A guest post by JustJane.
I’m older than most of the Abortion Gang and happy to be in solidarity with all of you as an (aging) guest blogger. I’ve been in the field for about twenty five years now. Longer if you include my confusion when my grade three teacher gave us a pamphlet about fetal development that I was finding fascinating until I reached week twelve, at which point it said, “Today my mother killed me.” Yes, I went to Catholic school. But even at eight years old, I knew there was something fundamentally screwed up about this pamphlet and the teacher who had given it to me. It would be years before I dared to articulate my feelings because I was afraid. Figuring out what I was afraid of was a big part of breaking free of that community and being able to think for myself. Little did I know I’d have to go through that same process again at forty-eight when once again, I noticed myself avoiding speaking out.
Back in the days when I was eight, my fear was of God and the Church, not the anti-choice folks that claimed to speak for them. Their tactics were pretty mild back then and involved showing colorized images of the fetus in the womb, with some thumb-sucking thrown in for good measure. These images appealed to the idea of women as nurturers and portrayed the fetus as already human and in need of protection. They were meant to make pro-choice people feel guilt, not fear.
But in recent years, the images employed by the anti-choice have changed drastically. A particularly heinous group of anti-choicers has taken up the assault on reason in my neck of the woods. They’ve been setting up campaigns called the “Genocide Awareness Project,” “Show the Truth,” or other propagandist titles through “campus pro-life” groups, which as far as I can tell, are just a campus front for the people, money and churches that are really behind the display. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the advertising maxim, “Any media is good media,” seems to be working for them. They’ve been getting a lot of press, mostly because their displays offend community standards. Even bad media seems to encourage them. So they have become increasingly bold and visible. They often drive a truck around with their awful pictures plastered on the side and hold random street protests. You probably have something like this near you.
These images are not meant to appeal to women as nurturers or to make pro-choice people feel merely guilty. These images are bloody and horrific. The alleged dismembered fetuses plastered on trucks and held up by street protesters assault unsuspecting drivers and passersby like a perverted flasher in a school playground. People who have seen the display report that it can be several minutes before they understand what the images are supposed to be. One friend told me that the first time she saw the truck, she thought it was the worst advertising for barbeque she had ever seen. Then she got it. And she got angry. She said she felt like she had been mugged.
If you are unlucky enough to meet the protesters on the street, you will find that the images are accompanied by rhetoric that claims women who have abortions are perpetrators of genocide. It includes comparisons to the Holocaust. It says doctors who perform abortions are Nazis. It is beyond offensive.
I’m not the first to suggest that this strategy of calling pro-choice people perpetrators of genocide incites hate, and could be considered hate speech. But again, it is my own fear of these people that I want to talk about. For over a year, I had been aware of them and done nothing, in spite of a decades long record of advocacy. I told myself it was because they were contemptuous, loathsome morons who were already getting enough attention. But after some self-examination when they protested only blocks from my home, I had to look deeper. If I was honest with myself, I was afraid of them.
This campaign, although it does not overtly demand violence against women who have abortions or their doctors and other supporters of reproductive rights, certainly evokes violence with its bloody images and use of language. I feared the implied violence of their campaign. Like schoolyard bullies, their implied violence is supported by actual violence. In this case, the actual violence is perpetrated periodically by some of their sympathizers, the people who kill doctors. I feared becoming the target of irrational, violent people who think they are working for God. Maybe some of you have felt this fear too. And I feared speaking out against them because, while they use the right to free speech to justify their lies, they sue anyone and everyone who says anything against them.
Then I remembered that bullies are only effective for as long as they can maintain fear in their victims. I realized that the purveyors of the bloody fetus pictures, in fact, rely on doctor killers to continue to bully unchallenged in the same way the nuns at my Catholic school relied on the occasional use of the strap and the fires of hell. I owed it to the doctors who had died protecting my rights to get past my fear. It was right to loath this anti-choice bully squad, but not to fear them.
It was this realization that got me and another pro-choice person to finally devise a counter protest. The bullies had shown up to harass a charitable organization that offers comprehensive sexual health information near our respective homes. Don’t ask me how or why, but I happen to have access to giant genitalia costumes – a penis made of a wonderful foamy material with testicles that bounce on my feet as I walk topped off with faux sperm made of bent white pipe cleaners coming out the top, and a vulva with a bedazzled, bejeweled clitoris. My friend and I donned these costumes and met the bullies on the sidewalk. Their jaws hung open in stunned disbelief. For once, they had nothing to say. Eroto-phobes that they are, they didn’t know what to do with us. Counter protest by dancing giant genitalia was not in their play book. They never saw it coming. Our signs challenged them and asked drivers to honk if they thought these people were full of baloney. And we danced, with bedazzled clitoris sparkling in the sunlight and testicles bouncing.
It wasn’t all fun and games. One woman drove around the block several times to scream, face red and veins throbbing, and say, “Life isn’t just about a penis and vagina.” On her fourth time around, I calmly told her, “No, but it does all start there, Ma’am.” At some point, we realized some drivers thought we were with the anti-choice people. That bothered us at first. Then we let it go. We knew our crazy antics made them look even more ridiculous than they already were, so if we were mistaken as part of them, that was fine and suited our purposes just as well. A party atmosphere started to emerge, as workers from a building across the street came with bottled water and patted us on our genitalia shoulders for taking them on.
Two eight year olds came by on their bikes. They wanted to know what we were doing and if they could help us. They didn’t understand our costumes. I didn’t tell them what we were. I told them this was about women deciding whether to have babies or not and that it was something they should talk about with their parents or the people who looked after them at home. I told them that it wasn’t right for me to tell them what to think or what to do and this was something families talk about. The anti-choice protesters invited the boys over to them, explained how some mommies murder their babies, said my friend and I thought that was okay, and gave them pamphlets to hand out to pedestrians. Once again, I saw how they prey on the weak, the young, and the uninformed. I wondered how this incident would reverberate in the lives of these boys.
The anti-choice protesters came back once, but never really got started. I went over, ready to dance the giant penis dance again, but by the time I arrived, they had dispersed. My friend, the dancing vulva, saw them a week later at another location. She got on her phone to call me to battle stations. We had already agreed we would do it again, any place, any time. When they recognized her, their leader made a quick phone call. A white sedan pulled around the corner. They stuffed their posters in the trunk and sped away.
It’s a small victory in a way, but a huge victory over the fear that had kept me from confronting them. In the immortal words of Susan Jeffers, “Feel the fear, and do it anyway.” It’s the only way to win in a battle with a bully. And access to giant genitalia costumes doesn’t hurt either.