Men's groups work to redefine masculinity from their point of view--not women's


May 16, 1991|By Mary Corey

When Selwyn Ray runs into a friend he hasn't seen in a while, the first question invariably asked is not "How are you?" -- but "How's the job?"

It used to annoy him, the way his buddies were constantly measuring each other professionally while ignoring their personal lives. Then he realized it wasn't their fault.

"It's society's definition of what makes a man," explains Mr. Ray, a director of the city health department's teen program. "Success is how much money is in your bank account and how many titles you have. It's not how much love your grandson feels when he's around you."

To keep from internalizing those attitudes, Mr. Ray -- and thousands of others like him -- has become involved in the burgeoning men's movement. In Baltimore alone, two new organizations have formed this spring: the Greater Baltimore Men's Council, a support group for men that incorporates storytelling, drumming and chanting in its meetings; and the Greater Baltimore Commission for Men (GBCM), which seeks to inform policy makers about the gender bias it perceives against men.

The issue also is being explored in college courses, including ones at Towson State University and the University of Maryland, College Park.

And it's being written about: "Iron John: A Book About Men," by Robert Bly, who's often hailed as the movement's spiritual father, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks. And a walk through any bookstore reveals titles like "Women Who Love Too Much" now compete for shelf space with the likes of "The Hazards of Being Male."

Why the current interest in men?

Faced with less traditional gender roles and the fall-out of feminism, many men are re-evaluating what it means to be masculine today. While they were once encouraged to see themselves primarily as breadwinners, they are beginning to question the satisfaction and prestige derived from that role.

"The Zeitgeist has changed. We're looking for something with deeper meaning than a 735 BMW," says Robert Frank Mannis, a psychologist in Frederick, who specializes in men's issues.

"I think guys have gotten two messages, and they're not really satisfied with either. There's the John Wayne or the Robocop image. Then there's the emasculated male -- soft and sensitive who doesn't really have much power. . . . What men are trying to do here is to integrate both," he says.

Many men make a clear distinction between the current movement and the one that gained attention several decades ago.

"In the '70s, we were trying to be men on women's terms," explains Jon Ryan, a founding member of the GBCM. "We were taught to be sensitive to the things women think we need to be sensitive to. Feminist men were advocating for women's rights but not for their own. . . . Today there's a growing number of men who say we need to define ourselves. We can't have women define us."

But in many ways, the men's movement isn't one group as much as many disparate groups united simply by the fact they're about men.

* Robert Bly's "mythopoetic" movement uses rituals, myths and wilderness retreats to help men reconnect with the "wild man," a primal force of masculinity within. More than 1,500 spin-off groups, including the Greater Baltimore Men's Council, reportedly have formed to follow its tenets.

* Men's rights groups, such as the GBCM, focus on political and economic issues including parental leave, child custody and male discrimination.

* And then there are independent support and activist groups centered around gay men, feminist men and African-American men.

Despite the talk of sensitivity and bonding, many people -- particularly gay, minority and blue-collar men -- find themselves uncomfortable, or unwelcome, in some circles.

Dana Rethemeyer, president of the Baltimore Gay Alliance, says he feels "disconnected" to the national men's movement in general. "Most heterosexual men are unwilling to deal with homosexuals," he says.

Other men explain it differently. "Generally this is a white, WASP movement," says Spencer Holland, director of the Center for Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University and founder of Project 2000, a mentoring program that works with young black males.

Although he supports the men's movement "in his heart," Mr. Holland laughs at the idea of spending a weekend chanting in the woods. "I'm not going to sit around beating a drum on a wilderness weekend when my children are dying," he says. "The men's movement is looking at self-actualization. Blue collar and minority men have survival is sues to deal with."

If white men are most involved in the movement, perhaps it's because they are feeling most threatened by the changes brought on by affirmative action and feminism.

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