Gender, sexual discrimination meets change on campus

Hansini Munasinghe

The month of April has been a startling reminder that the fight against discrimination is far from over.

It was not only Sexual Assault Awareness month, but April 17 was also Equal Pay Day 2012, symbolizing how far into this year a woman must work in order to earn what a man made over the last year.

The tragic suicide of Kenneth Weishuhn, a homosexual teenager from Primghar [corrected from: Cedar Falls], Iowa, has shocked the nation and made us acutely aware of the devastating effects of gender-based discrimination.

Gender-based discrimination, or sexism, is being denied of your rights and privileges because of your gender, said Som Mongtin, the interim assistant director at the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center at Iowa State.

This “umbrella term” encompasses a wide range of injustices including gender-based interpersonal or relationship violence, sexual assault — from inappropriate touching to rape and inequities in educational and work environments, Mongtin explained.

In its myriad of forms, injustices based on gender cripple individuals and societies. Speaking of sex-based violence and assault, Mongtin said one of six women, and one of 33 men have experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault. The rate is even higher for college women, at one in four.

According to the crime statistics published annually by the ISU Police Department, only nine incidents of forcible sex offences were reported in 2010, while there have been no reported acts of non-forcible sex offenses over the last three years.

Even though these numbers are reassuring, they are probably low because incidents go unreported, Mongtin said. “It takes courage to come forward and report.”

“Our vision is to create an environment where everyone has the potential to be safe,” said Brad Freihoefer, coordinator of the LGBT Student Services at Iowa State.

From misogynistic and homophobic jokes, bullying and harassment to outright violence and assault, individuals of all gender identities and expressions are subject to hate and ostracism. Everyone should have the confidence to feel safe, Freihoefer said.

A long time has passed since women earned the right to vote and step outside the confines of the domestic sphere, and it may seem as if equality has been achieved, Mongtin said, “Discrimination still exists.”

According to statistics, a woman earns only 77 cents for every $1 earned by a man, Mongtin said, adding that the discrepancy grows if she is a woman of color or of a sexual orientation outside the heterosexual.

Pressure to conform to gender stereotypes — overgeneralized beliefs that males and females must adhere to certain traits, behaviors and attitudes — has trapped modern society in little boxes.

“These stereotypes hurt men too,” Mongtin said. Fathers are often not seen as nurturers and are expected to sacrifice their families for work responsibilities. Men are pressured to maintain the image of a “macho man” — draining them of their capacity to be sensitive.

Both Mongtin and Freihoefer said they agree that the underlying mechanism of gender-based discrimination is the inequality of power and privilege, which defines one group as superior to another.

“These privileges are things we either get or are denied. We do not earn them.” Freihoefer said, stressing the unfairness of this rigid system. Understanding these divisions and the fluidity of human sexual expression and behavior are key to breaking the cycle of oppression.

“I see positive things happening everyday,” Freihoefer said. ”Change isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would do it.”

“Even though change is not happening as fast we would like it to, change is coming,” Mongtin said, echoing Freihoefer’s note of optimism.

Fighting gender-based discrimination begins with accepting its existence and recognizing it, not as a problem of the victims and perpetrators, but as “our problem.” Mongtin believes that targeting educational and awareness programs at young people will set the foundation for “the change we all like to see.”

The path to change has three steps, Freihoefer said. The first is to get educated about the problem, to access resources, whether it be at the LGBTSS center, the Sloss House, in a class on sex and gender, or on the Internet, and have a clear understanding of the issues at hand.

The second step is to share this knowledge. Freihoefer said this requires both patience and courage. Stepping up against injustice can be as simple as explaining to a friend why a homophobic joke may be inappropriate. Instead of directly confronting a friend, Mongtin suggests using humor, wit and friendliness to get the message across.

The final step in creating change is becoming an advocate yourself, Freihoefer said.

“The A in LGBTA, stands for allies, and they form a very important part in the community,” he said.

By joining a campus organization or any other group that supports gender equality, students interested in becoming allies can take advocacy to next level and become an active agent of change.

Echoing this idea, Mongtin said the importance of men stepping up and recognizing the privileges they have been automatically granted by society. “Encouraging men to speak up against gender-based discrimination will help balance the power and privileges,” she said.

Freihoefer said university policy and support services are strong and comprehensive, but Iowa State needs student support to make visions of equality attainable.

He encouraged students to get informed, to become agents of change and most importantly, seek help when they have been wronged.