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Why I Am Not Pro-Voice

2 Jul

A guest post from Renee Bracey Sherman.

I’ve been sharing my abortion story publicly (and privately) for two years now. It’s been a whirlwind experience; I’ve felt elation and anxiety, pride and shame, stigma and empowerment. Sharing my story has brought me closer than ever to some of my friends and family members, and also left some unwilling to speak to me again. I’ve been told I’m very brave and courageous, and also some not-so-nice things not worth repeating. I knew from day one that speaking about my abortion would change my life and the lives of others. I knew that if I was honest in sharing one of the most vulnerable parts of myself, that I could be my most authentic self and could use my voice to advocate for my rights and my people, as I had never done before. So it makes me angry when one abortion storysharing organization belittles some abortion stories as nothing more than political pawns for the pro-choice movement.

When I first started sharing my story publicly, I was shown a different movement; one that valued sharing abortion experiences without politics. I was excited. I wanted to share my story for my own healing and move past the shame and stigma that mainstream rhetoric forced upon me. And like many, I drank the Kool-Aid to shed myself from the ‘politics of abortion.’ I was trained to be pro-storyteller’s-voice. To me, letting go of the politics meant freeing oneself from the pro-choice and pro-life labels. It meant not blaming one political party for anti-abortion legislation, because there are some Democrats to who don’t support abortion rights and there are some Republicans who do. White Republican men at that! Don’t believe me? You should, I’ve dated them. Joining this new movement felt great—I felt heard and honest about myself. I previously felt so isolated and it felt great to be pro-voice.

As I continued sharing my story, I began to unpack my invisible knapsack. Inside there was a mix of privilege and oppression; complexities galore. I recognized how much my class background, growing up in an urban setting, and access to (somewhat) comprehensive sexual health education played in to my ability to have a safe abortion. How my privilege gave me access to a great clinic where the nurse held my hand and was waiting by my bedside when I awoke. But also, how my race, gender, and place in society affected the stigma, stereotyping, and isolation I felt. How I stayed silent about my abortion for so long because I didn’t want to been seen as a statistic – ‘another Black teen who got pregnant.’ When I began volunteering to house clients who traveled 5 hours or more to have a safe and legal abortion through my local abortion fund, I began to see how much more complex abortion was, beyond the emotions. Sharing my home with strangers, who I’m only connected to through our abortion experience, made me understand the power of elevating our voices that much more. We never discuss politics, but we do discuss what is political – our bodies and our lives.

I thought that vocalizing my complexities would continue to help me heal and acknowledge the vast gray area of abortion. I thought that was acceptable to others in the organization I spoke with, but I found out the hard way that it was not. “We don’t think you’re ready to share your story publicly” they told me. Wait, what? I was bewildered. How can someone else tell me when I am ready to tell my story? I had been working with them for over a year. I felt so supported, but now I had been dumped hard. I asked for more explanations, yet they gave me none.

Afterwards, I talked to more people and found out I was not the first. I was now at the back of a long line of people who had found their voice, only to be shut down when they began to explore it more. I found a friend who was told by the same group that her story was too political, simply for the fact that her abortion happened on Election Day – an irony she realized as she cast her vote for president.

Time, and more public story telling, has given me perspective in to what the root issue was – privilege. The act of telling someone how, when, where, and why they should, or should not, share their personal experience is one deeply rooted in privilege. It is wrong to identify yourself as the gatekeeper to the stories that the world will hear. It is wrong to filter out the personal experiences of people of color, poor folks, people with various gender identities and sexual orientations, and immigrant folks, all because the world happens to be debating issues related to those identities. Saying that our personal experiences are “too political” is a continued systematic oppression by those with power to silence stories that will not further a specific agenda. This perpetuates the idea that abortion stories should fit one narrative – the one that best fits a social movement’s goals. It is an abuse of power over the most vulnerable.

It is not my fault that people are allowed to debate my skin color. It is not my fault that my healthcare is a matter of public discussion. For someone to say whether or not I can share my story to further an understanding of my life experience is one of the most offensive actions they can take against me. For them to say that I can’t share it in an advocacy realm is ignorant of the fact that I have to stand up for myself and fight for my rights, because who else will? As Amanda Marcotte wrote when questioning the movement, “People who view women as things to be controlled and punished aren’t going to be swayed by women’s voices, when they don’t respect them in the first place.” My community and I are under attack. Is the personal no longer the political?

For the record, I identify as a reproductive justice activist because I believe there is more at play than legal abortion. I want to use a broader framework for change. I actively work for the inclusion of queer identities in our movement, to end the stigma around young parents, and to ensure that everyone has the autonomy to live their fullest lives. Fighting for access to food, education, healthcare, etc. all has an impact on  available reproductive decisions – without access, there is no choice. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t stand in solidarity with my pro-choice friends.

When I share my story, I am no one’s political pawn. I am standing up for myself in a society that deems my voice unnecessary. I am sharing an experience and how it changed my life. And if my friends or I need access to a safe abortion, I want to speak out to ensure that it is available next week and next year. I do it because I want to help shape the pro-choice movement to become a more inclusive one, and increase our understanding of the complexities of abortion experiences. I want to make it better. I want culture change.

By sharing my abortion experience, I jump in to the heated conversation and bring some rationale to it. I often share my experience with people who are fervently anti-abortion. I don’t do it to get them to become pro-choice or vote for the candidate of my liking. I do it because I actually want to create a culture of listening and sharing. I listen to them to understand why they hold the views they do – often it’s because they don’t want me to feel pain through an abortion. When I explain my actual feelings, how feelings are multifaceted, and how the rhetoric on all sides impacts my experience, they begin to understand me a bit better. They understand the quandary I was in. There’s no talk of politics – and we can both retain our separate beliefs, but also share a vulnerable moment.

I agree that no one should have their story misused, distorted, or flattened. No one should have their story twisted for another’s gain. It’s not right. But I also recognize that many of the listeners in the room also have abortion experiences and identify with mine. They heard something in my story that rang true. The connection and engagement with the listeners is what’s most important to me.

I don’t believe in order to share your abortion story authentically, you have to move to the sidelines and become apolitical. And if that is what some people want to do, that’s great. That’s their choice. But it’s unethical for them to tell me that how I should share my story. Because it’s just that: mine.

Renee is a reproductive justice activist who shares her own abortion story to encourage others who have had abortions to speak out and end the silence and stigma around abortion. Renee is a Generative Fellow with CoreAlign, a contributor to Echoing Ida, a project of Strong Families, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration at Cornell University. Follow Renee on Twitter: @rbraceysherman.

#98: On Jason Collins and bravery

29 Apr

When Jason Collins, an NBA player for the Boston Celtics, wore the number 98 last season , sports fans would have thought nothing of it. Collins’ journeyman status in the league probably led most to believe that wearing the number 98 meant the team he played for just ran out of numbers to assign.

What we didn’t know is that Jason Collins picked the number 98 for a particularly special reason. He wore that number in honor of Matthew Shepard, the college student beaten and ultimately killed for being gay in 1998.

Today, Collins wrote an article for Sports Illustrated stating, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” He is male-professional sports’ first current and active athlete to come out. I have nothing but joy.

That moment when two things you care deeply about collide in a good way and you exhale. That moment when you hug your son and share the news. That brief moment of hope that infuses an otherwise weary soul. This is me, right now, typing with tears streaming down my face.

Collins wrote, “Some people insist they’ve never met a gay person. But Three Degrees of Jason Collins dictates that no NBA player can claim that anymore. Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”

And if there was a question about what the reaction would be amongst that brotherhood of the NBA, here are just a few tweets sharing the reaction from some folks on twitter:

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I could paste in several more responses like this, positive, supportive, non-judgmental responses from some of the top athletes in the world. Who said the NBA had to be a breeding ground for homophobia? It may just be that there is a certain level of projection from the old-boys-club sports media on homophobia being rampant in sports, because judging by the news and reactions, I just don’t see it. Things are changing rapidly and for the better.

Today, I can finally say, is a good day. Thank you to Jason Collins for your bravery.

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.


Stepping Up & Speaking Out About My Abortion

3 Jul

A guest post by Renee Bracey Sherman.

For six years, I didn’t talk about my abortion. I sat in the closet, alone – very alone. For six years, I only knew three women who had abortions – one being a cousin of mine, yet we still didn’t talk about it. I was afraid of what people would think of me, what they would say if I talked about it, the names they would call me if I came out of the closet. For a long time, I barely admitted to myself that I had an abortion.

The first time I spoke publicly about my abortion was in Fresno, California. Previously, I’d written about my experience in a blog post and spoken about it with talk line counselors in training, but this was different. It was the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training’s academy for nonprofit fundraising staff. I had been attending for a few days and getting to know my peers, but not on a personal level. It wasn’t designed as a safe space for abortion stories, I was on a panel about fundraising and I was there to talk about why I am a donor to an abortion talkline and story sharing organization. Fresno is a conservative agricultural city in California and I was scared. Why I give has everything to do with my abortion experience and I couldn’t explain one without the other. I was so nervous I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid to out myself in a room of people I barely knew.

“When I was 19, I had an abortion. I was alone and had no one I felt I could talk to. This is why I donate – so no one has to feel like they have to go through an abortion alone.” The room was silent. Thirty pairs of eyes were staring hard at me. I continued to tell my story and why I support abortion organizations. By the time I finished, more than half of the people in the room were crying. I was crying. We shared a moment in that room – you could feel it.

After I spoke, a pastor came up to me and said that he did not support abortion. He said it was wrong. My heart stopped and I thought, “Breathe, his words won’t hurt you.” Then he continued, “I never thought about the women having abortions, just abortion itself. You showed me that women going through a tough experience deserve respect and support, whether I agree or not. I’m going to take that lesson back to my church.” I cried. I never thought that I would be able to impact someone like that.

Now, I talk about abortion all the time – on the bus with friends, at the farmer’s market with aunts, at work with coworkers. I know what you’re thinking, “Who talks about abortion at work?” Well, I do. I do because it has brought me closer to the women and men I work with who have experienced abortion and to those who don’t know anyone who has openly talked about their experience. For me, talking about it is part of my healing and they have said it feels good to find someone else in the world with a similar experience. Through talking about my experience, I have found a supportive community of women, new stronger relationships with family members, and love and acceptance for myself.

When talking about my abortion my intention is not to change anyone’s political opinion, it is to put a face on abortion experiences and the range of experiences. If one in three women have had an experience with abortion, then why aren’t we talking about it? Why aren’t we hearing their stories?

For women thinking about sharing their story, I say go for it. But make sure you do it for you – not for anyone else, not to push an agenda either way. Do it because you want to have your voice heard. It can feel scary and liberating at the same time. It is not an easy decision, but one that has freed me from internalized shame.

In sharing my story, I have met so many of our sisters with abortion experiences and some have begun to speak out publicly. A few months after I shared my story, my cousin wrote a blog about her experience and she met and inspired many more women who shared our experience. I think she and I are now closer than ever knowing that we share a bond through our abortions and speaking out about it.

An aunt told me that she wanted to speak out about her abortion the way I did, but she was afraid of the shame and the way people might treat her afterwards. Speaking publicly about your abortion experience isn’t for everyone. For some people, it is something that they never want to share aloud, and that’s okay. Everyone heals and shares in different ways – both publicly and privately. But as more of us start to come out, the stigma and shame will be left in the closet. And we will join our sisters in the sun.

Renee is a reproductive justice activist who shares her own abortion story to encourage others who have had abortions to speak out and end the silence and stigma around abortion. Renee is a Generative Fellow with CoreAlign, a contributor to Echoing Ida, a project of Strong Families, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration at Cornell University. Follow Renee on Twitter: @rbraceysherman.