Gender is a thing that can be thought about

Varnado teaches students to question traditional stigmas

On February 5, 2013

  • Christine Varnado teaches her class to look past the stigmas of untraditonal thoughts on gender and sex in order to spark discussion with her students. Alec Frazier /// The Spectrum

Genderf**k isn't a word most professors use in their class. But professor Christine Varnado wants to eliminate the stigmas surrounding untraditional roles of gender. The term "genderf**k," among with other controversial topics, creates a stimulating discussion.

Gender and Women's Studies (GGS 101) is about gender and sexuality studies. Varnado teaches the class, which is considered the introductory course of the major. She is eager to help students understand gender is "something that can be thought about."

Originally from Mississippi, Varnado moved to Buffalo to teach at UB. This is Varnado's second academic year at UB and her fourth semester teaching the Gender and Women's Studies class.

According to Varnado, there are many classes that students question whether they'll need in the future. She said there are countless times when someone will turn to a friend, parent or teacher and ask "when will I ever need to know this in life?" Gender and Women's Studies is not one of those classes, Varnado said.

The class discusses art, history and sociology in relation to areas of social concern that gender has an effect on. This includes childhood, sex, dress, style, games, reproduction and the human body.

Varnado encourages her students to make connections between the material she teaches and their own personal experiences. She wants them to share stories with the class, whether through discussions, written assignments or the class blog.

"One of my biggest goals is defamiliarizing gender because gender is so pervasive in every area of our world and it affects everyone," Varnado said.

Varnado's class teaches gender as something that can be questioned, criticized and examined in every aspect of daily life. The students start off by discussing the term "genderf**k." Kate Bornstein, author of My Gender Workbook - a reading for the class - describes the term as the conscious effort to mock the traditional gender roles, ideas and traditions of society.

"We talk about all the different aspects of gender identity and then at the end of the semester, we talk about the relationship between all of the ideas we've explored and the idea of feminism," Varnado said.

Marcus Epps,a senior political science major, took the class as a part of his minor in global gender studies. He was interested in the oppression of women and what feminism really means. He originally thought "feminism was synonymous with the hatred of men." The class changed his mind.

"Taking the class really opened my eyes to a lot of different world issues; it showed me that feminism meant more than trying to throw men out of power," Epps said. "It's a movement to end sexism and oppression for women and all other oppressed groups. I now feel a sense of comfort knowing that the liberation of one oppressed group will help pave the way for others to find a similar freedom."

This semester, the class consists of just under 20 students. Through media and communication, each student, whether they are taking the class to fulfill a requirement or simply because they are interested in the subject, can relate to the course, Varnado said.

Hands are constantly raised with each topic discussed; students share personal stories and open up to a class of strangers about personal experiences.

Varnado loves that part of the class.

She spends the semester stressing the idea of gender affecting everyone by holding discussions about drag queens and drag queen performances or the art of Del LaGrace Volcano, which deals with matters such as the ambiguity of gender. She hopes her ideas will encourage students to think about gender and sexuality in a whole new way.

"If we're going to continue striving to find better solutions to the adversities we face, I think it's important to understand the struggles that others go through even if they may not pertain to our own lives," Epps said. "Taking [this class] has really changed me for the better."

Varnado's class is part ofthe Department of Transnational Studies, which has undergone a shift from just women's studies to gender studies over recent years.

Varnado, who's familiar with the original women's studies program, is excited about the shift the department has undergone. She is especially excited about the merging of woman's studies to gender studies as a whole.

"The merge is a really positive thing for all of our undergrads and graduate students because the faculty in this department now have such a wide range of interests in gender, race and class in the United States and abroad," Varnado said.

She believes students now have an even wider range of information at their disposal. Now, students can research specific topics and professors within the renovated department, which can offer more help than ever before.

The program has a long history at UB, starting approximately 44 years ago by a group of students at the university. In 1969, women's studies began at UB as a student- run collective with The Buffalo Women's Liberation Group.

"The students were mobilizing to meet in groups and talk about sexism in their daily lives and from that beginning, it acquired academic status as a field of study ... Buffalo is one of the first places that had happened," Varnado said.

These women groups were eventually incorporated as an academic program. Professors were hired and the program came to existence.

"That's what the field of gender studies comes out of. It's a political movement that became an academic field," Varnado said. "Buffalo has had one of the premier women's studies [departments] in the whole country and now has moved to gender studies."



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