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.


6 Responses to “Is coming out about abortion really similar to coming out as LGBTQ?”

  1. sl1878 October 29, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    I like Ipas’s approach to it:

    • Ihadanabortion October 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

      Thanks for this post! I have ‘come out’ about my abortion to my friends, co-workers, siblings and parents- without hesitation. My experience shifted my parents own understanding of being pro-choice and once they got over their own disappointment in not appropriately educating me about safe sex ‘in time’, saw that I had a safe termination at planned parenthood, and no perminent emotional scarring… We’ve had some great political conversations about access. My concern with coming out more broadly, say on the Internet, is to protect my partner at the time of the abortion. He and I made a joint decision to terminate. And so I feel that to honor that, I would have to involve him in a decision to come out online. I just can’t imagine calling him up now, or messaging him on Facebook, “Hey. Remember me. Remember ten (wow!) years ago when we got pregnant and I had that abortion? Well I want to tweet about it. Is that cool?”

      Thanks again for continuing this conversation. It’s important and something I’ve thought about often.

      • Fia Porter November 24, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

        I don’t intend my response to your post to be taken as critical, I just want to reflect back some things you said and ask you to dig a little deeper. You said:

        “My concern with coming out more broadly, say on the Internet, is to protect my partner at the time of the abortion. He and I made a joint decision to terminate. And so I feel that to honor that, I would have to involve him in a decision to come out online.”

        Your abortion was ten years ago. You and your abortion-partner now have completely different lives than you would have had if you two had been forced to become parents a decade ago. You wouldn’t be making a “remember me?” call because you’d *still* be a couple in some form (married, divorced, separated, living together, living apart) and you would at least be in pretty constant contact about child support, visitation and child-rearing issues. You and your abortion-partner have had a decade of the life your abortion choice gave you.

        You say you made a “joint decision” to have an abortion. You did not say you made a blood oath of eternal secrecy. You say to “honor” your joint decision, you have to “involve” him in the decision to come out.

        Uh, no, you don’t. No sensible ethical advocate of “abortion coming out” would ever suggest that you have to NAME your abortion partner, or give such detail about him that his identity is obvious to the public you come out to.

        Sure, there will be a few people who know you and can remember who your boyfriend was in 2002, and there will be a few people who know him now who still remember the female he dated in 2002. If some of these few people run across your “coming out”, they will (gasp!) know that the two of you were having sex, circa 2002. Does any one of these random people learning the obvious mean more to you than living your truth?

        If so, leave out a specific time frame. Say “several years ago.” Call him your “abortion-partner.” Say he was a wonderful guy (if he was). If you know he has gone on to have children, or if you have, PLEASE SAY SO (obviously, you should not identify the children, but it is imperative that you say how many live births have ensued). The number of live births is CRITICAL FACTUAL INFORMATION. Only by giving this critical information can we put the lie to the “pro-life” myth. (E.g., my 2 abortions resulted in *4* (and counting) live births.)

        Do NOT be silent. Do NOT be invisible. Do NOT let younger females who look up to you think that you had a charmed life, when you know the tough choices you had to make. Help take the shame away for them if they encounter an unintended pregnancy.

        I really respect the, well, respect, you have for your abortion-partner and I admire that you want to “honor” the then-private decisions you made as a couple. But YOUR coming out does not mean that you have to out HIM.

        And for those who will put 2 and 2 together no matter how vague you are, so what? They need to get a life. And you need to fully own yours–including the choices that allowed your life to unfold the way it has.

        Your coming out will not spur “political conversations”–it will help insure that real people–males and females like you and your abortion-partner–have the same choices; it will help end a stupid debate; it will help spur R&D of better contraception; it will be your drop in the bucket to try and reduce unintended pregnancies and reduce human suffering. It will help, when help is sorely needed.

        I acknowledge that you think the issue is “important” and it is obvious that you have “thought about [it] often.” You deserve high commendation for that. Just please, *keep on* thinking, and give yourself permission to change your mind, if you ever so choose.

  2. eyeris November 10, 2012 at 2:37 am #

    would a better analogy be the breast cancer awareness model? it’s a medical procedure that used to be shameful, but does not necessarily need to be an identity.

  3. Fia Porter November 23, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    I hear you, I really do.

    But I fundamentally disagree. Probably because I am at least a decade older than you, maybe two.

    The “You can’t ask people to come out until you can give them adequate support” position is a utopian Neverland, and awfully convenient for men and women with an abortion in their reproductive history who enjoy the social and cultural advantages of invisibility.

    As for the sexual orientation analogy, FYI, if it were not for some very audacious and very *unsupported* queens, fags, dykes and assorted homosexuals brazenly foisting themselves on an America that was NOT ready for them, America STILL would not be ready, much less a place where increasingly, same-sex couples can actually get married. There were no cozy support groups (not even the internet–HELLO), back in the day, to come out “into” for the pioneers to whom we owe our progress. People paid with their lives for their right to self-determination, just like abortion providers have paid with their lives.

    As far as abortion and other reproductive choices not “defining” who an individual is, I say, “Bullshit.” My two abortions allowed me (and my two abortion-partners) to chart my own destiny. Without my two abortions, *four* live births would not have occurred, I wouldn’t have finished college, wouldn’t have moved to NYC (where I have lived for 25 years), wouldn’t have had my first career, wouldn’t have become an attorney and had a second career, wouldn’t have met the ideal partner for me (or the people who are my closest friends), and I wouldn’t be a mother to my 6 year-old child. In short, I would be a TOTALLY different person.

    The time to come off the sidelines is now. For those who can’t because of living in dangerous circumstances, it’s wise to keep one’s reproductive history private. For those who can, it is unethical and immoral to perpetuate invisibility while enjoying the benefits of anonymity, knowing full well that abortion allowed you to shape your own destiny–especially when the right to make the same choice you made is under existential threat.

    Abortion is NOTHING to be ashamed of, it is a legal reproductive choice. For those who just don’t want the flak of being judged by the “pro-life” gang, I ask “Why are you unwilling to live your truth openly for such a small benefit?” Why are you willing to live a lie, pretend that fate just gave you your life, when you know you owe your life to your choices?

    Think hard about what your life would be like without your abortion(s). Think hard about how invisibility forfeits the factual benefits of your abortion(s) and perpetuates the current idiotic debate. Think hard about the responsibility you have, once you exercise such a life-shaping right, to at least SHOW UP so that males and females who will live when you are long dead will have–at least–the same right.


  1. Daily Press Clips – October 29 | Trust Women - October 30, 2012

    […] The Abortion Gang has a good post about the problems of a “coming out” strategy to reduce abortion stigma. […]

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