So ironic how I got here; used the standard recipe: good position, wife and children set a man up royally. Waited for the rich contentment pattered living's said to bring; never guessed I'd wind up playing family clown instead of king . From "Breaking Free," men's liberation song by Richard and Robert Haddad; Copyright (c) 1979
They don't do it in a phone booth, but in the Washington-Baltimore area, some 250 men are attempting a Clark Kent-Superman kind of transformation.
As tired as some feminists claim to be of playing the Superperson role, these men meet regularly to work on shedding such things as "macho" images and "narrow sex-sterotyping."
"For years, we've been hearing the women's side of the issues," says Gene Martin, 43, Takoma Park, a social change consultant and executive director of Free Men. "We think it's time to realize there's a men's side also."
Free Men admit that with the process of working out new, individual identites for old, prescirbed patterns of behavior, come loneliness, isolation and pain. They need support.
That's why many of them have joined the organization, founded in 1977 in Columbia, Md. There are now more than 600 on the Free Men mailing list, representing 30 states. The largest concentration outside of this area is in California, the home state of the sometimes controversial Free Men national adviser Herb Goldberg (author of two books on the male perspective).
You can have my male advantage; take the obligations too. Pack the pressure and harassment -- they came with the lot I drew. Not a woman wants the bundle; cuts her life expectancy. Makes you wonder where Ms. Steinem studied sociology. I'm coming home, becoming me. . . From "Breaking Free"
Although Free Men members (both) organizationally and indivdually) credit the women's movement with "first questioning sex-stereotyped behavior," they criticize feminists for stopping too soon.
"Once the feminist and the male feminists decided that men were the oppresors of women, they thought they had the last word, historically," says former Free Men executive director Richard Haddad, 38, of Columbia. "But that does very little for men personally."
Many echo the views of Dick Conoboy, 36, a Silver Spring businessman:
"It just made me feel guilty, and for years I bought all that stuff about oppressing women. I could blame them for oppressing women. I could blame them for oppressing me, but that won't change anything. And deciding I am a male chauvinist pig isn't going to help my personal growth one bit."
Personal growth, for many, has come after discussions and support sessions, geared to broadening concepts of identity beyond work.
Dennis Gilbert, a 38-year-old computer consultant, feels it is necessary for men to develop "home-mangagement skills, not just to help the wife get off to work, but because men should not be totally dependent on someone else for that."
Similarly, he seeks involvement with his children, not just to "help out," but because "men need to know they have a place in the home; they have nurturing ability, and they don't have to function simply as the other parent." n
"We know it's not healthy to get all your jollies from work," says Joe McNerney, 39, a manager for a large government agency and editior of Options, the Free Men's monthy newsletter. It's equally unhealthy, he says, for men to confuse their personal identities with their job descriptions.
For many members, this was the hardest struggle.
Dough Schockye, 39, of the District, sees himself as a relatively mellow professor of social science and economics, but he was "realy hooked into macho" during a lengthy stint in the Green Berets. He is writing a book on masculinist theroy.
Dick Conoboy clung to a military carreer and dreams of being "an FBI agent with a gun -- all the macho stuff," until he decided to turn himself around with a lower-key job managing a company and a life style giving him more room for "emotions, friendship and the pursuit of other activities."
Clyde Ebenreck, 44, a former priest who admits to "playing the authority, controlling role as long as I can remember," is now a philosophy professor, married with two children and living in Calvert County.
He sums up a common Free Men attitude:
"My wife and I have flexible schedules regarding work, home, and childcare responsibilities. I look with pain at men who find themselves locked in a job that has no flexibility.
"Those men have lost the chance to cultivate their own open space, if their only job is to make money."
Emotions, or the struggle to free them, is the unifying force of the Free Men's movement.
"Men are brought up with the concept that it is important to be concealed, not to let anyone know what you are feeling," says government worker and part-time family counselor Glen Gaumnitz, 37, Ellicot City.
Another man says he joined when, after reading the literature, "I realized I could not remember the last time I had cried. And I was 34, at the time."
Another admits, "I had no real friendships with men before I joined, and I never discussed anything really meaningful with the friends I had."
Doug Schockey says he believes men are blocked from expressing their feelings and achieving male friendships by an overdeveloped competitive drive and a tendency to confuse sensuality with sexuality.
"A lot of guys want a pat on the back and a 'Hi, How are ya.' But they're afraid the touch may have a sexual implication, and they are afraid of it."
On sexual stereotyping, George Duda, a 50-year-old biochemist from Gaithersburg, says, "It's like making up a world. You decide how you are supposed to act, and than you try to follow. But you are like a caricature, and not a real person. You can't have true feelings that way."
"The men's movement cannot be gay-oriented. . . Gay rights is a civil-rights and not a men's-rights issue. . . Not only are 90 percent of the men we are trying to reach heterosexual, but they are also homophobic to some degree. Homeophobia is a conditioned reaction (a fear of close relations with men) that keeps mem emotionally distanced from one another." Richard Haddad in a speech at the University of Wisconsin
"We are still in the experimentaal stage." admits Free Men board member Dennis Gilbert. "We are trying to find out from a broad range of options what will appeal to our members. We don't have all the answers."
The result is a random, somewhat unorthodox approach to organization-building. Although meetings -- being attended more an more by women -- are held monthy, programs vary, according to the availability of volunteer planners. There are weekly men's support groups, retreats, research and writing projects.
Monthly mini-workshops, usually in Columbia, deal with issues from a male perspective -- frequently encounter-style -- on such topics as fathering, male anger, careers, sensuality and sexuality. The sensuality workshop included such exercises as drawing to music and dancing with closed eyes, designed to increase sensory awareness.
Choosing from the assortment of activities is a basically middle-class, economically comfortable group of men, including middle-level managers, government workers, consultants, a scientist or two, professors, sociologists, therapists, a salesman, students and retired people. Not exactly the kind of men you would expect to be in the forefront of a radical social movement.
But as Ben Goldberg, a 62-year old government worker and long-time Free Men members, sees it:
"I don't see what's so radical about wanting to feel some emotions for a change. A guy can say, 'I have a drinking problem; and everybody says, 'Okay,' but if it's an emotional one -- oh, boy -- than everybody gets upset." '
The basic Free Men's assumption is that there must be equality between the sexes. Many members are veterans of the feminist movement, abandoning it only when they sensed that "men were not included," as one put it, "in the call to freedom."
Hence, they don't like opening doors for women (unless they do it for men also), or always paying for lunch, or having men, and not women, drafted, or seeing women released first from hostage situations.
As another member says, "Women should not be considered to be more valuable human beings than men."
This attitude carries over right into the bedroom. "If a woman is going to sleep with me," says one member, "I don't want her to do so because she thinks I expect it or because I paid for her lunch. I want her to just because she wants to, and I want to have my own freedom of choice about whether I want to."
Even the most conservative agree that both men and women share responsibilities for their own and each other's sexual enjoyment. And both sides, they say, should be entitled to play the active or passive role in bed.
While the women's movement has a battle plan and marching orders, the Free Men's movement is more of a gentle -- some say unfocused -- kind of revolution.
"Men orgainze all day," defends Gene Martin. "They don't want to do the same thing at night."
"We are not Kentucky Fried men's lib," declares computer consultnt Gilber. "We are trying to open up the options to men to question their values, and work to create new patterns of behavior.
"Free Men is not necessarily a description of where we are. It's a statement of where we want to go."