'Gentlemen' discuss women's issues and sexism

By Crystal Proxmire

Gentlemen is an antisexist group for men - "For men, not of men," organizers are proud to point out.

"We welcome and need voices of different identities so we can all challenge socialization and play a huge role in holding each other accountable," said Mark Nesbitt, one of Gentlemen's founders. Nesbitt is a prevention education specialist at HAVEN, an organization that is committed to creating violence-free communities. He said that much of the work of preventing violence against women focuses on women - teaching them how to avoid rape, teaching them to stand up for themselves, or helping them change their lives to get away from a violent situation. "We can make a huge difference if we get more men engaged in preventing gender-based violence."

Gentlemen is determined to do just that. The group's official mission is "dedicated to encouraging healthy and respectful masculinity; challenging sexism and other forms of oppression; and supporting HAVEN in its mission to end gender-based violence."

There are community discussion meetings on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m., currently being held at Torino Espresso Bar (201 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale). There is also a council meeting held at Haven's office (30400 Telegraph Road, Suite 101, Bingham Farms) on the first Saturday of the month at 10 am.

Discussion topics are feminist issues, including politically-correct humor, birth control, access to healthcare and porn. The intent is to have an open dialogue so that participants, particularly men, gain an understanding of how these issues affect women. Though the group is essentially men discussing women's issues, members hope people can begin to "look past the binary" and recognize them as human issues.

Khristoper Kole is one example of how people can do just that. Kole is a transgender male who thinks it's important to crusade for equality, even though his whiskers and athletic build afford him considerable male privilege.

"I personally identify as being omnisexual and omnigendered as I choose not to use a specific classification. This is problematic because it implies that there is only a binary with which to identify. That we must be one way or the other way," explains Kole. "Since we live in a world where the binary prevails I choose to identify as male, though I don't typically talk about being trans unless it becomes relevant to disclose. Being transgendered often times has the advantage of a distinctive perspective, seeing the world through a very unique lens."

When Kole was first transitioning, he strove to live up to media-pushed images of masculinity. "Men are supposed to be dominant, controlling, a provider and completely self-sufficient. To exhibit anything less is to be less than a man. This was incredibly damaging to me personally and to the partnerships I was involved in. I had become disrespectful to partners and arrogant. This is not who I truly am," Kole said.

After recognizing the disparity between commercially-idealized masculinity, and a realistic approach to living as an individual human being, Kole began looking for ways to rise above the binary and bring attention to the issue of sexism. "I am still learning every day that I live. It is not to say that I don't have regrets and that others were not hurt in the process; however, I can only choose to move forward and work to do something better."

He discovered Gentlemen by a chance invitation from a friend-of-a-friend. "Strangely, it was exactly the type of community work that I had been searching for," Kole said. "Since that initial meeting, Mark and I have been working diligently to provide an environment where Gentlemen can take shape. We are doing this through hammering down Gentlemen's mission statement, principles, and outlining a strategy for positive activism."

The group's April 11 discussion centered around images of femininity in the media. They watched part of the Jean Kilbourne's "Killing us Softly 4." Kilbourne's documentary shows how sexist advertising, television and media create a culture where women are constantly objectified and belittled. This leads to an expectation of submissiveness and violence. The film also points out that men do not live in a world where they are continuously, pervasively, judged by their looks - unlike women.

With many examples of demeaning ads, the film is fun and easy to watch, but also shocking. The Gentlemen group watched a clip of the film on a laptop and also shared some ads that they found off the internet they found appalling.

The Gentlemen discussion group talked about the ads and what they could do to counter the effects. Suggestions included standing up to people who make sexist jokes or comments, sharing videos like "Killing Us Softly" with others, boycotting companies that use sexism to sell, and giving thought to the amount of time, money, and emotional energy that is spent in the pursuit of unobtainable beauty.

Another powerful suggestion made was to avoid comments about people's appearance altogether. Judgmental attitudes are an obvious by-product of a sexist culture, but even the propensity to tell others that they look nice, or thin, feeds into the culture of objectification.

"Unfortunately when men speak about sexism, it has more power. That's the case with any marginalized group in history. When a woman speaks up to a man, it's dismissed as her just being a feminist; but if a man speaks up to a man, it's more likely to lead to a real conversation," says Nesbitt. "I wish the world didn't work that way - which is exactly why I'm here - But unfortunately it does. We need men to recognize this as a problem."

For more information on Gentlemen, like them on Facebook at http://www.Facebook.com/HAVENGentlemen or email gentlemen@haven-oakland.org. Learn more about HAVEN at http://www.haven-oakland.org/about-haven.

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