Monday, June 27, 2011

Reflections from a male feminist: NOW Conference 2011

The following is a post from Ken Gruberman, six-time-Grammy-award winner, Huffington Post author, and male feminist.  I was honored to moderate a panel on male feminists, where he was one of three panelists. 

N. Jerin Arifa
National NOW Board of Directors
National NOW Young Feminist Task Force, Chair
NOW – NYS Young Feminist Task Force, Chair
National Organization for Women (NOW)

Right now I'm sitting in what passes as the "Business Center" here at the Embassy Suites hotel in Tampa. In a half-hour I leave for the airport, and a couple of flights back to my home in Altadena, CA — a lovely community a few minutes north of Pasadena (home of the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl) made up of artists, activists, street people, malcontents, studio musicians, environmentalists and JPL scientists. No wonder Ellen and I fit right in.

I'm reflecting on my experiences over the past few days. This was my first-ever National NOW convention, and the first time I ever presented a workshop and participated in the convention itself. My co-presenters, Micah Bochart and Ben Atherton-Zeman, along with our amazing and gracious moderator N. Jerin Arifa, have a lot more combined experience at this than I did.

As the "new kid on the block," I was amazed at the wide range of topics presented, the incredible diversity of those in the audiences (such as ethnicity, age, religious affiliation and yes, even gender!), and the intensity of emotions, thoughts and feelings from all involved. Nobody was "loafing" or just getting by at this event!

Of course I was nervous at how our workshop would be received, "Raising The Bar For Feminist Men: Promoting Equality In Relationships". I needn't have worried. We were warmly received, and everyone in our audience was attentive and "with us." As feminist men, one of the reasons we were doing the workshop was to acknowledge that the track record of feminist men hasn't always been so great. We sometimes have created more problems than not, just by being clueless as to what is really needed and wanted by women in the cause of equality, justice and recognition.

So, we took that on right at the start. We wanted people to know that they had every right to be leery about our participation, and even question our motives for being there. All 3 of us panelists had admitted, when meeting for the first time a day before the convention started, that we all had known or observed other men whose motivations was not always admirable. We were here to question, to be in an inquiry, as to why more men don't identify as feminists, what forces keep them from becoming one, and what problems arise even for those who say they are. And finally, how to distinguish the pitfalls in personal and/or romantic relationships men have with strong, self-expressed feminist women… pitfalls that can easily magnify themselves when brought into the workplace, the world at large, and "the cause." Or as I put it, "Feminism starts at home."

It was an honor and a privilege to be in the company of such amazing, talented and indefatigable women. And there were many high points for me, but one in particular stands out.

On Saturday evening, after we had finished our workshop that morning, I was in the hotel restaurant having dinner alone (yes, I know — it IS sad!), when I overheard a rather loud man sitting at the next table. He appeared to be in his mid-30s and was sitting with what appeared to be his family: wife, daughter, and mother and father. The guy was pontificating, "what IS it with these NOW people anyway? Don't they know how great women have it in this country? Why don't they just go home!"

One of the things we emphasized in our workshop was that, as feminist men, we cannot and should not stay silent when other men say stupid things. Optimally those are degrading or harassing things about women, or to women… but I felt this also qualified as a really stupid thing. So, after I paid the bill, I walked over to his table and said "pardon me for interrupting, but I couldn't help but overhear what you said about NOW a little while ago. Would you like to know just why all these people are here, including me?" (I then flashed my NOW Convention badge.) He said "sure, you tell me," and swung a little in his chair to face me, with a classic "show me what you've got" look on his face.

It wasn't hard. I reeled off the stats: how 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, how we still have less than 20 percent female representation in government, how only 15 percent of women in the entertainment industry (my field) work in writing, directing, producing jobs etc., how less than 15 percent of women comprise political commentators (and most of them are conservative), both on TV and in print, and on and on. The guy's eyes glazed over. I said "do you want me to go on?" And he said, "no, thanks, I think I get it."

And then he SHOOK MY HAND and said "thank you for explaining that to me." You should have seen the look of gratitude on his wife's face; that said it all. He then asked "when do you think the work of NOW will be done?" I said, "interesting question. I guess when there is true gender equality in the world. When 50 percent of the population is truly represented in all fields, and when gender violence is totally eliminated … then I think NOW's mission would be accomplished. I just hope I live to see that day." And I walked away.

As you might imagine, I can't wait to come back to next year's convention! And I already know what workshop I want to produce: "How to give convincing and effective PowerPoint presentations."

Ken Gruberman
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The Tech Daddy™

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