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Austin effort focuses on gender issues

By Jessica Swanson

Austin Human Rights Commission

The Austin Human Rights Commission (AHRC), in partnership with Amnesty International at Riverland Community College, recently concluded its four-part series on gender. The two groups co-hosted three separate evenings of film screenings with question and answer periods, and one evening of facilitated discussion aimed at raising awareness about the science around what makes us male, female or non-binary, and about how media and American culture peddle mistruths regarding masculinity and femininity.

All four nights were open to the public in Riverland’s East C100, and attendance varied between 9 and about 30 people. The three documentaries screened were “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric,” “The Mask You Live In” and “Miss Representation.”

The first film, “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric,” focused on current thought and scientific findings about gender identity and how it differs from sexual orientation, gender expression and biological sex. Attendees were surprised to learn that as many as 1.7 percent of babies are born intersex, meaning they are born with ambiguous sex traits or organs. Most of those babies are surgically assigned a gender at birth, but often those children grow up to “feel wrong” in their bodies, leading to serious identity struggles. This opens up questions about whether gender is really binary, or, as science suggests, more of a spectrum – a continuum of several elements working together.

The other two films were made by The Representation Project. “The Mask You Live In” focuses on cultural messaging to boys and men about what “makes a man” in America. Attendees reported being shocked at the severity of some of the statistics presented in the film, including the fact that males are more than three times as likely to commit suicide as females. The final film, “Miss Representation” is focused on cultural – specifically media – messaging to girls and women about how they ought to be. During the discussion, attendees noted that the film helped solidify, validate and amplify much of what we already know: That in this modern age, we are force-fed unrealistic images of women’s bodies that are aimed primarily at driving up profits through sales and ratings.

At this moment in the national discourse, with heightened sensitivity and attention to sexual harassment, misconduct and assault, the film series brought to light some of the root causes of sexism and gender inequality. Yes, men are beginning to be held accountable for their actions, and yes, women are more emboldened to speak up. But on a deeper level, there is an opportunity to appreciate the way we have all bought into a cultural lie that men must aim for power, money and sexual conquest, while women must aim for men. Men must not be feminine in any way, and women must be perfect in every way. If we have all subconsciously agreed to this denial of whole swaths of our true, individual selves – of our humanity – then is it possible we are all complicit in the prevalence of harassment and gender-based violence?

AHRC plans to screen each film again in 2018, at a larger local venue. Attendees expressed the importance of many pillars of the community seeing these films, including those working in schools and churches, and especially coaches. Details will be posted on AHRC’s Facebook page and in various other places.
Jessica Swanson is a commissioner with the Austin Human Rights Commission.