“Men are good” is a men’s movement tagline designer Robert Young delights in making other men say out loud. I’m one of a generation of AfroCaribbean men raised by single mothers on a diet of men are good for nothing. (Black ones at least.) Masculinity is delicious in bed, I hope we can all agree. But is it good for anything else? Apart from being sometimes delicious, are men good?
Talk in the talkshops is Caribbean masculinity is in crisis. This “crisis” was one of four key things the national gender policy—sent to die in Cabinet committee—was to address. Religious mobilisation to kill the policy, fuelled by fear it would give people control over their own bodies (making love at home might no longer get you fired at work or sent to jail; and poor women could have the access to safe abortions well-off women enjoy) also sacrificed its other measures to address the large percentage of young males involved in violent and criminal activity, males’ significantly poorer school performance than females, and men’s high rates of health problems like substance abuse, mental distress and chronic “lifestyle” diseases. I never understood why men who do see masculinity as in crisis never campaigned for it.
Some like “Chief” LeRoy Clarke are mourning the old ways of being a man, hinged on being superior, powerful and distinct, which are just not sustainable. Feminism and changes in the global economy have forced a recognition that women deserve equality and self-determination. And men are struggling to find new ways to be that don’t depend on supremacy and tradition. Clarke shows how tough that can be, and how difficult it is to not blame others for your loss. But changes in masculinity could also mean new ways of being have been opened up for men and boys—fields traditionally feminised, ways of nurturing children and being tender, even new forms of sexual pleasure that before meant you were less than a man. Traditional masculinity, with its demands of power, hardness and domination, is hurting men. Many fathers believe bitterly that family court workers and magistrates (who, because of gender bias about what is men’s work, are overwhelmingly women) value fathers only as financial providers, not important nurturers, and unfailingly take the side of women in custody, visitation and parental disputes, and this gives women the upper hand in a game in which both parents use children to settle wounds.
Three groups of advocates here are grappling with questions of masculinity. Feminists—who’ve long educated the nation about “gender” (that tradition, often unfairly, restricts behaviours and options based on your sex)—have become more and more interested in masculinity and committed to gender justice broadly, meaning a world that is fairer to men and women. Some men’s rights activists believe changes in gender have “disempowered” men, and their struggle is to restore masculinity and fight for men’s rights, often against women.
Then there’s CariMAN, the Caribbean Male Action Network I mentioned last time, which is trying to bring together diverse men in localities around the region to work together on new possibilities and masculinities for men. A regional secretariat has newly opened in Woodbrook, and TrinbagoMAN is being launched.
“You can come because you’re angry,” says Peter Weller, a Jamaican psychologist currently living in Trinidad, who has soldiered patiently as the group’s main organiser for eight years. “But you can’t stay there. You have to want to build a better world.” It’s not easy finding common ground among men like me who want to build a masculinity that includes us; fathers like the one I mentioned last time, a commonsense, religious man who discovered fathers’ visiting hours at the San Fernando General Hospital were much more restrictive than mothers’ and set about changing that, to the adoration of feminists who advocate that men must share responsibility for caring for children; and those concerned about men’s roles in preventing gender-based violence, which has drawn a number of evangelical pastors to the group. Men’s health and working with young men are additional areas of focus. But so far in CariMAN, men with differing principles and beliefs have been welcome, however clumsily, and with unresolved tensions, under a big tent and with support from international groups committed to women’s equality.
When LeRoy Clarke drew national attention with comments about gang initiations and gun violence, the feminisation of Carnival, the ruin of the arts, and threats that weren’t really threats, I had abandoned this column thinking nothing I wrote in that shadow could possibly be helpful to that difficult task. But if you listen to LeRoy, he is mourning a nurturing masculinity, which is something all men deserve. And the developing men’s movement that CariMAN has emerged to lead holds out that hope that women who get beaten, men who can’t see their children, and men who can’t love who they want all have a stake in making masculinity into something that’s good for all of us, and something we can all feel good about.
Forging the liberty to love: one nation, many bodies, boundless faith.