A Space For Me In Feminist Activism?

In recent years, I have either stayed clear of women’s and feminist groups I presume to offer a safe space for women, or ask outright whether they are intended to be a safe space before I begin participating.  Feminism is not intended to offer something to me as a man, so I acknowledge and respect that much of it is not necessarily a space for me.

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

2005 Take Back the Night Rally at UMBC.
I am in the funky blue shirt, holding a sign, on the left side of the picture.

Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

It appears that others know well that men’s place in feminist activism is a precarious one.  I am aware of a few groups — some pro-feminist, some for sexual violence prevention — that are run by and for men who wish to advocate for gender equality and eliminate violence against women. (Thus, I am not confusing these with “men’s rights” groups, that advocate for advancing men’s status in society even further.)  There are also resources like The Guy’s Guide to Feminism that are produced for and by men to better understand feminism, gender inequality, and sexism.

I am uncertain of the particular histories of these kinds of groups.  Were they started because feminist women effectively articulated a need to have groups that serve as a safe space for women?  Did men feel out of place in these kinds of groups?  Or, are (some) men aware that the kind of advocacy they would pursue would be qualitatively different — for example, more inviting to men, and possibly even more influential among men as a whole?

My Involvement In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

I understand the significance of pro-feminist groups for men.  But, I initially felt no particular draw to such groups.  A few years ago, I did actually become involved in one — not necessarily by my own decision-making.

I became involved with a local sexual violence prevention organization as a graduate student.  The organization also served as a rape crisis center and shelter for women (and their young children) fleeing abusive partners.  Understandably, the organization limited the number of volunteer positions that men could hold in order to maintain a safe space.  But, that meant my involvement was constrained to external programming, namely sexual violence prevention education in local schools.  Since that ended up not working for my schedule, I was invited to help start a group, “Man Up!”, for men to raise awareness about and eliminate sexual violence.

I knew from the start that I felt out of place in Man Up!  Even the group’s name symbolizes the emphasis on men‘s involvement.  I did my best to stick with it, but slowly drifted out of the group until I was no longer participating at all.  I dreaded meeting with other men — especially straight men — about gender politics.  I was not enthusiastic about reaching out to young men about healthy relationships and consensual sex — presumably heterosexual relationships and sex.  And, even the perspective of the group — men‘s sexual violence prevention advocacy — felt distant from my feminist politics.

Fortunately, I moved to another external project — healthy romantic and sexual relationships among young gay, bisexual, and trans men — and stuck with that until I had to focus exclusively on my dissertation.

Invisible In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting a bright undergraduate student who presented a paper on men’s anti-sexual violence groups at the American Sociological Association.  From my own experiences, I had assumed it was just me; because of my gender politics and genderqueer identity, I feel uncomfortable in predominantly-male spaces.  But, this student pointed out larger problems with these groups.

In particular, (some of) these groups are founded upon whiteness and heteronormativity.  They are created for heterosexual men to have healthy, consensual relationships with their women partners.  Advice like, “just don’t rape your girlfriend or wife!”, presumes that all men participants are engaging in heterosexual relationships.  What about bisexual, queer, and gay men?  Similarly, advice to check one’s white privilege erases men of color who are involved in pro-feminist and sexual violence prevention advocacy.  So, as a queer man of color, I often walk away from these groups for men feeling invisible.

The student also pointed out the missing structural and cultural perspectives of these groups.  The flip of blaming women for their own victimization is to blame individual men for perpetrating violence and discrimination against women.  There is inattention, then, to the ways in which organizations and institutions reproduce sexism and to the larger rape cultureSystemic problems cannot be properly addressed with individual behaviors.

Carving Out My Own Space

I suppose the starting point to finding a space for myself in feminist activism is a recognition that it cannot be a space for men.  It has to be a space that explicitly acknowledges queer men’s social location in our sexist and heterosexist society.  We are still privileged as men, albeit disadvantaged by trans-, bi-, and/or homophobia.  It is a major oversight to assume that queer men are immune to sexism and free of male privilege.  Sadly, I did not find much on queer men’s feminist advocacy, so I created a short essay, “A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction.”  But, even these initial efforts fail to directly address my perspective and experiences as a person of color, and a fat person.

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

In some ways, I feel I should still participate in groups where I am the only man, only queer person, only person of color — or even only queer man of color — to ensure that my perspective is reflected.  But, in others, I need to acknowledge that a focus solely on gender simply does not fit for my perspective — one that is is inherently intersectional.  I do not fit as a fat brown queer man, not simply because I hold these identities, but because of the worldview that is shaped by the intersections among them.  I suppose at best, I can collaborate with feminists and be an ally to women; but, the space in which I will be most instrumental, and feel most comfortable, is one that advocates for human rights, with explicit attention to the intersections among racism, sexism, classism, fatphobia, transphobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia.  I suppose I found the answer to my question.