THE SEXES

Redefining roles

‘New Men' are striving to change stereotypes

NORA UNDERWOOD August 14 1989
THE SEXES

Redefining roles

‘New Men' are striving to change stereotypes

NORA UNDERWOOD August 14 1989

Redefining roles

‘New Men' are striving to change stereotypes

THE SEXES

Ottawa business consultant Kenneth Fisher and his first wife had been married for 16 years. But their marriage broke up in 1983, after she became involved in the women’s movement. When she left him, recalled Fisher, his wife

asked mm, who are you going to talk to when I’m gone?” Fisher said that he realized then that he had become completely dependent on her. “She was the only person I talked to about myself,” he said. Still, the shock of his marriage breakup—combined with what Fisher had learned about the feminist movement—helped him to find a new source of strength. He became one of the founders of the Glebe New Men’s Group in Ottawa—one of the many men’s support groups that have sprung up in the United States and Canada. Fisher, 46, says that men, as well as women, need to throw off the stereotyped roles they have largely accepted in the past. He added: “We’re entering into a collapse of masculinity as we’ve known it. For men to become fully human, we’ve got to pick up on our feminine, feeling sides.”

The men who support positions like Fisher’s often call themselves New Men or Changing Men. Meeting in small discussion groups, members of the movement—which embraces both heterosexual and homosexual men— strive for personal development outside of the restrictions and stereotypes that they say society imposes on males and females. In part, the movement is a response to the struggles of feminists who, during the past two decades, have sought to break free of stereotyped roles and gain economic equality with men.

The feminist movement has triggered a backlash from other men who have formed organizations to oppose the extension of women’s rights. But Fisher said that New Men support the aspirations of feminists. “The most obvious reason that men are changing is because women have changed,” said Fisher.“The major factor has been a desire to move from power over to power with.”

Starting with a handful of groups that emerged during the 1970s, the movement has grown to the point that a national directory now lists 200 groups of Changing Men across Canada, with an estimated membership of about 2,000. Many feminists applaud the fact that some men are following women in trying to shatter stereotypes that they regard as outmoded. “They’re educating their members, educating men,” said Janice Drakich, a sociology professor at the University of Windsor and co-chairman of the justice committee of the Ottawa-based National Action Committee on

the Status of Women. “They understand what’s going on.” Experts on sexual problems have also praised the efforts by some men to reject traditional male roles. Said Dr. Katherine Forrest, a physician in Portola Valley, Calif., who is an expert in reproductive medi-

cine: “As boys are growing up, they learn not to talk about their feelings—that it’s sissy to talk about them. They learn that there’s stuff you don’t admit in terms of weakness or vulnerability. And yet to be intimate with someone else, you have to be able to say that stuff.” Many Changing Men say that the social impact of the women’s movement left them feeling emotionally isolated. Malcolm Gervan, a 40-year-old construction company owner in Kingston, Ont., for one, said that he envied the woman with whom he used to live because she was deeply involved with feminist groups. As a result, Gervan joined a group for Changing

Men in 1981 and now meets at least once a month with as many as 25 others to discuss topics ranging from “pornography versus eroticism” to “male rituals” and “fathers and sons.” Said Gervan: “I've learned how to cry. I’ve learned how to hug men. I’ve learned how to kiss men.”

For his part, Rico Ricketts, a 47-year-old Vancouver dentist, said that unsuccessful relationships with women led him to become active in a men’s group. After his second marriage ended in 1987, Ricketts said that he realized he had not been able to explain to his wife what he wanted and needed. Ricketts added: “There’s a lot of fear and a lot of paranoia about being taken advantage of once you open your heart. For me, it’s no mystery that men have heart attacks and live shorter lives than women. We’re oppressed. Our emotions have been bottled up over the years.” Members of the movement say that one of the key steps for men is learning to talk about feelings in an atmosphere that is free of the competitiveness that they say underlies many all-male activities. Some groups, including Ricketts’s, use rituals borrowed from Canada’s native peoples to increase their sense of community. At the beginning of each meeting, members of the group light a ceremonial peace pipe and pass it around. The gesture, said Ricketts, helps “to set the tone of trust and communication for the day.” At the meetings, said Ricketts, members are “expected to speak honestly and directly from the heart” on subjects ranging from members’ childhood experiences to dealing with anger.

The basic philosophy of many of the groups of Changing Men is that, when men learn how to deal with z each other in a noncompetis tive way, they become bet5 ter able to work together to help break down sexist barriers and stereotypes in society. “There is a sense now that men have to evolve,” said Fisher. “But first they have to become comfortable with each other.” James Madden, a 32-year-old London, Ont., community development worker with the Ontario government, said that the men’s movement “is a positive response to the feminist movement. As much as men need to have good relationships with women, they also have to get along with each other.” Madden feels that social changes affected relations between men and their sons. “Boys used to grow up with their fathers,” said Madden. “That was destroyed when men went off to work in factories and

offices. We lost touch with the family unit.”

In Victoria, Bruce O’Hara, a 38-year-old workplace consultant, belongs to a group of about a dozen men that has been meeting for four years to discuss, among other things, emotional problems. Members of the group include mental-health professionals, a computer programmer, a welder and an electrical technician. According to O’Hara, the original members of the group felt “stressed out because they had bottled up their emotions inside for too long. It was the emotional straitjacket men get put into in our society.” Added O’Hara: “When a group of men get together to talk about feelings, you often get at the social facade where we say, ‘Everything’s good. I know what I want and I’m successful.’ The men’s group is a place where it’s really safe to talk about things you wouldn’t talk about in normal social settings without being defensive.”

O’Hara admits that he has encountered some fear of homosexual overtones among prospective members of the group. “Most men are afraid that they’ll be seen to be gay,” said O’Hara, who added that he is heterosexual and that there are currently no known homosexual members. “And the group is about men touching freely and hugging and bringing up questions of emotion.” For some married members of the men’s movement, the new ideology has resulted in altered roles for husbands and wives. Jean Bourque, a 39-year-old psychologist in Laval, Que., a Montreal suburb, founded a men’s liberation group nine years ago. Said Bourque, who shares housekeeping duties with his wife, Louise, a mathematics teacher at a junior college: “We have got to lose the idea that we are the boss at home and begin to share the housework. We are doing this for ourselves.

Homosexual couples are able to achieve a domestic equality. There is no reason why heterosexuals cannot.”

Fisher added that the Changing Men’s movement has so far reached only a small part of the male population—and that most Changing Men are white and middle-class. In Ottawa, Fisher meets with she other men every two weeks during the fall, winter and spring for four hours at a time. Two of the group members are homosexual, all are university-educated, and the average age is about 37. Fisher estimates that about one-quarter of all Changing Men are homosexual. He added: “Gay men play very prominent roles, and they should. They have much to offer. Unless straight men overcome their fear of gay men, they’ll never be at home with themselves.”

Members of Changing Men say that they are anxious to avoid being dismissed as wimps. Instead, Shepherd Bliss, the 44-year-old American who has emerged as the movement’s leading intellectual, insists that Changing Men embody a new kind of masculinity. “Courage is very important to us,” said Bliss, a professor of psychology and male studies at John Fitzgerald Kennedy University near San Francisco. “Part of that courage is to raise children and stand by your wife. It is not John Wayne and Rambo. A man should be vigorous, vital and robust, yet sensitive at the same time.”

Still, Fisher and other members of the movement acknowledge that it may be a long and difficult task to convince the majority of men that masculinity needs to be redefined. Before they can be convinced of the new value system, said Fisher, “men have to see it happening all over the place.” Despite the efforts of men’s groups across the continent, there is little evidence that traditional male values and attitudes are about to give way to the apparently well-meaning precepts of the Changing Men.

NORA UNDERWOOD

LAURIE GILLIES

DAN BURKE