Why men?

Men, especially those in power are key to the gender equality fight.
Photo credit, Salon.com

“I have had to interrogate masculinity, which I think doesn’t happen enough. The toxic privileges that come with being a man don’t define me, but I have to be accountable for how it shows up in my life every day.” -Tiq Milan

March 1st marks the 10th annual White Ribbon Day in Boston. The event is taking place concurrently with White Ribbon Campaign events worldwide as people gather locally to take a stand against gender-based violence (GBV), with an emphasis on men’s commitment to the cause.

Organizing the Boston event is the Men’s Initiative of Jane Doe, Inc., a GBV survivor support and prevention non-profit organization. Speakers include the governor, the executive director of Jane Doe, the county sheriff, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Massachusetts President of Bank of America, among others. Noticeably, only one of the eight speakers is a woman; clearly a gender assessment is in order, as well as a LGBTQ assessment.

The overall goal of the event is to promote actionable cultural change around the gender norms that lead to violence against women, specifically by advancing men’s participation in this work. All present are invited to take the following pledge:

“From this day forward, I promise to be part of the solution in ending violence against women and all gender-based violence”.

The pledge clearly differentiates violence against women and gender-based violence. What then is gender-based violence? What is implicated here, but is not readily apparent, is the problem of (predominantly men’s) violence against trans and gender-non-binary people, other men, and themselves -via drug/alcohol abuse, risk-taking, suicide rates, avoidance of medical treatment and emotional support, to name a few. As Jackson Katz, a prominent pioneer in the field of men addressing GBV, said a few days ago at a university “men aren’t only the perpetrators of violence in today’s America, — they’re also [some of its] main victims.”

The Men’s Initiative encourages individual involvement in a variety of ways and provides resources on their website. Bottom-up approaches like this are effective; but could this approach be bolstered if those with power, especially those that represent state and institutional power (who most often hold male privilege), implemented programmatic strategies within their institutions? What would that look like?

In Fiji in early February, a five-day Public Service Male Advocacy training program was facilitated by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Women and Poverty Alleviation and the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center (FWCC). The Fiji Times describe the program as “an innovative tool designed…to select and train men in leadership positions in the community to identify their own unacceptable behavior, change those behaviors and then influence other men in the community to do the same.” In the process of valuing and practicing these skills, the male political leaders receiving this training are also modeling a new standard for men from the top down.     

Leveraging his privilege to model such a  standard in North America is speaker Tiq Milan, who gave a presentation at Harvard last week titled “Reimagining Black Masculinity: A Trans Experience.” Being a transman, Tiq Milan has experienced gender from various locations on the spectrum of what society constructs it to be. (Gender can be understood on a spectrum, and words like man, woman, feminine, masculine, and gender non-conforming are used to denote it. Sex is also a spectrum, however, it is often understood as a binary: male or female.) Since transitioning, Tiq has inherited male privilege, including the privilege of having his voice heard in ways feminine people’s voices are not.

Tiq describes having needed to interrogate his own biases, including the ubiquity of devaluing women’s experiences. Virtually all people who do not have male privilege are familiar with the emotional labor of assessing their safety and emotional well-being in any given situation. They are also typically held accountable for doing this work. Recognizing that unaccountability for inequity is a characteristic of cisgender heterosexual masculinity (i.e. male privilege), Tiq strives to personally assess his behavior all the time. Tiq’s ongoing pursuit of showing up for gender equity has had a huge impact on his marriage with fellow artist and activist Kim Katrin. In a Ted Talk, the couple explains that Kim’s complexity as a person and her unapologetic Black feminism are not reined in by being married to Tiq; rather his way of being in the world “has created the space for my femininity to flourish in a way I had never experienced before,” says Kim.  

The model of masculinity that Tiq is striving for is not only about allyship, though. It’s about moving beyond culturally dictated masculinity, which is so precarious for some that it can be threatened simply by seeing men dance or by women writing about sports. Tiq asked the Harvard audience to consider what one is once stripped of privilege. Without male privilege (or the privileges of whiteness, ability, class, etc.) can we still love ourselves? Can we like ourselves? Can we even recognize ourselves?

WRD Boston implies the significance of this sort of self-examination but could do more to demonstrate what forms it can take in men’s lives. Tiq and Kim speculate that it is their queerness, as a means of defying convention, which allows them to imagine and partake in affirming ways of being. For Tiq:

“being queer and trans is about creating new ways of existing. It’s about loving people as they are, not as they’re supposed to be.”

What might it take for being straight and cisgender to mean this kind of inclusive and affirming love, especially as an expectation for men?

Many of the men showing up for WRD most likely want to defy the convention of what it means to be a man, insofar as it limits their ability to be allies and to love themselves. This year, as we observe White Ribbon Day, let’s challenge men, whether our politicians or ourselves, to be accountable to how they show up as men in their everyday lives. Let’s demand and implement strategic programming, maybe like the program in Fiji. Let’s normalize the practice of inclusive love as a common masculine practice, similar to Tiq Milan’s reimagining.  If you’re wondering “why men?” it is because it’s ultimately men, especially those with positions of power and with intersectional privilege, who legitimize standards for the rest of us.

Want to join the WRD conversation? Use #WRD and #ReimagineManhood to voice your opinion about what manhood can mean on White Ribbon Day, International Women’s Day and ANY day of the year.

Amanda Pickett

Amanda Pickett is an American gender specialist in Boston and administrator for Voice Male, a pro-feminist magazine chronicling masculinities today. Amanda promotes and advances spaces of men’s engagement in gender equality that set in motion men’s “aha” moment. By this she means the moment(s) it becomes clear that a) gender inequality is a pervasive and complex social problem, b) we are NOT ALONE in our discomfort with, and eagerness to change, gender inequality, and c) we CAN do something. She holds a master's in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College and has worked with Merge for Equality, Inc.
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