Last month I stumbled into a bit of a storm over women-only sessions at a gym in the UK.
Peter Lloyd, writing in the right-wing Daily Mail, said that this was a men’s issue that needed to be tackled head on. I challenged him via in the left-wing Guardian newspaper saying that a better way to tackle the serious issues that men and boys face would be to fight for more men-only services.
I’m not going to revisit the argument here. Peter’s position is clearly closer to the heartbeat of the men’s rights movement right now and as far as this constituency is concerned he has won the debate.
But if you had told me on New Year’s day that we’d have commentators in left-wing and right-wing newspapers arguing with each other about the best way to tackle men’s issues, I’d have said you were still drugged up from the night before and clearly hallucinating.
And yet before I could find a way to celebrate this fact, the moment had been surpassed by a deluge of public debate about men and boys in the UK that was sparked by one politician asserting that masculinity is in crisis.
One minute we had Tony Parsons, the ex-husband of feminist commentator Julie Burchill, leaping to the defense of British manhood in GQ saying “men have never been better than they are today” — the next minute we had one of the founders of the pro-feminist fatherhood movement, Jack O’Sullivan, writing in The Guardian— which is often considered to be the mouthpiece of feminism—that the main problems that men face are matriarchy and misandry.
We are seeing a spectacular shift in the way commentators across the political spectrum are talking about men’s issues and if we don’t seize the moment, our opportunity to make our mark may pass us by.
I’ve personally traveled too many miles fighting for men and boys to get overly excited by a bit of press coverage. Next month, it will be 10 years since I made my first national media appearance as PR Director for the Fathers 4 Justice campaign which ambitiously set out to change the law on fathers’ rights in the UK in just three years.
In terms of newspaper column inches it remains, as far as I can tell, the most successful men’s campaign ever—and yet the separated fathers who come to the local support group I run are still getting screwed by a sexist, discriminatory system that grabs dads by the balls and drags them through a mangle of prejudice and inequality in the name of the “best interests of the child.”
Having played a lead role in a campaign that was exciting but ultimately failed (so far) to change our unfair system of family law, I still help individual dads to find a way to navigate the legal minefield and stay involved in their children’s lives.
Separated dads are like proverbial starfish washed up on beaches in their millions and left on the shore to slowly suffocate. It may seem pointless to throw one back in the sea, but for the starfish you help, it’s a matter of life and death. To paraphrase a famous Scottish football manager: For the dads I work with, seeing their kids isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s far more important than that.
Personally, I’d much rather we’d found a way to save the millions of separated dads who get shipwrecked by family breakdown and are suffocated by a system which is designed to help “women and children first” but fails everyone save those who make a living from the industrial processing of broken families.
I don’t know of a single modern country that’s resolved the problem of fatherlessness yet—but things can and do change.
One of my biggest influences growing up was Ian Dury, a great British singer-songwriter whose homage to his father “My Old Man” is a poetic celebration of working class manhood that still brings a tear to my eye and sends a shiver down my spine.
Dury’s body was twisted by polio in an outbreak of the disease in 1949. British kids don’t get polio these days and maybe in the future millions of kids won’t be separated from their dads.
We might not live to see this change happen, but we can at least die trying. If we want to ensure that we end male suicide; stop violence against men and boys; secure equal rights for dads; give boys (and girls!) the best possible start in life; and treat the health and wellbeing of men and boys with the same urgency and importance as the health and wellbeing of women and girls—then it’s time for us to get interested in what will make a difference for men and boys.
I don’t profess to have all the answers and my experience tells me that none of us is smarter than all of us. What I do know is that many of the solutions we need are political and while publicity alone doesn’t create policy it’s hard to make policy without it.
Every argument that every men’s advocate has ever made is helping to build a momentum that, after several decades of hard work, will make the arrival of the international men’s movement seem like an overnight media success. The conditions are now ripe for men’s issues to rise up the political agenda in the developed world and if we can learn to play the media game then we can keep on keeping men’s issues in the headlines.
But if we only rely on making noise then our campaigns for fairness and equal treatment for men and boys will end up filled with sound and fury and signify nothing (for those of you who like a little bit of Shakespeare in your polemic).
Campaigning is more than complaining. Successful campaigns bring both problems and solutions to the table and keep them there until the solution we want is delivered.
We can’t control who sits at the top tables in politics but we can influence what they bring to the table. We will know that our men’s movements are a political success when politicians and newspapers are arguing with each other about who has the best solutions to the problems men face. We can achieve that end goal, but not merely by talking amongst ourselves. Yes, privately networking with each other behind the scenes is a crucial part of any movement, but when we fight on public battlegrounds like the University of Toronto campus, then the world starts to listen.
Arguing publicly on high profile platforms in a way that allows the public and politicians to decide which policies on men’s issues they prefer: now that is a sign of progress.
I’ve only ever had one short conversation with Jack O’Sullivan, and that was nine years ago when I congratulated him for another Guardian article that highlighted what a huge difference fathers make to children’s lives and bemoaned the lack of politicians who were able to develop policies that respond to the way that modern men live their lives.
I told Jack I was surprised to see a positive article about dads in The Guardian – or “that anti-father rag” as the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, Matt O’Connor, likes to call it.
Jack simply said to me “no media outlet is a monolith,” and he was right. And the same is also true of political parties.
No political party or media outlet is a monolith and so if we want to create the smartest men’s movement the world has ever seen, we will want to find our way inside the tent where we can piss on the policies and viewpoints that don’t support our end goals, rather than being outside the tent pissing on each other.
The way the wind is blowing suggests that something spectacular is beginning to happen in relation to men’s issues and so we need to seize the moment—again and again and again and again.
It takes patience and persistence to make a difference politically, but rather than let them ignore the millions of problems that men and boys face, if we can influence the media and politicians to start picking up these problems like proverbial starfish, one issue at a time, then we can start to make a bigger difference for men and boys.
There are still enough men’s issues in the world for us all to bring our own unique approach to making change happen. Solutions may come from the left or the right, from professionals or volunteers, from aggressive campaigners or nurturing frontline workers. Every approach is potentially valid and our movement is “big enough and ugly enough” now to allow each other the space to take different approaches to solving men’s issues.
The task of making the world work for men and boys is so big that there is no one single way to get the job done. Yet now, more than ever before, is the time when we need more people, taking more action, to make more things happen.
It has been inspiring to see, in tragic circumstances, so many men’s rights’ activists supporting the Earl Silverman Centre – that will help us save a few starfish. It’s small actions with huge potential like these that show the men’s movement can be about delivering solutions to some of the big problems we face.
And I have no doubt that between us we will keep finding new ways to throw many more proverbial starfish back into the sea, but how do we create a big enough wave to do it for us?
As a man, I consider it a blessing that I wasn’t born in an age or country where I could be conscripted to fight for my country—and I’m grateful that our ancestors fought for me to grow up in relatively peaceful times.
Our generation of men has a different war to fight. It’s a war against injustice and inequality and if we fight it well then future generations will thank us.
We may argue over which battles to fight but whether it’s changing family law, getting men’s groups on campus, funding men’s shelters or any other battle you can imagine, people who give a shit about men and boys, have got to keep fighting. To misquote the great Bill Shankly one more time, it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that!