For many Taiwanese, last year ended with a disappointing backlash against gender equality movements, after voters on Nov. 24 passed three referendums to limit LGBT rights.
However, the year also saw the rise of a new form of resistance, organized by men for men, against gender stereotyping and “toxic masculinity.”
The efforts culminated in the creation of the Taiwan Men’s Association, which claims to be the first group to advocate gender equality from a man’s perspective in Taiwan — and possibly Asia.
Association president Shiau Hong-chi (蕭宏祺), a professor and chairman of Shih Hsin University’s Department of Communications Management, said the group’s goal is to “unsettle patriarchy” by inspiring conversations and imagination about “different ways of becoming men.”
“We want to promote the idea that there are all kinds of men out there and help make society more accepting of men with qualities not traditionally associated with masculinity,” he told the Taipei Times.
For Shiau, the association, founded in April last year, was a logical next step in the nation’s gender equality movement, after he observed a growing number of men supporting women’s and LGBT rights, he said.
“I have many heterosexual male friends who support gender equality, but taking part in advocacy events is often awkward for them,” he said. “They are easily considered chauvinists if they disagree with mainstream feminist ideas, when things might be more complicated than that.”
Although more women are victims of gender inequality, simplifying it as one-sided oppression risks antagonizing men and women, and creates an unnecessary impasse for feminist movements, he said.
“Society appears to have granted many privileges to men, but they might be unnecessary, or even oppressive,” he said. “It is like when you slap someone in the face, your hand hurts too.”
Gender equality movements have so far focused on the patriarchy’s oppression of women and LGBT people, while leaving its oppression of heterosexual men relatively unexplored, he said, adding: “that is something that we particularly want to examine.”
“Many men are neither abusers nor [traditional] victims. They support gay rights, but are not gay. We hope to include those people in gender equality movements through this association,” he said.
It is not easy to convince men to open up about how gender inequality has hurt them, Shiao said, but added that the association has received consistent support from feminists.
He said the association began as a spinoff project by the Garden of Hope Foundation, a leading women’s rights group, which has a section exclusively dedicated to gender equality campaigns targeting men.
The men’s association is partly funded by the foundation and has recruited many members from the group, he said, adding that women account for about one-third of its staff.
“We have only just begun and are still considering how to best proceed as we work on telling men’s experience,” he said.
The association at the moment focuses on recounting men’s experience and providing social critiques in a monthly column on Thinking Taiwan Forum (想想論壇) and at its own advocacy events.
It also organizes discussion groups on men’s experience for university students and is planning to host a film festival about men’s roles in families this summer.
So far, it has tackled a wide range of issues from a male perspective, from mental health, domestic violence and fatherhood to more sensitive subjects, including rape.
Men have a higher suicide rate than women, Shiau said, adding that the association is concerned about men’s emotional isolation as a result of common myths about masculinity.
“Today men are no longer the beneficiaries of the patriarchy, as most people might imagine,” he said. “They enjoy fewer financial advantages than they used to and do not necessarily perform better than women in schools and other areas, but they are still expected to do better and at the same time shoulder the ‘original sin’ of being men.”
This widely shared frustration is often exacerbated by a reluctance to seek emotional support, due to perceived pressure to appear manly, he said.
“Men tend to not share their emotional experiences, because they were neither trained nor expected to do so,” he said.
The result could be social isolation, as manifested in “otaku culture” and attempts to assert masculinity by using violence, he said.
“Men are also less likely to report it to the police if they have been physically abused, because it is too embarrassing and the police might not believe them,” he said, adding that at least 20 to 30 percent of domestic violence victims are male.
Like many men’s rights groups in the West, the association is concerned about false accusations of sexual harassment and rape, but has been careful when dealing with the subject.
“It is true that in most cases it is women who are harassed or raped by men and they cannot immediately expose them because of the power imbalance. However, there are also cases where it is more complicated,” he said.
The association hopes to bring attention to unjustified assumptions that men are abusers and contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and rape, as well as gray areas, by explaining men’s experience, he said.
Ultimately, it hopes to create a world where masculinity can be expressed in a myriad of complex ways, he said.
“I am worried that the public’s conception of gender could remain restricted to a small number of people captured on camera,” he said. “Things in the media tend to be shallow, convenient and dumbed down for viewers to immediately understand.”
With regard to an incident last month in which a father allegedly beat up his son, who had forgotten to ask for hot sauce for his father’s meatballs, Shiau said: “People called for the judge to hand him a heavier punishment, as if everything could be solved by a death sentence.”
Shiao said he believes there is a better approach than countering violence with the toughest penalties.
“I hope people can look into the underlying social context and think about what made the man like that,” he said. “That is something our association would like to stimulate discussion about and that it ultimately wants to change.”
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