This post is written by Matt Schaff. Matt is leader in the “Healthy Masculinity” landscape here in Ottawa and across the country. He is a member of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women as well as the I Can MANifest Change organization. Our city and our organization are very lucky to have him.
I don’t wear my ManUp t-shirt in public anymore.
In 2014, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women and Crime Prevention Ottawa invited Glen Canning to tell the story of his daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons, at Ottawa City Hall. Rehtaeh was sexually assaulted by young men in her community and eventually took her own life after enduring 17 months of further sexual harassment from her peers. “ManUp” was started by a group of young men who heard Glen’s challenge to prevent sexual violence in their high school. They started acting on their belief that men have a positive role to play in preventing gender-based violence.
As the manager of OCTEVAW’s MANifest Change program, I have been to ManUp conferences, facilitated workshops on positive masculinity and consent with ManUp participants, and celebrated with them and their teachers as ManUp grew from one high school group to twelve, to twenty-five. Each year, the students gave me a ManUp t-shirt, and I am honoured to walk with these guys.
At first, I wore the shirts around Ottawa, hoping people would ask me about “ManUp” and give me a chance to talk about how young men are learning to act as allies to women and LGBTQ2A folks. Nobody asked.
I talked about ManUp anyway.
I wore the shirts on my morning run along the Rideau River. People’s eyes registered the ManUp logo and then slid away.
Maybe all they could see was a skinny guy trying to show how masculine he is, or maybe being ironic. Instead of standing out, I blended into the status quo.
Since I began working with women and LGBTTQ2A people to address gender-based violence, I have looked to the White Ribbon campaign for guidance. White Ribbon has been supporting men to take up our responsibility to address male violence since 1991. One of their foundational principles is that men need to act in ways that are “gender transformative” in order to prevent gender-based violence.
I think “gender transformation” means that as men, we don’t have to prove our masculinity by dominating others physically, sexually, emotionally or financially. We can be strong and assertive without being aggressive. It means that women and queer folks can be strong and assertive, too, without needing to resort to the same kinds of dominating behaviours men are expected to use. For the guys, our gender transformation task is to find ways of expressing our masculinity that connect us to ourselves and to others. It’s not enough to just try harder at the same old definitions of being a “good man”.
For some folks, gender transformation means reclaiming masculinities that have been eroded by ongoing racism and colonization. Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin (I Am a Kind Man) is a healing program of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres that relies on Anishinaabe cultural teachings to support men in all our experiences of violence – as victims, as perpetrators, as witnesses, as allies trying to stop violence against others.
Young Men Leading Change is an example of racialized and newcomer men learning from women leaders in their communities about how to prevent gender-based violence. They are showing the wider community how to lead based on cultural values of respect and love of community. They are modelling a form of leadership that requires men to work with women and LGBTTQ+ people rather than ignore or talk over them.
For me, and other White guys, I believe that it’s important to discover and claim positive ways of being a man that are rooted in our European cultures. It’s important to become strong enough to learn from others without shutting down when we are told to “check our privilege” or are asked to share the stage with people of colour and Indigenous folks. “Acting with” instead of “doing to”, nurturing powerful curiosity along with a respect for boundaries, and practicing empathy are all in the job description.
These days, my ManUp t-shirt stays in my closet when I go for a run, but it comes out when I’m at a workshop or a party where I can create opportunities to do gender transformation. I can’t wait to see what the guys at ManUp will do this year. They are teaching me how hard it is, and how rewarding it can be, to try out masculinity that connects rather than dominates.