Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I’m asking about gender now

This post is third in the series, following "Why I Identify as Male, part one" and "Why I Identify as Male, the prequel

              I joined my first Jewish men’s group about four years ago. At the time I had been living for two years in (what felt like) female-dominated spaces, and had not had a male social circle in about seven years. When I was invited to join the group, I jumped at the opportunity, excited to enjoy certain things that I associated with male socializing (assumptions ahoy!): measured conversation, good-natured joking, and an ease that comes with shared experience. The group met several times, and then lost momentum, and that was that.
             About two years ago, there was an attempt to start up a men’s group in my local community, the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline. By this point I had acquired my own regular group of guy friends, and had moved in with my female partner, no longer in a female-dominated communal living situation. I did not feel any personal need for the group, but attended gatherings anyway just to show my support. This time around, I found the group especially tedious, as all of our conversations kept getting tripped up on gender essentializing—any discussion of male role models, male challenges, or male relationships all begged the question of what it meant to be a man, and for the most part we fell back on patriarchal stereotypes, ones which I experienced as irrelevant. This group also eventually lost momentum and disbanded.
             So I was pretty cynical earlier this year when the Moishe Kavod Men’s Group was revived. Wary of joining another group that would fail to engage gender critically, I declared to the leaders that I was only interested in joining if there would be an effort to create an inclusive men’s group, that is, one that was welcoming and beneficial to any male-identified person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender history.

             In the spirit of this goal, I initiated and facilitated a discussion with the men’s group, revolving around two questions: (1) What are the positive benefits for us as men to having a specific gathering that excludes women?” (2) What would it mean to create an inclusive men’s group? The resulting conversation was heated, and the tension between my two framing questions became very clear.
             In response to #1, many of the members (including myself) talked about a desire for a ‘safe’ space in which to explore masculinity and its modern challenges, and how this process of enlightenment was going to involve working through a lot of difficult and offensive beliefs we currently held. We needed a space in order to make mistakes, around people who would not feel hurt or unsafe when we expressed our unenlightened opinions (much thanks to Stephanie Gauchel at Tufts for pointing out how this assumes a lack of diversity within a heterosexual, cisgendered men’s group).
              Clearly this response made the subsequent conversation on inclusivity more difficult. An inclusive men’s group would bring together groups of men who would not necessarily want to focus on the same topics (ex: sex/gender of our sexual partners), and whose diverse experiences of male embodiment and male privilege would bring societal imbalances and tensions into an (earlier assumed) equal space. Members expressed concern that they did not know enough about these other kinds of men to be able to ensure a safe space for them. Others remarked that the move to be inclusive would actually exclude their particular interests as heterosexual cis-men, and their desire for a place where they could grow without worrying about offending others.
             I came away from this conversation reeling, and since then have been thinking and talking a lot about the complexities of creating an inclusive men’s group, and the many issues surrounding male identity. I could say a lot more about the men’s group discussion, but this post is getting long, and there is one crucial piece left:

Why do I want an inclusive men’s group?
             First of all, it’s more helpful to express it as a desire for a diverse men’s group. What it means to be a man is something that varies man-to-man, depending on personal experience, social environment, and other factors. I want to be part of a group that respects this diversity, even if it is only diversity within a heterosexual, cisgendered (from now on: “het/cis”) men’s group. By placing respect for this diversity at the center of our group, we can begin to avoid dangerous (and tedious) stereotypes.
             Second of all, if we’re calling it a men’s group, let’s make it one for all men! If not, let’s call it what it is: a het/cis men’s group. It’s possible that the MKH group will be solely het/cis for a while, as people within that corner of masculinity may have specific issues to work out before feeling ready to handle diversity.

             Now just the plain truth: I find the mainstream het/cis/white image of masculinity that I’ve received to be personally unsatisfying and socially limiting. I don’t think we can truly understand masculinity until we begin to listen to the multiple voices of diverse men, until we encounter and understand the broad range of male experience in the world, and until we as men begin to take responsibility for the violence done in our name by those enforcing patriarchal masculinity. Perhaps a diverse men’s group can be a vehicle for healing among men.

             And for me to play a role in this diversity and that healing, I need to have a better sense of why I identify as a male.

Coming soon: "Why I Identify as Male, part two" (hopefully the conclusion of the series!!!)


  1. I'd like to join your men's group. What issues do you think het/cis men need to work out before they can handle diversity? As someone non-Jewish and gay, I would be quite diverse for a group of mostly straight Jewish men.

    Historically, Judaism has had traditionally distinct roles for men and women. What challenges does that create for progressive Jewish men today?

  2. Hi Derek-- Thanks for coming to the last men's group event! I hope you enjoyed it, and would love to get your take on it.

    As for your questions: #1 - I'm not entirely sure. I think a mixed het/gay group would need to figure how to optimize their time together, insofar as conversations about sex may become more complex. As for trans-inclusivity, it seems like a het/cis group might simply need some education and processing about trans-identity.

    #2 - Oy, such a big question! Will try to answer briefly. For the most part (and from my perspective), it seems like progressive Judaism as a whole has moved towards egalitarianism, to a greater extent in the more liberal movements. Some of the challenges for progressive Jewish men could include (A) finding their place in the synagogue, now that there's no male monopoly on spiritual leadership; (B) bringing that same egalitarianism to the roles in the Jewish home.