Gendered awards fail to acknowledge gender nonconformity

By Erica Quinones

Washington College struggles with what it means to not only be diverse but equitable and inclusive. Recruiting a diverse student body is one part, but getting them to stay, to feel welcomed, to be accommodated, to be recognized, and to be supported are all different tasks.

Institutional exclusion arises from a variety of sources across campus. But popular sentiment assumes that explicit exclusions have been erased from the College’s structures themselves.

However, lived experience time and time again reveals the faults in the College’s culture and the gaps in which many of its students disappear — including us nonbinary and gender-nonconforming residents.

Our existence dwindles in the College’s language, disappearing from both present and historical representation.

This erasure occurs in one sin that WC shares with other award-giving entities, the separation of two prestigious senior awards by binary gender.

The Eugene B. Casey Medal and Henry W.C. Catlin 1894 Medal are awarded by the faculty to female and male seniors who are “outstanding in the qualities of scholarship, character, leadership, and campus citizenship,” according to WC’s website.

The awards’ explicit focuses on binary gender forces the question: what about nonbinary or gender-nonconforming students?

Comparatively, senior awards aren’t a big deal when it comes to LGBTQIA+ inclusivity on campus.

As senior Teddy Friedline said, senior awards happen right before students leave campus, so there are more pressing issues that affect nonbinary and gender non-conforming students’ daily lives.

“I personally am more concerned with educating faculty and staff of transgender issues and etiquette and raising awareness of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, for instance, than awards given at the end of one’s time at WC,” Friedline said.

And they’re right.

Finding a bathroom that you can use is more pressing than winning an award at the end of four years. Helping nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students connect with gender-affirming resources improves the overall wellbeing of those students during their time at and after WC. Teaching faculty to be gender-conscious by introducing themselves with pronouns, asking for students’ pronouns on the first day of class, and confronting deadnaming or misgendering when it arises creates a more inclusive environment.

Changing two gendered awards when most senior awards — including the George Washington Medal and Award — are gender neutral feels performative at best.

Likewise, having an array of gender-neutral merit awards means that we nonbinary students aren’t caught in the same bind as someone like Sam Smith. While they were excluded from the 2021 Brit Awards due to the program binarizing the Solo Artist categories — the gendered awards were later combined into Artist of the Year in 2022 — we still have opportunities to be recognized for our excellence outside of strictly gendered categories.

“To me, those awards are just for those groups of people, and I don’t particularly mind being left out of that,” Friedline said. 

But I am still drawn to that binary language and what it implies.

On the surface level, by explicitly establishing representation for men and women, the College privileges those binary gender identities. Binary genders are given visibility and a platform which leaves nonbinary and gender-nonconforming identities in the dark.

This erasure only worsens as the years go on and awardees become just a list of names.

Students are presented with two lists of excellent students, one masculine and one feminine. For contemporary winners, this binarization presents the false idea that the only student leaders are those who align with binary gender identities. And for historical winners, this privileging of binary identity and the dwindling of memories erase any nonconformity or queerness that was present in those winners’ characters.

The history of student excellence takes on the appearance of cisnormativity. It becomes a list of men and women, erasing nonbinary students and their contributions to the College from historical records.

Nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students become unintelligible in our institutional history, disappearing from our memories and our tongues, despite the knowledge that we exist, existed, and will continue to exist.

When we are erased from the history of the College, we also risk becoming unintelligible in its present.

Visibility is central to advocating for inclusive structures, and the lineage of queerness on campus is vital to keeping momentum in our movements. Remembering the work of our predecessors and the promises made to them helps us push forward, learning from their work and holding promisers accountable.

Those memories will not be primarily upheld through structures like senior awards. And this isn’t necessarily a call to create a similar award for nonbinary students which may only work to triangulate nonbinary identities, refitting them in the binary.

But changing how we refer to outstanding students in the historic record by decentralizing gender can better platform the work done by nonbinary and gender-nonconforming peers yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It privileges the underprivileged and makes visible the unseen.

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