ST. CLAIR SHORES, Michigan — The feminists hadn’t shown up yet, but they could, at any moment, with their protest signs and screaming. The threat of them was an infuriating and exhilarating specter throughout the weekend, a symbol of the oppression facing the men’s rights activists who had gathered to meet for their inaugural conference.
Early Friday before the opening session, a wispy trail of men — mostly white, college-through-retirement-age — waited for the doors to open outside of this Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in suburban Detroit. One man talked about his ex-wife. A lot of guys talked about their ex-wives. Ex-wives and ex-girlfriends were often cited as the catalysts to these men’s realizations that the world had become a hostile and dangerous place for males. Such realizations are what activists sometimes call “red pill moments,” and although attendees coalesced around different issues — paternity fraud, circumcision, false rape allegations — the binding theme was that almost everyone here had experienced a version of a red pill moment.
In the months leading up to the International Conference on Men’s Issues, much of the rest of the country hunkered down on discussions of gender: a White House task force studied sexual assaults on college campuses. A shooter in Santa Barbara, Calif., killed two women and four men because, he said in a manifesto and video posted before his attack, he believed women had unjustly withheld affection from him. A #YesAllWomen campaign highlighted broader experiences of misogyny.
At the ICMI, where about 200 participants had preordered tickets, there was a parallel discussion of gender issues: Men, attendees believed, were the ones under threat of attack. This conference was their response, their rallying call to action.
“Men are second-class citizens,” said Gary Costanza, a pleasant gray-haired man from Long Island. He was particularly interested in divorce issues, saying that custody should always be split and financial child support should not exist. He just wanted the same rights as everyone else.
That’s all any of them said they wanted. The same rights as the “privileged women,” as various attendees described the female gender. The entitled, increasingly “narcissistic women.” That’s all.
Over the course of two days:
One speaker postulated that women are responsible for all domestic violence because, having all the power in relationships, they could simply choose not to marry violent men.
The social media coordinator for the conference — employing an unorthodox method for raising more attention to the group’s issues — tweeted out a message calling a dissenter a “fame whore.”
Men were moved, deeply, by feelings of belonging and understanding they felt had been missing in their lives.
At the end of the weekend, one presenter — Warren Farrell, who used to be a visible figure in the National Organization for Women before turning his focus to men’s rights several decades ago — emotionally declared: “I’ve always said the men’s movement is in its embryonic stage. I’m no longer going to say that.”
“Ordinary people know,” Barbara Kay told her audience, “the vast majority of women crying rape on campus are actually expressing buyer’s remorse from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky consent on both sides.” She waited a beat for the laughter from the audience to die down. “It’s true. It’s their get-out-of-guilt-free card.”
It was Friday afternoon. Kay, a conservative columnist for Canada’s National Post, was the seventh speaker of the lineup, with a presentation on “Misandry in the Media,” a sin that Kay said included — in addition to anti-rape ads — fathers being portrayed as doofuses in sitcoms, and a commercial that aired during the Olympics honoring moms of athletes but not dads.
Earlier that day, ananti-domestic-violence activist spoke on the need for male-victim resources, and a politico attempted to sell the idea of a men’s rights party in Britain.
Some of the presenters were more strident than others: a psychologist who specializes in male clients and whose fans call her “Dr. T” talked about the “special protections” afforded women by the modern social contract. (Although the majority of attendees were men, five of the 15 presenters were women.)
“A rigged game can never be a level playing field,” said the psychologist, Tara Palmatier. And a rigged game against men, she said, “is what we have now.”
There was no mention onstage of the levelness of a playing field in which women make up 20 percent of U.S. senators and 18 percent of U.S. representatives — but bring it up offstage, and several participants said the men in office are merely puppets for their female electorate.
This conference, billed as the first of its kind, was sponsored by A Voice for Men, an online publication for the men’s rights movement and one of the more prominent outlets in the “manosphere.” Originally, it was to take place at a Doubletree in Detroit, a city picked because it was an “iconic testament to masculinity,” according to promotional materials. But then something happened to the original plans. A Voice for Men said the hotel was issued death threats by feminists for agreeing to hold the conference; the hotel never confirmed or denied these reports. The conference was moved from the Doubletree to the suburban VFW, a yellowish linoleum room that organizers argued was even more appropriate and more masculine of a location.
“I’m just elated,” said Paul Elam, the head of A Voice for Men, in an interview. “This is the first time I’ve ever tried to organize a conference.”
Elam in person is a tall, polite, drawling figure — he’s from Houston — who describes his site as a “place for men to express the pain and anger which they are denied from doing” in the world at large.
Elam online is an uncaged coil of rage, whose violent diatribes have been categorized as hate speech, earning his site a mention in a 2012 Southern Poverty Law Center intelligence report about misogynistic sites.
In his most infamous piece, he declared the month of October to be “Bash a Violent B——” month: “I mean literally to grab them by the hair and smack their face against the wall,” he wrote. He says he was being satirical and has removed the post.
“My rhetoric has toned down substantially” in recent years, he said. However, “our movement doesn’t depend on mainstream approval. It’s a subculture.”
A subculture of who? Believing what, exactly, and with how much fervor? When A Voice for Men was just an online presence — its primary existence before ICMI — many posters came across as extreme-right dinosaurs who wished women would get back in the kitchen where they belonged. (Some of them delight in stoking this perception — an attendee from Australia kept offering suggestions for the writing of this article: “Can you please put in,” he asked, “That I told you to go make me a sandwich?”)
In person, there’s a broad spectrum of political views, from anarchist to socialist. There were men who felt they’d been oppressed through a school setting that favored female learning styles. Men whose fathers drank themselves to death while feeling trapped in strict societal roles. Men who say their ex-wives took them to the cleaners in divorce settlements.
The primary through-emotion of the conference attendees — if not the more fiery presenters — wasn’t hatred but a lost, if somewhat self-involved, sadness. Here at the VFW was an island of misfit boys and damaged men, who claimed to have believed in the system until it failed them.
“People say I’ve become obsessed with this issue,” said Robert Samery, a Toronto real estate broker whose issue was “parental alienation,” which is what he says he experienced when his ex-wife turned their children against him after a divorce. “God forbid it should ever happen to you.” His ex-wife, he says, told police he was stalking his children and calling them too much. “To a certain extent, this was true,” he said. “To a much larger sense, it was not true.” He said he just wanted to see his kids again.
Late on Friday night, after the first day of the conference ended, some of the men went out to a German-themed piano bar, where a pianist played “The Impossible Dream” and women in tired-looking dirndls brought steins of beer.
“People tell me to check my privilege, and I just laugh, because they have no idea what I’ve been through,” said one man, a graduate student who is studying to be a therapist and who says he grew up in a violent household.
” ‘Check your privilege’ sounds absurd to me,” one of his seatmates agreed, affirming his new friend’s position. All of them are good, patient listeners, a skill they say they’ve acquired because they’ve never been encouraged to speak up before.
A third man at the table, an older lawyer, began to share his story of emotional abuse, at the hands of a woman who, he said, warned him she would tell people he molested their son if he tried to get custody. She was cruel, he explained. “One time, I told her that I wished I was 6 feet tall, and from then on, whenever I walked past, she called me ‘Short,’ ” he said.
The table nods in sympathy. “You should talk to Dr. T about that,” someone suggested.
Saturday’s sessions at the conference included a talk on the “disposable” young men who are enlisted in the U.S. military. A discussion about shared custody post-divorce. A lecture on paternity fraud by a man who learned he’d been paying child support for a daughter who wasn’t his — he lobbied the Georgia state legislature to expand the time frame in which paternity tests could be administered, and he won.
They’re not unsympathetic issues. In fact, when men are talking about wanting shared custody of their children, when they are talking about wanting to reshape the culture to make it acceptable for men to be primary caregivers instead of just primary breadwinners, when they want to raise awareness about the military industrial complex that sends mostly boys to die in wars — then, they don’t sound like angry white misogynists. They sound like they could be feminists.
There’s a kernel of something in this tiny, peripheral movement that might speak to larger questions: regarding our expectations of modern masculinity, regarding how to truly measure equality. But the kernel gets rhetorically buried in paranoia and anger, which, at this conference, created a wounded echo chamber of nebulous statistics.
Presenters used historical laws as “proof” that women have always had special privileges — access to their husband’s bank accounts, for example — but didn’t mention that during the aforementioned time period, women didn’t legally have the right to vote.
Discussion centered on the fact that men are financially destroyed by divorce while their exes live lives of luxury, but never pointed out that according to a recent census population report, the poverty rate of custodial mothers is 31.8 percent, compared with 16.2 percent of custodial fathers.
Participants lambasted the media for deliberately ignoring the high percentage of male rape victims — 38 percent — and also lambasted Slate journalist Hanna Rosin for writing a “misandric” book about the “end of men” — but didn’t note that Rosin recently wrote a lengthy article about the high percentage of male rape victims.
One presenter, a military veteran speaking on the treatment of veterans returning from war, put up a PowerPoint slide alleging that 70 percent of men returning from war get divorced, and 90 percent do so within five years. When asked about the source of this statistic, he said, “That particular statistic is from my personal observations. I’m just speaking here as a dude.”
One dude speaking to a roomful of like-minded dudes, who reinforce rather than challenge one another’s world views. Who say out loud, as a reassuring, hopeful tagline, “Men are good.”
The International Conference on Men’s Issues ended with a 12-person panel discussion, in which conference-goers were instructed to ask questions related to activism — how they could take the lessons of the conference and apply them to their daily lives. What lawsuits they could bring, how they could repeal the Violence Against Women Act, what continued vigilance over “enemy territory” — feminist Web sites — might accomplish?
Finally, it was 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, an hour later than the scheduled end of the conference. The VFW needed its hall back, and it was suggested that everyone who didn’t have to drive home right away should head to a nearby bar.
They would meet again next year, they decided. With more people, twice or three times as many. Now was the right time to really get somewhere.
They had burgers and beer at the bar, soaking up as much camaraderie as possible, and then they left, one by one, returning to what they saw as the harsh reality of the rest of the world.