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.