Men's Rights; A modest movement is gaining momentum

* ''If I had a son,'' says Robert Sides of Brookline, Mass., ''where could I point him - radio, TV - that he could go to find out why it's good to be a man? What redeeming factors do we have? There's very little being said that's positive. It can't be that men are just beasts and that the best we can do is keep the beast down. That's some onus to live under.''

* ''For the last seven years since I've been divorced I've learned how to share my feelings,'' says Andy Squazzo, a data processor from Long Island, N.Y. ''I buried myself in my family as a husband and as a father for many years. I lost my identity as to who I am and how I feel. Something told me that I wanted to try and share that with men, remembering the days of the service where I made some good friends.''

* ''I feel very strongly that the system is coming down too hard on men (who have trouble making child-support payments),'' says Joseph Barbier, a New Jersey man. He has been jailed several times for nonpayment of child support. ''They're thinking more and more of running. I think of them as mustangs on the prairie.''

Like sword-flashing Errol Flynns, Bob, Andy, and Joe are engaged in a battle. They're fighting it in the courts, in the marketplace, in society, and in the home. It's the battle against male stereotypes.

These stereotypes - that men are competitive, aggressive, without emotion - are just as demeaning and as confining, they say, as those affecting women. Living in a ''man's world'' has its problems, just as living on a pedestal does.

It started for some in consciousness-raising groups that sprang from the women's movement in the early 1970s; for others the spark was books such as ''The Hazards of Being Male,'' by Dr. Herb Goldberg. Skyrocketing divorce rates and the emergence of women in the marketplace prompted the ''strong, silent types'' to speak up.

The movement is small, modest. Its heart and soul is in small groups of men (and often women) that meet weekly in living rooms, churches, town halls, and on campuses. Men come to talk about how to communicate with their wives, how to keep a tieline to their kids after a divorce. They come to discuss the difficulty of ''trying to live up to the impossible masculine ideal,'' as one member puts it. They're called ''support groups'' by some, ''consciousness-raising groups'' by others.

After his 19-year marriage broke up, Arnie Davis of Manhasset, N.Y., found ''direction and guidance'' in a seven-man support group. ''Over the course of the last year we've really been able to talk about our feelings and it's something that men, I've found, really needed, because men have never felt that comfortable about talking about very personal things to other men,'' he said.

Policemen particularly need a friendly shoulder or ear, says one who ought to know. ''A policeman has to have the answer to every problem - what happens when we have problems?'' says Edward Donovan, an officer for 25 years in Boston. After struggling with alcoholism and thinking about suicide and seeing too many officers in similar straits, he started a stress program for policemen which includes support groups.

''When you're a police officer, you're a robot. We restore them to feeling people again. It's better for their families and better for the public,'' Mr. Donovan said. His program is drawing requests for information from Africa, England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and South America.

In 1980, in an effort to coalesce the movement and keep the different groups ''from reinventing the wheel,'' the National Congress for Men was formed. Now 10 ,000-strong, it is an umbrella association for 200 groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, and has had two national conferences, says president James Cook. Among the organization's concerns: a nonsexist military, equality in law enforcement, prison reform, veterans problems, joint custody, and flexible working hours.

Coalescing is not the easiest of tasks in a new revolution. The movement is splintered into several factions: proponents of fathers' rights and divorce reform; antisexists (also known as masculinists); and pro-feminists. Some of these groups' aims overlap, but their styles markedly differ.

''Everyone wants to be spokesperson, no one wants to do the gut work,'' says Robert Sides, who has started the Boston branch of the Coalition of Free Men, an anti-sexist group. He remarks that in-group power plays and squabbling among factions keep the movement fragile. Antisexists complain that fathers' rights groups try to wrestle for control of the National Congress for Men. Male feminists call antisexists ''male chauvinists,'' who retort that they're ''blaming men for all women's problems . . . crying mea culpa.''

Other members, however, remark on a degree of cooperation and networking that has evolved in the last two years. ''I'll counsel a guy who says, 'My wife has taken my daughter to Houston, breaking a restraining order keeping her in New York,' '' says John Rossler, vice-president of Equal Rights for Fathers of New York State. ''I'll pull out my book and say, 'I know someone in Houston you can call for help.' That didn't happen five years ago.''

With little or no funding, the groups scrape by with membership dues and the personal bank rolls of its founders. Some group spokesmen are crying foul at the government's funding of programs for women, with nary a one concerned with men's needs, and would like to see federally subsidized shelters for physically and psychologically battered men.

Battered men? Yes, says Helen Bennett, of Oak Park, Mich., a board member of the National Congress for Men. ''Many men are trained not to raise a hand to a woman and when women fight, they won't fight back.'' Laughed at by police, too embarrassed to tell emergency room attendants, many battered men suffer in silence, she says.

Most of the legislative reforms have been spearheaded by the fathers' rights groups. Their rallying cry is joint custody. Since 1978, members of Fathers United for Equal Rights and other groups have been influential in bringing about new or revised custody legislation in 24 states, nine in the last year alone. Other concerns include: job sharing, paternity leaves, the effects of father deprivation, and making alimony a ''rehabilitative allowance'' rather than unlimited support.

While not condoning men's failure to pay child support, fathers' rights advocates lambaste a society that ''comes down too hard'' on men when they can't pay, but takes little action against women who won't allow ex-husbands their court-ordered visitation rights.

Fathers would be more encouraged to pay child support if they knew how the money was being spent, members say. There is no accountability measure now; members of the National Congress for Men would like to see one.

An antisexist group making waves is MR Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., run by Frederic Hayward. He has taken the auto insurance and life insurance industries to task for sex discrimination and won his first battle. Today, teen-age boys and girls in Massachusetts pay auto insurance premiums based on the number of years they've been driving. Before 1978, boys' premiums were sometimes double those for girls.

While MR and fathers' rights groups engage in political action, the Coalition of Free Men is involved in educating the public. The group (which took over from the 10-year-old Free Men group, which folded in 1980) has a membership of 2,000 men and women in six branches in 12 states.

The Coalition and some other groups spread the word through conferences, lectures, speakers bureaus, newsletters, and divorce lawyer referrals. For example, the Men's Rights Association in Forest Lake, Minn., has a nationwide network in most major cities that can link up a man considering divorce with a lawyer familiar with men's rights issues.

Male feminists also want to eliminate sexism. ''We focus on . . . such things as being excessively aggressive, not in touch with one's emotions, maintaining a stiff upper lip and a tough facade,'' says Dr. Robert Brannon, spokesman for the recently formed National Men's Organization. ''Men neglect their health, put little time and energy into human contact, don't spend time parenting their children, and make bad decisions in business because of macho posturing.''

Pro-feminists, as their name implies, support the women's movement, and have formed task forces on pornography and rape and run counseling centers for men who batter their wives. They have been conducting ''consciousness raising'' meetings for 10 years and have sponsored seven annual Men and Masculinity Conferences.

''It's been difficult,'' admits Eric Johnson, a young father and insurance salesman in Somerville, Mass. ''One of the issues male feminists deal with is that of male dominance and patriarchy. A lot of male feminists feel that (organizational) hierarchy should be done away with completely. So to create a national organization is a hot topic of debate.''

The men's movement is ''the story in America today,'' according to Mitsuku Shimomura, a Japanese journalist who spent two years researching it. Her newspaper, Asahi Shimbun Tokyo, Japan's largest, devoted a 20-part magazine series to it recently.

But America has not been so impressed. When Robert Sides showed up to teach his course, ''Macho-Do About Nothing,'' at the Boston Center for Adult Education , he met with an empty classroom.

Part of the reason, say group members, is scant attention from the news media. Compared with the avalanche of publicity given to the women's movement, says MR's Frederic Hayward, the response to the men's movement has been a trickle.

One way the movement has gained converts is through books. Several of Arnie Davis's support group members say that what galvanized them to join was reading ''The Hazards of Being Male.'' ''The Liberated Male,'' ''The New Male,'' and other books are on their way to doing for the men's movement what ''The Feminine Mystique'' did for the women's.

Getting bookstores to promote these books is a different story. Mr. Sides recalls spending months persuading a Boston area bookstore to create a separate men's section. He succeeded, but says it's small.

Even worse, says Hayward, is resistance from government officials. ''Sometimes I've presented a problem to them and made it seem as if it was women who were being discriminated against and they were all set to get to work, but as soon as I said it's not really women, it's men, but it's the same thing, then . . . you see this glaze fall over their eyes and suddenly they have more important things to do.''

Sex discrimination is a two-edged sword, representatives say.For every women's issue, there's a complementary men's issue.

''Women are denied opportunity in work, and men are denied opportunity to parent.'' explains Karen DeCrow, former president of the National Organization for Women and keynote speaker at the last National Congress for Men. ''Men and women are bound together in the same struggle to free themselves from sex-role expectations, and men and women must seek together its solutions.''

One main complaint that members of the men's movement have is that women are sending them mixed messages, saying that they don't want macho men, but rewarding macho behavior. The John Waynes, they lament, are still getting the girl. As one woman says in Bruce Feirstein's humorous book ''Real Men Don't Eat Quiche,'' ''Well, goodnight, Ralph. It was nice meeting someone so sensitive, aware and vulnerable. Too bad you're such a wimp.''

''The whole concept of maleness is to be cold, hard, pragmatic, superintelligent, have all the answers. That's what my culture tried to make me , but there's a sensitive side to me,'' said Mr. Rossler. ''I'm not always ready to be on the front lines.''

Nor are they always ready automatically to pick up the check. Robert Sides recounts asking out a woman who was earning $18,000 to his $10,000. He suggested they go Dutch treat - she almost called off the date. Why do women, successful in the marketplace, he asks, still jump back on the pedestal, expecting men to initiate relationships and pick up the tab?

Laments Sides: ''I haven't met a truly assertive woman since I moved to Boston eight years ago.''

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