They traveled to Houston last weekend to fight what they consider the overlooked causes of the American male.

Among them:

Peter Cyr, a 39-year-old dentist from Portland, Maine, who until his divorce considered himself "pretty much of a house husband." He did "a great deal of taking care of the children" while his wife got her Ph.d. But the courts -- after a lengthy legal battle he is still fighting -- gave her sole custody. Now he sees his two daughters only on weekends.

"I went to court 12 ties over a period of two years" seeking joint custody, at a cost so far, he estimates, of $24,000. "It's almost impossible for an average person to be able to afford justice."

Thad Bushue, 31, a Flying Tigers airlines ramp serviceman in Anchorage, Alaska, who fathered a son out of marriage. Though he volunteered $40 weekly support, it "took me six months and $6,500" in legal and related feed for the right to see the child -- "he's 10 months and 3 days old" -- every other weekend.

Bushue also wants joint custody, but the courts "don't want to hear my story." He spent weeks examining files on contested divorces in Alaska last year. Of the 130 involving children, "they gave the chldren to the mother in 120."

Both Cyr and Bushue are leaders in their hometowns in forming organizations of fathers like themselves who feel they have been unjustifiably denied the chance to be active parents. They are, they believe, victims of sex discrimination.

Dan Logan, 34, a Washington speech writers and art photographer, who unlike Cyr and Bushe is not a father and is happily married. But he also feels the male is often victimized by a society that pushes him into macho roles that can cost him the joy of warm personal relationships with family and friends.

Logan is a leader in Free Men, an organization exploring such male issues as the draft, the male role in an abortion decision and why men die years earlier, on the average, than women. In our culture, he says, "men are afraid to look at themselves. It's the Spartan attitude. They're inculcated with the value of strength." But Free Men hass begun to ask "what it means to be a man" and to admit that men have doubts and fears, too.

"People who can acknowledge fear," says Logan, "are stronger people."

The three joined 100 representatives from similar groups in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Canada who gathered at a Houston airport hotel to form the National Congress for Men, aimed at uniting efforts on behalf of their sex.

"A historic conference," says delegate Thom Thompson, a Baltimore marriage and family counselor active in Free Men. "I wanted to be here for the formation of a national men's group."

The '80s, believes Thompson "is the men's decade."

(More than a few men recalled that Houston was the site four years ago of the government-funded National Women's Conference. Some delegates suggested that -- for equality's sake -- Washington should grant to their fledgling organization the same $5 million the women got.)

This is a grassroots movement," claims Miami lawyer Edward J. Winter (who specialized in fighting child-custody cases for men) "that will have the power of the National Organization for Women."

That, of course, remains to be seen, but the spirit and near unaniminity of the delegates -- despite their disparity -- was impressive. They included men in Levis and in pinstripes, young never-marrieds and a grandfather worried about visitation rights to his divorced son's child.

A few advocated return to the "traditional" family, and others wanted to be sure that homosexuals would not be excluded from the organization. (This potentially divisive issue did not come up for debate at last weekend's congress.)

Helen Bennett of Oak Park, Mich., a therapist counseling divorced males for the 2,500-member Fathers for Equal Rights in her state, was among the dozen women delegates. She was elected to the National Congress' 15-member organzing committee.

But the overwhelming majority of delegates were divorced or separated men representing fathers' groups across the country whose members want a greater share in the raising of their children.

Over drinks, many swapped "horror stories" of bitter legal battles with ex-wives for a chance to raise, or at least to visit, their offspring on a regular basis. They carried thick legal briefs detailing their cases.

Judges, the delegates say, can be harsh on men who fail to make child-support payments, but they tend not to act so forcefully when the women does not live up to the court-established visitation arrangement.

"You don't have any constitutional rights with your children," says Elliott H. Diamond of McLean, representing the D.C.-Northern Virginia Fathers United for Equal Rights. "We're just the providers." His Arlington-Based group counsels as many as 500 fathers a year.

"When you take a role in fathers' rights," says Diamond, whose sons are 12, 13 and 14, "your children become aware you're out there fighting for them, defending a relationship they need."

Lingering bitterness is reflected in the name of the Albuquerque father's group, Divorced Men Unite (DAMU -- pronounced damn-you). It was chosen in the heat of emotion, says member Mike Gadler, and probably will be changed now that there has been time to cool off.

Many men talked about their devastation over the loss of a child in a divorce.

"I suffered greatly for two years," says Curt Posey, a 35-year-old Houston stockbroker and member of the Texas Fathers for Equal Rights. "I was lonely and depressed. I went off and hid in my apartment. You don't want to tell people your troubles."

When his son, now 4, was born, "It was a new dimension in my life. I had never experienced anything like that." Right from the beginning, he says, he helped with the feedings and other child-rearing responsiblities.

But shortly afterward, Posey and his wife parted, "and they took him away from me. My first child-support payment was due on his first birthday." He has weekend visiting rights twice a month, but "the most tragic thing is not to be with him."

Nevertheless, Hayward doesn't hesitate to criticize the women's movement, which he charges has failed to "purge itself of its own sexist attitudes. It never listened to men. It never dealt with men's issues."

(Hayward was scheduled to address the 7th National Conference on Men and Masculinity in Boston on Tuesday, but was disinvited, he says, at the last minute. The conference, says spokesmen, scrutinizes men's issues from "a feminist perspective," an ideology with which Hayward and Free Men's Logan differ. "Men affiliated with Men's Rights, Inc.," says Hayward, "feel more like the fellow victims of sexism than the sinners who caused it all.")

Joe Barbier, a Mendham, N.J., chiropractor who has been jailed four times in custody and support disputes, and John Rossler of Equal Rights for Fathers in New York State in Syracuse, began ogranizing the congress last fall.

"Our culture," says Rossler, "justifiably has become aware of and initiated remedies for sex discrimination. It has, however, for the most part, viewed sex discrimination as a single-gender issue and ignored to a large degree the discrimination men and their children face in a society redefining the roles of family members."

In his own case, says Barbier, 40, the feisty father of two sons, "I have accepted and am resigned that because of the financial situation, it's a losing battle." But he felt a national organization providing support and an exchange of information among local groups could be of major help to other men.

"No other guy is going through the b------- that I've gone through."

The target of Barbier's animosity, like that of many others, is this country's adversary system of divorce which pits spouse against spouse in contests over who is most fit to raise the children. The congress called, instead, for legislation establishing arbitration and mediation mechanisms for divorce and adoption of the "joint physical and legal custody" concept.

"I can't stress what a villainous role lawyers have played and how destructive it has been to children," says psychologist Mel Roman of Albert Einstein School of Medicine and author of The Disposable Parent . Roman, who addressed the congress, advocates joint-custody agreements for the child's benefit. He contends they tend to foster "more responsibility" in the father and more consistent support payments.

Adds dentist Cyr of Portland's Coalition Organized for Parental Equality: "Most of the judges are older, professional, conservative men. They were raised in the era of the '30s when the traditional family was part of their upbringing. They haven't been exposed to anything else.

"But the traditional family is a thing of the past. The statutes don't apply anymore."

The congress chose James A. Cook of the Joint Custody Association in Los Angeles, the divorced father of a 15-year-old son, to head the organizing committee. He sees an attack on state laws through the legislature as "the most efficient use of energy to affect a broad social change within a measurable period of time."

At least two earlier organization attempts in the '70s faltered, but Bob Hirschfeld of Scottsdale, Ariz., editor of "Single Dad's Lifestyle," is optimistic about the Houston meeting. Since the movie "Kramer vs. Kramer," public consciousness has been raised, he says, and local groups have enjoyed recent legal successes. "Everyone I've spoken to wants to make this one work."

Certainly the time seems ripe for a national clearinghouse coordinating fathers' rights efforts. How actively the congress will promote the less-tangible men's-rights issues remains to be seen (though activists Logan, Hayward and Thompson were named to the 15-member organizing committee).

If most delegates headed for Houston to fight primarily for fathers' rights, at least some went home with a raised conciousness about men's-rights issues in general after taking part in discussions, for example, on male sexuality.

"I see my son who's 4; I see how open he is with me touching and hugging," says Steve Moyer of Fathers for Equal Rights in Detroit. "I fear when he gets older, he won't be able to express himself emotionally. How do you encourage hugging?"