In the corner of a motel room, a not very subtle melodrama unfolded. As a fat bailiff and a sinister, black-hatted attorney looked on, a man in tattered wig and skirt, playing the role of Mary, Mary Workman, demanded custody of "her" child. Judge Hardly D. Fairman leered and laughed as devoted but helpless Father Adam Workman looked on, awaiting the worst.
Though no mustaches were twirled, the virtually all-male audience had little trouble picking out the villains or figuring out that poor Adam, like most of the men in the room, was doomed to lose custody. "I've seen some men sobbing away, so overcome by the system," said John Rossler, a shop owner and fathers' rights activist from North Syracuse, N.Y. "The system is so stacked against men that they don't fight."
Rossler and some 60 other aggrieved males were gathered at a motel in Portland, Ore., for the fifth annual meeting of the National Convention for Men, an umbrella group for some 36 organizations representing more than 6,000 people who want to change divorce and custody law. The air was thick with smoke and anger as conventioners huddled in the halls and motel bar, denouncing "father bashing" and "female chauvinism," muttering about the hidden agenda of man-hating and lesbian social workers, and comparing the law's treatment of divorcing men to the Holocaust and Salem witch-hunts.
Al Lebow of Southfield, Mich., a former traveling salesman who now works full time in the movement, testified that his visiting rights have been & withheld so often that he has been in and out of court for six years. "The vast majority of fathers are denied visitation," he said. "The noncustodial parent becomes isolated, and things are stacked against him." Peter Cyr, outgoing president of N.C.M. and a dentist from Portland, Me., spent seven years and $25,000 getting joint custody of his two daughters. "Even if you win a custody trial," he lamented, "you are wiped out financially, and your relationship with your children is ruined." Another man announced emotionally, "My children are going to be taken from me, and I have put my heart into raising them." Complained Lebow: "There doesn't seem to be any empathy for men. " Jack Kammer of Baltimore, N.C.M.'s executive director, said that just as men were once threatened by women in the office, "some women are now threatened by fathers' increased involvement with their children."
Though the fathers' movement is sometimes viewed as a lobby to get child- support payments reduced, the issue was barely discussed at the convention. The dominant opinion there was that most men pay full child support, although one speaker disagreed at a workshop. Before a skeptical audience, Darryl Larson, an assistant district attorney for Oregon's Lane County, said, "Nonsupport is a tragedy rampant in America -- 60% to 80% quit paying after the first two years." Indeed, the Census Bureau reports that in 1983 only 50% of the women who were supposed to receive child support got the full amount due.
The heaviest anger seemed to be triggered by charges that fathers sexually abuse their children. A Michigan man said he had applied ointment to his two- year-old daughter, who had vaginitis, and was accused of sexual molestation during his custody battle. After an investigation the charges were dropped. The keynote address was delivered by a former foreign correspondent, Ernest Coates, who had been charged with aggravated sexual assault of his son and daughter but was acquitted. Introduced as someone who "sees his children only in his dreams," the Australian-born Coates claimed he was the victim of state-paid psychologists, young lawyers on the make and a troubled wife.
Phoenix Attorney Robert Hirschfeld bitterly argued that charges of sexual and emotional abuse are routinely manufactured by "female social workers who have a history of being molested themselves, lawyers who coach women to make false accusations, and vindictive, vicious mothers who coach and work on their children." One of the stories he told the conventioners was about a girl, 16, who went to a school official and said her father had molested her. A criminal proceeding costing the father $10,000 ended in a mistrial. When the father learned that the girl had kept a diary, he got legal access to it and found she had written about her intention to accuse him falsely. An allegation of sexual abuse, said Hirschfeld, "is the nuclear weapon of domestic relations. When all else fails, drop the bomb."
Despite all the bitterness, few were inclined to launch a crusade against women or feminism
. Said Rossler: "It's important that the men's movement not be portrayed as antiwoman. Sexism has affected us as detrimentally as it has affected women." In fact, the women's movement seems to be as much model as bugbear to the wounded males. Like feminists, conventioners complained about sexist ads, including two showing a female pulling a male toward her with his tie. "The tie represents a sexist noose or perhaps a leash," said Fredric Hayward of Sacramento. The men celebrated small victories. In response to lobbying by a fathers' rights group, the city of Syracuse has agreed to include diaper-changing facilities for men as well as women at Hancock airport.
Also, like some feminists, the men effortlessly repaired to the role of victim. Coates told the convention, "You have to persecute men because men are the ones who dominated women, and now we're fair game." The problem, said the dejected Rossler, is that "men always come off on the short end of sympathy."