One of the sessions I attended at the UN Commission on the Status of Women highlighted the need to break gender stereotypes for men and boys, as well as for women and girls, in order to achieve gender equality. Speakers emphasized that stereotypical “masculine” and “feminine” images are damaging to everyone. Stereotypes of “masculinity” are damaging to boys and men. Just as women’s success should not be gauged by how much their lives look the same as their male counterparts, so men must be able to freely determine the course of their lives without being constrained by male stereotypes. Work on both sides must occur in order to achieve true gender equality. A friend who attended this session with me said to be afterwards, “I thought we had done this work in the 70s and 80s, raising our children with ‘Free to Be…You and Me.’” I agreed that “Free to Be,” by Marlo Thomas and others, influenced the egalitarian ways I had raised my sons, but noted to my friend that I thought it was sad that traditional damaging gender expectations haven’t changed much in more than 30 years.
This UN session explored male perspectives on breaking down these persistent gender stereotypes and working to achieve equality for all genders. The all-male panel addressed the difficulties men still experience in breaking male stereotypes and the barriers they face entering into traditionally female-dominated fields. The panelists included Jimmie Briggs, Human Rights Advocate and Co-founder and Executive Director of the Man Up Campaign; Carlos A. Gomez, poet, actor, and author of Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood; and Darnell L. Moore, writer and activist whose work is informed by anti-racist, feminist, queer of color, and anti-colonial thought and advocacy.
As co-founder and director of the Man Up Campaign, Jimmie Briggs urges men and boys to take personal responsibility for gender equality. The Man Up Campaign engages youth in a global movement to end gender-based violence and advance gender equality through programming and support of youth-led initiatives intended to transform communities, nations, and the world. The Man Up Campaign partners with young men and women around the world to build a network of young advocates to eliminate gender-based violence. For his work with Man Up Campaign and the issue of violence against women, Briggs was selected as the winner of the 2010 GQ Magazine “Better Men Better World” Search. A respected human rights journalist and educator, Briggs has reported on the lives of war-affected youth and children soldiers, as well as survivors of sexual violence. Briggs has served as an adjunct professor at the New School for Social Research and a visiting professor at the University of Illinois.
At the UN session Briggs stressed the importance of males and females forming partnerships to end the violence: “We need to break down male-female stereotypes so we all work as partners to end violence against women and girls and to achieve gender equality.” In a blog he writes: “As a journalist, I wanted to make the world a better place not just for my daughter, but for all the sons and daughters in the world. As a father, as a man, as a human citizen of the world, I know we all must hold to the belief that a world can exist where I would want to live, where men stand up with women and girls. Without reaching out to and changing the lives of the youth, as well as men, achieving gender equality and preventing violence against women and girls may as well be an impossible goal. I am not an expert on violence against women, but I do know the absence of men and boys, as well as the missing component of youth ingenuity and passion, has been an impediment to lasting progress. Individually, we likely do not see ourselves as part of the problem. We remain comforted in the ability to point fingers elsewhere. But as 19th century minister and poet Frank Crane once noted, ‘Responsibility is the thing people dread most of all. Yet, it is the one thing in the world that develops us, gives us manhood or womanhood.’ Being ‘good’ must not be defined by the things you don’t do, but by that which you do. The ‘good’ person doesn’t stand by, or look the other way when an injustice is done, doesn’t condone misogynistic language such as ‘bitch’ or ‘ho,’ doesn’t define their manhood by the number of women with whom they can sleep, or how physically overpowering they can be, and doesn’t objectify women by secretly viewing them as ‘less than.’ The individual who is good recognizes their strength in defending, supporting, and affirming, not hurting. I firmly believe we have a chance to create and affirm alternative masculinities, and possibly prevent violence as a whole—whether it’s child soldiers in the developing world, rape as a weapon of war, or urban violence here in America.” (http://beyondthebox.org/man-up-for-gender-equality-a-women-and-girls-lead-spotlight/)
Carlos Gomez engaged us with his compelling personal story of “challenging toxic versions of masculinity.” He raised these provocative questions: “What makes it normal for men to die or kill in a moment over nothing? What makes it normal that violence is our right? What makes us think we have to live in this narrow box?” Gomez said that when he was a child he was “affectionate, expressive, emotional, and sensitive” and that he was told these traits were “feminine” and not right for him: “When I was younger my struggle was that I was told that all these things that were inherent to who I was were feminine and bad for me. I was a very emotional, very vulnerable, very sensitive kid. I watched ‘ET,’ and I sobbed hysterically. I remember when I was about five years old and playing YMCA soccer, the ball goes running down the field and I go running after it full speed and trip on a rock. I was a hysterical sobbing pile in the middle of the field. I was hysterically, inconsolably crying. My coach came sprinting toward me, and my hands reached up for his help. But the coach yelled at me, ‘What are you crying for? Stop! Are you a little baby? Get up, Man.’ I’m five years old, and this grown man threw me back on the field and told me to be a man. This was one of my earliest memories of getting the message that it was wrong to be the person I was, that affectionate and sensitive person.”
Another defining moment came when Carlos was a teenager. “I decided I’d try to erase everything I am and be everything I’m told to be,” he relates. “I was going to become the ultimate man, 100% masculinity. So I got weights for Christmas. I wanted to build myself into the ultimate alpha man. I was never going to cry ever again. I was never going to express myself again, and I would always be in control. When I was 17, I was captain of the basketball team, and a ladies’ man. I could bench press 250. Then I had this realization that I felt really sad and numb, which made me really confused because I did everything I was supposed to do. I thought I’d erased all the emotional life I had inside me, I stopped asking for help, I stopped being expressive, I stopped being affectionate, I became this machismo caricature, and I never felt more sad. The day after I had this realization, there was a mandatory assembly where a poet was speaking. I thought it was hilarious that he was going to read poems, and I made fun of him to my friends. I got in the last row in the auditorium because I hated poetry. You know, men aren’t supposed to like poetry or literature. But then when he started reading I had this reaction; water started pouring out of my eyes. My friends were like ‘Are you crying?’ I said, ‘No, no, I got these pollen allergies.’ I had spent years meticulously building myself into the most alpha masculine machismo robotic character that you could ever envision. So I was at risk of losing all this investment in what I was told I was supposed to be. But on the other side, I felt that I was going to lose my soul if I did not hear every word out of this magical human being’s mouth. So I got up to leave, but then I stopped. By the end of the poetry reading, I was openly weeping, hearing his poems. At the end I walked up to him and bought one of his books. He looked in my eyes and said, ‘You’re a poet.’ He signed the book ‘For Carlos, poet.’ That was the first day I started to reflect that maybe everything I’d been told I was supposed to be wasn’t who I needed to be, and that, in fact, the person I was trying to be for so many years was actually the most destructive version of who I could possibly be, not just destructive to me but to everyone in my life, destructive to the women in my life, to the men in my life.”
Gomez tells of another watershed moment when he was 23 years old that led him to commit his life to challenging the toxic versions of what it means to be a man: “I was in a night club in lower Manhattan at 3:15 a.m. when the night club was closing down. I was walking out the door with two friends, and I bumped into this guy accidentally. There were a lot of people, all leaving the night club. So I apologized, but the guy pushed me, took off his shirt and threw me on the ground, and said, ‘What’s up?’ So the circle opened up. It’s that moment, you can cut it with a knife, it’s so tense. The guy pushed me again. I got up and stepped forward to about an inch from his face; we’re nose to nose. It’s that tense moment before a fight starts, and you feel that tension. I leaned in closer to this guy. I blinked, and tears fell down my face. I wasn’t trying to make some kind of political statement. It just happened against my will. It was the wisdom of the body, the tears falling down my face. There was the most surprising reaction. The guy jumped back and said, ‘Okay, okay, relax, relax.’ People were jumping back. Nobody laughed, nobody punched me in the face. The situation was immediately diffused in a few seconds because of me crying in public. My friends were like ‘What are you doing, Man?’ But I came to important realizations after that experience. I questioned what makes us live in a world where there’s this narrative, that we’re taught we have to follow, that tells us we have to be ready to lose our life or take a life in a tenth of a second over nothing. What makes that normal? What makes violence our entitlement to restore some idea of who we’re supposed to be? I realized I knew nothing about this beautiful man that I was about to fight, who may have the most beautiful story, write songs in his spare time, sing songs with his grandmother, and his little sister may look up to him; I knew nothing about this guy. I realized that day I was going to spend the rest of my life as an artist and as a man doing everything possible to change that narrative and to give men permission to be all of who we are, the fullest, most authentic, best version of who we are. Because that’s the world that’s safer for everybody, that’s the world where we all can love who we want to love and be who we want to be and not feel like we have to live in a very narrow box that is killing all of us.”
Another compelling speaker at this UN session was Darnell L. Moore, also an activist committed to gender equality, the elimination of gender-based violence, and justice for all people. He is a Managing Editor of The Feminist Wire and co-author of a column on The Huffington Post focused on black manhood and queer politics He was a member of the Beyond Apologetics colloquium, organized by theologians Joretta Marshall and Duane Bidwell, which brought together scholars and pastors to address themes of sexual identity, pastoral theology, and pastoral practice. Moore has taught classes at Yale Divinity School, New York University, Rutgers University, and The City College of New York.
At the UN session I heard Moore tell his heartbreaking story of witnessing the terrible violence his dad inflicted on his mom for many years. He told his story in the form of a letter to a woman on trial for defending herself against a husband who had abused her over a long time: “Marissa, I write to you as a son of a mother who was abused. On many days I watched in horror and fear as my father used his heavy hand or feet or words to brutally attack my mother. What was he thinking or not thinking? What was he feeling or desiring to feel that would make him harm the woman who loves him? A child should not have to witness his dad beat his mom, hitting her face, pulling her hair, tossing her down, threatening to kill her. I was terrified, because I knew he meant every word. My grandfather showed up to help her. He presented me with another option of manhood different from the kind of violent, misogynistic, woman-hating image of manhood that my father put forth. I promised myself to be different from my father, but I could easily become the same if I’m not thoughtful about my actions. I wanted to be like my grandfather. I still experience visceral reactions when I witness intimate partner violence. There are times when it shuts me down, and moments when it fires me up. I made a promise to myself to show up and to intervene whenever it is possible. And it always is. My mother’s story is her story, but I’ve inherited the pain that comes as a result of vicarious abuse or violence. Today I write to you, Marissa, because I want you and other beautiful black, white, brown women to live, not live in a dry unimaginative sense of the word, but live as in thrive, live as in smile, live as in love, live as it exists in abundance without the force of our hand wielding our power, our sexist games, our desire to maintain patriarchal power pressing down upon you. And that is my work, and I own my work. Indeed it is the work that all black, brown, white men must engage so that you and all women don’t have to find ways to protect yourselves from the very close persons who are meant to love you.”
On this YouTube video, Darnell Moore makes a promise to stand up against gender-based violence, taking part in a campaign to get one million men worldwide to promise to take concrete action to end violence against women and girls.