Men Hijack Gender Conference
by Jessica Hardy
The Florida Radical Activist Network (FRAN) held a Gender Liberation Conference in early December in Orlando, Florida. The conference was intended to deal with issues of sexism within FRAN and the activist movement in general. Instead of addressing sexism within the activist community, the conference perpetuated that very sexism. Again, women were pushed into the role of teacher and nurturer. Again, men were the focus. Again, women felt disempowered and frustrated. Again, activist men were self-congratulatory, content in the fact that they were at least better than mainstream men. The men shifted the focus from sexism in the movement to their own gender role socialization and how that affected them as males.
Near the beginning of the conference, women and men took turns telling each other what each needed the other sex to know and what their feelings were about the other sex. Most of the men’s comments centered on the help they needed from the women, putting us once again in the position of the “nurturer,” expected to help the men deal with their subjugation of women. We were reminded that we would need to continually repeat our calls for freedom and not to be too demanding of the men.
After this exercise, women and men moved into separate groups. The women addressed the very real and specific ways in which sexism affected their everyday lives, both out of and within the activist movement. The men began a process of gender-healing, discussing the ways society forced upon them “masculine” archetypes. When the men and women regrouped, the teary-eyed faces of the men were thrust upon us. The facilitators of the conference warned us that the men had gone “very deep” and were extremely vulnerable. In the activities that followed, the men repeatedly compared their “oppression” to ours.
The first day of the conference left the women feeling, for the most part, angry and dissatisfied. Many of us entertained notions of going home early, but instead, we took over the last day of the conference, completely overhauling the agenda. To begin with, the women explained to the men our anger from the previous day. While the men remained silent, we articulated almost a hundred demands that men must meet in order to truly overcome sexism. Then we had the men repeat them back to us, reminding them of the several they forgot. Finally, the men were instructed to develop concrete plans for addressing issues of sexism within their own communities and to express those plans to us.
This conference demonstrated the pervasiveness of sexism and the ways it manifests itself in the activist community, as well as the difficulties in addressing sexism. At a conference on sexism, the men were unable to shed, and even recognize, their most basic sexist behaviors. While certainly it is necessary for men to engage in a process of overcoming their gender role socialization, it is impossible and ridiculous for women to wait for them to “heal” before tackling their oppression of us. The conference also demonstrated the dangers of allowing men to discuss sexism without women present. Furthermore, how can the righteous anger of the women that made the last day of the conference such a success be replicated without having to experience the debacle of the first day? These are the challenges that must be overcome in order to even address issues of sexism within the movement.