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Transgendered professor teaches tolerance

Every semester, when USF professor Sara Crawley delves into a lecture on what she terms the “fluidity” of sexuality and gender, she presents her mostly-freshman Human Sexuality and Behavior class with a slide show of portraits. Crawley, an assistant professor of women’s studies, asks them to make a choice: Does the picture show a man or a woman?

One shows a masculine-looking individual peeling off a wet suit after a day of surfing. Another captures a body-builder, rippling muscles flexed, who Crawley says benches more than 300 pounds. Both, to the astonishment of much of the class, were born women.

Then she shows them a picture of a slender bride with reddish-brown curls framing a delicate face. A second slide, this time of a groom, follows. A close-cropped head of hair sits atop a rounded, boyish face with deep dimples smiling back at the camera. This is when it dawns on the class that both of the photos were snapped of Crawley – one taken in 1988 on the first day of a short-lived marriage to a man, and the second in 1997 during a ceremony with a female partner. That’s when they start to stir, she said.

“I put myself into the discussion because I think that when you see before and after pictures of transsexuals, people tend to kind of have a Jerry Springer type of reaction – ‘Ooh, ooh, look at the freak,'” said Crawley, who identifies herself as a transgendered lesbian. “It’s important to realize that there are transsexual and transgendered people on campus. Students have known them and they have met them. They just don’t know it.”

In the time between the two photos, Crawley came out as a lesbian, quit an unfulfilling job in the insurance industry, earned graduate and doctoral degrees with a focus on sociology and queer theory, and changed her entire world view.

Now she shares her perspective on sexuality and gender, a product of both her scholarly studies and personal experience, with students. At the heart of what Crawley teaches in her interdisciplinary class – which touches on everything from the basics of physical anatomy to sociology and public policy – lies the idea that gender, sexuality and the physical sex of a person’s body have few inherent characteristics that society has no hand in shaping.

“In particular, the argument is about breaking down dualisms. It just isn’t accurate to describe the world in terms of one or two,” said Crawley. “Ones and zeros may work for computers, but that’s about it.”

Crawley gives plenty of examples. A female prostitute who calls herself a lesbian, has a female partner, but engages in the bulk of her sexual activity with male customers – gay or straight? Little girls who like erector sets and little boys who gravitate toward dolls – unnatural or just unwilling to fit into a socially constructed box of appropriate behaviors? The individuals in her slideshow and those born with male and female genitalia – men or women?

Crawley says that when people refer to her, either ‘he’ or ‘she’ is fine.

When students ask about the specifics of the physical alterations she has undergone, whether it is hormone therapy or surgery, she declines to provide details. It’s not because she wants to hide it, she says, but rather because the idea of a definitive gender, an answer to the question about what she “really” is, runs antithetical to her argument.

“The purpose with my students is to not be too clear, to remain ambiguous,” said Crawley. “What I’m urging is there is no real reality to the body. A better question for students to ask is why my current appearance throws them off.”