The Newspaper sat down Dylan Fortadis, the president of U of T’s Men’s Issues Awareness Society to talk masculinity, privilege and sexuality. Prepare to have your opinion of the MRA movement turned upside down. 

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Illustration by Nicholai Farber

“I didn’t want to be rude right off the bat, but ‘men’s rights’ is not a term I use… [my group] is not a rights movement like the women’s rights movement. Nothing will ever come even close to comparing to what women have had to overcome in the past, and still do—it’s not comparable to the way women have suffered.” Ten minutes into the interview, Dylan Fortadis, the president of the University of Toronto Men’s Issues Awareness Society (UTMIAS) had begun to depart from the script that we came expecting. The conversation that followed, which stretched over two hours and several unplanned beers, felt much more like a constructive dialogue than the confrontation we had been prepared for.

We both arrived at the interview with some very definite pre-conceptions about MRAs. You probably share them. A quick look online at the so called “Manosphere” will uncover a toxic discourse centred around rape-denial, slut-shaming, and vitriolic attacks on “feminazis.” On the web, it seems that turning over the rock labelled “Men's Rights” will always reveal the same ugly bunch of entitled men, resentful of feminism's challenge to male privilege.

U of T equity groups have protested many of UTMIAS’s events, lending the group a lot of notoriety on campus. Students generally view the group with hostility and suspicion, and justifiably so. It came as a surprise that the leader of such a vilified student society, and one with such unpleasant associations, would talk in this way.

Dylan, a fourth year linguistics major, likes to be on time. We had planned to meet in the early evening at the Free Times Cafe, a bar on College street. By arriving ten minutes before either of us, he effectively cut off any chance of a pre-interview conference. This made the encounter less of an ambush, which actually helped the conversation.

Nonetheless, our interview started with Dylan on the defensive—quite understandably: we both came from a critical point of view. The only other interview he had recently given never escaped this air of distrust, “he thought that we were taking money from the right-wing Ontario government.” Perhaps as a result, his presentation was a little stiff and impersonal, with him talking vaguely about the “justified axioms” of his group, but not showing the kind of enthusiasm he would later warm into.

The message he gave us was disarmingly reasonable. He wants more attention for the male victims of domestic and sexual violence, particularly boys, whom he thinks are not getting enough support. He also pointed out that the way gender intersects with race can, in the case of young men of colour, actually have an effect opposite to male privilege. He agreed with us, when we suggested that when it comes to the restrictive gender roles expected of men and boys, the real enemy of men’s rights is patriarchy, though he qualified this: “I’m also open to other explanations.”

It was when the discussion touched on LGBT* issues, however, that his analytic poise gave way to real emotion. The group, he claims, embraces an inclusive vision of masculinity; “in 2015 especially, and I think this should have gone for every year in history, the differences between a cisgendered person and a trans person pale in significance compared to the similarities... In my mind there is nothing essentially different between a cisgender and a trans man.”

Dylan is gay, and resents the way that the group is seen by the queer community. He was visibly upset when he recounted the events around his group’s expulsion from the most recent Toronto World Pride Parade: “it was all set up, we had shirts in the rainbow colours [and so] we went anyway, we dispersed, we were allowed to be in the parade but not as a group… it was particularly upsetting for [a trans member of the group] who had been so involved in the  LGBT community, [to learn] that he was going to be removed from it as well.”

As he tells the story, the decision seems deeply unfair. But the organisers also had a responsibility to maintain a safe space. Given its association with misogynistic and homophobic speakers, it’s understandable how UTMIAS’s presence at the event could be seen to undermine this commitment. Dylan, of course, rejected this argument, saying his society opposes all forms of intolerance. He also pointed to other controversial groups that have been permitted, “they do allow groups like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to march, and I think there is a lot more controversy around that group than there is around us.”

Dylan’s claim not to tolerate bigoted speech in his group is heartening, as it suggests a rejection of the extremism that characterises online MRA organisation, but it also stretches credulity. A number of speakers at UTMIAS events, such as Warren Farrell and Janice Fiamengo, have made light of men’s sexual violence against women. A quote from Farrell: “We have forgotten that before we began calling this date rape... we called it exciting.” Dylan condemned the statement—“repulsive”—but since they had this man as a speaker, his group’s notoriety can hardly be called unearned.

This last point raises serious problems with UTMIAS’s project. By inviting these speakers, and adopting an antagonistic pose towards feminism, the group draws attention to itself as a source of controversy, and away from the issues that he claims to be focused on. Dylan came close to admitting this: “the issues we have been facing have been overwhelmingly involved with trying to clear our name of any ill-sentiment.” While he argues that controversy on a university campus is both normal and healthy, the protests against UTMIAS’s speakers generated hostility on both sides, and did nothing to help the cause of gender equity, however conceived.

Our question is, why does the group keep aligning itself with toxic contributions to the movement? It’s telling that while UTMIA has invited rape-apologists and anti-feminists to their events, there has yet to be a keynote talk from the side of the men’s rights spectrum that manages to retain a pro-feminist voice. During our interview Dylan admitted that he had not heard of Jeff Pererra the Toronto based representative of the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest male-led group to end men’s violence against women.  

These oversights detract from their stated goals as a group engaged with gender based inequality.

Despite opening up to us, Dylan may have been treating our interview as a public relations exercise; talking down the more radical side of his movement and aiming to raise the profile and centrality of his group. But we left feeling that such a view wouldn’t do him justice. More than anything, he seems sincerely interested in a vision of equity that most people could support.

He has come to the conversation in good faith, and his contributions should be approached in the same spirit. At the same time, it would be too easy to say that Dylan is an unwitting feminist, who only needs to take a few Women’s Studies courses to get his gender politics on point. But this does not mean that he should be treated as a pariah; there is more to gain here through engagement than confrontation. We learnt that, at least, from this conversation.

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