A men’s centre at Simon Fraser University raises questions

For example, are gender-based ‘safe spaces’ needed?

Keenan Midgley played basketball, soccer, baseball and football. But it isn’t his athletic skill that has made him well-known on campus in Burnaby, B.C. It’s the budget he’s written as treasurer of the Simon Fraser Student Society. The fifth-year accounting student added funding that will carve out a special space on campus for guys. The men’s centre, assuming the budget passes a final vote, will get $30,000 next year. That’s the same amount that the women’s centre, started in 1974, will receive. The pending creation of the men-only space is the source of much discussion at Simon Fraser University. Since the news broke in April, many students have questioned whether the men deserve funding. Along with that, a debate has emerged over whether women—who make up 55 per cent of undergraduate students at SFU—still need their own women-only space.

The women’s centre is a 450-sq.-ft. space in a building near the centre of campus with couches, a kitchen and a library. It provides a place for students to discuss women’s issues, offers referrals to services like counselling and serves as a war room for campaigns, such as advocating for child care on campus. Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a professor in the department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies (GSWS), says the centre was important to the women’s movement in the 1970s when women were a minority of the student body and even more rare as professors. Today it’s important, she says, for its work fighting violence against women.

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Midgley says men could benefit from a similar “safe space.” He says his gender deals with more suicides, alcoholism and drug abuse, and suffers negative stereotypes just like women do. “As a student society, we’re supposed to represent all undergraduates. I don’t think we’re currently doing that.”

Although the women’s centre’s coordinator declined to be interviewed, skepticism of the concept is evident in the centre’s FAQs. “Where is the men’s centre?” says a line atop that section of its website. “The simple answer is that the men’s centre is everywhere else,” it reads, before a paragraph that explains the justification for the women’s centre. Canadian society is “a man’s world,” female voices are oppressed in classes, and women feel threatened by drunken males at night, it reads. The website lists support for the idea of a “male allies project” that would “bring self-identified men together to talk about masculinity and its harmful effects.” Masculinity, it says, “denigrates women by making them into sexual objects, is homophobic, encourages violence, and discourages emotional expression.”

Those are the very stereotypes Midgley says the men’s centre’s users might discuss.

Still, it isn’t just the women’s centre that questions the funding. Joel Warren, who represents labour studies students on a council that advises the overall student society, says students should have been consulted before the budget went to the subcommittee for approval. “It was created top-down by fiat,” he says. Syeda Nayab Bukhari, a doctoral student in GSWS and user of the women’s centre, agrees. “There needs to be a proper needs assessment,” she says, adding that she’s concerned about how the centre would “incorporate race, class and gender.”

Midgley admits no men approached him asking for their own space. But, he argues, men are too shy to ask for support—something he knows from personal experience. Midgley lost his brother in an accident in Grade 12, and struggled with grief for years before opening up to his family. He didn’t seek help earlier, he says, “because of the social pressure to be that strong man and not show your weaknesses.” Psychologist Dan Bilsker, an SFU adjunct professor and expert in men’s health, says that Midgley is right, both about the need for a men’s centre and the fact that men are unlikely to create one on their own accord. “If you talked to most men and said, ‘Do you think there needs to be a separate centre?’ I suspect most would say ‘no’ or ‘I haven’t thought about it.’ ” But he thinks men would use it, if it’s done right. “Women are more likely to go for counselling or speak to friends for support. Men have a greater tendency to do things that are not so helpful, like drink more alcohol.”

Graham Templeton, the outgoing opinions editor at SFU’s student newspaper The Peak, doesn’t think the men’s centre would be capable of providing the support Midgley proposes. He offers the women’s centre as proof, noting that the centre refers women in crisis to the mental health professionals on campus. “What they end up doing is creating a little clubhouse, and that doesn’t justify the budget,” he says. But it isn’t just the cost that irks Templeton. As he sees it, the very premise of gender-based centres is insulting to the students of SFU. “Women are not marginalized on campus,” he says, “and neither are men—which is why the men’s centre is such a silly idea.”

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