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Pitt researcher discusses gender concepts with Murrysville AAUW

March 25, 2018
Pitt researcher and doctoral candidate Samuel Todd talks with Murrysville American Association of University Women members about sex and gender roles on March 8, 2018, at the Murrysville Community Library.

University of Pittsburgh researcher Samuel Todd’s main message about gender identity is simple: It’s a complicated topic, and an equally complicated conversation to have.

And gender concepts do not just apply to the LGBTQ community, he said.

“All of us practice and perform our concepts of gender roles,” said Todd, who is pursuing a doctoral degree at Pitt and who served as the featured speaker this week at the American Association of University Women’s meeting in Murrysville. “What doctors and psychiatrists are finding out is that gender identification can begin happening as young as 3 and 4 years old.”

Part of what complicates conversations about gender, Todd said, is that terminology and concepts like gender-neutral pronouns have only recently caught up with groups of people who have been around for centuries.

Todd referenced communities from the Dominican Republic to Indonesia where a diverse group of genders has been in place for generations.

“These are real people trying to make their way through the world just like the rest of us,” he said Thursday. The concept of “binary” gender roles — male and female — is a relatively recent one, Todd said.

“Historically, we do see a trajectory, but today we have new technology and new terms,” he said. “Ancient Hebrew texts identify up to six different gender concepts. Thinking about gender as a historical concept is very important.”

In looking at gender discussions in modern society, Todd said one important aspect involves pop culture moving on from portrayals of transgender people that focus specifically on why someone is transgender.

“Actress Laverne Cox, who is transgender, is on the CBS drama ‘Doubt,’ and for the first time on network television, there is a trans character where the focus isn’t on her being trans,” he said. “She’s a powerful lawyer, and it really shows some of the ways that trans people are just another part of society.”

Ultimately, Todd stressed a willingness to “keep the conversation open,” even though he acknowledged that it can be a difficult one to have.

“I’ve spent years researching it, and I still find it difficult at times,” he said. “But there are a growing number of resources for trans- and cisgender parents and children to approach these topics.”

No matter who is having the conversation, listening to others is the key, he said.

“Listen to the people who are describing their experiences,” Todd said. “Try to navigate your own sense of what’s happening. And remember that you’re doing gender work, too, and we all do it differently.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.