Selling Ourselves Out: The Corporatization of Pride in America

•June 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment

This piece is a guest submission by Matt Massaia.  Matt is a New York-based poet, artist and activist who writes about queer identity, long-form poetry, cultural hegemony, and the liminal nature of sexuality in Dionysian ritual.  You can see Matt’s previous guest submissions on The Radical Idea here.

During the 2013 NYC Pride Parade, I was standing street-side against the barricades outside the Stonewall Inn. A whole mess of summer sweaty, heavily rainbowed queers clustered on Christopher St in the late afternoon. Roving sidewalk carts purveying Pride-themed beads, flags, pins, wings, skirts, whatever. Secret Coke bottles full of rum. Inexplicable teenagers asking me if I had weed to sell. And then the onslaught. Little promotional giveaways thrown from floats, motorcycles, Andrew Cuomo’s ilk, the requisite Lady Gaga, glorious high heels, beautiful boys dancing in their underwear, lovingly protected by the NYPD.

Then comes the Citibank float. I’m checking my phone to find where my companions are and I hear from the DJ a very loud, very exuberant “WHOSE STREET? OUR STREET!” People on the street echoed. I wanted to leave. The “who’s street? our street!” chant brought me back two years prior, when Occupy Wall Street began its marches around Manhattan. I remember being in that no-barricade mass, the fed-up “whose street? our street!” circling the Stock Exchange. Hearing this at Pride coming from a float backed by Citigroup (who, after helping crash the market in 2008, received a measly $476.2 billion bailout) was just a little too uncanny for me.

While for us this is some kind of cruel irony, for various corporations it’s an attractive selling point. Not only have pride events nationwide become more corporate oriented—“Pride” is now a marketing strategy. From VIP post-Pride dance parties and night clubs to fashion and drugs to prevent the spread of HIV, gay culture privileges money. Those with money and societal privilege are able to live desirably while ignoring the ever increasing population of queers who are women, trans, of color, undocumented, or poor. “The Gays” are a demographic to sell to.

Thanks to increasing cultural acceptance, (predominantly white, affluent, male) gays are now welcome to be complicit in the capitalist consumer system just like every other good-hearted, red-blooded American. And what better way to let you know that you’re welcome? To hire a drag queen to toss you a frisbee that has “TD Bank” printed on it. Some cute twink wearing only a pair of red briefs chucks a Delta Airlines stress ball at you. Election year politicians hand out stickers. All of this operates under the assertion that we can market to the queers by making them think we’re on their side. Corporate entities appropriate remnants of counterculture, subculture. Revolutionary scraps are repurposed into something that is not only digestible but sellable.

Corporations and celebrities prey on the aesthetic of Pride as well. At my first Pride, I heard “Born This Way” play eleven times throughout the parade. Media, such as Macklemore’s “Same Love,” panders to queer people, using the illusion of superficial support to draw in consumers. Looking at the list of this year’s NYC Pride official sponsors, I question why the organizers of NYC Pride would accept sponsorship from companies such as Wal-Mart (which employs the forced labor of incarcerated women to “demanufacture” products for resale), AT&T (which has dumped union labor in favor of prison labor), and Citibank (which, thanks to its policies, might be the biggest money launderer in the world for sundry violent drug cartels).

We are “winning” the fight for “marriage equality,” which is going to predominantly serve rich, white gay people. Let’s not forget that the first Gay Pride was a riot at the Stonewall Inn, where working class queers, undocumented people, trans individuals, and people of color fought back for the right to be public with their identities. But now we can go corporate and praise these companies who profess that they care about equality. According to The Wall Street Journal, Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat received a $4.5 million dollar bonus on top of a $13.5 million dollar salary. That just reeks of equality to me.

I believe that Pride events are beautiful things or can be beautiful things when we act in solidarity with all queers who have been marginalized and demand actual revolution. I want to see Pride honor lives lost to disease and police violence. It should nurture sex and body positivity. Include, rather than exclude. Amplify the voices of undocumented and working class queers. It should be a time when we celebrate the victories that we have made and acknowledge the places where we’ve fallen short, where our actions haven’t matched our rhetoric. When that Citibank float rolled by me, I heard “whose street? our street?” become not a call for radicalism and change, but a haunting reminder that yes, these are their streets and G-d help you if you’re not ready to comply.

Congress, We See You Trying to Defund Family Planning

•June 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Remember when, after the midterm elections, Mitch McConnell said that his goal was to make Republicans “less scary”?  I have news for him, and for the rest of the GOP leadership: you’re failing.  And if the Republicans want to claim they’re not waging a war on women, their recent move to de-fund family planning programs through Title X make it clear that much as they may claim they are just being “fiscally responsible” or that they are trying to respect what the voters want, their real motive is, frankly, misogynistic in nature.

As far as I can tell, a lot of the reporting on this new budgetary proposal has portrayed this as yet another attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, and it is true that Planned Parenthood Federation of America is one of the largest and best-known Title X organizations in the United States, but it is not the only one. Back when Title X was initially introduced, it had broad bi-partisan support; in fact, Richard Nixon actually stated that “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition”.  Today, it funds over 4000 health clinics and provides no- or low-cost family planning services to individuals who make less than $25,000 a year, and has made a huge difference in the lives of low-income individuals and families in the United States.

“An elimination of Title X would have a devastating impact on the 4.7 million Americans who may no longer have access to high-quality, patient-centered family planning and sexual health care services,” said Clare Coleman, CEO and president of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, in a comment to the Huffington Post. “For many of these women and men, a Title X-funded health center is their only access point to the health system and the only health care they receive all year.”

Unfortunately, Title X in general and Planned Parenthood in particular have been under attack for several years now (in fact, Planned Parenthood has its own tag on this blog because attempts to de-fund it were so frequent when I first started blogging).  Spurred by a shift in the Republican party towards the right, and prompted by the increasingly loud voices of the anti-choice minority, Congress has repeatedly managed to conflate Title X funding with funding for abortion, despite the fact that Hyde Amendments prohibit any funding of abortion through federal taxpayer dollars.  Never mind that the majority of the country is pro-choice; Congress seems determined to eradicate any semblance of support for anything remotely related to abortion.

There are two reasons I am willing to say that these actions are not about “protecting life”, which is the stated reason why the anti-choice lobby opposes abortion, and is really about controlling and shaming pregnant people for making their own reproductive choices.  The first is that if one really wants to reduce abortion rates, one should be investing in preventative measures like contraception.  Realistically speaking, centuries of shaming women for having sex has not actually resulted in women not having sex, and making abortion illegal only serves to make it riskier; the best way to reduce the demand for abortion is to increase access to birth control and adequate sex education, but Congress doesn’t seem interested in doing either; in fact, they are doing the opposite with this move to eliminate funding for Title X.  Second, given that pregnancy is surprisingly dangerous, and the United States actually has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, eliminating the ability of potentially pregnant people to control when they get pregnant or prevent themselves from getting pregnant if they believe the pregnancy could put them at risk, in no way protects life.  Realistically speaking, family planning saves lives, which means if you’re against family planning, calling yourself pro-life seems a misnomer.  What these individuals really are is against the bodily autonomy of individuals with the ability to get pregnant.

Congress isn’t just trying to defund Title X, for the record: they are also trying to roll back parts of the Affordable Care Act as well as federal funding for comprehensive sex ed.  Again, this is because Congress is acting on ideologically motivated grounds, to shame individuals who engage in sexual activity outside the proscribed context of marriage, or who (even within the context of marriage) have sex but do not wish to have children.

Where’s that gif I used the last time I had to post about Congress?  Found it…

joshymansickofcongress

It isn’t just ideologically problematic, though, it’s downright impractical, which is the other reason why I, as a citizen and a taxpayer, am appalled by this move.  Abstinence-only sex education has been proven not to work, yet Congress is still pushing to fund it instead of comprehensive sex education.  Family planning programs are incredibly cost-effective, and some studies have even shown that family planning investments through programs like Medicaid actually save states money.  Family planning is also a longer-term investment, allowing individuals to finish their education and pursue higher-paying careers, allowing individuals to break out of the cycle of poverty and to facilitate greater access to services and education for their children.  Even if there are people who do not support funding for these programs, the reality is that people’s tax dollars go towards things they do not like all the time (for example, my tax dollars presumably help pay Mitch McConnell’s salary, and there is nothing I can do about that), and we should be assessing policies based on the outcomes they produce, particularly when they don’t actively infringe on the fundamental rights of other individuals within our society.

If this were really about providing for good public policy, we would be fully subsidizing family planning and HIV testing, and promoting access to educational programs, but we aren’t.  Congress is allowing a reactionary branch of the Republican party to dictate how Americans are able to access services necessary to evaluate and take care of their own health.  For a party that claims government is too big, the GOP seems determined to make sure it is able to fit in doctors’ offices and people’s bedrooms as often as possible.

Silence, Complicity, and Accountability: The Charleston Shooting and the Intersections of Race, Gender and Political Rhetoric

•June 19, 2015 • 1 Comment

I want to start off by saying how heartbreaking it was to wake up yesterday to see the deluge of articles regarding the racist murder of nine Black individuals in Charleston, South Carolina. My sadness cannot possibly match that of those living in Charleston, those connected to these individuals and to their community, and they are in my thoughts and prayers.  But before I get to the issues at play, lest anyone let these individuals become symbols for the horror of racism in America and forget that they were people, I want to take a moment to acknowledge who they were: their names were Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Rev. Sharoda Singleton, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Hon. Rev. Clementa Pickney.

Left: Susie Jackson | Top Row: Cynthia Hurd DePayne Doctor, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton | Bottom row: Daniel Simmons Sr., Tywanza Sanders, and Clementa Pinckney

Take a moment to remember that these nine people were someone’s friends, someone’s neighbors, someone’s children, someone’s parents, someone’s siblings.  They were people. And they were brutally taken from this world.

Whenever a shooter is a white male, we are quick to say they must have been “mentally ill”, but whenever a crime is committed by a person of color, the media tends to write them off as a “thug” and a “criminal”.  In fact, even when the victim is a person of color, they are vilified in this way, written off as if they must have been responsible for their own death or their own assault. Accountability is reserved for those who are not in power, whose social groups do not control the social narrative, and that has to change.  When the media continues to perpetuate this dichotomy, we allow for racist disparities in our justice system and our social arenas to be continued, and we fail to address the underlying issues that motivate gendered and racialized violence.  (Not to mention, we vilify mentally ill people who actually need greater societal support, by continually associating mental illness with violence.)  If we are ever going to see fewer shootings of this kind, then we need to call this what it is: an act of terrorism.

It is not as if we do not know why Dylann Roof shot these congregants; he made himself perfectly clear.  Roof not only stated “You rape our women, you’re taking over our country, you have to go” before shooting his victims, he left one witness alive so that his message would be reported to the media and to the country.  This was a racially and politically motivated act of violence, the very definition of an act of terror, carried out on our own soil against our own people, and we need to investigate it as a hate crime (which is how it is currently being addressed), and discuss it in the context of broader patterns of violence towards the Black community.  (I also think it needs to also be discussed in the broader context of white terrorism, but out of respect for the Black community in Charleston, I’m going to hold off). The alternative side of this argument, that we should not cal this terrorism, simply argues that in calling it terrorism, we give this horrible act weight; we allow it to be seen as some sort of noble act in the name of a cause, and as such, we give legitimacy to white supremacists.   But unless the author of the article I just cited also wants to say that the events of September 11 should not be called “terrorism” because that emboldens those who would want to attack the United States, I think this point falls flat; the reality is, just calling it a shooting or a mass murder allows us to isolate it, to talk about it as if it is just the acts of someone who came “unhinged”, or who didn’t know what they were doing.  As far as I can tell, Dylann Roof knew what he was doing, and allowing politically motivated acts of violence by non-white individuals to be termed “terrorism”, to otherize those acts, and to not say that Dylann Roof’s actions were also abhorrent, violent, an attack on our alleged American values, seems wrong.

They say that silence is complicity, and that is probably true.  The job of allies is to listen, yes; but as Rev. Denise Anderson writes, much as we do not want to shout over those whose stories we are trying to respect and whose goals we are trying to further, our silence is not helpful.  It is the job of allies to amplify the voices of those we are trying to support; it is the job of allies to use our positions of privilege and power, and use the fact that society might be more willing to listen to us, to force people to hear what those we support have to say.  This means two things: first, it means that allies might need to be brought into the conversation so that we can make sure we understand what it is we are trying to help communicate-~-and while it might not be the job of oppressed groups to fully educate those who are less oppressed, I also think it’s worth mentioning that yelling at allies who are trying to make sure they are informed and are able to meaningfully check their privilege and assumptions does not actually further anyone’s goals or movements.  Second, this means that those of us in a position to be heard have an obligation to speak.  They say that all that is necessary for evil to win is for good people to remain silent, and I think this is probably true.  Our silence is costing us time, and it is costing us lives.

And fellow white feminists, I am looking at you when I say this: the feminist community has an obligation to denounce the actions and motives of Dylann Roof, not just because he is a racist, but because his logic relied in part on misogynistic justifications for his violence.  Dylann Roof’s utilization of the myth of white female purity to help justify his murder of these individuals in Charleston makes my skin crawl; the idea that white women need to be protected from Black men is rooted in layers of racism and sexism, and we need to push back against both if we want to remove this rhetoric and this violence from our society.  This idea of protecting white female sexual purity has been used to justify violence against Black men for generations; it has been used to justify lynchings, it has been used to justify beatings, it has been used within the criminal justice system to justify stripping Black men of their rights or even their lives.  And it has to end, for so many reasons.

I am proud to say I stand with the people of Charleston, but I am also serious when I say that I believe it is our job to combat these beliefs any time we encounter them, and to call out the media when they allow the prejudices that have become embedded in our narratives about racialized violence in America to color how we discuss these events.

And for the nine victims of Dylann Roof, I pray you rest in peace, I pray you rest in power, and I pray your families find peace, comfort, and justice in the coming days, weeks and months.

HB2: Or, Why Everyone Should Be Keeping An Eye on Texas

•June 13, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I know I’m a few days late in writing this, but bear with me.  Several days ago, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to uphold HB2, the Texas TRAP law that will ultimately cause all but seven abortion clinics in Texas to close their doors.  This is concerning, not just for women in Texas-~-though it is certainly concerning for them-~-but for reproductive rights across the United States.  There is already talk of appealing to the Supreme Court, which is has a far more balanced composition that the Fifth Circuit, but in the meantime, the ruling has very real implication for pregnant people and potentially pregnant people in Texas.

A little history on HB2: the law was first passed in Texas in 2013, despite Wendy Davis’ now-famous filibuster to block it. Like all TRAP laws, HB2 uses the pretext of “safety” to shut down abortion clinics by imposing stringent rules on the clinics which provide these services. The Texas law included three major requirements: that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles-~-which is literally impossible in many rural areas-~-, that all abortion-providing clinics comply with the standards for ambulatory care centers, and that medical abortion be performed in an ambulatory care center and be performed in accordance with outdated FDA protocols that doctors believe are less safe.

Opponents of HB2 filed against it after its passage in 2013, and a federal district judge ruled that it violated the standard of undue burden set forth by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v Casey.  The case was appealed, and in early October of 2014, a Fifth Circuit judge ruled that the law was constitutional, though an exception was carved out for the Rio Grande Valley, which is too remote to allow for the admitting privileges provision to even theoretically make sense.  On October 10, 2014, the Supreme Court put a hold on enforcement of several parts of HB2, particularly the requirements that would have forced clinics to perform costly renovations in order to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, and carving out exemptions for El Paso and McAllen with regards to the requirement for admitting privileges. That’s the last time I wrote about this case, in a post in which I argued that the requirements should be ruled unconstitutional under the undue burden standard, just as the first federal judge had. The case was then appealed and placed before a panel of Fifth Circuit judges for consideration, with the ruling in favor of HB2 being handed down earlier this week.

This is concerning on two levels.  The first is practical: it is now virtually impossible for individuals in Texas to access abortion care if they do not live in a major metropolitan area.  Before the law’s passage, Texas had 40 licensed abortion clinics; with the law now in effect, that number drops to eight.  Many pregnant persons, especially those who are from low-income households, lack the time and resources needed to travel hundreds of miles to actually access services.  This is the map of remaining abortion clinics, released by the Huffington Post last year:

This means that for pregnant persons living in western Texas, the nearest clinics are actually now in Las Cruces, NM.  Keep in mind that the Fifth Circuit ruled last year to keep the last remaining clinic in Mississippi open on the basis that forcing women to go out of state for abortion services did, in fact, constitute and undue burden-~-a fact which I can only hope the court remembers if opponents of the law decide to appeal it to the entire Fifth Circuit.

Practical implications aside, legal rulings set legal precedents that ultimately shape how our laws are interpreted and applied across the country, meaning that if this ruling is allowed to stand, it could have serious ramifications in the fight for reproductive rights across the United States. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the Texas legislature does have the right to create laws that support the compelling state interest of protecting life, and because TRAP laws like HB2 are disguised as public health measures, proponents of the law were able to make the case that their goal is to protect fetal life and the safety of the mother.  What they actually want is to make it next to impossible for people to access abortion, therefore ensuring that fetuses are brought to term even when having a child is a financially, socially, or even medically unsound decision.  Legally speaking, it appears that the court is giving the legislature license to over-regulate abortion in the name of “public health”, even when the requirements they are setting are not actually related to their stated health goals.  The federal judge who initially ruled against HB2 had been quick to point out, as have many opponents of the law, that there is no link between admitting privileges and patient outcomes, and there is very little evidence that ambulatory care standards are necessary for abortion centers.

More than that, though, is the concern that the Fifth Circuit’s analysis may provide a fatal blow to Roe v Wade, the 1973 law that established legal abortion as a standard in the U.S.  Writing for Think Progress, Ian Millhiser explains that “the Fifth Circuit takes Gonzales‘s conclusion about the legislature’s discretion when medical “uncertainty” exists and runs with it — holding that ‘medical uncertainty underlying a statute is for resolution by legislatures, not the courts’ even when a sham health law such as HB2 is challenged.”  The Fifth Circuit has essentially taken the opinion articulated in Gonzales v Carhart, stating that the legislature may step in where the medical community cannot provide definitive answers, in order to regulate health concerns.  This is, in this blogger’s opinion, a slippery slope, because there will always be areas of uncertainty in medicine, and doctors will still always be better informed than politicians about how to weigh that uncertainty.  But I digress; the ruling essentially means that as long as a state can claim a compelling state interest related to women’s health, they can fight a facial challenge to abortion restrictions with high probability of success.

But this means that opponents of these laws are going to be stuck trying to preserve reproductive rights using as-applied challenges, which only deal with the way that laws impact particular plaintiffs.  That means that we get less applicable precedent, and it is harder to challenge these restrictions.  The reality is that proponents of a right to choose will have no choice but to appeal this decision yet again, possibly bringing it all the way to the Supreme Court, rather than let this law and this precedent stand.

That’s “Unprofessional” Part 1: Body Policing in the Workplace

•May 20, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Answer me this question: at what length, exactly, does a skirt become unprofessional?  At what point, exactly, is a shirt “too low cut” for work?  And why is it, while we’re on this subject, that dress codes are gendered in a way that necessarily makes it so that anyone who is not a cis man is perpetually forced to question whether or not they are dressed acceptably for work?

Before anyone gets in my face about the woes of trying to get dressed as a cis man: please do not.  If you have never looked at your wardrobe and pulled out a button down shirt and wondered “can I wear this to the office without it being a problem”, this post is not about your struggle.

The reality is that dress codes are just another form of body policing and the policing of gender presentation and, often, female sexuality.  I’ve written on this subject before when discussing high school dress codes, but the truth is, social expectations surrounding clothing is problematic in the workplace as well.  To be perfectly clear: professionalism is a social construct, which means that it’s socially enforceable, but it’s not inherent to the practice of business.  What’s professional in LA may not pass in New York, and what’s professional in the West may not be correct anywhere else.  Writing for Everyday Feminism, Carmen Rios explains that professionalism as a social construct values white maleness above all else: what we think of as “professional” defaults to a masculinized, female-shaming, middle class ideal of what it means to participate in the labor force.

There are a couple of reasons this is true.  First of all, in order to navigate the often unspoken rules of professional dress and behavior, one needs a certain level of social capital in the form of a middle class knowledge base as to what “professionalism” looks like.  This means that if you have never worked in, or seen your parents or neighbors work in, a “traditional” work environment (read: an office environment), you might not realize exactly what the rules are.  That’s how you get problems like the scene in Erin Brokovich where Julie Roberts’ character is chastised for dressing unprofessionally, in short skirts with low-cut shirts.  But the other problem is that those are the clothes that the character owns, and as a single working-class mom, she can’t really afford a full wardrobe makeover just to take on a new job.  Often, in order to break into the world of the traditional 9-to-5, you have to come from it, because “business” clothes tend not to be the cheapest things to get ahold of-~-and, fine, a moment of recognition for white cis men who come from socioeconomic backgrounds that make suits prohibitively expensive.

But the other problem is that the rules are complicated and reinforce gender-specific expectations that are problematic for genderqueer, gender non-conforming, trans, and cis-female individuals (in varying ways).  I’ll start with the perspective of cis women, because as my lived experience, I know it best, but I’ll acknowledge right off that it’s even harder if you fall into any of the other categories I just mentioned.  If you have long legs or large breasts, good luck finding traditional work attire that fits “appropriately”: from button-downs that gape open or pull too tightly, to skirts that aren’t quite long enough, it can be annoying enough to try to manage getting dressed without worrying where on the spectrum of professionalism something falls: is it business formal?  Business casual?  How casual is too casual for business casual?  V-necks are theoretically okay, but they can’t be too low-cut; where is that line?  Clothes don’t have to fit like potato sacks (in fact, that’s probably “unprofessional” too), but heaven forbid something is “too tight”-~-and I’m not sure where that line is, either.  Add in a racialized element regarding the fetishization of women of color, and you have an extra layer of problematic when non-white women try to get dressed for work.  Oh, and there’s also always the problem of pockets.

To be clear, when women dress “unprofessionally”, what we usually mean is “in a way that can be sexualized”.  It’s the same philosophy that guides school dress codes: if women dress in a way that could be deemed sexual, then men “might be distracted” and it’s “inappropriate”.  While I’m at least willing to acknowledge that it’s not as though men are being allowed to show up at work in short-shorts, the specific issues around gendered dress codes still make it more likely that women will fall out of line and be punished, either socially or by management.  And the solution isn’t necessarily to dress in an overly masculine way; Rios points out that this, too, can have social consequences in the workplace.

This issue of navigating gender expectations falls even more harshly, however, on those who do not conform to the gender binary. In a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Why I’m Genderqueer, Professional, and Unafraid”, genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia writes:

For years, professionalism has been my enemy, because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased. In the workplace, the gender binary can be absolute, unfaltering and infallible. If you dare to step out of line, you risk being mistreated by coworkers, losing promotions or even losing your job. And if you are discriminated against for being transgender or genderqueer, you may not even have access to legal recourse, because in many states it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gender non-conforming employees.

This is all too true, and frankly, completely unacceptable.  A college teammate of mine recently lost their job as a result of this same discrimination, and though they are seeking legal recourse, it is unclear what will happen.  Only 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, have employment discrimination laws that protect individuals on the basis of gender identity, and clothing is a big part of one’s ability to “pass” or otherwise display gender identity, impacting interaction with those laws.

Ultimately, both our behaviors and our presentation at work are expected to fall in line with socially derived expectations that default to a power structure that favors white, middle class, cis-gendered men.  At the end of the day, though, everyone’s work, abilities, and ideas should be respected, and every person should be respected, regardless of how they are dressed.  Respectability politics are just another way to punish those who aren’t privileged enough to know how to play the game, and they’re hurting us socially, politically, and yes, economically, as we lose talented people who are pushed out of the system by oppressive gendered expectations.

What’s more important, really: if I can do my job, or I can successfully conform to a dress code that no one even bothers to spell out because it’s just assumed that if you’re in this office, you’re already privileged enough to know what to do?

Abortion, the Life of the Mother, and the Politics of American Motherhood

•May 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Let’s talk about this 20-week abortion ban the House just passed, shall we?

The bill, which is an updated version of the previous “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”, passed in the House yesterday, and is going to move on to the Senate for consideration.  The “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” was dropped earlier this year after GOP women came out in opposition to the bill, specifically citing the mandatory reporting clause that would force women to report their rapes to the police in order to qualify for exemptions for abortion.  The new version has removed that clause, but let’s be clear: the bill is still terrible, and it should not be signed into law.

joshymansickofcongress

The good news for opponents of the bill is this: the White House has already come out against the bill, calling it disgraceful, and President Obama had already promised to veto the bill’s previous incarnation back in January.  But don’t be fooled, folks: just because I’m not convinced this bill will ever become a law doesn’t mean no broad abortion ban might ever be signed into law, and this issue is still very much worth discussing.  My concern is frankly this: Republicans in Congress are still catering to the desires of the more extreme right of their own party, skewing legislation, and they are pretty clearly looking to create a meaningful constitutional challenge to Roe.  With the Court likely to change in the next couple of years, as several Supreme Court justices age towards retirement, I hope that those who feel strongly are watching this issue closely, and paying attention to what is happening both regarding the presidency and the Senate.

Back to this bill, though: this bill would functionally ban abortion, something American women already struggle to access, after 20 weeks.  Never mind that the courts have repeatedly struck down 20 week abortion bans (which is what leads me to believe that Congress is really pushing to challenge Roe); this bill is just the latest in a series of unnecessary attempts to politicize the practicing of medicine.  According to Planned Parenthood, one of the nation’s leading abortion providers, approximately 99% of abortions occur before 20 weeks; the remaining abortions are usually performed under more extreme and complicated circumstances which require doctors and patients to be able to use every tool in the toolbox.  And while this bill technically does include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, I want to be clear: I do not believe that pregnant people will be able to access this care if necessary under these exemptions in a large number of cases, and rights only matter if they are accessible.

Why am I so unconvinced? As I’ve previously said when writing about rape exceptions, these kinds of exemptions tend to put survivors on trial, and require survivors to be able and willing to recognize and disclose their sexual assault in order to access much-needed care.  And given the backlash that we have seen against survivors of sexual violence, who can really blame survivors if they are reluctant to come forward? Should that jeopardize their medical care?  Their mental health?  I don’t think so, and I can’t see any good argument as to why it should.  Alternatively-~-and again, like I said in my previous posts on the subject-~-if there aren’t requirements to substantiate claims of rape, survivors are likely to be accused of lying to gain access to abortion, which is problematic as well.

But it’s not just rape exceptions I’m skeptical of at this point: it’s the idea that we allow exceptions to “protect the life of the mother”, which I am confident we are determining through a narrow medical definition.  I’m not just worried, though, about pregnant people who might experience medical complications that endanger their health or their life; I’m concerned about the broader conditions which impact pregnant people in the United States and which can place them disproportionately in danger.  When we ignore the dynamics around an individual’s life in an attempt to reduce them to basic “medical” facts, we often miss a lot of what is really going on, major trends that can impact people’s health and potentially endanger their lives.

Let’s start with the big one: homicide, particularly spousal homicide, is one of the leading causes of death for pregnant women in the United States.  In fact, rates of intimate partner homicide in the US are staggering: approximately one third of all female homicide victims in the US are killed by their intimate partner, and pregnancy is among the most common times for this to happen.  I haven’t had a chance to track down and read the exact text of the bill, but I wouldn’t bet on Congress having included the likelihood that a pregnant person will be murdered by their intimate partner when they determined what qualifies as an exception to protect the “life of the mother”.  On top of that, trans individuals who become pregnant and for whom pregnancy does not match their gender expression could be outed and targeted for violence; given the statistics on violence against trans individuals in the United States, I am going to go ahead and say we should be doing anything we can to protect the lives of trans people, and we should certainly not be creating situations which exacerbate their risk just because Congress wants to have a political field day with the issue of reproductive rights.

But on top of that, there are just too many people who don’t have sufficient say in what is happening to them who will be disproportionately impacted by a law like this.  Many individuals in domestic violence situations and other abusive relationships may be experiencing sexual coercion, which our laws do an abysmal job of treating as a sex crime, or may have partners who interfere with or destroy their birth control, leaving them with little control over their reproductive outcomes.  Individuals who are economically reliant on their partners are even less likely to leave bad situations when faced with a pregnancy; our narratives about family push people to stay together even when doing so is not in their best interest, even when it endangers their safety (please, look no further than any time marriage incentives are included in discussions of welfare). Poorer individuals who cannot afford to take time off, and even middle class individuals who cannot afford to take time off because of the United States’ embarrassing lack of paid maternity leave may need access to abortion, and may face personal complications like a partner dying or leaving before the baby is born that make parenthood an untenable option for them, partway through the pregnancy.

At the end of the day, though, the bottom line is this: abortion is a complicated decision that needs to be made by pregnant people in consultation with their doctors, without politicians trying to stick their noses in.  The fact that Congress is willing to gamble with people’s lives to score political points with the far right is disgusting and embarrassing; pregnant people in the United States deserve protection and support, not increased threats of criminalization and higher barriers to medical care.  I look forward to watching this bill die on its way to President Obama’s desk, but I am watching anxiously: this won’t be the last attack on reproductive rights by this Congress.  Not by a long shot.

Why I’m Tired of Being Polite

•May 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I like to think that, at least in the beginnings of things, I am generally a polite person.

As a woman, I have unfortunately been socialized to prioritize politeness, even when being polite is problematic.  I’ve been socialized to be friendly, even when I want people to go away, or to stop talking to me.  I’m socialized to stay quiet, when all I want to do is yell at someone that they’ve invaded my personal space and could they please move over two inches.  I’m socialized to be less confrontational, because confrontations cost me social capital; remember, women who call people out are “bitches”.

The problem is, I’m tired of being polite.  Being polite isn’t getting me anywhere.  And when polite conversation fails, I think the reality of the situation is that sometimes, you have to start yelling.

Bitches get stuff done

Soraya Chemaly wrote an incredible piece where she talks about the ten words all women need to learn to say: “Stop interrupting me”, “I just said that”, and “no explanation needed”.  In it, she talks about the ways in which women are frequently interrupted and ignored, how our perceptions about gendered talkativeness create the illusion that women are hogging conversation time when really they are being spoken over by their male colleagues, and how men tend to “mansplain” things to women.  In particular, she cites a story that Rebecca Solnit included in her fantastic 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me”, wherein Solnit listens to a man go on and on about this important book that had come out, while her friend kept interrupting him to say that it was Solnit’s book.  And as both Solnit and Chemaly point out, almost every woman has a story like this, a situation where a man was given credit for the work they did, a case where someone kept explaining things to them even though they knew more than the man who would not stop talking.

Solnit raises an incredibly important point at the end of her piece: at the core of the feminist movement is a battle to make women and their stories credible, so that we will actually hear them when women speak their truths.  This is the most fundamental part of work to reduce and combat sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and other major issues disproportionately impacting women.  The problem is that even today, as we continue to battle to make women’s voices heard, and make our stories be taken seriously, we are being talked over.

We are being talked over by money, reputation, perceived social value.  We are being talked over when individuals like Bill Cosby and Charlie Sheen are permitted to have massively successful careers in spite of allegations and convictions which demonstrate that they are abusers.  We are being talked over when we celebrate and protect male student athletes at the expense of female student survivors.  We are being talked over when very real issues regarding consent education and the need for better response mechanisms at universities are overshadowed by schools desperately blaming institutions like Greek life.  We are being talked over when survivors are still being functionally put on trial because they need access to services, or simply want justice.

It sometimes feels, in fact, that I can only talk to people close to me about issues related to intimate partner violence, or even just to other survivors, because I’m sometimes unsure if other people will even take what I’m saying seriously.  That is unacceptable.  The movement has tried to be incredibly reasonable, pushing for better tools to help individuals cope with trauma, pushing for reforms to make the system more accessible, working to combat major media issues regarding reporting on sexual assault.  We’ve tried to be reasonable as we calmly point out why rape jokes are not funny, or how trauma impacts individuals in the classroom, only to receive push-back from the broader community, only to be told that we are overreacting.

I’m tired of having to be polite about these things.  Rape jokes are not funny; they legitimize the actions of rapists, if not in the eyes of outsiders than at the very least in the eyes of rapists, and that is not a joke.  Being triggered is not overreacting, nor is it psuedoscience (I’m looking at you, New York Times); it is a very real psychological phenomena wherein an individual experiences an uncontrollable reaction to their trauma, even though they are no longer in danger.  No one is telling soldiers who have survived in combat zones that their PTSD is illegitimate; it’s only survivors of things like intimate partner violence whose narratives and experiences are still being questioned.

I’m tired of having to defend the idea that I, as a woman, and as a survivor, have a right to exist in professional, social, and academic spaces, without fear that I will be personally attacked simply for existing.  I’m tired of feeling like I have to apologize for having lived these experiences, for caring about them.  I’m tired of having to apologize for being “rude” or “bitchy” when I call people out for belittling me, for minimizing my experiences or the experiences of others, for writing off intimate partner violence as if it does not matter.  It absolutely matters, and pretending it doesn’t is further proof that one exists in a place of privilege where they can afford to minimize an experience that has managed not to impact them or those they love.

Being polite isn’t getting us anywhere, and I’m ready to start being blunt.  I’m ready to start being sharp.  I’m ready to be called a bitch.  The truth is, I don’t care what you call me, because a blind reluctance to engage with the ideas I am putting forward, a stubborn insistence that simply because an issue has not impacted you I am “overreacting”, is the worst kind of intellectual cowardice. It’s a refusal to deal with a problem that you on some level know exists but for which confrontation would make you uncomfortable.  I want you to be uncomfortable-~-and why shouldn’t I?  (After all, you want me to be uncomfortable so you can have “meaningful intellectual debate” about issues that impact my daily life).  Recognizing that an issue is uncomfortable means that you’re noticing that something isn’t right here, and now maybe, finally, we can talk about ways to change it.

 
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