The Elephant in the Room: Speakers Discuss What Makes a Man

Shihan, a world renown spoken word poet, speaks at What Makes a Man 2012.

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[T]he spoken word poet’s voice resonates through the lecture hall. He strides confidently onstage and his presence is immediately felt in the room despite his nondescript attire – light wash jeans and a black sweater over an untucked red shirt. As he speaks, he closes his eyes, stands on his toes at times and holds his hands out as he gestures. His brow furrows as he bends his body forward while he talks about “the never-ending story called the human condition.”

He is Shihan, a spoken word poet and the main attraction of the annual Ryerson White Ribbon Conference, What Makes a Man. At this event, speakers have a discussion with the audience after they present.

The speakers came from every walk of life. Not all of them were famous but each one came that day to share their experience of how the pressures of gender affected their lives.

When the issue of gender discrimination comes up, many are quick to say how far we’ve come and how much better it is now compared to the past, says Jessica Yee, a social justice activist and one of the speakers.

However, the recurring message for the event was that gender constructs are a reality for many to this day, and much closer to home than expected. One speaker shared his experience with gender discrimination during his time as a teaching assistant (TA) at Ryerson University. A student approached him with a request to have his test marked again. The student refused to accept the mark given by his assigned TA simply because she was female.

Another theme at the event was the idea that there is still a lot more that can and should be done. All the speakers encountered some problem with gender pressures and they each did something about it instead of standing by.

Heather Jarvis felt sickened by what she called the “victim-blaming, slut-shaming” comments of the Toronto Police after the rapes on campus at York University. In response to these comments, she began SlutWalk, a march in protest of these comments and of the people who believe them. The movement rapidly went international after other countries stated they encountered the same issues.

Being a part of the solution means taking a stand for anything you see as unjust and hurtful.

A man once asked Jim Stockdale, a firefighter and captain how he felt about having a female firefighter at the station. Stockdale spoke quietly and deliberately, as he began to choke up. “I know that when I go down, she’ll break her back to get me out,” he said.

Stockdale saw this colleague crying one day after a phone call from the district chief. She was blamed for the fact that more female-friendly facilities had to be installed at the station. Shocked at how she was treated, Stockdale opened a file with the Ontario Human Rights Commission under his name for her. He did those knowing there would be repercussions to his actions but not knowing what they would be.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said.

Some of the issues brought up were more light-hearted. Michael Kaufman, author of The Guy’s Guide to Feminism, touched upon machismo. He says that this is the male need to exhibit what they see as strong masculine traits to others. Machismo manifests itself in ridiculous ways. Kaufman says this desire to be macho explains why men brag about being well-endowed.

A few subjects were humorous, many were emotional and some were uncomfortable but all of them need to be talked about, said Jeff Perera, curator of the event. He said he considers himself an elephant hunter because he hunts the elephants in a room – these elephants being the topics people are too scared to bring up.

“There’s a need everywhere for the same conversations we’re having in this room,” he said.

Debbie Hernandez, Journalism ’15