An open letter to the organizers, presenters and attendees of the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups (St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, November 2009).
|Article Type:||Conference notes|
(Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Gender equality (Demographic aspects)
Violence (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
|Publication:||Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265|
|Issue:||Date: Wntr, 2010 Source Volume: 18 Source Issue: 1|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
On November 5, 2009, I traveled by car along with six of my
students to the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's
Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups. The conference program
promised attendance by the most prominent U.S.-based anti-violence
educators, activists, and filmmakers at work today. We were very excited
by the opportunity to learn, share, and network. I was particularly
enthused: the organizers and many of the presenters had authored works
that continue to be central to my teaching, research, and intellectual
formation. And I hoped the event would help jumpstart a campus
men's anti-violence project at my university.
I suspect we were also attracted by the use of the term "gender equality" in the conference title, implying a shared understanding that gender-based violence refers to any form of verbal or physical violence intended to affirm the perpetrator's gender and/or punish violations of social gender norms. Although sex, gender, and sexual orientation are habitually conflated under the currently reigning gender order, we understand these as distinct, if potentially related, aspects of human experience. We recognize that few people are abused, harassed, beaten, or murdered solely because of their sex or sexual orientation but because they are perceived as violating the socially prescribed gender for their anatomical sex--of males being insufficiently masculine, etc. This is the common thread uniting violence against women, gays and lesbians, and transfolk. (1)
A tragic example: in 2001 Willie Houston of Memphis, Tennessee was shot dead because his murderer believed him to be gay. Mr. Houston had just stepped off the Opry Mills music showboat and was holding his fiancee's purse while he helped a blind friend into the men's room. His attacker shouted anti-gay epithets, chased Houston to a parking lot, and shot him in the chest while Houston tried to reason with him. (2) Willie Houston was not murdered because of his sex (male) or sexual orientation (heterosexual) but because he was perceived to be doing a form of gender (femininity) inappropriate for his sex. According to the stifling dictates of heterosexual masculinity, males are not supposed to carry purses or physically touch other males, especially in the vicinity of a men's room--a homosocial space paradoxically marked by both privacy and exposure and commensurately fraught with masculine anxieties. Willie Houston was the victim of a gay bashing even though he was not homosexual; he was the victim of gender-based violence even though he was not female. His murder illustrates an important truth about gender-based violence: though males represent the overwhelming number of perpetrators and victims of violence, it is not being male that's the problem. The problem is subscription to a culturally dominant form of masculinity that celebrates violence and enforces conformity through the threat of physical violence: taunting, bullying, assault, murder. Though the currently hegemonic version of masculinity intentionally confuses the terms "male" and "masculine," violent masculinity can be performed by male- or female-bodied people. It was this understanding of gender-based violence that we expected to encounter at the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups--a not unreasonable expectation given that much of the above interpretation is based on the published works of many of the conference's organizers and presenters.
Instead we entered a conference environment that was often hostile to our ideas, interests, and experiences. Many of us invited the organizers, presenters, and attendees to embrace a more expansive understanding of "masculinity" and "gender based violence" and were minimized or dismissed--often in hurtful ways, intended or not. Symptomatic was our experience at a session ostensibly devoted to the notion that the marginal masculinities of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered people could potentially offer models for heterosexual males seeking to expand the range of socially sanctioned masculinities. When discussion was opened up, attendees avoided serious engagement with the session's topic and conversation quickly devolved until it resembled a 12-step meeting or unfocused "speak out." In another session, when she asserted the continuum of violence against women and gays and lesbians, one of my very best students was told by the thunder of an internationally renowned anti-violence campaign that anti-gay violence affects "only a small number of people and we're not here to talk about that." I'm not sure who the pronoun "we" represents in this statement or who empowered this speaker to marginalize the interests of a registered attendee of the conference but his words did not contribute to building a coalition of campus activists against violence.
By mid-afternoon the first day of the conference it was clear that some of us needed to break away from scheduled activities to process our observations, thoughts, and emotions; we did the same the second day. We were frustrated, angry, and confused; some of us were near tears. I felt as if I were attending a shadow conference that paralleled the advertised one and whose work it was to translate the official program into language we could understand and ideas we could use. However productive, these conversations were not our primary reason for attending. At the end of the conference's second day we decided to write an open letter describing our experience and the questions it raises for anti-violence work. Though this letter appears under the name of a single author, it is the product of the thoughts and contributions of many conference attendees. It is offered in the spirit of constructive criticism, in the hope that together we can build a more thoughtful, inclusive, and welcoming coalition of campus-based organizations working to end gender-based violence. We left the conference with the following questions:
WHAT IS A MAN? For those who experience their sex and gender as synonymous, the answer to this question is self-evident; for others, it is an ongoing proposition. Violence prevention experts often argue that it is necessary to hold separate workshops for males and females because males will not have honest or "authentic" conversations in the presence of females. We ask: for the purposes of such exercises, who will determine what is a man? How will such exercises treat gay-identified males? Or males who do not express conventionally masculine gender? Or female-to-male transfolk? The problem with the term "men" in this context is that it conflates "males" and "masculinity," thereby essentializing gender. Within a project that is founded on the notion that violence is a function of unhealthy masculinity and that such masculinity is liable to social change, the essentialization of masculinity--its naturalization to bodies with a certain anatomical configuration--seems contradictory and counter-productive. How do we move forward with badly needed violence-prevention education programs without contributing to the violence done to all of us by essentialist formulations of gender?
WHY WOULD ALL-MALE SPACES PRODUCE "AUTHENTIC" CONVERSATIONS AMONG MEN? Scholars of masculinity argue that it is primarily males who hold other males responsible for conforming to a version of masculinity that celebrates violence. It is the collective power to grant and withhold the status of "man" from other males that ensures the cohesion of males as a group and inhibits individual males from departing from masculine orthodoxy even when they personally disagree with it. With their gender status held hostage by their peers, this dynamic helps explain bystander behavior, inhibiting individual males from intervening in an act of violence perpetrated by other males. Moreover, sex-segregated educational practices seem to unintentionally reproduce the age-old stereotype of females as a contaminant that pollutes an otherwise-pure male social space. In light of the homosocial construction of masculinity, why would we expect all-male educational spaces give individual males the courage to break with their cohort, to intervene when they witness an act of violence? How would such workshops teach males to work with females as partners in anti-violence work, or learn to listen to female voices and experiences? How does it contribute to the development of empathy for potential victims, a stated goal of many violence prevention programs targeting boys and young men? If sex segregation needs to occur for the sake of education, it should be seen as a regrettable but necessary starting point on the way to conversations between males and females about how we can all work together to prevent violence.
WHO HAS AUTHORITY TO SPEAK? Several conference participants asserted the importance of enlisting the "bell cows": male leaders in athletics, fraternities, and other campus activities who might influence their male peers around issues of violence. Unspoken was the understanding that the credibility of these "leaders" is grounded in their conformity to gender norms; i.e., they are males who, in the eyes of their peers, excel at heterosexual masculinity. Gender non-conforming males are rarely elevated to positions of leadership by their more-conventionally gendered peers. We ask: what contradictions are involved when males who already do masculinity "normally" ask other males to do masculinity "differently" (i.e., embrace non-violent masculinity)? What message is subtly conveyed about gender variance when only gender-normative males are deemed competent to persuade other males to transgress gender norms? What incentive is there to do gender differently if we continue to reward, celebrate, and affirm only the gender conforming? What real-life lessons, practical tools, and survival skills do gender-normative males have to offer on the topic of gender variance? Why would we expect this strategy to survive the well honed "bullshit detector" of today's cynical and media-savvy youth? The hypocrisy here seems self-evident and is likely apparent to males already at risk with their male cohort for taking a stand against violence. Worse, such an approach sidesteps honest discussion of the hard personal and political work required to bring about gender justice and the very real costs some pay for taking a stand against violent masculinity: broken friendships; social ostracization; violent retribution, etc. Perhaps instead of the "bell cows" we need to look to the "belle bulls"--feminine males, masculine females, and transfolk--for models of courage and resilience in the face of oppressive gender norms.
WHOSE COURAGE COUNTS? At one of the plenary sessions, an African-American male reminded us of his everyday experience of isolation, often being the only person-of-color in the room. Given the continuing social dominance of straight, white males, this is a daily experience for women, gays and lesbians, and people of color. Because of this, the tone of alarm that often colors dominant men's newfound experience of being "the only one in the room," can feel obnoxious to those of us who deal with it on a regular basis. Their anxiety is both real and a measure of their unconscious privilege; to move from an unmarked to marked social category can be jarring, indeed. For those of us having experience living in a marked social category, how do we remain respectful of the discomfort experienced by newly politicized males while being mindful of the various degrees of privilege they enjoy simply by virtue of being male? How do we calibrate our support for men who willingly undergo such experiences while helping them understand that this is a daily, non-elective experience for many? What might violence-prevention educators learn from the ways racial, sexual, and ethnic minorities survive a lifetime of such isolating experiences? How might this knowledge empower male bystanders to intervene--to willingly become "the only one in the room"--if they witness an act of violence?
AT WHAT COST ARE WE WILLING TO "MEET MEN WHERE THEY ARE"? At the closing plenary session it was suggested that we need to speak to the culture in terms it already understands. One of us responded, yes, but at what cost? What social costs, marginalizations, and reinforcement of binaries are we willing to entertain in efforts to prevent violence? If we feel it necessary to set aside what, for many, are theoretical distinctions (say, between the terms men, male, masculinity, etc.) in order to reach potentially violent males, how long are we willing to do this and who are we willing to exclude in the process? Who gets to decide that the interests, concerns, and experiences of the already marginalized are dispensable in order that we communicate with the mainstream in a language complicit with violence (if only provisionally)? If we decide that some compromises must be made to "meet men where they are," is it too much to ask that we remain cognizant of the costs and limits of provisional communication? Otherwise, how will we know when accommodation ends and collusion begins? For many of us, these are not merely academic questions. Daily we are bullied, harassed, beaten, and murdered.
ACCOUNTABLE TO WHOM? A major theme of the conference was that of accountability: to whom should campus-based men's anti-violence projects be accountable? The opening plenary was structured according to the idea that pro-feminist men must always remain accountable to feminist women. The irony here is that much of our experience at the conference echoed earlier episodes in the U.S. women's movement when feminists confronted false choices that rent the movement: abolition of slavery vs. woman suffrage; lesbian rights vs. women's rights, etc. Similarly, our experience recalls moments in the history of feminism when lesbians and women of color confronted mainstream feminism to demand full recognition and consideration of what had been marginalized issues. To the organizers, presenters, and attendees of the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups we say: we have no doubt of your interest in a coalitional politics against violence despite the heterosexist and homophobic overtones of the conference. But such a politics requires more than good intent. It also requires good works. Our experience at the conference suggests how difficult the path ahead might be. We will continue to do anti-violence work but will not stop asserting our truth or confronting inequality when and where we find it. This is what accountability looks like. Together, we can build a coalition of campus-based organizations working against gender-based violence. Let the work begin!
Editor's note: From time to time when space permits, The Journal of Men's Studies will publish topical pieces that highlight an issue facing the men's studies community. Commentaries should not exceed 3,000 words and be submitted according to APA's Publication Manual (6th edition) guidelines.
(1) Barbara Perry, In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes (New York: Routledge, 2001), 81-118.
(2) Transgender Tapestry (August 3, 2001), http://www.ifge.org/Articlel01.phtml, accessed November 15, 2009.
MICHAEL MURPHY (a)
(a) Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Illinois at Springfield. Correspondence concerning this commentary should be sent to Michael J. Murphy, PhD, Department of Women and Gender Studies, University Hall 3017/Mail Stop UHB 3038, University of Illinois at Springfield, One University Plaza, Springfield, IL 62703. Electronic mail: email@example.com
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