ST. CLAIR SHORES, Michigan - The feminists hadn't shown up yet, but they could, at any moment, with their protest signs and screaming. The threat of them was an infuriating and exhilarating specter throughout the weekend, a symbol of the oppression facing the men's rights activists who had gathered to meet for their inaugural conference.
Early Friday before the opening session, a wispy trail of men - mostly white, college-through-retirement-age - waited for the doors to open outside of this Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in suburban Detroit. One man talked about his ex-wife. A lot of guys talked about their ex-wives. Ex-wives and ex-girlfriends were often cited as the catalysts to these men's realizations that the world had become a hostile and dangerous place for males. Such realizations are what activists sometimes call "red pill moments," and although attendees coalesced around different issues - paternity fraud, circumcision, false rape allegations - the binding theme was that almost everyone here had experienced a version of a red pill moment.
In the months leading up to the International Conference on Men's Issues, much of the rest of the country hunkered down on discussions of gender: a White House task force studied sexual assaults on college campuses. A shooter in Santa Barbara, Calif., killed two women and four men because, he said in a manifesto and video posted before his attack, he believed women had unjustly withheld affection from him.
At the ICMI, where about 200 participants had preordered tickets, there was a parallel discussion of gender issues: Men, attendees believed, were the ones under threat of attack. This conference was their response, their rallying call to action.
"Men are second-class citizens," said Gary Costanza, a pleasant gray-haired man from Long Island. He was particularly interested in divorce issues, saying that custody should always be split and financial child support should not exist. He just wanted the same rights as everyone else.
The social media coordinator for the conference - employing an unorthodox method for raising more attention to the group's issues - tweeted out a message calling a dissenter a "fame whore."
At the end of the weekend, one presenter - Warren Farrell, who used to be a visible figure in the National Organization for Women before turning his focus to men's rights several decades ago - emotionally declared: "I've always said the men's movement is in its embryonic stage. I'm no longer going to say that."