For men to play a meaningful role in the struggle for reproductive justice, we have to begin by listening. That's one conclusion I came to after attending a conference held at the end of March, "From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom." Men at the conference began listening at a two-hour-long Abortion Speak Out on the first evening of the richly packed three-day gathering. A range of men, from their late teens to their seventies, made up perhaps a fifth of the several hundred people gathered at the annual event which is organized by the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. The conference, now in its 21st year, brings together a wide range of people working in reproductive health and medicine, activists, organizers, students, and allies in other social justice movements. The interconnectedness of the reproductive justice movement with other movements was an underlying theme of the gathering.
How do men feel about reproductive justice? What is it like to be witness to women's experience? What feelings come up for us? What do we want to contribute to a movement in which, whether we realize it or not, we have a tremendous stake? I had opportunities to begin to explore these questions with other men as a facilitator at workshops designed to give men an opportunity to find, feel and express their emotions, and to offer ideas and action steps to help expand the movementís effectiveness and reach. Friday night, I listened as some two dozen brave women, many defying understandable inner resistance, took the microphone and told the story of their abortion to the hundreds of conference participants in the hall.
Like a Quaker meeting, where people sit together in silence until moved to speak, moments ticked by in between speakers. Demonstrating the limitless capacity a community of people can have breathing together with a collective, compassionate heart, we sat comfortably in the silence, with the silence. Eventually, another woman rose from her seat, took the long brave walk from the back of the hall to the microphone up front and shared her story. "When you think there is no way out, there is always a way out," one woman said. "I can't be ashamed; I won't be ashamed," said another. "I was kind of numb for a month," said a third. A few of the women at the Speak Out spoke lovingly about a subsequent male partner who was kind and sensitive and helped in the healing process, but they were the minority. How did men feel listening? The experience of a group of men who gathered after the session to process our feelings offers a glimpse.
"They were so damned brave," said one of eight men who I sat with in a circle that night. "It was not a happy experience--far from it--but it was uplifting," another commented. "I was moved to tears," another man said. "I felt a pain in my gut; the pain of another human being."
A hovering presence throughout our conversation, that began after the evening speak out and didnít end until 11 o'clock, was what the women had said about the men--or boys--who had impregnated them. It was not pretty. "When I found out I was pregnant, what did he do? He split!" "We were living together. He told me, 'Get out!'" "He didn't come with me when I went to get it."
Why do men bail when the chips are down, we asked ourselves. Some answers: Scared, but socialized to never admit it. Being really young and having no support system, no one to talk to. Abdicating accountability by saying it's not our "responsibility." We felt the discomfort of living in a male-dominated, sexualized culture where a minority of men who denigrate women have cast a pall over all of us. Among many men there is a shared understanding that by our silence we are complicit. If we are not challenging other men, if we are not interrupting the degrading joke or the sexist comment, we are doing nothing to extinguish the burning control some men try and exercise over women. The distrust most women feel about men not coming through, not delivering, has spilled over so even men of conscience and heart feel similarly about our brothers, one man observed. That acknowledgment contributed to some despair, a sense of hopelessness.
Throughout the wide-ranging conversation that Friday night ran a deep current of possibility as we explored what trusting in expanded definitions of masculinity might look like. Male-bodied and male-identified people, who bring queer, bisexual, gay and transgendered experiences to what could be called "evolving masculinities" offer a new direction for males to consider how we are, who we are, and how we behave. The group of us that departed that night left with no easy answers. But we did feel a sense of respect and trust, no small accomplishment. Throughout the weekend, when we spotted each other crossing the lawn after a workshop, or in line getting lunch, we felt seen and connected. That's a gift many more men need to have in their lives. Spending time listening to one another is a good place to start.
Rob Okun is executive director of the Men's Resource Center for Change (www.mrcforchange.org), editor of Voice Male magazine, and a psychotherapist and justice of the peace in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Massachusetts-based Men's Resource Center for Change (MRC) was founded in 1982 to support men, challenge men's violence, and develop men's leadership in ending oppression in men's lives, families and communities. A male positive, profeminist, gay affirmative, anti-racist social change organization offering a variety of programs locally, regionally, nationally, and abroad, the MRC also publishes VOICE MALE: New Visions of Manhood. A quarterly magazine exploring alternatives to conventional masculinity, VOICE MALE explores critical issues relevant to menís growth and health while cataloguing the damaging effects of menís isolation and violence. Key to its vision is reporting on efforts to assist boys and men on the journey to healthy manhood.
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