Dr. Paul Vasey garners a lot of attention for his work and he’s not the least bit surprised as to why.
“Not to make a pun but, the stories are sexy,” says the University of Lethbridge psychology professor and Board of Governors Research Chair who heads the University’s Laboratory of Comparative Sexology.
“You can’t study sex and monkeys and evolution and third gender individuals in other cultures that are perceived as being exotic without getting attention,” he says.
On Thursday, Jan. 25, Vasey will garner his fair share of local attention as the latest presenter in the PUBlic Professor Series. He will present Beyond the Binary: What the West Can Learn from Non-Western Approaches to Gender Diversity. The talk takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Lethbridge Lodge.
Vasey’s research programs have literally taken him around the world. He first gained notoriety in 2000 for his work studying the female homosexual behaviour of Japanese macaque monkeys. The study, which formed the foundation for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Montréal, challenged decades of received wisdom about how animals behave sexually.
After short post-doctoral positions at Concordia University in Montréal and York University in Toronto, Vasey was hired by the U of L. Initially asked to teach a class on sex and gender, he didn’t want to talk about men and women because he felt others were already covering that territory. Instead, he turned his attention to cultures that recognize more than two genders.
“It took me a long time to wrap my head around the idea that someone could be a third gender – neither a man nor a woman – but I became completely fascinated with the phenomenon,” he says. “I thought it’d be really interesting to have that as an anchor for a course that idea of gender and sexual diversity viewed through a cross-cultural lens.”
In his talk, Vasey will relate his experiences with both the fa’afafine of Samoa and the muxes of Juchitán, Mexico – feminine same-sex attracted males who are recognized as third genders. He hopes to illuminate lessons a Western audience might learn from non-Western approaches to sexual and gender diversity.
While the theme might raise eyebrows, specifically in southern Alberta, an area many people perceive as a conservative enclave, Vasey says that has not been his experience.
“Everybody talks about this being the Bible Belt of Canada, this area being conservative and maybe I’m delusional but I just don’t see it,” he says. “I’ve never encountered anything but respect and dialogue in my classes and in the community. From my experience, the characterization of Lethbridge as being conservative is overblown.”
In his classroom, he adds, students quickly learn that evidence-based and open debate about controversial issues leads to greater insight.
“I’m very cognizant of the fact that many of my students come from religious backgrounds. I remember one such student, who upon seeing the contents of my course outline was a bit nervous about what he was getting himself into, but he ended up saying that my class was a model for what university courses should be. Those sorts of reactions are the norm,” says Vasey.
“I use the classroom to push evidence, not ideological agendas. The classroom has to be a space where you can talk about ideas, regardless of whether they offend right-wing or left-wing political sensibilities. You have to be able to discuss ideas openly and respectfully. If we lose that, then we’re in really big trouble as a university.”
He’s eager to bring a healthy discussion of sexual and gender diversity to the broader public as part of the PUBlic Professor Series.
“I don’t think of myself as being this uniquely enlightened person, I really don’t. I just happen to be someone who’s lucky enough to have had these life experiences and now I know, the way we do things here in Canada is just one way of going about doing gender,” says Vasey. “There are other ways of thinking about gender and I’m not saying, for example, that Lethbridge is wrong and Samoa is right, or vice versa. All I’m saying is that it’s valuable to know that there are these different possibilities in terms of how we live our lives and organize society.”