Dr. Brian Jara presents“Pronouns, Bathrooms, and Hashtag Feminism: Looking Back at the Future of Gender”

On Friday, April 17, Chatham welcomed West Virginia University professor Dr. Brian Jara as this year’s speaker at the Women and Gender Studies Annual Lecture. His topic was “Pronouns, Bathrooms, and Hashtag Feminism: Looking Back at the Future of Gender.”

Students, faculty, and community members nearly filled Sanger Lecture Hall waiting for Jara to begin.

After a brief introduction from Associate Professor of English Lynne Bruckner, junior Kelly Nestman approached the podium to introduce Jara.

Jara is a Senior Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at West Virginia University, and his primary interests include college student culture and activism, feminist pedagogies, and feminist and activist digital pedagogies.

According to Nestman, “one of his proudest and weirdest moments was figuring out how to get anti-violence messages printed onto urinal splash guards.”

Jara began his lecture by stating that he was going to, “try to keep things messy,” meaning that he wanted to, “try to navigate a couple of different ways of having different feminist conversations.”  Jara’s presentation was largely driven by the slides and talking points he had prepared, but he also encouraged people to tweet their thoughts and questions throughout the presentation using the hashtag “#genderfuture,” so interaction was not completely left until the end of the presentation.

Jara first acknowledged the space he was in, inspired by a talk he saw given by activist Angela Davis, by reminding everyone, “we’re not just in a university or an academy; there was something here before.”

Next he acknowledged alumna Heather Murton, Class of 2013, who currently works with him as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at WVU.

“When she talks about Chatham, you see her face light up…so with Heather as a young alum, you have an amazing representative of Chatham and what she got out of it,” he said.

Next, Jara discussed how he discovered feminism.

“It was never part of the plan, I literally walked into women’s studies—physically, figuratively, intellectually—and it was pretty late in my academic career,” he said.

His original undergraduate interest was biomedical engineering; however, after finishing three semesters with a 0.5 GPA, he decided to explore other fields and decided on the social sciences, namely sociology and psychology.

After college, he pursued Student Affairs, taught a women’s studies course to fund his Masters work, and was instantly interested in the subject.

“Now, seventeen, eighteen years in, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.

In Jara’s experience as a professor, he regularly sees students who, “hear things better because I’m saying it.”

“I know I’m getting nods faster than my women colleagues,” he said.

One of his goals is to make students aware of this phenomenon because awareness can lead to change.

Jara began the body of his lecture by introducing the terms, “intersectionality” and “kyriarchy.”

Intersectionality is the study of how multiple social factors form systems of oppression.  Kyriarchy is the social system in which gender, as well as sex, race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors intersect to cause oppression. To practice intersectional feminism, one must remember that gender is only one of many factors that lead to oppression.

Jara then discussed how language can be oppressive. According to Jara, WVU is beginning to try to be more inclusive. For example, the University is making it easier for students to officially register a “primary name” different from their legal one. As Jara mentioned, the first day of classes can be “horrific and triggering” for transgender students who do not use their legal name but are identified by it on their professors’ rosters.

Jara also discussed that pronouns—like he/she and him/her—suggest that gender is binary, and he mentioned that some nations have taken steps to officially institute gender-neutral pronouns.

Next Jara delved into the oppression caused by gender-specific bathrooms, which again suggest that gender is binary and which often discriminate against those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Jara acknowledged that there are more options now than there used to be and that many members—particularly younger members—of the trans community have taken to social media to enact further change.

Jara then discussed the social media side of feminism.

“[Social media and feminism] are, if you’re using Facebook language, having a complicated relationship,” he said.

Jara is an advocate of social media; he believes that it has improved his work, has made him better aware of current events, and is helpful in connecting groups of people who would not otherwise meet. In the past year, there have been many viral hashtags that have connected feminist thinkers. Some are serious, like #RenishaMcBride (for a 19-year-old African American woman who was fatally shot in the face while seeking help after being in a car accident); and some are satirical, like #DudesGreetingDudes (meant to expose the absurdity of catcalling).

Although social media can have a positive effect, it also serves as a platform for “anti-feminist backlash and harassment,” according to Jara.

Despite negativity on social media, overall inclusivity is rising. According to research done by the Benenson Strategy Group, 50 percent of people aged 18 to 34 believe that gender is not binary, while 46 percent believe that it is and four percent are unsure.

“A majority of young people believe in more than two genders. Wow,” said Jara.

According to the research, women are more accepting of gender fluidity than men, liberals are more accepting than conservatives, and people with some college education are more accepting than those without it.

Jara finally addressed questions and comments from the audience. Most notable was the conversation about how difficult it can be to apply feminist theory practically. To this Jara gave what he called a “non-answer,” saying, “We have to continue to have discussions about how to balance [theory and practice].”

Sophomore Maggie McGovney—who felt so strongly on the subject that she broke her vow of silence for GLSEN’s Day of Silence, meant to bring awareness to “the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools,” according to the cause’s website—voiced major concerns about the lack of knowledge about gender and sex outside of theoretically-based academia, particularly in practical medicine.

In response, Jara posed another question, “How do we get more voices to those power structures?”

He continued, “How do we infuse a traditional discipline with the stealth and the blatant feminist critiques? It’s people like you.”