The current buzz within the abortion rights movement seems to be that we need to take a lesson from the gay rights movement – that people need to start “coming out” with their abortion stories. The assumption of these conversations is that the gains in gay rights – marriage and the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – are a direct consequence of the culture change resulting from more and more queer folks coming out over time. That people have softened over time as they have gotten to know queer folks and queer families and are able to see that they are “just like normal people.”
This assumption – that visibility and normalization leads to culture change – is probably true. And it may also be true that if more people were to tell their abortion stories, that if people in the political center could see that women who have had abortions and the physicians who have performed them are “just like normal people”, that we would likely see some cultural shift over time. We may even see policy change follow.
But there is a limit to this thinking – with all of the culture change that the LGBTQ community has seen, stigma and violence are still perpetrated every day. I was reminded of this as I read the story of Mollie Olgin, 19, and Mary Chapa, 18, two young lesbians who were shot (with Mollie being killed) in Texas just last month. And I am heartbroken, remembering exactly how terrifying it is to be a 17-year-old kid coming out in the South, and how challenging moving through the world in this queer body of mine continues to be.
It’s too early to know whether or not this act of violence on young people was a hate crime. It doesn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t, queer and trans people experience violence and harassment at the hands of individuals and the state every single day.
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Similarly, abortion providers, clinic workers, and the people that utilize their services experience violence and harassment every single day. The National Abortion Federation reports 5,165 incidents of violence and disruption at abortion clinics in 2011 alone, including stalking, vandalism, picketing, and attempted bombings and/or arson.
The lived experience of violence and harassment for people associated with abortion services should give us pause. The thinking and direction of the abortion rights movement originates primarily from the coasts, but living life in Manhattan or San Francisco or Washington, DC is different than living life in Tulsa, Oklahoma or Greenville, South Carolina. It’s important to think carefully about the roles we are asking people to play. “Coming out” is a powerful contribution, but is not the only role one person can play to support progress around abortion access.
If the abortion rights movement is going to ask women to be more visible and vocal about their experiences with abortion, we must do so with thoughtfulness about the potential impact on individual people – particularly people living in rural communities and conservative states. We must be working to address stigma in these communities. And we must be vigilant about supporting people – providers, clinic staff, and individual women – once they go public. We must support individual health care providers and social service workers to challenge the stigma around abortion in their clinics, agencies, and professional communities, a strategy we at the Abortion Access Project are currently pursuing. And finally, we must stick around, knowing that this change takes time, and that individuals need lasting support.
If we’re going to see the change we seek for every woman in every community of every state, we need to meet people where they are, be patient, and keep showing up for the individuals who risk an awful lot to stand up for women. And we need to value not only those whose contribution is to “come out,” but those whose contribution is to stand up for women in a less public way. Everyone has a role to play, and these roles are as diverse as the people who play them. If we can’t think bigger than “coming out,” we’re limiting the growth of our movement to people who are willing and/or able to take that risk. We can dream bigger than that. Our movement needs more than that.