A panel of UNL professors spoke about gender equity representation in different world regions at the Gender Equity conference in the Swanson Auditorium of Nebraska Union on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Speakers from across Nebraska reflected on the role gender has played in their lived experiences and research — including experiences as a Black trans woman, the first openly LGBTQA+ state senator for Nebraska, and an Islamic feminist — at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 2021 Gender Equity Conference.

The Gender Equity Conference, hosted annually by the UNL’s Women’s Center and LGBTQA+ Center, returned to an in-person format after last year’s virtual adaptation. From 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, attendees listened to presenters both from within and outside of UNL. 

190 guests registered to attend Thursday’s Gender Equity Conference, held in the Swanson Auditorium with breakfast and lunch served in the Heritage Room, according to Derrick Gulley, program coordinator of both the LGBTQA+ and the Women’s Center.

“If you have the strength or the confidence to be who you are, especially in a world that is trying to keep you in a box,” State Sen. Megan Hunt said during her keynote address, “that is the most powerful thing you can do.”

Hunt told the story of her colleague Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh’s campaign to repurpose a room in the Capitol to grant privacy to lactating mothers. A bill for creating a lactation space never got out of committee, so Cavanaugh fundraised over $30,000 to establish a lactation space in the Capitol building. 

In September, the dedicated lactation room was converted into an office for a man, Hunt said. Mothers must use a nursing pod in a copy room with no running water or a refrigerator for milk, according to WOWT.

Three panelists — Dr. Alice Kang, Dr. Julia Frengs, and Dr. Abla Hasan — shared the stage with moderator Ashton Koch, a senior global studies, political science and French triple major and outreach coordinator at the Women’s Center, for a discussion of gender equity worldwide.

“When I think about what gender equity means, it doesn’t mean equality,” Frengs said. “It means making the playing field level.”

Frengs, associate professor of French at UNL with a focus on French Oceanian literature, New Caledonian and French Polynesian, said feminists are not all on the same page on what a level playing field looks like. Some, for example, are comfortable with existing gender roles, according to Frengs.

“Women need to be helped within their cultures, not out of their cultures. They can be saved with their cultures, not from their cultures,” Hasan, associate professor of practice of Arabic language and culture, said.

Dr. Katelyn Coburn, assistant professor of child, youth and family studies, presented their 21-participant study on how nonbinary individuals interact with social norms. They said many gender norms are based on being white.

“Because of colonization and Eurocentric values placed on Asian families and other countries’ families, there’s like this forced binary and it gets me angry because my parents have this idea of cisnormativity and heteronormativity, but it’s from colonization,” Coburn quoted from one participant in their study.

Mya Miller, co-director of Curriculum Development at youth development nonprofit DREAM EQUAL, listed a number of steps to be more gender inclusive, such as using people’s preferred pronouns, questioning biases about gender, calling out inappropriate remarks and using gender neutral language.

As someone from the Midwest, Miller said, the last step — saying “everyone” in place of “you guys” in phrases such as “How are you guys?” — is something she’s still working on.

The last presenter, Amelia-Marie Altstadt, UNL honors coordinator, said that autistic individuals are seven times as likely as neurotypical peers to report gender variance.

Gender variance is defined in a 2014 study in Pediatric annals as any gender identity, expression or behavior that is outside of traditional male or female gender norms.

Altstadt, nonbinary, queer and ADHD themself, handed off the mic to audience members in a discussion of neurodivergence, queerness and how all the aspects of one’s identity collide.

“I say I’m nonbinary. How many people look at me in a dress and are having trouble thinking I’m nonbinary?” Altstadt said. “It’s okay to think that, but this is my cultural subversion, that I’m up here in a dress. Don’t view me as a woman, don’t think of me as a woman. Think of me as nonbinary.”