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Pro-feminist men’s group celebrates 40 years of kinship, social change advocacy

  • A pro-feminist men’s group from around Franklin and Hampshire counties has created a tight kinship that’s helped through jobs coming and going, changing relationships, births, illnesses and deaths over the course of 40 years. Back, from left to right: the late Llan Starkweather, Tom Weiner, Tony Clark, Paul Richmond, Steve Trudel, Alan Surprenant and Stephen Bannasch. Front: Dick McLeester, Gary Phillips and Robbie Leppzer. Contributed photo

  • From left to right, Tony Clark, Paul Richmond, Tom Weiner, Gary Phillips, Steve Trudel and Robbie Leppzer. Contributed photo

  • From left to right, Tom Weiner, Paul Richmond, Gary Phillips, Steve Trudel, Tony Clark and Robbie Leppzer. Contributed photo



Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2018

It was the 1970s feminist women’s movement that helped give birth to a Pioneer Valley men’s group, but it’s the dedication of its close-knit members that has led it to last 40 years.

The “pro-feminist” group from around Franklin and Hampshire counties has created a tight kinship that’s helped through jobs coming and going, changing relationships, births, illnesses and deaths with a depth that’s uncommon among men.

Members recently took part in an annual five-day retreat in the Thousand Islands, swimming, boating, cooking and building on their four-decade relationship built on confronting the kinds of issues — sexual assaults, disrespect of women and bullying — that have captured the nation’s attention in recent weeks and months.

Forming for social change

Not all of the nine-member group — whose oldest member, Llan Starkweather of Amherst, died in June, leaving eight — were there at the outset in the fall of 1978, when Alan Surprenant and Gary Selden announced on posters around the region the formation of a new “Men to Men” group with a clear political focus:

“We are looking for anti-sexist men who are interested in forming a group that would concern itself actively with radical social change in the Valley area. We want to focus our energies on confronting patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, misogyny/women hating and homophobia. These institutions of male privilege are internalized in the U.S. and need to be confronted simultaneously on personal and political levels. In addition to these major focuses, we want to be constantly aware of the direct interrelationships with exploitative economic structures, racism, classism and ageism.”

The announcement, signed “in love and struggle,” proposed a collective of five to 12 men who would consider making “a long-term commitment.”

“We would like to gather to get to know each other and develop a common analysis and strategy to take direct action against sexism. Possible projects include men’s community nights, men’s child care collective, organizing workshops and discussions, men’s caucuses within existing political organizations, working against violence against women, networking, initiating support groups …”

The men who turned out initially “kind of sort of knew each other,” recalled Steve Trudel of Florence. “There weren’t a whole lot of guys who were saying, ‘There’s a women’s movement, what can we do to respond to that?’”

Member Tom Weiner of Northampton, who recently completed a book, “Finding Support in One Another,” documenting not only this men’s group but also a younger counterpart in Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as older and younger women’s groups, didn’t join until 1989, though he was involved in a men’s group beginning in 1973.

“Our relationships were combusting because women were questioning their roles,” he recalled. “A lot of women were expecting men to just step up and do this. My partner was saying, ‘I need you to get your s*** together.’ … I wanted to respond to that. She was working at the (University of Massachusetts) Everywoman’s Center. She didn’t want to come home every night to a guy lying on the couch sucking a beer, not paying attention to the kids.

“Those times were changing,” said Weiner, who had been working at day care centers and then went on to teach for 40 years at the Smith College Campus School.

Balancing personal and political

The group that formed had a definite political focus to its meetings in the first couple of years, and did direct actions like providing child care for women during “take back the night” marches protesting violence against women.

Based on his interviews for the book, Weiner said, there were some “elements of shame and guilt — maybe not consciously naming them as such, but becoming aware, s***** things were happening to women, and thinking, ‘Oh my god, did I do some of those things?’”

The group’s two-hour weekly meetings included agendas, someone taking minutes and some members feeling there needed to be all business, with less schmoozing.

“Initially what brought us together was the feeling we needed to do something, to solve problems, like guys do. Those days were heady,” recalled Trudel, who has worked as a men’s counselor and done domestic violence intervention work for the Men’s Resource Center for Change in Amherst.

But as the 1970s turned to the ’80s, and the members, then in their 20s and 30s, settled into the group, it evolved. As it tried to find more balance between the personal and the political, a couple of the men left, and those who remained began questioning whether to disband.

Then came a radical notion from one member: What if the problem was that they hadn’t spent enough time together and needed to spend an entire day, including meals, to become more intimate?

“We became comfortable with the idea we could just hang out with each other,” Trudel said. “We didnt have to solve any problems, we didn’t have to go out on a march or do something political per se. We could hang out. And we didn’t have to feel guilty about that.”

Breaking the mold

Wendell filmmaker Robbie Leppzer, the group’s youngest member when he joined at 20, and still now at 60, said he joined because, “I felt it was time for myself, as a man who felt supportive of the women’s movement, to join together with other like-minded men in a group that all felt very similarly, and not fitting into the mold. Being nonmacho and having a different outlook on life, it was a wonderful opportunity.”

Leppzer produced a documentary about the group, “Positively Male,” that had its premiere in 1981 at the sixth National Organization of Men Against Sexism conference at Tufts University.

“We thought we were on the cutting edge of the wave bringing this new feminist consciousness to men,” Leppzer said, “and one of the roles we could play was sharing our experience and inspiring other men’s groups.”

Now, especially in light of the #MeToo movement and the continuing signs that women remain subjected to assault by men, Leppzer said, “We thought the consciousness would expand and expand, that we were making a revolution, but it’s been quite disheartening we didn’t create the mass of changes we were hoping to. Now with these revelations coming out, I’m disturbed this terrible behavior by men is continuing. Obviously, we still have our work cut out for us to do the educational work to change that behavior among other men.”

Leppzer’s film, shown eight times followed by discussions at the 1981 conference, displayed a comfortable Pioneer Valley style displaying lightness and personal connection that was at odds with the serious politics of the conference, Trudel said. One reaction was, “Well this is a great group, but I’m straight, and you guys are obviously all gay, so I wouldn’t be able to fit in with a group like that.”

The reaction at another showing, Trudel said, was, “I really like this, but I’m gay and you guys are all straight, and I wouldn’t fit in because you climb mountains and do masculine things…”

Trudel was surprised, and confronted both audiences by asking what made them think they knew the makeup of the group, most of whom are straight but aren’t held back by stereotypes of how men are supposed to be.

Offering a safe space

Tony Clark of Westhampton, who joined in 1979 and who hosts an annual five-day retreat at his wife’s family house in the Thousand Islands, calls the group “an emotional refuge and safe place. A lot of men typically go to the women in their lives, if they can open up about their emotions at all, to get any feedback and connection. We’ve evolved into a place where it’s OK to risk saying what’s on your mind, speaking your feelings and not feeling you’re gonna get trounced upon if you let yourself be vulnerable. To me, that’s the most beautiful dynamic of the group.”

Vulnerability is at the core of the experience for men who grow up in a culture where males are at risk for anything they allow to be exposed about themselves.

Paul Richmond of Wendell who, along with Weiner, was part of another group in 1975 that merged to form the current group, said in male culture, “It’s competition. If I ‘get’ something on you, I might use it against you to get ahead. Creating an environment where men can feel safe is a very political act. It allows men to express emotions and feel what’s going on. So (the key is) being given a place to express breakups, people dying, the feeling that you’re a failure, whatever, without being put down, and being able to hear … ‘It’s not just me.’”

At a party where three group members happened to be attending, Richmond began talking about his experience of being bullied, Trudel recalled. The conversation led one man at the party, a Vietnam veteran, to ask about their group. Eventually, he revealed, “I was the guy who did that to you.” He had been a bully, something he’d never talked about before.

“Then he gets a little bit deeper and says, ‘My dad used to beat me up ….’ And how he went into the military to deal with that. There’s no way in hell either of those things would have ever surfaced,” Trudel said, “because all he’s going to be thinking is ‘Someone’s going to beat me up for this. Someone’s gonna annihilate me because I’m a bad person.’”

Growth, by emotion

Allowing men to become family to one another, through cooking and eating, playing and talking honestly over 40 years of life changes, has been “a unique experience,” said Richmond, adding that the group allows for “a safe place with a different kind of interacting.”

“We were trying to create a place where men could meet each other’s emotional needs,” recalled Surprenant of Ashfield. “What has come to pass is a chosen family of men. I enjoy the uniqueness of (the) gathering, a different kind of experience than a one-on-one friendship, which I also treasure. Longevity of the group is one of its greatest gifts for me.”

“The group’s helped me grow,” said Leppzer, who grew up with an abusive, emotionally distant father. At one point, Leppzer’s lingering anger erupted in an angry letter to his father, which he showed members at one of their day-long meetings.

“The group was really wonderful, suggesting it would not be a good idea to send it. Instead, I should work on myself, on letting go of that anger because it was hurting and limiting me.”

Through therapy, Leppzer said, he found compassion and forgiveness for his father, and it helped create a healing relationship in the final year and a half of his father’s life.

“That was a tremendous gift to me,” Leppzer said. “I feel the men’s group was a strong part of that.”

Richard McLeester of Conway said that in addition to knowing he has this group of men who’ve known him so well for most of his life to turn to for support, he gets introduced to their different perspectives and ways of thinking, “and it brings it to life for me.”

Men’s Resource Center founding Director Rob Okun of Amherst, whose Voice Male magazine featured an article last year about the group’s interaction with an urban men’s group now in their 30s, said, “I can’t think of anything better that men could be doing than emulating a group that’s been meeting to listen honestly, openly, without interrupting when its someone’s turn. For men to believe this is a safe place to share my burdens and challenges as well as my joys and successes, a place where I know I can be honest with the feelings, the confusion, the worry ... and to know I’ll not be judged, even though I’ll be held accountable.”

Okun noted he’s “bothered by the resounding silence in most quarters from men to the #MeToo movement.” But, he added, “This group as a model for what’s possible is really a cause for celebration.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for more than 40 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.