This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
VICE Asia is calling 2019 " The Year We Woke Up .” This year, we saw young people stand up, push back, and take matters into their own hands. We celebrate the fighters, the change makers, the movements that have shaken us wide awake and reminded us of our own roles in realising change. This story is part of a series.
In the age of Rodrigo Duterte, misogynistic comments are commonplace. The Philippine President has no problem catcalling women during his speeches, signalling to Filipino men that they can do the same too. How does one fight sexism with someone like that in power? That’s what this group of millennials is trying to address, in the most un-millennial way.
Usapang Lalaki (UL or literally, “Boy Talk”) is a series of talks that discusses gender issues like toxic masculinity and feminism. They started in February, when a group of young Filipinos realised that Duterte could care less about the negative influence of his non-stop sexist comments.
“It was the instance where Duterte asked a married woman to kiss him in front of the international press; that was one of the actions we felt needed accountability. People don’t understand that although the girl gave consent, it isn’t really consenting when there are power relations,” Adrienne Onday, one of the founding members of UL told VICE.
In June 2018, Duterte told a married woman to kiss him on stage during an event in Seoul.
“[Duterte] doesn’t really challenge the status quo and always pushes the same standard, that men should be strong and aggressive. What about the people who are hurt by his actions?” Onday asked.
So now, she and her team — comprised of both men and women — are working to rid the Philippines of the machismo that’s embedded in its culture. Not by “cancelling” these men and calling them trash, as is the trend today, but by doing something much harder — listening.
Eschewing comments sections and “cancel culture,” UL brings together men and women of all sexual identities so they can talk face to face. Everyone is welcome, including those who have admitted to doing some terrible things.
“It is truly an open space that tries to encourage earnest discussions of feminism and gender issues, Eugene Ong, a regular attendee, who has admitted to treating women badly in the past, told VICE.
“For people like me, a big part of taking responsibility and letting myself be held accountable for my wrongs is having a community, a support system of people with the common goal of self-awareness and self-improvement — to be better men for women.”
Patricia Ramos, one of the women in the community, agrees. Although she will always doubt men, she said UL gives her a glimmer of hope.
“I'm the kind of person who harbours a lot of suspicions so it does get difficult to be around men with a history of toxic masculinity or gender-based violence, but knowing that this is a safe and secure space with the potential for transformation and renewal in a time of toxic call-out culture, I can rest assured knowing that I and other women's voices can be heard, as opposed to the cold and easily dismissible anonymity of the internet,” Ramos told VICE.
Through these events, men learn to be vulnerable and nurturing, straying away from the low standard Duterte has set for them.
While they encourage communication, the UL organisers assure that they are not acting as apologists for problematic men.
“We definitely do not apologise for them for what they did; rather what we work on doing for them and for others who haven't gotten to the point of realisation yet is to help them come to that consciousness and awareness on their own, by asking questions that might get them thinking and reflecting,” Onday said.
“It is up to them to apologise for what they said or did — even if we really want them to — because spoon-fed conclusions and coerced apologies don't help us heal.”
A typical UL event consists of at least 20 people. To keep it casual and intimate, they gather in small cafes and co-working spaces around Metro Manila. Attendees spend 3 to 4 hours discussing one topic, like the basics of feminism, gender roles in relationships, and emotional labour.
These issues usually spark tense discussions but UL events are surprisingly calm. By leaving judgements out the door, the men open up more and allow themselves to be vulnerable. The discussions are open, but the emotions heavy.
“We want to mainstream the idea that when we’re talking about these issues, it’s supposed to be a conversation. As progressives, we want to build relationships and eventually, a community that can replicate the method.”
These sessions have helped men reach moments of clarity. In one event discussing emotional labour, the men initially doubted and asked, "Why do we have to be vulnerable in a specific way?" But as soon as the organisers asked, “Who do you run to when you have problems?” the men realised that they are always drawn to women when they needed to share something emotional.
Noticing the patterns in their behaviour, the organisers then asked, “Why women?” This led to a break-out session where the men divulged their family problems, the difficulties of being gay in a conservative community, and mental health issues — a type of honesty you wouldn’t think to hear in a room full of strangers.
“What I see in Usapang Lalaki is the opportunity to redefine male engagement in feminism into something far more sincere and introspective, where we look at ourselves and ask how we have contributed to oppression and trauma and hurt and discomfort, even in our more mundane everyday interactions, instead of only pointing at the other men as the problem, and challenging ourselves to truly change the way we live and think,” Ong said.
“I would definitely recommend this to people like me — men who want to take responsibility of their sorry record of hurting women while [identifying as] 'feminists,' and men who want to be truly better for women.”
Ramos felt that the experience was therapeutic and extremely eye-opening for women like her.
“It's great to know that there's a space where we can reach an audience who needs it. I would definitely recommend UL for both men and women, but men most especially. There isn't a lot about my current knowledge on gender issues that it changed but it's great to know that there's a space where we can reach an audience who needs it.”
It is this need for genuine connection that pushes UL's organisers to do what they do.
“It’s really such a big need that isn’t addressed by most conversations. At a time when mental health is on the rise, aside from biochemical issues, it’s this lack of being able to connect with people," Onday said. "This detachment and isolation is why people develop apathy. Community is what people really need right now.”