Archive | October, 2012

Is coming out about abortion really similar to coming out as LGBTQ?

29 Oct

Over the last few years, the abortion rights movement has lamented over how one of our sister movements, the gay rights movement, has made a lot more progress than us. We point to shifting cultural attitudes towards gay folks, the success of gay marriage campaigns, the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation, positive mainstream media portrayals, and a general sense that the tide is turning on homophobia as an acceptable mainstream political platform. This is obviously a simplistic distillation of some of the successes of the gay rights movement, which of course has its own problematic elements. Taking that into consideration, what we can learn from one movement’s perceived success and another movement’s perceived stagnation?

I hear repeatedly from colleagues in the pro-choice movement that the continued success of the gay rights movement is due in large part to people coming out, making themselves seen to their friends, families, neighbors, employers, and publicly taking pride in their identity. If only people would come out about their abortions, they wonder, then we could really create some culture change. To be completely transparent, I myself have advocated for this very strategy. But the more I learn, the more I realize that this is a flawed and incomplete approach.

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: encouraging people to “come out” is not a one-way ticket to a movement’s success. We need to invest in supporting people who have abortions before asking them to be public about their experiences. I’m not going to talk about why it’s problematic to suggest that the success of a movement relies on the systematic outing of some of the most marginalized folks in society without offering them any support (Katie Stack can talk to you about that). Instead, I’m going to make some much-needed distinctions between coming out about an abortion and coming out as LGBTQ, and suggest ways that we can transform some of the models of the LGBTQ movement to foster an environment in which people want to come out about their abortions.

1. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and/or queer is often a large part of someone’s identity. It’s a core component of how you move around in the world. Having an abortion is not a parallel identity marker. We see this time and again in abortion research–often, people who’ve had abortions don’t consider that experience to define who they are, and rightly so. Why should someone “come out” about a medical procedure they had once or twice if they don’t think it has anything to do with who they are, or how they want to be known in their communities?

2. Similarly, when someone “comes out” about being LGBTQ, they often have a specific community in which to come out into. Whether that person has a local LGBTQ community or not, there are national LGBTQ communities, and they are visible. When a woman “comes out” about having an abortion, there is not similar community for her to join or imagine herself joining. There’s no national visibility. There isn’t even a word like lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer, for people who’ve had abortions. Abortion alum? Abortion-havers?

3. When there isn’t a local or national community, there also isn’t local or national support. It would be inaccurate to say that every person who comes out as LGBTQ has the support of their communities and those they love. Obviously this is not the case. But there are LGBTQ community centers, hotlines, support groups, shelters, pride parades, bars. There are very few support groups for women who’ve had abortions, and most of them are run by the anti-choice movement. There are three non-judgmental post-abortion support hotlines in the entire country (Backline, Exhale, and Connect & Breathe). Three for the 1.2 million women who have abortions every year. How can we ask women to “come out” about their abortions if we don’t invest in the infrastructure necessary to support them in their “coming out” process?

There are obvious overlaps in LGBTQ identity and “abortion-having” identities, and of course there are people who fit in both categories. But when we encourage people to “come out,” we have to ask ourselves: what are we asking them to come out INTO? If there’s no local or systemic support for people who have abortions, if we live in a culture entrenched in abortion stigma, what are the actual benefits of someone coming out about her abortion experience?

I don’t think these differences mean we abandon abortion coming out as a destigmatization strategy or a culture shift strategy. But I think we’re going about it the wrong way. We can’t push people out of the abortion “closet” and off a cliff–with no systemic, cultural, or familial support. If we want people to come out, we have to invest in social support, and in figuring out what facilitates people coming out and why.

We have a lot to learn from the gay rights movement, but instead of copying and pasting their strategies, we need to adjust them to fit our movement’s realities. How?

  • Creating a group like PFLAG for abortion and establishing roles for people who are allies of women who have abortions
  • Continuing to specify what “coming out” means (for example, mothers telling daughters, friends telling friends, etc)
  • Addressing the lack of support for people who have abortions, and encouraging funders to invest in talklines, support groups,  community centers, or other support mechanisms (let’s ask people who have abortions what kind of support they want and need)
  • Figuring out how to help women who have abortions in finding one another
  • Addressing stigma by ensuring that all conversations about abortion involve how you would treat a person who has had one
  • Making sure that television and film representations show women not as alone or isolated in their abortion decisions, but instead, supported and loved
  • Listening to abortion stories, even ones that contradict your perspective or policy initiatives
  • Engaging thoughtfully in the comments section of first person abortion narratives online
  • Supporting your friends when they have abortions, and supporting them  if/when they decide to talk about their experience with others

The next time you see a pro-choice movement organization pushing a “coming out” campaign, ask yourself: are they supporting the people they’re asking to come out? How? Why are they asking people to come out? We can’t expect people to take a risk if we’re not willing to support them in taking that risk.

Full disclosure: I’ve written about comparing movements before in a very simplistic post. I’m hoping this post complicates my previous argument a bit.



My Clinic Home: A Love Story

26 Oct

Last month I went home to Fredericton, the city where I met my love, to marry him (my love, not the city). The following weekend we attended the wedding of two dear friends who also met in Fredericton – at the abortion clinic where I used to work.

You can read the story from Tania here – it’s really sweet, although of course I am biased (I’m the Peggy in the story! Confusingly age-inappropriate!). People who know me know that I love love, and it absolutely warms my heart to think that two people I care about not only met, but decided to marry, in the parking lot of a place that has been the site of so much drama and heartache. Love is often political, and I feel like proposing to Tania in that spot was a radical act on her partner’s behalf – like they were taking back that space for love.

Spaces hold meaning, and in small communities they hold many memories and associations. When the abortion clinic opened in Fredericton, the adjacent middle school was closed for the day out of fear of violence. Friends of mine who went to that school remember this vividly; for many, it was the only reason they knew there was an abortion clinic in our city before I started volunteering there. And still when the school (which is downtown and doesn’t have any outdoor exercise space) has outdoor gym classes or safety drills, the kids are often running by protesters holding up giant gory anti-abortion signs.

During their annual March for Life, anti-choice protesters reach over the back fence that divides our clinic from their crisis pregnancy centre (yeah, it’s next door) and rub holy water in the shape of the cross on to the building. The small fences create a boundary where the protesters are not allowed to walk on clinic days. A safe zone.

When my partner had a summer job painting dumpsters (so glamorous!), before my association with the clinic, he started on the abortion clinic dumpster when the clinic manager – now a dear friend of ours – came out and eyed him suspiciously, asking what he was doing messing around with their garbage. The dumpster is kept locked. Anti-choice people will dig through it to find medical records and waste – things that would never be thrown out with the regular garbage, but never mind.

At the clinic I have seen people crying, screaming, hugging, sleeping, barfing and fighting. I have gently urged people out of their cars through an onslaught of protesters. I helped one woman climb over the fence when she realized she had accidentally parked at the crisis pregnancy centre. I have played with patients’ children, soothed their mothers, hugged their friends. I have refused entry to countless aggressive men, and hung up on many more. I have frozen my ass off in the parking lot, and had some of the funniest, deepest and most engaging conversations of my life with the other volunteers, and with the patients’ friends. Before I worked in the clinic, I volunteered outside – I spent hours patrolling those fragile boundaries. There’s no physical space in my life that I have protected so vehemently. I huddled there with a mass of strangers, holding candles, when Dr. Tiller died. I sat inside at my desk ignoring the stares of protesters through the window, willing myself to keep the blind open.

I thought of that space as my friends enjoyed their first dance together at their wedding. How truly lovely that a space that held (and holds) the hopes and fears of so many of the people that I care about should give birth to this moment. How strange the evolution of the places we call home.

Another GOP Candidate, Another Infuriating Comment about Rape

25 Oct

Every week, it seems, a new GOP Congressperson is coming out declaring their machivellian and antiquated views on rape. This week, Indiana GOP Candidate for Congress Richard Murdock declared that he opposes aborting pregnancies that are a result of rape because “it is something God intended to happen.”

What. The. Fuck. No, Mr. Murdock, I don’t believe you, of all people, have the right to deny women access to legal abortions in cases of rape or any other reason. Rape is a trauma that many people the world over carry with them for the rest of their lives. And if we’re going to talk about God, I don’t think God intended for ANY person on this Earth to be raped. Ever.

This angers me on so many levels. What also bothers me is that Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, supported Murdock in a campaign ad that began running on Tuesday. Regardless of whether or not Romney’s distancing himself, he still supported a man who is clearly a candidate who would be bad for women everywhere, not just those of us who consider ourselves to be pro-choice.

Apparently Murdock claims he didn’t really mean that God intended for sexual assaults. We can forgive, but we can’t forget. Mourdock, and really, the entire Republican party, have no respect for women’s health or physical and mental well-being. Remember that when you go to the polls in two weeks.

Activism and depression

24 Oct

I describe myself as an activist. I am now admitting to myself, that for the last year, I would also describe myself as majorly depressed. I am trying to understand if, and how, those two descriptors can fit together.

Being involved in reproductive health and justice means that you are faced with intensely personal and sometimes difficult realities; you see the failures of our social systems, you see the pain, up close, that reproduction and sexuality can puts us through. Being an activist in our community requires you interface with and think about inequality, misogyny, and racism. And if you think about it all too much, sometimes, it’s depressing. But the difference between depressing and depressed is huge. I use to find that working against the ugliness, and making improvements actionable would make me feel usefull, even joyous. But those feelings have been replaced with overwhelming feelings of guilt and regret about not doing or being able to do or say enough, with not knowing what is right. My depression has displaced my activism.

I want my activism back so badly, but it’s hard to know what to do. Because while staying away, not being involved in a community you love and care about hurts, engaging in it hurts too. I miss the passion and comradery I felt when I worked on a petition, or a blog, or for an organization that I knew would bring light to someone’s life. But at the same time, every time I sit to write or engage in some act of work or activism (even as small as responding to an email), I question my words, my validity, my worth. I have a miniature existential crisis that nothing we do matters, that our efforts are all a waste.

I know now that the existential feelings and the lack of worth are the depression, not the reality about activism, or about me. I know that the activism, research, and practitioners that I use to believe brought so much goodness to the world are still brining that goodness–it’s just that my mind’s eye is so out of focus that I can’t see it right now.

So, I am working on getting back in focus, and then I will try and re-find my place in reproductive health and justice work. My conclusion of my struggle with depression so far is that activism and untreated depression are incongruent. I don’t believe you can work on making the world a better place unless you believe in your (and others’) capacity to do so. But when I look around, I realize I am not alone, and that gives me hope for reengagement. I am beginning to see the positive, like my new belief that experiencing depression will ultimately make better advocate, activist, and one day, hopefully, a better abortion provider. Recognizing that committed activists, who seem eternally optimistic and happy, also struggle with depression is part of understanding the world of activism. I am learning and growing from depression, and in addressing my depression I am practicing qualities fundamental to activism: love, kindness and hope.

Hand Holding

19 Oct

A guest post by an anonymous independent abortion clinic staff member. 

For those of you do not work in women’s’ health, hand holder is exactly what it sounds like. I literally hold the hand of women during their abortion. Granted, there are other responsibilities involved; generally assuming responsibility for all bodily functions above a woman’s waist. I monitor her vital signs, including pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. I count her respirations, how many full breaths she takes in one minute. But all of these medical functions are secondary to my primary task; keeping her comfortable and distracted.

Hand holding can be physically challenging. I have come home with scratches on my hands from fingernails, or swollen fingers that were gripped too tightly for too long. These occurrences are rare, but happen.

The more challenging part is finding fresh but neutral points of conversation. I want to keep her distracted and entertained but dodge any potentially emotionally triggering topics. During the holidays, conversation is easy. “Any plans for the upcoming holiday? Will you be spending it with your family? What’s your favorite dish to cook? Have you started on your holiday shopping?” Then January lends itself to all of the follow up questions after these events. Summer is a great time to talk about family trips, vacation, school breaks. Mid October can be challenging, I have to search a little harder.

Asking women about their jobs and careers can be interesting. I have been a hand holder for wine distributors, concierge to celebrities, cheese mongers, and musicians. I have asked an array of questions to women I would never have met outside of the clinic like toll both attendants or public transit operators. I have learned so much from women firefighters, policewomen, and women in active military service.

Sometimes, though it is more cautious territory, women will discuss their partners; Husbands, boyfriends, babydaddies, or lovers. Sometimes they will brag about their men, or vent small frustrations about domestic cohabitation. I’ll confess: if they share an interesting detail, I sometimes peek into the waiting room to see what their prince charming looks like.

Hand holding can be emotionally draining. On days where this is my role, I usually will go home, eat junk food, and watch either an Tina fey or Amy Poehler sitcom to return me to a reasonable level of my emotional equilibrium. I want to watch something funny and silly, but still with a feminist undertone. I understand that self care is critical, and have found what works for me.

If you have the opportunity to hand hold at your clinic, I recommend attempting it at least once. It is not for everyone, but I have definitely learned more in that position than in my entire career of reproductive justice. Handholding is like a good Barbara Walters segment, it’s a soft interview and sometimes, the guest cries.


Mr. Waverly: Intimate Partner Violence and Blackface

18 Oct

A few weeks ago, a young student in New Hartford, NY was beaten to death at the hands of her boyfriend. This little town happens to be extremely close to where I attended college and the story hit home. There are many of us who bear witness to domestic and intimate partner violence in our lives and the lives of our loved ones, yet, this issue still seems to be taken lightly.

Everyone remembers when Chris Brown badly beat Rihanna back in 2009 and how some people believed she deserved it, while others believed she didn’t–in any case, the issue was largely made light of in various venues. Now, at a high school in Waverly (close to Binghamton, NY which is also close to my college), students at a pep rally made light of both domestic violence and blackface in an attempt to win the title of “Mr. Waverly”.

Now, I don’t blame students for this–I think the skit was insensitive both for its making light of racism and domestic violence. However, the administration at the school should have done its role as an educating body to enlighten students about the historical background of blackface and the ramifications of intimate partner violence. It sickened me to read some of the current students’ feelings regarding the skit: that it was not racially insensitive, that nothing was wrong with it, etc. Even the comments below the CNN article argued that no one would be upset if a man dressed up as a woman and that other skits in Hollywood have made light of the situation as well.

Just because current students, alums, and readers of the article don’t find the skit offensive does not mean it isn’t. Making light of racism and intimate partner violence renders complacency and apathy when one has no personal connection to racism or intimate partner violence (not that you need a personal connection to either to care).

As an educator, I charge school districts around the country to educate their young students about racism, sexism, and intimate partner violence in an effort to have students maintain sensitivity and awareness, even when it’s simply for a high school pep rally.

Finally, President Obama goes in on the choice for women in this election

17 Oct

It is the economy, stupid. And President Obama showed in last night’s debate that the economy and contraception are intricately linked.

It’s about time.

For women, the choice is clear, if you want a President that supports equal pay for equal work, President Obama is your man. If you want a President that has shown through ACTION and has not flipped his position on supporting Planned Parenthood, President Obama is your man. Because as President Obama showed that like contraception and abortion are economic issues. That when women have birth control, they will more likely be better off economically.

In fact, President Obama mentioned Planned Parenthood numerous times, unprompted and without being asked from a questioner. I think he was right to do that, because he does care and it shows he cares. His policies show he cares about women. Romney, not so much.

Weirdly, Romney managed to not only avoid answering whether women should get equal pay for equal work, he revealed he thinks of women as nothing more than the dinner cookers and child raisers.

Mitt Romney said, and I quote, ” I had binders of women brought to me,” when considering cabinet members as Massachusetts’ Governor. Binders full, huh? And then he suggested women need time to leave work and cook dinner. For the family. Because that’s their job, ya’ll. And President Obama brought it back to a discussion of choice, how choice enables women and families to have children, or not have children , when it is economically right for them to do so.

Mitt Romney said “I don’t believe employers can tell someone if they can have contraception or not,” but he’s promised to defund Planned Parenthood. So actually, Mitt, you DO believe employers and bureaucrats can control women’s right to contraception. Because you want to defund one of the biggest providers of sex education, reproductive care, abortion, and yes, contraception.

If those two comments don’t insult you, maybe you should watch the way he hovered menacingly over female audience members or moderator Candy Crawley. Not only does he have an ideological reticence to women’s issues, it would appear that he cannot relate to women unless he’s in a dominant position. That is a terrifying prospect, and one that I think will not go away so easily.

Obama did well last night and showed women why Mitt Romney and Republicans are bad for women in the workplace, the home, and women’s health. Because it’s all about the economy, and a woman’s right to choose when if or how to have children is absolutely an economic issue.

In many states, early voting has started. Go here to check whether you can vote early or where you can go to vote on November 7, 2012. And tell your friends! Spread the word: Mitt Romney is the wrong choice for women.