January 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Judging from mainstream media and culture, transgender issues are gaining traction. Yet, for many Americans, everything they know about trans people they learned from Caitlyn Jenner. Or Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black. Or the show Transparent.

Even with a Time magazine cover trumpeting “The Transgender Tipping Point” and Vice President Joe Biden calling transgender discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time,” there’s much more to understand about trans issues than popular culture or mainstream media teaches.

Luckily for Omahans, that’s where professor Jay Irwin comes in.

“Transgender is a large category including many different individual identities, but basically is someone who feels their sex assigned at birth is not descriptive of who they are in their gender,” he says.

Irwin, associate professor of sociology at University of Nebraska at Omaha, relocated from Alabama to Omaha in 2009. In addition to core sociology courses, Irwin teaches medical sociology and has helped with the intro of a LGBTQ study and sociology of sexualities courses.

JayIrwin2Irwin deftly engages and educates students while also making time to enlighten the Omaha community with involvement in groups like the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC), through which he and colleague Sofia Jawed-Wessel hosted The Science of Transgender, a 2015 UNMC-sponsored Science Café. Held in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, the talk covered preferred pronouns, the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and using up-to-date language, among other issues.

“Language is a huge piece of self-identity,” says Irwin, explaining that many trans folks become empowered to better understand their own identities upon accessing the appropriate words to self-describe.

“Some people are threatened by evolving language, as if it’s a scary thing,” says Irwin, “but I think it’s a really cool thing because language is powerful. Giving young people the space to figure out who they are in the words that feel best—that’s how we build healthy adults.

“Gender is a fluid thing that changes over time and between cultures,” he says, citing evolving American gender roles in just the last 60-some years as one example.

Irwin also notes that researchers increasingly understand sex as a social construct. 

“We’ve made up what these boxes are. These don’t have to be the only boxes,” he says. “Biology is much more complicated than just female bodies and male bodies.”

Irwin says the current approach at UNO is “We need to respect everyone’s identities if we want them to do their best.”

That means using language that resonates and doesn’t distract, letting people self-define, and embracing the broad variety of identities represented on campus. 

“If we really want to do best by our students, faculty, and staff—and allow them to do their best work—then we need to reflect and welcome who they are as people,” says Irwin.

Taking that to a community-wide level, Irwin worked with the Professional Transgender Resource Network (PTRN) on GenderWorks, a sold-out 2015 conference striving for the “advancement of transgender care in the heartland,” which educated people from medical, mental health, education, and legal fields on what it means to be trans and how their profession can best serve that community. 

Irwin’s academic career began like that of many a student: Undecided and looking for just the right groove of study to settle into.

“I changed my major seven times,” he says, adding that he considered areas including music, social work, and even post-Soviet Union Russian health, before gravitating toward his current field.     

“I was increasingly interested in sexuality and gender, from both academic and personal perspectives,” says Irwin, who himself transitioned in his 20s.

While Irwin’s now very comfortable with his identity, he has previously feared discrimination like losing employment—a common, legitimate worry for many trans folks.

“My first year at UNO, I didn’t try to hide it, but I wasn’t upfront, which felt really inauthentic,” says Irwin. “I just gradually started talking about it more and more. UNO’s been great and my department has been 100 percent awesome and supportive.”

However, Irwin acknowledges that with issues of rampant transphobic violence and unemployment, not all trans people can be as open. 

“I know people in Omaha who cannot be out at work because they will lose their job. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, it’s about what’s safe and comfortable for each person,” he says.

Irwin adds that it’s important to build relationships with trans people before bombarding them with questions about their identity and experience. Even then, he says, it’s crucial to give the same respect you’d offer anyone and not ask questions invasively. 

Irwin, for example, is not just a trans man. He’s a music-lover, foodie, Doctor Who enthusiast, friend, husband, father to four “fur babies,” and so much more. 

While there’s always more to learn about trans issues, Irwin believes Omaha is doing pretty well.

“The typical person here is pretty open-minded and willing to listen,” he says. 

What’s more, Irwin is very hopeful for the future.

“Our young people are out there advocating for themselves in a way that consistently impresses me,” he says. “With nuanced understanding of the world and recognition of intersectionality, they’re building an environment where they can fully develop and explore who they are.”

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