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Larry Kramer Taught Me That Anger Drives Activism. This Pride, I’m Harnessing That Anger.

This Pride Month, Rewire.News recognizes that celebrating during the pandemic will look very different for many of us, which is why we’re putting together tools of resistance and hope to help us all survive (and even thrive) Pride 2020.

On Wednesday, writer and iconic LGBTQ advocate Larry Kramer died of pneumonia in New York City.

Not long after, the New York Times published a widely criticized obituary that led with a subheading claiming his “abusive approach could overshadow his achievements.” Amid the outcry, the publication swapped out “abusive” for “confrontational,” and later that evening it chucked out the entire sentence for something more accurate, with a less nasty premise.

Even in death, Kramer’s galvanizing anger rallied his community against the obliviousness and callousness of those in power. It was that kind of potent anger that powered the modern movement for LGBTQ rights, forcing the country to reconcile with some of its darker tendencies. That anger could be useful in a time like ours, under a virulently anti-LGBTQ administration that promotes white supremacy, misogyny, and so many other bigotries through which our government attacks vulnerable communities. Our country is still complacent toward and condoning of hatred; it could use more of the kind of swift kick in the ass championed by Kramer.

Last summer, Reuters released a poll on LGBTQ equality. About two-thirds of respondents agreed that LGBTQ people should have non-discrimination protections at the federal level, including nearly half of registered Republicans. In fact, only 11 percent of all respondents and 21 percent of Republican respondents opposed federal non-discrimination protections. That was the good news. The bad news was that nearly half of respondents incorrectly believed that those federal protections already exist for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they believe transgender people are already protected under federal law. In reality, beyond same-sex marriage, there are no enforceable, explicit federal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

This was a fear of many LGBTQ activists during the fight for marriage equality: that despite being an important milestone, legalization of same-sex marriage would signal to most of the country that the fight for LGBTQ rights are over. After all, if the rights and benefits of marriage, the bedrock institution of conservative society, were extended to LGBTQ people, surely that must mean all other forms of discrimination are banned, too.

Last year, I talked to a journalist who wondered aloud if anti-LGBTQ state laws on the books are just arcane artifacts that aren’t enforced. This was after I pointed out that in 29 states at the time (28 now, with Virginia passing pro-equality legislation this year), LGBTQ people can be fired from their jobs, denied housing, denied credit, denied public accommodations, and turned away from other areas of public life solely on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The journalist was unaware of the three cases being considered by the Supreme Court on LGBTQ employment, one involving Aimee Stephens, a trans woman, and two involving gay men, all of whom were fired from their jobs not because of their performance but simply for being LGBTQ.

I have conversations like this with otherwise news literate people all the time—educated and empathetic people who are unaware of the depth of anti-LGBTQ nonsense in this country’s laws. Or the ongoing violence against transgender people, particularly Black women. Or the Trump administration’s campaign to implement religious exemption laws and regulations that permit discrimination against LGBTQ people in every facet of society, from employment to public schools. Between the jam-packed news environment of the Trump era and the veneer of optimism caused by marriage equality, the complacency toward the lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ people has never been stronger, and it is quite literally killing us.

As Larry Kramer anecdotes surfaced on Wednesday, there was a lot of talk about his “aggressive tactics,” and not enough about what spurred them. At the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, tens of thousands of people were dying a year while their government either pretended they didn’t exist or simply didn’t care enough to act with purpose.

As the Trump-Pence White House continues to blatantly attack LGBTQ people and much of the country looks the other way, it’s easy to understand why Larry Kramer decided righteous anger was the necessary approach to save lives. He was right.

May his memory be a blessing, and may his example be replicated in a time we so desperately need it.

Why I’m Actually Looking Forward to Pride Under Quarantine as a Disabled Queer

This Pride Month, Rewire.News recognizes that celebrating during the pandemic will look very different for many of us, which is why we’re putting together tools of resistance and hope to help us all survive (and even thrive) Pride 2020.

For the first time in a decade, I am looking forward to Pride.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve been celebrating Pride since I came out as queer in the 1990s with countless parties, parades, and Dyke Marches over the years. But since I got sick with autoimmune illnesses and other chronic illnesses about ten years ago, I could no longer attend most, if not all, of these Pride events.

I am extremely sensitive to light because of my connective tissue disease and the medication I use to treat iteven with sunscreen, shade, and a sunhat, I can’t be outside for more than a few minutes in direct sunlight or hot temperatures. Along with the other joys of chronic illnesses—pain, fatigue, digestive issues, etc.—taking part in all-day Pride parades and celebrations is no longer feasible for me.

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the usual in-person Pride festivities have moved online, which means I may actually get to participate. Though I’m increasingly worried that people will gather for in-person celebrations regardless, I hope they will resist and consider those, like myself, who are vulnerable to the spread of the virus and may be impacted by their actions. (Plus, any event you have right now is de facto inaccessible for people with compromised immune systems and elders.)

It has been really painful, year after year, to hear friends talk about Pride, knowing that I—and many other LGBTQ people with disabilities and chronic illnesses—could not celebrate with them. In recent years, my Pride months have consisted of crying about how isolated I feel as a disabled queer.

Many cities and organizations have worked to make their Pride festivities more accessible—I’ve even worked with my local Pride in Syracuse, New York, to consult on accessibility. While they were receptive and incorporated many of my suggestions, true accessibility and disability justice requires a complete paradigm shift in how we think of community and celebration and protest.

One of the main tenets of disability justice is intersectionality, which recognizes the unique challenges some marginalized people face due to intersecting forces of oppression. In other words, queer and transgender folks with disabilities face oppression in ways that able-bodied queer people don’t. Disabled LGBTQIA folks are often isolated due to inaccessibility, ableism, and just the way our physical and mental bodies work, making the community building, protest, and celebratory aspects of Pride all the more important for us.

After all, Pride was started after queer and trans people of color literally rioted for days after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, and don’t forget that Marsha P. Johnson—one of the leaders of the Stonewall Uprising—was disabled.

Pride has changed a lot over the years. Even during my years of being well enough to attend, I saw the presence of corporations and brands skyrocket. As a sex worker, I’m also uncomfortable in spaces with a lot of police presence, and many mainstream Pride celebrations include law enforcement, even in uniform. (Hopefully after this year, the debate on inviting police to Pride will be over for good. It’s only due to white supremacy that it was even a question.)

Recently, a friend wrote on Facebook about how she was so sad for the young people who won’t have this chance to gather for this year’s Pride, and I get it—I really do—as only someone who is deeply isolated. I also grew up as an out, small-town queer who would have been thrilled to go to a Pride parade. There is a really special feeling that comes with being in physical community with other queer people—not to mention the sex and dating aspect of Pride, which are still possible remotely, but much different.

A digital celebration may actually be more accessible for some able-bodied young people living at home with unsupportive and restrictive parents, especially those in rural areas without nearby Pride parties to join.

Of course, accessibility isn’t universal: While moving an event online may make it more accessible for me, it may then become inaccessible for others without technological devices or internet. Or if there are speakers but captioning or sign language translations are not available for people who have a hearing impairment. It’s important to be thoughtful and hire consultants if needed because whether an event is happening in-person or online, accessibility needs to be considered and implemented.

This June is the perfect opportunity to consider what a Pride that centers disability justice could look like.

A good place to start (or to continue) thinking about this is by reading the work of our queer disabled ancestor Stacey Milbern, who recently crossed over. Poet, educator, and organizer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha also wrote a beautiful essay on the intersections of disability justice and the LGBTQ movement.

We need to imagine how we can build a just world as if we were building it from scratch. That doesn’t mean that we must sever our movement from its historical contexts—if anything, we need to spotlight the revolutionary Black, brown, Indigenous, disabled, poor, and sex working queer and trans folks who have largely been erased from LGBTQ history.

Instead of trying to make existing events accessible, let’s completely rethink Pride and what it means and build a movement that aligns with our values of disability justice and intersectionality. How this translates for you and your community will differ, but disability justice necessitates centering Black and brown trans and gender nonconforming people—and NO FUCKING COPS.

Instead of looking at this year as an “off” year for Pride, let’s use the tools we have to build a celebration that’s inclusive of all LGBTQIA folks. To truly honor our ancestors, we must create movements and spaces that they could have been part of.

As the FDA Continues to Restrict Remote Abortion Access, Doctors Are Fighting Back

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over its refusal to loosen outdated restrictions on medication abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic. But some advocates are pushing a workaround, arguing that the FDA rules don’t actually prevent providers from sending abortion pills through the mail.

It’s not the only way the pandemic has prodded doctors to ease the process for telemedicine abortion, eliminating some of the in-person visits usually required even for patients trying to access care remotely. Doctors are finding innovative ways to provide medication abortion without subjecting patients to unnecessary visits to a medical facility, said Elisa Wells, co-founder and co-director of Plan C, an organization that advocates for self-managed abortion care and medication abortion pill access.

The safest way for people to access early abortion care during a pandemic—at home, under remote medical supervision—has been hampered by onerous FDA restrictions since medication abortion was first approved in 2000. One of the pills, mifepristone, is under a set of FDA restrictions called a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) that require it be dispensed by a specially certified medical provider in clinics, medical offices, or hospitals—not pharmacies.

That means that even people who manage to see an abortion provider over telemedicine will likely have to go to a clinic to receive mifepristone in person—unless their provider is part of an FDA-approved research study—even though medication abortion is safe and common. Experts argue there’s no medical reason for this, and have urged the FDA to lift the regulations and allow patients to access mifepristone like any other medication.

“Of the more than 20,000 drugs regulated by the FDA, mifepristone is the only one that patients must receive in person at a hospital, clinic, or medical office, yet may self-administer, unsupervised, at a location of their choosing,” says the lawsuit, which the ACLU filed last Wednesday on behalf of a coalition of medical experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

“When used for purposes other than pregnancy termination, the FDA permits mifepristone to be mailed directly to the patient’s home in higher doses and quantities,” the lawsuit notes.

According to the legal complaint, the FDA restrictions require patients to pick up mifepristone in person. A growing group of advocates and providers, however, believe the FDA regulation has been interpreted more restrictively by doctors than it needs to be.

The REMS “specifies that mifepristone be dispensed to patients only in clinics, offices, or hospitals by the provider, but nobody exactly knows what that means,” said Elizabeth Raymond, senior medical associate at Gynuity Health Projects. “If the certified prescriber is in the clinic, office, or hospital mailing the pills to the patient, does that count? Some people think it does.”

One of those people is Wells, whose organization, Plan C, has been urging providers to mail mifepristone for months. In April, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States, it stepped up the efforts.

“Dispensing is the act of preparing a drug for distribution to the patient (identifying the correct medication, dosage, labelling, instructions, etc). There is no language in the REMS that says you can’t mail the pills, though providers have largely interpreted the REMS to prohibit mailing,” Wells said in an email.

“More providers are stepping up to actually mail the pills,” Wells said. “And that’s what we’ve been working a lot on, is talking to providers and asking them: Now that we have these new test protocols, and it’s clearly the new standard of care, won’t you just do the next step of mailing the pills as a harm reduction approach? It’s the safest and most convenient for everyone.”

The demand is there

As the pandemic increases demand for all kinds of telemedicine services in the United States, and Republican governors throughout the country use the pandemic to push for more abortion restrictions, access to telemedicine abortion has become particularly urgent.

The reproductive health-care provider carafem has seen a spike in inquiries about medication abortion since early March, when states began issuing COVID-19 lockdown orders, said Melissa Grant, carafem’s chief operating officer.

“We went from serving a couple [medication abortion] clients a week to serving between 30 and 40 clients a week,” Grant told Rewire.News.

Carafem, which operates health centers in four states, is part of the TelAbortion project, a research study evaluating the use of telemedicine for providing medication abortion. The TelAbortion study started in 2016 and serves 13 states—Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

Providers participating in the TelAbortion study are explicitly allowed by the FDA to mail mifepristone to patients; one of the goals of the study is to gather data on the effectiveness and safety of mailing mifepristone.

In April and May, TelAbortion has served more than twice as many patients as in January and February, said Elizabeth Raymond, senior medical associate at Gynuity Health Projects, which sponsors and runs the TelAbortion program.

“We’ve had a tremendous increase in TelAbortion during the pandemic,” Raymond told Rewire.News. “The limitations people have in getting medical care in person are really leading them to utilize this type of service more.”

A new protocol eliminates unnecessary testing

Meanwhile, the pandemic’s impact on abortion access has ushered in a new medical protocol for medication abortion that experts say is just as safe.

Before the pandemic, the medical community’s standard of care meant patients first had to undergo a blood test and an ultrasound or pelvic exam so that the provider could determine the duration of the pregnancy. Even patients using telemedicine had to first visit a nearby clinic for the physical tests—an expectation that had nothing to do with the FDA’s REMS requirements.

Many carafem patients get an ultrasound or pelvic exam wherever was most convenient for them and not necessarily from the abortion provider, but COVID-19 has made this much more difficult for patients. For some, it’s impossible.

“It was much more challenging for many of our clients not only to come into the health center but even to obtain an ultrasound,” Grant said. Carafem has typically allowed some patients, on a case-by-case basis, to forgo the in-person tests if necessary to protect health and wellbeing. Since March, they’ve expanded that option.

“Evaluation with ultrasound before medical abortion has (up to now) been the accepted standard of care among providers,” Raymond said. “Professional organizations have given mixed guidance [but] nearly all providers have been doing ultrasounds. … Almost no providers until recently have provided [medication abortion] with neither test.”

The pandemic changed that, as more providers recognize the challenges to obtaining an ultrasound, and the lack of medical rationale for it. “Since COVID, all U.S. abortion guidelines organizations have explicitly stated that ultrasound is not needed, and most have endorsed no ultrasound or pelvic exam,” Raymond said. “We don’t know yet the extent to which providers are taking this up.”

Gynuity recently lead a collaborative effort to develop a “no-test protocol” for medication abortion, citing research from 2015 to 2016 that reviewed 406 medication abortions provided in the United States, Mexico, and Moldova without ultrasounds or pelvic exams. The participants reported no serious adverse events that resulted from the elimination of these screening tests.

“This is a huge innovation, an acknowledgment within the medical community that an ultrasound is not needed,” Wells said. “Many doctors have known this, but it’s really hard to change the standard of care in our litigious society. The pandemic has really laid bare the fiction that physical clinics are needed to safely and effectively provide abortion care.”

While these innovations in telemedicine abortion are expanding abortion access during the pandemic, more needs to be done to ensure access in a post-COVID-19 society, advocates said. Currently, 18 states prohibit the use of telemedicine for medication abortion, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate introduced a bill this year to ban telemedicine abortion on the federal level.

“I think this happens in crisis situations, that innovations arise that maybe otherwise would have taken years,” Raymond said. “But there’s a lot of forces working against this too. So we have to pull a silver lining out of this COVID [pandemic] … really try to get as much out of it as we can, so we can counter those forces that are going to be operating after the epidemic is resolved.”

11 Books for Asian American Teens to Educate Themselves on Sex and Their Bodies

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire.News is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.

From medically inaccurate and discriminatory sex education in schools to the Eurocentric beauty standards in mainstream media, it’s no wonder we have such complicated feelings about sex, race, and our bodies.

As a Korean American who grew up in the Midwest, I related to how “sex was stigmatized to the point of silence in my household”—something Senti Sojwal, a sex-positive reproductive justice activist, wrote for Rewire.News this week on why Asian Americans need better sex ed. Sojwal wrote about how that stigmatization leads to internalized repressive values about womanhood and purity. Now as adults, we continue to unpack and dismantle those ideas.

As APAHM draws to a close, I don’t want the education (or the celebration) to end here. As Asian Americans, we should strive to continually expand our knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice. To help guide this process, Rewire.News has compiled a short list of readings to get you started. I only wish that growing up, a teacher, librarian, or adult around me had recommended them—even just one of them.

Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (University of California Press)

If you read only one book from this list, let it be this introduction by Loretta Ross, a mother to the reproductive justice movement, and historian Rickie Solinger on issues of reproductive rights through an intersectional analysis of race, class, and gender politics. This book will help you think more critically about reproductive politics in our society.

The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love (Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

If we all grew up learning that our bodies are all deserving of rights, love, and care, what would that look like? Spoken word poet, activist, and educator Sonya Renee Taylor provides the tools to make that dream a reality in this book.

Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality (Rowman and Littlefield)

Rosalind Chou, assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University who specializes in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and law, conducted qualitative research to discuss the layers of Asian American sexuality. She touches on key gender and race theory and ultimately develops a framework for dismantling stereotypes and oppression.

Our Bodies, Ourselves (Simon & Schuster)

First published in 1970 as a 193-page stapled booklet called “Women and Their Bodies,” I wasn’t introduced to this feminist classic until I was in my late twenties. Our Bodies, Ourselves centers the idea that our body is completely and utterly normal—something still considered revolutionary due to a barrage of unrealistic beauty standards in society.

Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as Power (The Crossing Press)

This empowering essay by feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde digs into the power of eroticism and challenges the notion of “the erotic” being tied to the act of sex only. Lorde teaches us that society has stripped women f eroticism as a creative power and that we need to reclaim it.

Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice (Haymarket)

Authored by multiple women, including Ross, who we highlighted earlier, this book shares the history of reproductive rights and justice through the women of color who led it—a fact that was largely unknown when it was published in the mid-2000s. It imagines what reproductive freedom would look like for all—not just for those who have the means and access.

The Explorer’s Guide to Planet Orgasms (Greenery Press)

Orgasms are fun—and author Annie Sparkle and illustrator YuDori make learning about sexual pleasure accessible while reminding us that orgasms come in all sizes and shapes—for every body. Welcome to the world of Planet Orgasms—where your “Orgasmanaut Training” will be out of this world.

Policing the National Body: Sex, Race, and Criminalization (South End Press)

This anthology, edited by a team that includes South Asian activist Anannya Bhattacharjee, explores the mainstream reproductive rights movement of women of color by examining the criminalization of their bodies through the criminal justice system and the oppression of immigrant women, women of color, and young women.

Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (NYU Press)

Dána-Ain Davis, professor of urban studies at Queens College, City University of New York, peels back the layers on the ways that racism affects Black women’s birth outcomes through birth stories from more than a dozen parents, midwives, doctors, and more. Even if pregnancy is not in your future, it’s important to understand how structural oppression impacts our rights and abilities to have sex, reproduce, and exist in this country.

Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America (NYU Press)

In reimagining reproductive freedom, Rickie Solinger connects the social, racial, economic, and political forces that rule reproductive rights, like sex ed, prenatal care, housing laws, access to citizenship, and more.

Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Womanhood (Cambridge University Press)

University of California, Irvine School of Law Professor Michele Godwin expands the conversation on reproductive health and rights by highlighting how legislators criminalize women for their pregnancies. The result is shocking, scary, and maddening, but will leave you with a renewed understanding of your own bodily autonomy.

Here’s How the Newest Birth Control Method Could Be a Game-Changer

Birth control methods have long been dominated by hormonal methods. Now there’s a new birth control gel without any hormones that will soon be available for those who cannot or choose not to use hormones.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week approved Phexxi, a contraceptive gel that maintains the vagina’s pH level, or measure of acidity, during intercourse to make it toxic to sperm. It’s expected to be available to consumers in September. 

Phexxi comes in pre-filled applicators that need to be inserted into the vagina no more than an hour before intercourse. (A new applicator must be used for every act of intercourse.)

The approval of a new method of contraception is important because most forms contain synthetic versions of estrogen and progesterone, hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle to block ovulation. Hormonal methods were introduced in the 1960s with the invention of the pill, and other hormonal methods now include the birth control shot, patch, ring, and implant.

Another form of contraception, intrauterine devices (IUDs), long-acting reversible contraceptives, slow the progression of sperm toward the egg, but all but one type of IUD contain hormones. Barrier method contraceptives, like “male” condoms, internal condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps, are also nonhormonal forms of birth control—but besides male condoms, barrier methods are rarely used these days.

Hormonal methods are safe for most people and, in fact, have some benefits along with pregnancy prevention, like regulating periods and reducing heavy flow and menstrual cramps, as well as the other physical and emotional symptoms that come with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). They can also be particularly helpful for people who have endometriosis, or experience menstrual migraines, anemia, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe type of PMS. Research has shown people who take birth control pills are 50 percent less likely to get uterine cancer than those who have never taken them, and the effects can last for up to 20 years after they stopped taking the pill.

Hormonal methods are not appropriate for everyone, however. People with high blood pressure or smoke cigarettes are warned against using birth control pills that contain both estrogen and progestin, for example, because of the increased risk of blood clots. People with a history of breast or uterine cancer may be told to avoid some IUDs. And some health-care providers recommend that people with diabetes, heart conditions, or a history of some types of migraines avoid certain hormonal methods.

Over the past decade, there has been a bit of a backlash against hormonal methods that coincides with cultural shifts toward organic food and all things natural. While some of this may be based on legitimate lifestyle choices, much of the criticism of hormonal birth control can be traced back to a 2013 book that used anecdotal evidence and junk science to blame the pill for everything from loss of bone density to depression and a desire for plastic surgery.

In truth, the research on hormonal contraceptives is complicated, as studies can seem to contradict each other. There is some research showing hormonal contraceptives can cause adverse mood effects in people with a history of mood disorders while other research suggests hormonal contraception’s impact on mood is mostly positive.

Phexxi’s nonhormonal contraceptive gel contains the common food additives lactic acid, citric acid, and potassium bitartrate. Evofem Biosciences, the San Diego-based company that makes Phexxi, calls it a “vaginal pH regulator” because it maintains vaginal pH in the normal, acidic range between 3.8 and 4.5 that makes it inhospitable to sperm. Sperm thrive in an alkaline range—between 7 and 8.5 is ideal for motility. (The pH scale runs from 0 to 14.) The vagina’s pH level rises during sex to allow the sperm to swim toward the egg. Phexxi is designed to make sure that doesn’t happen.

In a study of 1,400 women ages 18 to 35, Phexxi was found to be about 86 percent effective on average over seven menstrual cycles. This is similar to the typical efficacy rate of male condoms but lower than that of hormonal methods—especially those, such as the implant, that essentially take user error out of the equation. (Once inserted, the implant is 99 percent effective for five years.) Like condoms, Phexxi has to be used at the time of intercourse, leaving room for error and forgetfulness.  

Though there are other contraceptive gels available, they contain spermicide, which prevents sperm from reaching the egg. Spermicides have never been particularly effective on their own (only about 21 percent under typical use) and are most often suggested as a complement to another method such as a condom. Moreover, nonoxynol-9, the ingredient in all spermicides sold in the United States, has been found to be irritating to many people and might raise the likelihood of HIV transmission when used frequently. 

The new gel has only been approved for pregnancy prevention but there is some evidence that it might provide protection against chlamydia and gonorrhea, two of the most common bacterial sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A preliminary study by the manufacturer found a 50 percent relative risk reduction in chlamydia and a 78 percent risk reduction in gonorrhea compared to a placebo.

The company is hoping to have FDA approval for Phexxi as a form of STI prevention by 2022. Without insurance, Phexxi will cost between $250 to $275 per box of 12. 

There are a lot of contraceptive options on the market, but there is always room for more. The birth control that’s best for each person varies based on their health, relationships, and preferences. A new option—especially one that works for people who can’t or don’t want to rely on hormones—is an important addition to the field. 

5 Disability Justice Activists to Know This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire.News is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.

The rights of people with disabilities have come under added threat during the COVID-19 pandemic—public debates about rationing medical supplies like ventilators have ultimately determined who has the right to live or die.

This is just one reason to highlight the work of disability justice activists this APAHM.

Disability justice centers the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, considering intersecting forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, or sizeism.

By sharing resources and creating interdependent networks of access and care, disability justice activists fight for their rights to not only survive but also to thrive in a world without barriers. These rights—from paid sick leave at work to more accessible public spaces—benefit everybody. And yet, their activism often goes unrecognized.

That is why Rewire.News is profiling some of the revolutionary Asian and Pacific American organizers, educators, artists, and writers in the disability justice movement.

Stacey Milbern

The disability justice community lost a fierce advocate last Tuesday: Stacey Milbern, a queer, disabled, Korean American activist who often went by her online moniker @cripchick, died on her 33rd birthday.

Milbern is regarded as a parent of the disability justice movement, which formed through a 2005 discussion between queer, disabled women of color activists, including Milbern. That year, she and a group of queer, disabled people of color cofounded the Disability Justice Culture Club (DJCC), a collaborative organizing space in Oakland, California.

Recently, the group rallied against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s power shutoffs in October 2019. Milbern, who had muscular dystrophy and used a ventilator to breathe, as well as an electric wheelchair, called out the company’s actions as neglectful and “criminal.” At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Bay Area, Milbern and the DJCC mobilized to provide mutual aid to the local disability and homeless communities in the form of “anti-coronavirus kits.” She also spoke out against the rationing of medical care during the crisis.

After her death, Milbern’s friends and collaborators created #StaceyTaughtUs and a syllabus that includes her writing and interviews to honor her lifetime of activism, community building, and revolutionary love and care.

“I want to leave a legacy of disabled people knowing we are powerful and beautiful because of who we are, not despite it.” –Stacey Milbern

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer, disabled, multiracial Sri Lankan writer, performance artist, educator, and organizer. She wrote one of the essential books on disability justice, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, which was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2018. Through her collection of essays, she centers, explores, and celebrates the movement.

Based in Oakland and Toronto, Piepzna-Samarasinha in 2006 cofounded the Asian Arts Freedom School, an arts-based activism program for Asian and Pacific Islander youth in Toronto. The same year, she cofounded and codirected Mangos With Chill, a performance tour and collective of queer and trans artists of color. Since 2009, Piepzna-Samarasinha has been a lead artist with Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance collective that originated in the Bay Area and tours nationally. Piepzna-Samarasinha has published multiple books and essays, and her writing has been featured in PBS News Hour,, Bitch magazine, and more.

“If movements got it together about ableism, there is so much we could win—movement spaces where elders, parents, and sick and disabled folks (a huge amount of the planet) could be present—strength in numbers!” –Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Mia Mingus 

Mia Mingus is a writer, educator, and disability justice activist and organizer regarded as one of the movement’s originators and one of the founding members of the DJCC. A queer, disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee raised in the Caribbean, Mingus has been involved in transformative justice work for over 15 years and was a founding member of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), which addresses child sexual abuse through a transformative justice framework—a way to respond to violence without involving incarceration or punishment by the state.

Mingus is a survivor and prison abolitionist who believes in justice beyond punishment and criminalization. She speaks publicly and provides tools and trainings on transformative justice across North America.

The National LGBTQ Task Force awarded Mingus with the Creating Change Award in 2008. In 2010, Mingus was named one of the Advocate’s Forty Under 40 list, and in 2013 she was honored as a “champion for change” by President Barack Obama. She spoke at the Queer & Asian Conference in 2013 and the Disability Intersectionality Summit in 2018.

“We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.” –Mia Mingus

Alice Wong

Based in San Francisco, Alice Wong is a disability rights activist who started the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to the creation and amplification of disability media and culture, in partnership with StoryCorps in 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Though it started as a one-year oral history project, Wong found a desire and need for people in her community to tell their stories. As of 2018, the project collected 140 oral histories.

Wong, who lives with a neurological disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, also partners with Disabled Writers, a resource that connects editors with disabled writers and journalists with disabled sources with a disability to help increase visibility to the disability community. She organizes #CripTheVote, an online movement to increase political engagement and activation within the disability community. In 2013, she was appointed to President Obama’s National Council on Disability, and is currently on the advisory board for APIDC, Asians and Pacific Islanders With Disabilities of California.

Her second edited book, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century, which includes personal essays by contemporary disabled writers, will be released by Penguin Random House in late June.

“I want to believe that the future is not just mine, but ours. When one of us falls through the cracks, we all suffer and lose something.” –Alice Wong

Kay Ulanday Barrett 

Kay Ulanday Barrett, also known by their social handle @brownroundboi, is a trans nonbinary Filipinx-American poet, performer, and activist based in New York and New Jersey. Their second book of poetry, More Than Organs, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in March and explores brown, queer, trans futures.

Barrett’s poetry and performance centers on queer, trans, Filipinx, and mixed-race identity, and disability. Their work has been featured in the New York Times, PBS News Hour, Academy of American Poets, Asian American Literary Review, and Bitch magazine, and they have performed on stages across the country and internationally. Barrett was a featured poet and performed at the United Nations’ first global LGBTQ summit, Gender Diversity Beyond Binaries, in 2019. They have served on boards, panels, and committees for the Transgender Law Center, the Disability Justice Collective, the Trans Justice Funding Project, and more.

“We have networks where we can replenish ourselves and each other. We’re creating the art, skills, strategies, with support from our ancestors to be the people who show up for a life that strives for liberation.” –Kay Ulanday Barrett

Planned Parenthood Got COVID-19 Funds. Why Are Republicans Trying to Take It Back?

Congressional Republicans have been on a never-ending quest to make sure Planned Parenthood goes broke—now, they’re using a federal relief funding program to try to accomplish that mission during the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and 25 other Republican senators signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr requesting an investigation into the dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics that received federal relief funding. They accuse Planned Parenthood of knowing it was ineligible for PPP loans, stating, “fraudulent loan applications can trigger both civil and criminal penalties.” The letter comes after the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which approves and distributes the PPP loans, requested the money back from the clinics.

Under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was created to alleviate financial strains small businesses have faced during the pandemic, 38 Planned Parenthood affiliates received more than $80 million. Planned Parenthood said its affiliates are independent from the national office, with separate finances, leadership, and governance and therefore eligible for the PPP, CBS News reported.

The pandemic has hurt Planned Parenthood like it has every organization or business impacted by public health restrictions meant to stop the virus’ spread. In Illinois, Planned Parenthood consolidated its services to six clinics, which led to temporarily closing 11 of its clinics in the state. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York has temporarily closed 11 of its 28 clinics and furloughed hundreds of workers during the pandemic. At the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, receiving a PPP loan of just over $2,000 has meant all staff members—over 180 of them—have maintained full employment, according to CBS News.

Republicans’ outrage at Planned Parenthood clinics receiving financial help from the government during a pandemic stands in stark contrast to their state and federal policies crafted explicitly to funnel government funds into clinics that mislead and lie to pregnant people about their reproductive health-care options.

Meanwhile, abortion rights opponents encouraged at least 1,800 anti-choice clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), to apply for PPP funding, since SBA rules allows faith-based nonprofits like CPCs to apply for assistance. Anti-choice clinics aren’t licensed medical facilities, and staffers adamantly advocate against abortion, using scare tactics like propaganda videos and imagery, shameful language, and sometimes outright lying about gestational ages of pregnancies. Yet these clinics aren’t being asked to return any federal funding, which makes it clear that Republicans see the pandemic not as a public health crisis but as an opportunity to destroy abortion access in the United States.

Unfortunately, using government funds to undermine legitimate reproductive health care doesn’t stop with the funding of anti-choice clinics. Last year, some of these clinics modified the scope of their services to include ultrasounds, STI testing, and even contraception in hopes of qualifying for federal Title X funds that after proposed changes by the Trump administration would allow businesses that don’t provide abortion referrals to receive Title X funding, essentially redirecting federal family planning money to clinics run by anti-choice activists. 

Conservatives have said Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortion care shouldn’t receive federal dollars because they only offer abortion services, or that urging people to have abortions is their primary mission. But abortion clinics provide options counseling—something abortion rights opponents don’t like to acknowledge. Unlike the counseling one would receive at an anti-choice clinic, abortion providers offer unbiased options counseling. When someone has made the decision to have an abortion, instead of judgment, they’ll receive factual, evidence-based information—aside from the misinformation many states force doctors to provide patients—in addition to accessing the abortion care (and other health services) they need.

Republican lawmakers have long subsidized anti-choice clinics, weaponizing public funds against people seeking comprehensive health care while depriving actual reproductive health-care organizations of the funding they need to survive. Their demands for the SBA to take back Planned Parenthood’s PPP funding is just their latest attempt to undermine health-care organizations that provide actual health care. 

Why Asian Americans Need Better Sex Ed

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire.News is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.

Like many South Asian Americans, I didn’t get much sex education at home. Now, as a sex-positive reproductive justice activist working in public health, I want to change our understanding of sex ed so that younger generations can access the culturally competent sex ed I wish I had during my youth.

Growing up, my parents were progressive and allowed me a lot of independence, encouraged my budding feminism and interest in the arts and humanities, and never pressured me to take the “traditional” path of success expected of many immigrant children. Though many in my parents’ families had arranged marriages, they did not, so it was never expected for me and my sister. Still, my parents were deeply religious, and—having grown up in India in the 1960s and ‘70s, where openness about sexuality was hardly the norm—sex was stigmatized to the point of silence in my household. That silence around sex meant that certain repressive values about womanhood and purity were also passed down to me and my sister.

This silence stood in stark contrast to the experience I was actually having as a young person growing up in New York City, where groups of teenagers would gather near nightly in Riverside Park for 40s, blunts, and making out; where someone’s parents were always out of town, leaving an unsupervised apartment to party in; and where everyone had condoms in their bag and knew girls who were giving blowjobs at 12 years old.

I was lucky to attend public schools that, though far from being comprehensive, did offer sex ed that informed us about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), taught us how to roll condoms on bananas, and shouted out the local Planned Parenthood. It never even crossed my mind to talk to my parents about sex or dating because the expectation of secrecy was so engrained in me. I learned about sex through whispered, giggling conversations with girlfriends, episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation, fumbling hookups at high school parties, and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a revolutionary book on women’s health and sexuality.

Growing up between this world of sexual openness and fluidity and the more repressive world of my parents and our religious community was confusing. Like many Indian American girls, I oscillated between the pressures and expectations of my parents and my desire to experiment—all against the backdrop of an immigrant context where sexuality was inherently linked to issues of family, cultural loyalty, and ethnic purity.

In the world of public health, we know that there are negative impacts when sex education inevitably fails to reach young people of color. And despite the prevalence of the “model minority” myth, which aims to separate us from other communities of color by setting us aside as “exceptional,” that also includes Asian Americans.

Multiple bodies of research show that parental communication about sex causes a delay in sexual activity among youth and reduces risky behavior. Teens who receive clear messages about sex from their parents are more likely to use condoms and birth control, and this is especially true when it comes to young women who learn about safe sex from their mothers.

It’s not that I blame my mother or any Asian parent. When I spoke to her for this article, she told me that as a young parent adjusting to life in a new country, she didn’t intentionally ignore sex ed for her kids—she just didn’t have the tools, resources, and knowledge to do that kind of education herself.

What my mother needed was access to more culturally sensitive sex ed resources, but there are still many barriers in the way. For example, sexuality education and health-related materials, like books and pamphlets, are frequently unavailable (or poorly translated) in Asian languages, and there is a lack of outreach to Asian immigrant communities. This underscores a larger trend of communities of color in the United States having disproportionately less access to sex education and a lack of sex educators of color. Sex ed is often not culturally competent for people of color, as it’s tailored to a white cultural context.

I want to be clear that cultural silence and shame around sexuality aren’t inherently immigrant or Asian issues, and most people, regardless of race or ethnicity, grow up without comprehensive and affirming sex ed. But if we want better for our communities, we must look to community-oriented and -led solutions, and examine what culturally competent sexuality education should look like.

I reached out to Sandra Phanita Kumwong, a sexuality educator and full spectrum doula of Thai descent, to try to further understand the complexities of sex ed for Asian Americans. She said she believes bringing access to sexual health care in her community is inherently political.

“There is a pervasive stereotype that Asian women are quiet, subtle, and don’t take charge. At the same time, we’re hypersexualized and fetishized, only seen through a white male gaze,” Kumwong said. “Even if the people viewing us this way aren’t white, they’re intentionally or unintentionally upholding white supremacy by believing in constructs that were created to support imperialism, colonization, and degradation of Asian women and other women of color.”

For Kumwong, promoting empowerment through inclusive, pleasure-centered, evidence-based sex education is an issue of gender and racial justice. For all young people, culturally competent and compassionate sex ed means building healthier relationships with their bodies, sex, and sexuality, which can improve their relationships and their lives. Kumwong, like most sex educators, believes simply knowing about condoms and reproductive organs is not enough, and that marginalized people need to be represented in the field of sexual health education.

“The more comfortable the students get with you, the more risqué the questions get,” Kumwong said. “I’ve had questions like, ‘I heard Asian girls have slanted vaginas,’ or ‘If I have a racial preference, am I racist?’ or ‘Aren’t trans people faking?’ It’s really important for educators to have a good handle on the situation because these conversations unmoderated hurt students listening in.” In these situations, Kumwong addresses topics of racism and transphobia head-on.

As a co-leader of the Asian American Feminist Collective, part of our work is to create spaces for identity exploration and community building through an intersectional lens. Events like our annual Sex & Love Talk Circle have shown me the prevalence of cultural silence around sex among Asian American families, and how deeply its associated guilt, shame, and fear can impact us for years to come.

Sex education that’s inclusive, comprehensive, judgment-free, and compassionate is a critical part of creating communities that are more tolerant, loving, open, and equitable for everyone. When we see sex ed as an opportunity for racial justice, we are standing up for our youth and fighting to create the world they deserve—no matter their identity.

In the Heart of New York’s Pandemic, This Group Is Fighting for South Asian Abuse Survivors

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire.News is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.

In New York City, the epicenter of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, many of the hardest hit neighborhoods are home to large South Asian communities.

With the city in lockdown, people are self-isolating at home. And while physical distancing measures are in place to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, another crisis is emerging: Survivors of domestic and gender-based violence are stuck at home with their abusers and are struggling to seek help.

As an immigrant community, South Asian survivors of abuse encounter intersecting issues of poverty, immigration status, and language proficiency. While 1 in 4 women in the United States will experience gender-based violence, that number increases to 2 in every 5 for South Asian women, according to Sakhi for South Asian Women, a culturally responsive and trauma-informed gender justice advocacy organization in New York City.

“Toxic masculinity really infiltrates [the community’s] capacity to understand survivorship,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women. “Sakhi has an important role in disrupting that mindset, creating conversations, and serving the survivors.”

“Sakhi breaks the silence of violence against women in our communities,” said Veda Kamra, Sakhi’s communications associate.

The staff has been adapting to the needs of survivors of violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Once cases started escalating in New York, the organization mobilized to address the critical needs of survivors, though their methods had to change as the team shifted to remote work on March 12. Sakhi also created an online directory to COVID-19 information, resources, and mutual aid.

“Pretty early on when we went remote, there were indicators that survivors were not safe. A rise in sexual violence has been occurring. Orders of protection were being violated,” Mehra said, adding that the survivors they work with have been “forced into deeper isolation.”

In response, Sakhi has been working to get contraception to survivors, who may choose to stay with their perpetrators out of fear of exposure to COVID-19, Mehra said. “In New York City, we live in smaller spaces, and it’s more difficult for survivors to leave because most of us are reliant on the public transportation system, which has become unsafe because of the pandemic.”

The organization is still running its survivor support hotline, but has seen a 53 percent drop in calls since the emergence of the pandemic in New York, Mehra said. One reason she offered for this change is that survivors now have limited private moments to seek help as they’re confined with their abusers at home. In response, Sakhi created a text option for its hotline, so survivors can use encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal.

“More men were answering the phone when we were calling survivors, especially when we were doing safety planning,” Mehra said, referring to a process of strategizing ways to maintain safety in potentially violent scenarios. “While we are trying to connect with active and inactive clients, we also recognize that there is a part of the population that we might not be reaching. Those are the ones who are some of the most vulnerable. We have been preparing for the surge of survivors leaving their perpetrators once shelters reopen.”

The stigma and shame surrounding domestic violence makes it difficult for survivors to seek help, Mehra and Kamra both noted. “The South Asian immigrant mindset is saying that things are family matters and they should happen behind closed doors with the nuclear family. It silences and shames people,” Kamra said. “When survivors are told to handle it on their own, they internalize and it affects their mental health and wellbeing.”

The group’s staff has noticed how issues of immigration and economic hardship have been compounded during the pandemic. Nearly a million New Yorkers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. According to Sakhi, 75 percent of its client base reside below the federal poverty line; 60 percent are the financial heads of their households; and only 30 percent of the survivors they work with have health insurance, with most on public plans.

“One client’s husband had disconnected her cellphone to cut expenses after losing his job,” Mehra said. “The combination of the economic impact and overall experience of being confined with their perpetrator has become the tipping point of their trauma.”

Sakhi adapted to the needs of its clients by starting a food justice program to deliver groceries, hygiene, and baby products to survivors dealing with job loss and financial and food insecurity during the pandemic. “We have been helping with financial assistance as well,” Kamra said.

Immigration status acts as another barrier for South Asian survivors of domestic violence: 95 percent of Sakhi’s clients are immigrants, and 10 percent are undocumented.

”The population of undocumented survivors is the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable, and yet they’re being ignored,” Mehra said. “We are seeing cases where many of our undocumented survivors are testing positive [for COVID-19] and are not able to access federal aid benefits and health insurance, so we’ve been supporting them through this time.”

COVID-19 travel restrictions are also “creating new forms of trauma and an additional layer of strain on immigrant communities,” Mehra said, recalling a recent case with a survivor in the process of petitioning for her son to come back to the United States. The process is now on hold due travel restrictions.

“We are still continuing our advocacy remotely and trying to get people to access legal advice and clinics,” Kamra said. “But due to the limited schedules of attorneys and pro bono partners, the court systems are in unstable positions. Visitation rights, immigration status, separation from their partners, and even orders of protections are now getting delayed.”

Over 90 percent of Sakhi’s survivors are mothers and have school-aged children, who are also stuck at home. “Their children are … witnessing or experiencing torment,” Kamra said. “So on top of the abuse they are suffering, they have to create schedules for their children, while juggling multiple responsibilities. It’s leading to increasing levels of anxiety and depression.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, the nonprofit provided free counseling sessions and organized weekly “Chai and Chat” support group meetings for survivors to heal from their trauma. Those mental health resources have now been shifted online.

“We’ve also done a virtual movie screening a while back,” Kamra added. “We’ve been trying to stay creative and create effective ways to maintain connections as well as building community.”

The organizers, however, recognize that access to internet may be an issue—due to financial instability, lack of technical skills, or abusers restricting survivors’ computer access.

“Our team will continue to be proactive and resilient to instill power in survivors while the pandemic is taking theirs away,” Mehra said.

If you need help, please call Sakhi’s Helpline at 1-212-868-6741, text 1-305-697-2544 or (1-305-MY-SAKHI), or email [email protected].