How my childhood experience of domestic violence shaped my role as a White Ribbon Ambassador and fuels my passion for the social movement
My mother was devastated by domestic violence and abuse for the first ten years of my life.
Myself, my elder sister and my two younger brothers were also victims of domestic violence, abuse and neglect. By the age of ten, domestic violence in the familial setting had been our constant. Sometime later, myself and my two younger brothers were placed, without notice, into an orphanage.
These childhood experiences of mine had an astonishing effect on my life. As a result, I am a male and I’m a feminist. A passionate one. A feminist acquaintance of mine for whom I’d performed mentoring work, once challenged me to ‘own your feminism’. I’d vacillated for years. But I finally came to understand how I felt about feminism after reflecting on my youngest childhood experience of patriarchal formation and expression.
In the school yard
So, I was not yet 5 and was standing with other boys sorting it all out on our first day of school. At some stage, one boy exclaims, ‘Don’t touch girls. You’ll get a disease and if you get the disease and touch another boy, you’ll spread it’.
The incident and the words are etched in my mind because they were so deplorably reflective of the disrespect that was on auto-play at home. Throughout my schooling, I saw that sentiment burgeon and play out year-upon-year in boys’ behaviour until, during pre-pubescence, that anti-girl disrespect filtered and manifested into dehumanised, degrading contempt.
All of it, cementing toxic masculine culture and showing just how cheaply, shallow and self-serving boys saw girls. All I saw was beautiful, feminine hearts, skipping and bouncing, pig tails and curls innocently intertwined with optimism and an ignorance of the looming darkness of pubescent years in front of them, become the dehumanised prey of the male conquest, possession and disposal game. A game only boys could win and destined to victimise every girl who innocently wandered into its path. And the more enlightened I became to this culture to which I, fortunately, became isolated from due to my trauma and was a bystander to whether I liked it or not, the more my heart broke for girls.
Along that journey of discovering that unhealthy masculinity is a ‘thing’ and that I was being confronted with its toxicity 24/7, I came to realise in my late 40’s that I have a voice in the domestic violence space.
It’s my mother’s voice and all those other women who have lost their lives to domestic violence.
And as a male, I was also confronted to realise, plus or minus, that there is no more powerful voice of advocacy, support or experience than from a feminist bloke who lived through almost every facet of domestic violence, owns the responsibility of acknowledging the issue as a male problem and equally acknowledges that blokes are the only ones that can remediate the issues. And as a bloke with all of these things, I realised that my commitment to being my mum’s and other women’s voice, needed a platform.
I had constantly checked the whole domestic violence landscape through which to share my experience, perspectives and advocacy of women’s human rights. All the organisational players, all the agencies, government and private, in the space. One day, a mate rang me and asked if I’d support his nomination to become an Ambassador in an organisation that both INVITED and EQUIPPED male voices to advocate and support women in the fight against domestic violence and violence against women.
And that organisation was White Ribbon.
I’d found a platform, and was ready to use it
I quickly fitted in. In fact, I was on my feet within weeks with my first speaking gig. It was intimidating in the lead up and my PTSD-borne anxiety was challenging my ability and willingness to speak to a crowd about an extremely private set of experiences. But then, I thought of my mum and a number of friends who were relatively recent victims.
As I stood at that first event and uttered the beginning sentiments of my past and redemptive present, I felt the wings of those silenced voices lift and propel me. I stared in shock as the whole audience, some shedding tears and others beaming with broad smiles, stood and applauded. My key themes of, ‘Good men running towards the gunfire’, ‘You’ll get through this’, and, ‘Be the voice of the victimised and vulnerable’, seemed to resonate. So too, my final exhortation for all men to take responsibility, to take ownership and to take the cruel burden from women who’ve been foisted with the responsibility of defending themselves from domestic violence. For me, I saw it as my responsibility to stand up and speak out and the White Ribbon ethos enabled me to do just that.
Equally important for me was the foundational commitment of White Ribbon’s commitment towards ‘Primary Prevention’, which when I talk about it or think about it, immediately evokes that 5-year old’s school-yard exposure to the pollution of male sentiment towards women.
But along with my newfound platform, my eyes were opened equally to the sometimes-complex interplay between the agencies dedicated to the issues of domestic violence and violence towards women. I was confronted by the politics. I was also confounded by the very natural (and human!) position dynamics of the feminist movement. The different colours and perspectives, foci and passions, whilst still aligned with what one could safely say are foundational principles upon which feminism has developed, sometimes idiosyncratically stood at odds with the White Ribbon mission. And I had to become comfortable that there were frictions and antagonisms that would distract my focus, but equally, I needed to became comfortable with those differences, and resting on the truth that the source of the passions of such a diverse collection of agencies, organisations and voices was decency and respect, and they are marching to the beat of the same drum.
Where I’m at now
And so, with eyes wide open on my experiences and their meanings, my broadening of sober wisdom and passion for understanding the issues of human rights from a feminine perspective in all its glorious complexity and colour, I declared, as my wonderful, feminist friend exhorted me…
I am a feminist.
And I have White Ribbon to thank for giving me the platform, the passion and the voice to declare that in doing my little bit to bring justice, decency and respect to women who have been victimised and those at risk of becoming victims, of an insidious cultural malaise.
And to never forget that that voice is my mother’s.
In memory of Jeanette (Handebo) May.
Author Glenn Buesnel-May is a White Ribbon Ambassador.