again at the end of May. Topic suggestions are welcome.
About Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance
Columba Gorge Pride Alliance is an all-volunteer organization working to provide a safe environment for the LGBTQ community. The group formed in 2016.
Plans are underway for the annual Pride event, which is typically held the last Saturday of June. “Our hope is to continue to expand and reach more parts of the Gorge,” said Winn.
For more information, visit columbiagorgepride.com.