I grew up in a family full of women – 17:3 is the ratio of women to men among my first-cousins. Both of my grandfathers had become ancestors before I was born. My home was balanced, though – mom, dad, my brother and me. Large family gatherings for holidays, birthdays, funerals or reunions were joyful and loving – filled with great food and belly laughs. Even though our crammed living and dining rooms were overflowing with mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties and cousin-besties; the heart of so many of my youthful memories with my family is the resounding laughter of my uncles and my dad. Each of their laughs, memorable and distinct, either connected to some corny joke they’d told or poked fun at one of us moving our way through adolescence and trying our hands at the grown folks’ tables.
I joined A CALL TO MEN one year ago after working for 11 years in mainstream anti-violence organizations. I was drawn in by the interconnected values of holding men accountable for creating, maintaining and benefiting from a male dominating culture and loving men. The first few hours in the room with mostly men talking about this work, its impact on them, and their desires to show up more powerfully to promote healthy, respectful manhood to end violence against all women and girls, was culture shock. The spaces in which I have engaged this work have been cisgender women’s spaces primarily – almost exclusively. I remember feeling awkward and out of place at our first gathering – like I was spying on some secret club. The experience was disorienting and confusing as I tried to make sense of my role in this new space as a cisgender queer woman.
Honestly, I was on high alert my first few days with them – sensing and scanning the environment and conversation for violations, for micro-aggressions, for erasures, for flaws. When I could become aware of my breath and take a few deep ones, I was also able to access awareness of my habit of hypervigilance when in dominant culture spaces. I chose to breathe through the hypervigilance and, instead, become present to men who were sharing their hearts, taking risks, being vulnerable, and struggling together to undo their own socialization, while preparing to invite and lead other men to do the same. I opened up to bear witness to men practicing authenticity with one another – being their whole selves, trying and succeeding, trying and failing, loving and supporting each other through it all. This practice was familiar to me, even if the people were not. I was in the right room.
One of many things the Man Box demands of men, is that they stop short – way short – of being their authentic selves. When men and boys – be they straight, gay, cisgender, transgender or gender non-conforming – display authentically parts of themselves that do not fit the Man Box, other men are socialized to, at the very least, ridicule them and, often, to use violence against them to make them conform. And yet, at A CALL TO MEN events, time and time again, when I witness men responding to our commitment to meet them where they are without blaming and shaming them with curiosity and a willingness to try something different, it stirs up my hope for a world that includes their liberation and mine. I am inspired by the moments of self-awareness with men in our training spaces that are marked by observable physical changes – body language becomes more open and engaged, for example – that reminds me of the internal shift that occurs when I notice a habit that is no longer serving me and realize I have other options. This readiness and openness to personal transformation is what we hope to inspire and catalyze within each community we partner.
In the last year, we have grown and stretched together as team. Being in the room with these guys has felt like being at Granny’s house cutting up with my uncles. It has had the elements of home and of family – the radical love and trust that makes it possible for us see each other and be seen, to hold each other as we transform together with all of you who care about ending violence against all women and girls.
In the coming year, I look forward to reflecting more on how we are deepening our commitment to authenticity and to hope and healing for all men and boys in pursuit of respect and safety for all women and girls. I specifically hope to write more about our work together with and in accountability to LGBTQ+, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks as part of my personal commitment to the communities I love.
Alexis Flanagan, Trainer, A CALL TO MEN