The Columbus Dispatch

Society struggling with expectations for men, women

Thursday, October 9, 2003

By Melissa Knific and Alayna DeMartini

In the human-rights world, gender stereotyping is the new battle, said the featured speaker at yesterday's Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon.

Riki Wilchins, a transgender and executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, said society has expectations for how males and females should act, look or dress. Forcing people into these roles is gender stereotyping.

Expressions of gender identity, or the particular gender a person considers himself or herself, is a human right, Wilchins said.

"What does it mean to feel inside as a woman?'' she said. Wilchins, 51, was born a male, but about 20 years ago became a transsexual.

When people don't fit into society's expectations, they often face the sting of rejection, and sometimes verbal and even physical attacks.

"It's still not safe to walk down the street, go to class, or work in the workplace if you don't match everyone's ideal for a real man or a real woman,'' Wilchins said.

Some employers have a written employment policy banning discrimination against people for their gender identity or gender expression.

Among the first was Lucent Technologies in 1997. Mary Ann Horton, a Lucent engineer in Columbus at the time, championed the cause. At the company, she was Mark Horton most days, but sometimes she dressed as a woman; regardless, she never felt judged, she said.

"They discover that we don't have horns and 6-inch heels,'' Horton said earlier this week.

Meral Crane, a Columbus therapist who runs a local support group for transgender individuals, recalled a woman preparing to start a job at a company in a Columbus suburb.

When the company realized she had been born a man and underwent a sex change, the job "was yanked away from her,'' Crane said.

Stereotyping begins in the schools and has affected everyone at some point, Wilchins said at yesterday's luncheon.

A boy may be labeled a "sissy,'' a girl a "tomboy.''

Addressing these labels is the first step toward bridging the gender gap, Wilchins said. If a boy enjoys playing the piano or if a girl excels at sports, it shouldn't be an issue for parents, she said.

Stereotypes often originate when people look for the differences in others. "We need to start looking for the commonalities,'' she said.

Several audience members questioned why gender stereotyping existed in the United States but was not as prevalent in some other countries.

"(Gender stereotyping) was one of the biggest changes when I came here,'' said Chris Scott, who lived 16 years in Germany before he moved to the United States. "If you want to . . . act more like a girl, who cares?''

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