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All Gender, Non Gender, Trans GenderRon Mace, an architect and polio survivor, is credited with first deploying the term “universal design.”  He spoke about how a useful device can have different fates depending on how it is characterized. He used the example of electronic garage door openers: “suppose they had first been developed as assistive technology – used only by people with disabilities who couldn’t manually lift a garage door?”

He suggested that there would be two strikes against the technology: first they’d cost more, and secondly, they’d be associated only with people with disabilities. “Instead, a tool developed for no one in particular is used by everybody,” writes John Crowley in his January 2015 Harper’s editorial. “In recent years, the thinking about the nature of disability has turned away from diagnosis and toward limitation of function: that is, a definition based not on the name of your condition, but on what you can or can’t do…”

Crowley then speaks about the issue of identity: “I must identify as a person with a particular limiting circumstance before it will be addressed. But what if I don’t want to self-identify?” It is here that “universal design anticipates the diversity of users without knowing their names.”

People make claims to rights because they demand to be treated as no different from anybody else; they refuse to be regarded as other.  They also demand rights, and accommodations, because of their differences – their unique bodies, heritages, psychologies, styles of cognition. [but] They are not everybody else.

Are you everybody else?

Gender_Neutral_Bathroom_graphicOne need go no further than the humble bathroom to discover the intersection of universal and particular (note the Huffington Post series on Transgender Bathrooms). Is it merely a question of universal design?

Recently Edmonton Catholic School Board has had to contend with a seven year old “transgender” male student wanting to use the girl’s washroom. It is a story that is set to take a life of its own.

What is at stake about who gets into and uses the toilet?  Who knows the politics behind this happening in a Catholic School, but the parent of the seven year old refuses to have her child use the gender neutral bathroom. Is this really about a bathroom? And did I mention, this child is only seven years old?

I am More than my Gender

News-Christina-Varvis-I-Am-More-Than-My-Gender-1-720x405

Meanwhile three students at the University of Alberta (my alma mater) have initiated a project to break gender stereotyping (note the Instagram social media campaign: I am more than my Gender).

I could not agree MORE:

You are more than your gender! This is precisely the point I have been making whenever I write about identity. However, the transgendered seven year old is not more than his/her gender because he/she is transgender. This child, like all of us – ought not to be reduced to a sexual/gender identity as if this encapsulates who we are. You are more than your gender, but you still possess gender.

The hashtag campaign is meant to express a politically correct message: “We are a group of uofa students looking to break the everyday gender norms and stereotypes that constrain us.” This is a smaller idea than what I have in mind. And the irony is, this desire to “break from that which constrains us” – turns into the tendency to be reduced to labels based on gender/sexuality (for a very interesting take on this, read An African-American Woman Reflects on the Transgender Movement by Nuriddeen Knight).

We are more than our gender because (as I have attempted in the many and varied ways to discuss identity): who we are is answered most profoundly in finding “whose we are.” We belong to the One who made us for Himself, and without this revelation of relational identity, we are cast adrift in confused arguments of the gender wars.

In the realm of universal design, our particular identity is more enigma than dogma for it hints to an extraordinary and eternal reality that can only be found in the great “I Am.”

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