The conference was billed as "Freeing Men From the Macho Mold," and Minerva Bernard, a 45-year-old nurse from South Ozone Park on Long Island, signed up for a workshop on "men and compulsive behavior."

"That's my husband," she said, though her accompanying laugh made it appear she didn't take it too seriously. Still, she paid her $20 for the day-long meeting Saturday because "I'd like to know what makes men tick."

Bernard was among the 400 mostly white, suburban, middle-class crowd of men and women who gathered at Adelphi University, Garden City, to discuss issues affecting the American male. Topics ranged from the difficulty men have in making friends with each other to why -- perhaps because of how they live their lives -- they die so much earlier than women.

"We males are hurting, and few men and women realize it," Adelphi education professor and conference coordinator Jay Smith told the group, almost equally divided between men and women. "We pay the price for cool, detatched, unemotional lives . . . to be real men."

Our employers, said Smith, "expect us to place job ahead of family and health. We suffer pain trying not to act like girls--to be a sissy, though it is perfectly all right for girls to be tom-boys. We feel inadequate if we're not a star athlete."

In some instances, said keynoter Herb Goldberg, a California State University psychologist and author of The Hazards of Being Male, a man's "compulsion to live up to the masculine image supersedes his compulsion to live."

Take the example of two carloads of youths on the freeway. Someone "flips a finger. That's their sole communication." The cars stop, a fight ensues and someone ends up in the hospital. "With the flip of a finger, those guys go into a macho-psychotic behavior.

The conference was co-sponsored by Adelphi University and the Long Island chapter of Free Men, a relatively new organization with chapters in Washington and Boston seeking to spotlight male concerns as the women's movement did for women. There is a strong feeling among Free Men that their's is a burgeoning men's movement.

While this remains to be seen, that many men -- and women -- sense legitimate male issues is evidenced in the reasons these people gave for attending:

* William Heacock, 58-year-old electrical engineer form Syosset, N.Y., interested in workshops on occupational stress and "life with a healthy attitude": "My work is challenging and satisfying, but it's tough work. I found out I've got to take care of myself physically."

* Gregory Hines, 36, actor and dancer starring in Broadway's "Sophisticated Ladies": When growing up, he got into fights he didn't want so that pals and girlfirends wouldn't think "I was a coward. As boy and man I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't figure it out."

* Walter Chaskel, a Port Washington, N.Y., 6th-grade teacher and participant in a workshop on school influence on boys: "I find a lot of children dealing in false values, with their need to retaliate, to seek revenge. So many parents simplify the need for self-protection. They say, 'Stand up for yourself, and knock them in the head.' "

* Henry Tabickman, 26, 10th-grade English teacher of Sunnyside, N.Y.: "It seemed like an unusual opportunity to discuss issues that pertain to men for a change. The women's coalition has certainly affected men, and it's time men realized that."

* Modestina Helenese, 30, a Jamaica, N.Y., nurse, attending a workshop on the life style of single men: "There are lots of single men out there. They don't want to get married, and I don't know why."

* Scott Scherer, 30, Hillcrest, N.Y.: "I'm a house husband" with a 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twins . "My wife's a legal secretary and in law school. My biggest problem is my relationships with friends. I don't see many similarities between myself and them. They're not supportive. They give me hell. I've gotten so many job offers from them."

* Karen McFarland, Westbury, N.Y., a "soldier" in the ranks of the women's movement: "Curiosity and an interest in men. When we started, there weren't any men--and they weren't invited. It makes a lot more sense that women are here."

While at least a few men -- among them a vocal pair involved with ex-wives in child-custody disputes -- objected to the presence of women, Free Men leaders welcomed them.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," said Naomi Penner, co-founder and vice-president of Long Island Free Men and also active in the National Organization for Women. "We have to see each other's points of view.

"For a long time, I've felt the polarity of the sexes. We're brought up with different roles, different experiences, different values. Then we're expected to live together in the closest bond. We've got to change something."

If Free Men, or some other organization, is able to sustain a men's movement, Goldberg -- often cited as the "guru" of male awareness -- sees it taking a form different from the women's.

"Women's issues are power issues," he said, such as equality on the job. "Women had the energy of rage, and the perception of themselves as blameless victims. Men's issues are human issues," attainable more through conciousness-raising than the formation of political-action groups. (One exception is the divorced fathers' fight for reform of custody laws under the National Congress for Men.)

While he sees progress in humanizing American men -- "In 1975, it was an embarrassment to be seen reading my book" -- "there is still widespread resistance to male awareness . . . " It "means becoming involved in expressing sides of the self that terrify him -- his emotions, his fears."

The goal of groups like Free Men, he suggested, should not be "to transform all men, but widen the spectrum of tolerable behavior" for them, so that those who want to can become "ballet dancers" or "vegetarians" without having their masculinity challenged.

This doesn't mean, as one conference-goer put it, American men are threatened with becoming "wimps."

Says Goldberg: "There's nothing wrong with aggression. Sometimes it's important to fight." But, it's also important to be able "to choose not to fight when the situation is inappropriate."