Activist tells students to look beyond binaries

Last Friday evening, LGBT educator, speaker and award-winning activist Robyn Ochs gave a lecture hosted by the St. Olaf student group GLOW! Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever. Ochs began and ended her presentation “Beyond Binaries” by recognizing the complexity of human beings and therefore of sexual orientation. GLOW!, a student group dedicated to welcoming and affirming the identity and expression of all genders and sexualities, asked Ochs to speak on behalf of their group for pride week. Ochs led an interactive presentation on gender, specifically focusing on gender binaries and how to “map” sexual orientation.

Ochs addressed her belief in intersectionality. This concept explains that every human being has multiple types of identities, and therefore each identity affects how the person experiences their other identities. For example, Ochs identifies as a woman, an activist, an educator, a feminist, a secular Jew, a U.S. citizen, a bisexual etc. Intersectionality seeks to eliminate the classification of people into simple categories based on certain identities; instead, it encourages individuals to acknowledge and embrace the complexity of identity.

“Intersectionality shapes everything,” Ochs said. “When I don’t think about it, I get stupid. When I don’t think about intersectionality, I make assumptions.”

Ochs continued by giving a short history of the way society has tried to understand identity as it pertains to sexual orientation over the years. She discussed various models of sexual orientation that try to “map” attraction. In the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey conducted the first large-scale study on sexuality in the United States. Though he only surveyed males in his preliminarystudy, Kinsey discovered some revolutionary findings. Most significantly, he learned that sexuality exists on a continuum.

“Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual,” Kinsey wrote regarding his survey’s results. “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats … The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

Ochs proceeded by presenting two other sexual orientation models formed over the years by Fritz Klein and Michael Storms. However, she critiqued all three models because of their fundamental flaw.

“They are all based on the assumption of a gender binary,” Ochs said. “All of these models are based on something that is not stable, so it is our challenge now to modify, to adapt and to change them.”

Ochs then began the interactive portion of her presentation. She conducted her own study on sexual orientation using the lecture audience members. All of the students present filled out a survey that questioned them about their sexual history and sexual preferences. Each question could be answered with a number ranging from 0-6, with 0 meaning complete attraction to the other gender and 6 meaning complete attraction to a similar gender. After filling out the anonymous survey, each participant handed in his or her sheet of paper. Ochs then passed out all of the surveys randomly so that each student held someone else’s identity in their hands.

Ochs spread out sheets of paper with the numbers 0-6 across the front of the room and asked everyone to stand on the number their person delineated as their sexual orientation number. A 0 meant the person was completely straight, a 6 represented someone who was completely gay, and the numbers 1-5 referred to anyone in between. Immediately the students spread themselves out on their respective numbers and created a sprawling fan of sexual orientations. Each number had at least one person standing on it, thus proving Ochs’ argument that gender and sexuality exist on a continuum. Ochs said that no matter how many times she performs this survey, regardless of the participants involved, she has never seen a binary result with participants only claiming to be a 0 or a 6.

This activity highlighted Ochs’ point that gender always exists on a spectrum, leaving room for anyone to identify on a different number on any given day. Only three people in the group represented someone whose sexual identity remained fixed. The majority of the group represented people who fluctuated between attraction to members of the same or opposite sex.

Ochs used this interactive study to reveal the complexity of sexual orientation and identity. She emphasized that labels cannot adequately categorize people because sexuality is always up to change and adaptation. Some people maintain one sexual identity their whole life, but most people float across the spectrum.

“People aren’t labels,” Ochs said. “They are stories: long, complicated stories.”

At the end, Ochs had every participant share one concept, new learning or significant memory they would take away from this presentation. Students slowly spoke up and revealed how empowering this presentation had been for them.

“It’s not wrong to be muddled and confused,” one student said.

Most listeners left with some significant takeaway regarding sexuality, attraction, identity and gender binaries. When Ochs was asked what she hoped to convey most through her presentation, her response was simple and straightforward.

“Identity is just the door,” Ochs said. “If someone wants to know you, they need to knock on your door and ask to know more.”