Sexuality Conference in Hanoi Challenges Norms, Expectations

Ramona Vijeyarasa

What does it mean to be straight, gay, queer, L or G or B or T or none of the above? What is it like to live with the stigma of HIV? How does it feel to be denied the right to marry your partner?

What does it mean to be straight,
gay, queer, L or G or B or T or none of the above? What is it like to
live with the stigma of HIV? How does it feel to be denied the right
to marry your partner? 

Sexual rights activists and
scholars from all around the globe met from April 15-18 in Hanoi to
share their thoughts and experiences on these questions, discussing
gender equality, sexual diversity, sexual identity, sexual health, social
justice and human rights. The VII Conference of the International Association
for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS),
convened for the first time in Asia,
involved a diverse range of participants undertaking multidisciplinary
study from a range of countries, such as Kenya, Indonesia, the United
States, Senegal, Taiwan, Peru, Pakistan, Argentina and Switzerland.
Past conferences have been held in Amsterdam (1997), Manchester (1999),
Melbourne (2001), Johannesburg (2003), San Francisco (2005), and Lima
(2007). The title of the 2009 conference drew upon the presumed sexual innocence
often used to define female sexuality and adolescent sexuality: "Contested
innocence: Sexual agency in public and private space."

One of the strongest messages
that I took from the conference was that of challenging society’s
expectations and norms about gender and sexuality. A gay rights activist
from Indonesia, Dédé Oetomo, opened his discussion with a reference
to sex-selective abortion and how Asian cultures have an obsessive preference
for male babies: "It is a perilous moment if we turn out or are even
suspected of being female".  He questioned society’s obsession
with conformity and asked why "gender" has become synonymous with
"women" or "gender identity" with transgender, "as if men
and women don’t have gender."  Referring to homosexual men,
men who have sex with men (MSM) or men who love men, he criticized the
emergence of "MSM language," which I myself have fallen into the
trap of using in previous
posts
: "With
all this diversity, it is dangerous to classify it all by ‘MSM.’"
A similar comment that homosexual men who have sex with men do not commonly
use the label "MSM" was made by another researcher in reference
to Vietnam. 

Similarly, US researcher Evelyn
Blackwood criticized the notion of LGBT as a "western" concept." 
Referring to the June 1969 rebellion in New York City’s West Village
that helped spark the modern LGBT movement, she recognized that having
these labels creates a sense of community that one can identify with,
but concluded: "There’s a lot more going on with gender and sexuality
that can ever be encapsulated in four letters." This is particularly
the case with terms like Tongzi, tomboi or lesbi used in Asia. She also
felt that lesbian women or women loving women had been less visible
in the global homosexual movement. 

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A great deal of discussion
was dedicated to the stigma of living with HIV. HIV prevention campaigns
have a "missing link" where the campaigns target men who have sex
with men but these men are unwilling, unable or, simply, do not identify
this way. The peculiar vulnerability of migrants and mobile populations
to HIV infection was also highlighted, particularly with reference to
Vietnam and China. Low condom use, either because of lack of knowledge
or lack of access among these vulnerable populations, was also evident
in the data presented by researchers. 

Proposition
8
also received
some brief negative coverage. South African activist and scholar, Pierre
de Vos, highlighted that the introduction of same-sex marriage alone
is unable to change the deeply patriarchal and homophobic society in
which he lives: "Laws alone will not affect the radical social change
that some of us want to see." A more positive picture was presented
about Spain, where there were 1,275 same-sex marriages
in 2005, 4,574 in 2006 and 3,250 in 2007 following the introduction
of same sex marriage in mid 2005. In Spain too, however, homophobia
remains a challenge, with families sometimes absent at weddings and
same-sex couples fearful of telling colleagues at work, and therefore
losing the right to 15 days off work, a legal entitlement for all couples
getting married. 

To me, the entire conference
pushed boundaries and raised challenging ideas, particularly in light
of the backdrop of conservative Communist Vietnamese society. Many of
these activists and scholars will meet against at the VIII IASSCS Conference
which will take place in two years time. No doubt, they will discuss
new ways of tackling new obstacles in the fight for dignity, citizenship
and sexual freedom for all. For now, I walked away from this conference
with a better understanding of the influence of culture in creating
diverse sexuality. Any transnational fight for equality must recognize
this.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

News Health Systems

Anti-Choice Group Files Lawsuit Over Newly Signed Law That Protects Illinois Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

The policy, which is an amendment to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, requires physicians and medical facilities to to provide patients upon request with information about their medical circumstances and treatment options consistent with "current standards of medical care," in cases where the doctor or institution won’t offer services on religious grounds.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the scope of SB 1564 and which groups are opposing it.

A conservative Christian legal group has followed through on its threat to use litigation to fight against a new state policy that protects patients at religiously-sponsored hospitals in Illinois.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on Friday filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of the 17th Judicial Circuit in Winnebago County against Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Bryan A. Schneider, the secretary of the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation.

Rauner, a Republican, signed the contested policy, SB 1564, into law on July 29.

The ADF, which warned Rauner about signing the bill in a publicized letter and statement in May, filed the complaint on behalf of several fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers. These included the Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford and Aid for Women, Inc. Anti-choice physician Dr. Anthony Caruso of A Bella Baby OBGYN—also known as Best Care for Women—was also named as a plaintiff.

“Alliance Defending Freedom is ready and willing to represent Illinois pro-life pregnancy centers if SB 1564 becomes law,” the group said in May. The ADF wrote on behalf of several anti-choice groups, claiming SB 1564 violated the Illinois state law and constitution and risked putting federal funding, such as Medicaid reimbursements, in jeopardy.

In February 2015, state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Skokie) introduced the policy, which is an amendment to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

The revised law requires physicians and medical facilities to provide patients upon request with information about their medical circumstances and treatment options consistent with “current standards of medical care,” in cases where the doctor or institution won’t offer services on religious grounds.

The new policy also gives doctors and medical institutions the option to provide a referral or transfer the patient.

Unlike an earlier version of the legislation, the version passed by Rauner does not require hospitals to confirm that providers they share with patients actually perform procedures the institutions will not perform; they must only have a “reasonable belief” that they do, Rewire previously reported.

As previously noted by Rewire:

Catholic facilities often follow U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops religious directives that generally bar treatments such as sterilization, in vitro fertilization, and abortion care. The federal Church Amendment and some state laws protect these faith-based objections.

The plaintiffs, which are also being represented by Mauck & Baker LLC attorney Noel Sterett, argued in a statement that the Illinois Constitution protects “liberty of conscience,” and quoted a passage from state law that says “no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege or capacity, on account of his religious opinions.”

Illinois Right to Life and the Thomas More Society joined the ADF in protesting the bill. The Catholic Conference of Illinois (CCI) and the Illinois Catholic Health Association (ICHA) initially protested the bill after it was introduced early last year. However, the two groups later negotiated with the ACLU to pass a different version of the bill that was introduced.

In support of the bill around the time of its introduction in early 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois pushed its Put Patients First initiative to help stop the use of religion to deny health care to patients. The advocacy group noted that patients who are miscarrying or facing ectopic pregnancies, same-sex couples, and transgender people and persons seeking contraception such as vasectomies and tubal ligations are particularly vulnerable to these harmful practices.

A new study, “Referrals for Services Prohibited in Catholic Health Care Facilities,” set to be published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health in September, suggested that Catholic hospitals often “dump” abortion patients and deny them critical referrals as result of following religious directives outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Recent figures from an ACLU and MergerWatch advocacy group collaboration suggest Catholic hospitals make up one in six hospital beds nationwide.

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