Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

An Open Letter to the Organizers, Presenters and Attendees of the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups (St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, November 2009)

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

An Open Letter to the Organizers, Presenters and Attendees of the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups (St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, November 2009)

Article excerpt

On November 5, 2009, I traveled by car along with six of my students to the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups. The conference program promised attendance by the most prominent U.S.-based anti-violence educators, activists, and filmmakers at work today. We were very excited by the opportunity to learn, share, and network. I was particularly enthused: the organizers and many of the presenters had authored works that continue to be central to my teaching, research, and intellectual formation. And I hoped the event would help jumpstart a campus men's anti-violence project at my university.

I suspect we were also attracted by the use of the term "gender equality" in the conference title, implying a shared understanding that gender-based violence refers to any form of verbal or physical violence intended to affirm the perpetrator's gender and/or punish violations of social gender norms. Although sex, gender, and sexual orientation are habitually conflated under the currently reigning gender order, we understand these as distinct, if potentially related, aspects of human experience. We recognize that few people are abused, harassed, beaten, or murdered solely because of their sex or sexual orientation but because they are perceived as violating the socially prescribed gender for their anatomical sex--of males being insufficiently masculine, etc. This is the common thread uniting violence against women, gays and lesbians, and transfolk. (1)

A tragic example: in 2001 Willie Houston of Memphis, Tennessee was shot dead because his murderer believed him to be gay. Mr. Houston had just stepped off the Opry Mills music showboat and was holding his fiancee's purse while he helped a blind friend into the men's room. His attacker shouted anti-gay epithets, chased Houston to a parking lot, and shot him in the chest while Houston tried to reason with him. (2) Willie Houston was not murdered because of his sex (male) or sexual orientation (heterosexual) but because he was perceived to be doing a form of gender (femininity) inappropriate for his sex. According to the stifling dictates of heterosexual masculinity, males are not supposed to carry purses or physically touch other males, especially in the vicinity of a men's room--a homosocial space paradoxically marked by both privacy and exposure and commensurately fraught with masculine anxieties. Willie Houston was the victim of a gay bashing even though he was not homosexual; he was the victim of gender-based violence even though he was not female. His murder illustrates an important truth about gender-based violence: though males represent the overwhelming number of perpetrators and victims of violence, it is not being male that's the problem. The problem is subscription to a culturally dominant form of masculinity that celebrates violence and enforces conformity through the threat of physical violence: taunting, bullying, assault, murder. Though the currently hegemonic version of masculinity intentionally confuses the terms "male" and "masculine," violent masculinity can be performed by male- or female-bodied people. It was this understanding of gender-based violence that we expected to encounter at the First National Conference for Campus Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups--a not unreasonable expectation given that much of the above interpretation is based on the published works of many of the conference's organizers and presenters.

Instead we entered a conference environment that was often hostile to our ideas, interests, and experiences. Many of us invited the organizers, presenters, and attendees to embrace a more expansive understanding of "masculinity" and "gender based violence" and were minimized or dismissed--often in hurtful ways, intended or not. Symptomatic was our experience at a session ostensibly devoted to the notion that the marginal masculinities of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered people could potentially offer models for heterosexual males seeking to expand the range of socially sanctioned masculinities. …

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