Diverse student leadership is a good indicator of a healthy student body, and Tiffany Shierling, a graduate assistant for the Office of Student Involvement at UNG Oconee, has been leading a series of leadership discussions, called Nighthawks Talks, all semester long. Shierling’s talks help students to engage in discussion about issues that may lie outside of their comfort zones.
“I think it’s a really nice way to get to know each other,” freshman Kai Blankenship said.
Covering topics like gender identity, race and traditional vs. nontraditional leadership types, Shierling’s talks encourage students to open up a dialog about inclusivity and involvement with students from all types of backgrounds.
Her latest talk, “The Difference Between LGB and T,” illustrated the importance of understanding the different gender roles students may (or may not) identify with.
“Students identify as whoever they want to identify as,” Shierling said, after passing out a colorful chart that highlighted the different gender identities, gender expressions, sex assignments and types of expressions that many non-cisgendered people may identify as.
“Gender identity is what you believe that you are. Gender expression is how you express that, like the way you dress. But people do not have to dress in a manner that agrees with their gender identity,” Shierling explained.
Shierling also detailed what sex assignments are (biological sex): female, male or other/intersex. Like most things, gender and sexuality are spectrums; it can all be very fluid and it is important to recognize someone the same way the identify themselves. These labels can be very useful, especially when one is trying to figure out their own gender identity, but it is very important to remember that it is only appropriate for an individual, not others or society or culture, do identify themselves.
“Assumption of gender or sex is very problematic and often creates unwanted feelings and reactions,” said Shierling.
Conscious vocabulary management is one of the simplest ways to acknowledge and respect the gender identities of everyone. Eliminating the usage of generalizing, engendered phrases like “you guys” when referring to a group of people is an easy one, as is asking individuals what their prefered gender pronouns are (she/he/they etc.).
Gender and sex are not the only defining characteristics of an individual, and sometimes they absolutely do not define the individual.
“People may not feel comfortable subscribing to one of the established labels for gender or sex,” Shierling explained.
People pursue relationships based on what is attractive to them, both emotionally and physically. For example, a female could express herself in masculine ways, communicate in feminine ways, identify as a man, and be physically attracted to men but emotionally attracted to women. This is normal and this is acceptable, and mutual respect for individuals from all over the spectrum is fundamental to a thriving, inclusive campus atmosphere.
Shierlings’s talks have been an unique way to show students how to not only socially engage with students from other social circles, but also how to be leaders that understand the complexity and importance of diversity.
In closing, Shierling encouraged students to “always be who you are, unapologetically.”