What Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern doesn't get about being a gay pro-lifer
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One of the most exciting stories my mother ever told me was of how she and five women friends—all young school teachers in their early 20s in Connecticut—decided to leave their jobs together and drive in two convertibles out to Los Angeles, California, to make new lives for themselves.
My mom is a tall American woman, and in the early 1960s she was right out of central casting with her blonde bouffant and short skirts. There are photos of she and her friends posing in the redwoods, looking happy and confident, their headscarves wrapped around their hair, sunglasses firmly in place. She told me stories of how they used to dive into the pool in their jeans and then lay out to let them dry tight so they fit close to their bodies.
My mom would get an apartment in Azusa and teach home economics in the Los Angeles public school system. She came from a Maine farming family that was land rich but cash poor, as we say in Maine. She had worked summers as a housekeeper in a coastal tourist hotel to save money for the car she drove away to her first job after college, down in Middletown, Connecticut. She paid cash for that car— she had to, she wasn’t going to stick around, and women weren’t commonly extended credit then. She had a sense that she wanted a future for herself that no one was going to offer her that—she had to go out and take it for herself. And she tried to instill that in her friends as well, each of them trying to keep each other brave.
This is sometimes called feminism.
There’s a story for one of these women that I still think of every so often, of my mother receiving a phone call late at night from one of these friends, three years after they’d arrived. This friend had married a man who’d gotten her pregnant. She’d had three children with him in rapid succession. She was losing her mind trying to take care of them, and she had just discovered that she was pregnant again. She needed someone to drive her to get an abortion, and had to borrow the money—she wasn’t going to let her husband know. My mom drove down with her and tried to talk her into leaving her husband. The friend wouldn’t do it—there were the kids—and it broke my mother’s heart to drive away that day after taking her to get an abortion, leaving her friend in that marriage.
It is not a historical oddity, this story that happened to my mom’s friend. Lots of women were trapped in marriages where the husband would serially impregnate them, and soon they’d be too demoralized to stop it or to leave. I remember hearing of a woman in my mother’s hometown up in Maine who had given birth to 24 children—my mom pointed out her house one day while visiting my grandparents—and I looked on with a mixture of horror and awe as we drove by.
There’s another story my mom shared with me that shocked me as a child, about how she had to leave her job because she was pregnant with me. She was lucky enough to be married to my father at the time, but it was considered to be immoral for women schoolteachers to be pregnant in front of their students. My dad was a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, and didn’t make enough to support both her and me. He borrowed money to pay for the hospital bills, and accepted a job from his father, back in Korea, and moved us there in the spring of 1968, when I was old enough to take a trans-Pacific flight, at the age of nine months.
We left the country because I was born.
Women are still discriminated against in the workplace for being pregnant, despite it being illegal, and to the extent that they are paid less than men, they are discriminated against because they might have children. This also means that if they have children without a man, they face living in poverty much more quickly than a man would, or if they had the income of that male partner—which forces them to stay married or otherwise attached to men they might otherwise leave. America is also the only economy in our economic class globally that doesn’t ensure mandatory maternity leave—and this means that women can lose their jobs if they choose to take a voluntary unpaid maternity leave. Having a child in a hospital in the U.S. is now so prohibitively expensive that if nothing is done about it, it will become something only the rich can do.
What’s more, in many if not most ways, the economic conditions are worse for women now than they were when my mother was young because they are worse for us all. Our working conditions in the United States are so grim that we just had to demonstrate and advocate just to get sick leave made legal in New York City again, much less maternity leave. Most women use sick leave should they get it just to stay home from work while recovering from birth.
There’s a reason we call reproductive rights “choice”—childbearing was often forced on women. And to deny women abortions puts them back there again, it’s as simple as that. These stories are why it has never once crossed my mind growing up to not be a feminist man, and after I eventually came out as a gay man, it never once crossed my mind to not support women on the topic of women’s reproductive rights. And as I came out into a mixed community of GLBT students at Wesleyan University in the late 1980s, where there were so few of us that we had to form bonds across our various identities, in the way that would come to be called intersectionality, it seemed very natural to me to understand the struggle of women as a class to be a part of my struggle as a gay man. Because, if you haven’t noticed, homophobia is just another word for misogyny.
Well before I could imagine I was gay, I was being called “faggot” and “sissy,” I was made fun of for liking “girl things.” By the time I came out, there were consistent messages that to desire a man was to become a woman for all intents and purposes, and that this was a terrible thing if you were a man. “Because look at how women are treated” was the unspoken part of that. The message of the culture at large was that to be gay was to be less than a man, i.e., to be a woman—and to do that was to be treated as less than human. I see it most clearly in the lives of trans women friends of mine, that if they miss anything about having once been publicly gendered as male, it is male privilege: the ability to walk safely at night without threat of violence, the better pay and promotions they once received as a man. And at a time of what seems like record visibility for trans people, it’s worth noting we have no trans women national celebrities who adopt a nontraditional appearance on that national stage. They all look as if they could pass as women models or actresses and they often do. “No fat chicks” is a sign the world may as well hang on the trans women celebrity clubhouse, because for now, to even get Katie Couric to insult you with what she doesn’t know about trans people on national television, you have to at least be normatively femme pretty enough to be seen on TV with her—you have to be able to pass, even if you don’t.
Chelsea Manning is the closest we have to that, and she’s considered an enemy of the state. She’s not in that clubhouse—she’s in prison.
For these reasons among so many others, as a gay man, I am a feminist—it’s how I was brought up. And I won’t at any time be making room for the notion that one can support marriage equality and support being pro-life. This little game of arguing the 14th Amendment around is something only men have the luxury of doing, and there’s a good reason why: Pro-life is only a euphemism for the enslaving of women, as a means to the enslaving of us all, and it isn’t worth pretending otherwise. You can posit all day that a fetus has the rights of a person in theory, but when you do, you overlook all the rights that the right wing in this country has taken from us as a part of fighting for the personhood of the fetus—rights to sick leave, to sick pay, to overtime, to weekends off, to a 40-hour work week, to unionize, to labor protections, to healthcare, to regulations concerning the environment, to voting, to the ability to sue for damages—the right wing has used this bogus fight to get voters to the polls and push a sweepingly oppressive agenda that has taken us as a country to a very dangerous place, the place we all live in now, as Americans. For all practical purposes, when you let the right wing insist on the rights of a fetus over the rights of the mother, you deny the personhood of us all.
Photo credit: Flickr user Dave Fayram
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