The WGSS Program
by River L Starliper | published Oct. 22nd, 2022
Discussion, diversity, debate and disagreement: differing perspectives make up the core of RIT's Women's, Gender and Sexuality studies (WGSS) program.
Just last year, the WGSS program's name shifted from “Women’s and Gender Studies” to include sexuality and better reflect the full breadth of their course offerings.
With courses exploring LGBTQ+ studies, gender and contemporary art, and the intersections of gender, science and technology, the WGSS program provides options for students with a wide range of interests and majors.
A Place for Everyone
It has been more than a century since women gained the right to vote in the United States, and gender issues may seem like a thing of the past.
However, in many countries around the world, women still do not have the same rights as men. Even in America, debates continue to rage over equal pay and bodily autonomy.
“Being a woman is hard … because regardless of what people say, I think that women are still discriminated [against] in many areas of life, whether it is personal life or professional life,” Silvia Benso, the program director for the WGSS department, explained.
On average, women in the United States are paid only about 80 percent as much as men for performing the same tasks. However, the impacts aren't limited to them alone.
“Sexism may affect women more, but it affects all kinds of individuals,” Benso said.
To those who do not identify as women or members of the LGBTQ+ community these topics may seem distant and unimportant, but gender and gender stereotypes have the potential to negatively impact all individuals, regardless of identity.
For example, archaic conceptions of masculinity lead to unhealthy standards for men as well as women.
“There is a longstanding prejudice in our Western society that associates women with passions and emotions and men with rationality, and both men and women suffer the consequences of this,” Benso explained.
Breaking down these prejudices is just one of the goals of the WGSS program.
“Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies are fundamental for a future… which is fair and just,” Benso said.
Many WGSS courses cover much more than just gender, with a focus on all minority groups and the impacts of intersectionality — intersectionality being the idea that all forms of oppression against minority groups are connected in one way or another.
“[Intersectionality] also allows people to see ideas from not just a racialized lens or a gender lens, but also … thinking about colonialism and capitalism, and thinking about systemic racism and thinking about how these things work in different work environments and different fields," Chris Hinesley, an adjunct instructor within the WGSS department and director of the Q Center, explained.
“Women’s, gender, and sexuality studies are fundamental for a future … which is fair and just.”
The creation of a program where all voices are given room to speak allows for a uniquely diverse educational experience.
“I think the fact that we center marginalized voices as a primary part of our conversion and how we’re framing things helps people really challenge their own world views,” Hinesley said.
There is still a question of relevance: for those enrolled in the traditional STEM disciplines offered at RIT, what benefit is there in taking courses on social sciences?
Any field can be made up of a diverse array of people, and it is an understanding of those different types of people that the WGSS program hopes to build with its students.
“Most people have somebody in their life who is queer or trans and if they don’t, they’re just not aware of it,” Hinesley said.
Jessica Pagano, a Motion Picture Science major, explained her thoughts on the role of WGSS courses on a campus like RIT.
“[RIT] benefits a lot from these more liberal arts, women focused courses,” Pagano said. “It adds richness; diversity is what makes us strong.”
Pagano is currently enrolled in “Queering Gender” and “Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Gender” courses taught by Hinesley and Benso respectively. She emphasized the role of such courses in the world.
“Feminism and these other studies that focus on marginalized people … it’s something that is needed, and it has been excluded from the philosophical discourse,” Pagano said.
The WGSS department currently offers two minors and four immersions, but is hoping to become a full fledged major as well.
“I think the administration is very supportive of the need for these kinds of studies, especially thinking in terms of bringing social justice and forming future leaders for our society,” Benso explained.
The importance of WGSS topics is underscored by the onslaught of new state legislation targeting gender minorities across America.
In Arizona, bills have been passed prohibiting abortions after fifteen weeks even in cases of rape and/or incest and banning transgender individuals from competing in women’s sports. The same bill also outlaws gender-affirming healthcare for anyone under the age of eighteen.
These bills came on the heels of Florida’s controversial HB 1557, which prevents educators from discussing any topics of gender and sexuality before third grade, and restricts what may be discussed after that.
"If we opened our minds a little more and listened … maybe we can make something a little better.”
How can just taking classes help address issues of this scale?
“I think people want tools, because they see this tsunami of all of these laws being proposed,” Hinesley explained. “They want tools to address that, and they see our courses as a means of feeling informed and feeling like they can learn how to get involved to fight back.”
Conversation, information and intersectionality make up the heart of the WGSS department, providing students with the means to engage with different perspectives.
In a world that is more connected than ever, learning to communicate and understand people with different lived experiences gives students the tools they need to pursue a more equitable future.
“I think the trajectory of the program is really positive,” Hinesley said.
For Pagano, the study of topics relating to women, gender and sexuality could offer the key to a brighter future for everyone.
“These perspectives haven’t been considered, and I’m glad they’re finally being so because we’re all just trying to get along in this topsy-turvy world," Pagano said. "If we opened our minds a little more and listened … maybe we can make something a little better."