Commentary Religion

Bodily Autonomy, Abortion and Orange Drink: Or, What I Learned In Youth Group

Andrea Grimes

I spent my formative years believing my body, my life and my choices were not my own, but a kind of joint property between myself, God, my parents and my church friends and family. As such, my body and my behavior was up for discussion and judgment. Is it any wonder then, that I'm afraid, as a single woman, to be pregnant?

What does God want for your life? What is God’s plan for you? Want some orange drink?

These were the questions people asked me on Sundays when I was growing up as a teenager in church. We wondered about what God wanted for us, and wondered how we all could hold ourselves and our friends accountable for our behavior to keep us walking in the path of holiness. All, of course, discussed over the ubiquitous orange drink served at youth meetings across the country. Orange drink is the most righteous of bulk beverages.

Now, a decade removed from the religious enthusiasm of my teenage years, I wonder if all that wondering about God’s plan didn’t encourage me to forget I had a plan—and a life and a body—of my own. You see, I am terrified by the prospect of unwanted pregnancy.

My best friend is the one who noticed it. Even though I’ve been on hormonal birth control for years, rarely miss a pill and take emergency contraception when I do, I still worried that a recent wonky menstrual cycle meant I was pregnant. So I told my best friend. And she comforted me but also kind of laughed and said Andrea, you are pretty weird when it comes to pregnancy.

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She’s right. I am. I would say this is firstly because I do not currently, nor have I ever wanted children, and do not currently, nor have I ever fantasized about motherhood. Much like following Dave Matthews around on tour, parenting is something I’m more than happy to hear about second-hand from others, and I will listen with genuine interest. As long as it’s not about vomit. Hearing about vomit—a baby’s, a kid’s, or a Dave Matthews super fan’s—makes me yarf.

I have decided to put my very limited maternal instincts to use rescuing animals rather than producing humans, even though as I understand it, cats and babies vomit about the same amount. So look, I’m not ambivalent. It’s not that.

It’s that ten years after graduating high school as a prominent youth group leader, and settling into a content agnosticism, I still find myself wondering what God, and my parents, and my friends would think about me if I chose any of the obvious outcomes of unwanted pregnancy—adoption, unwed parenthood, abortion. Even if my dad never knew I had an abortion. Even if long-lost church friends never know I had a baby out of wedlock. I still have this nagging question: what will they say if my reproductive organs do something, anything, besides have a baby with my husband—like God’s plan says they’re supposed to?

I spent my formative years believing my body, my life and my choices were not my own, but a kind of joint property between myself, God, my parents and my church friends and family. As such, my body and my behavior was up for discussion and judgment. And for a long time, the threat of judgment kept me on the straight and narrow.

Judgment, like sexism or racism or any kind of –ism, doesn’t have to be explicit and overt to exist. I saw enough pursed lips, heard enough backseat whispers—hell, pursed my own lips, whispered with my own voice in the backseat. When part of organized religion is concerned with arbitrarily policing behavior—usually sexual behavior, and usually women’s–rather than increasing social justice and joyfulness in spirituality, you logistically have to judge at least some people for doing it wrong, because you just can’t fit everyone in the tree-house.

I’ve written before about how I got tired of that religious judgment, which was coated with a sticky-sweet layer of faux love and concern, disguising more insidious victim-blaming and slut-shaming. I eventually learned—I thought—to live my life on my own terms, according to ideas that made sense to me.  I decided people can’t simply be judged into behaving a certain way according to a certain religious code (the preponderance of badly behaved religious-political figures in America suggests this). But it does seem that nowadays, people believe others can at least be legislated into doing so if the resources they need to live autonomous lives are taken away, as they were in Indiana and Minnesota with the de-funding of Planned Parenthood. In the most recent surge in the GOP’s war on women, I was amazed at the degree to which women’s bodies are considered the righteous business of others.

And then I realized that not very deep down, I have trouble remembering that my body is not anyone’s business but my own. It’s why my stomach jumps every fourth Tuesday if I’m not menstruating. Because part of me can’t shake the idea that strangers, friends and relatives alike have some kind of right to my body. It doesn’t matter if I think they’ll hug me or kick me out on the street–the point is that I imagine, somewhere inside me, they have a right to do either one.

Does that sound crazy? It shouldn’t. After all, we live in a culture that says women don’t have the right to revoke consent to sex if they’ve been drinking or are wearing what some people consider to be revealing clothes, whatever that means. I live in a state that will soon require women to undergo mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds and actively refuse to see an image of a fetus, because Texas legislators aren’t totally sure women know abortion ends pregnancy. Women apparently need a lot of help from other people just to be women.

So why should I believe my body is my own when my church and my country have both told me, at various times in my life, that it is not? From “True Love Waits” rallies, where I literally danced upon altars to virginity in front of all my friends, to purity balls—oh, thank God, my father never took me to one of those—the religious culture of my upbringing encouraged me to say: my sexuality belongs to everyone, police it as you will, for I am female.

We see this echoed in anti-choice legislation, in the gleeful ways politicians speak about women’s bodies as mere vessels for the unborn (see: Santorum, Rick)–and the ways in which what is a purely intellectual or philosophical conversation for men affects the daily life and practice of actual women like me, many of whom were raised to see themselves and their bodies through the eyes of others.

Let me be clear. I don’t regret my religious upbringing, and I would do it all over again. Church was the—yes the, as in, the only–place I felt truly safe and welcomed, even at my very lowest, as a teenager. Looking back, I think it’s a pretty good idea to hold off on the sex and drugs and drinking until you’re in college, and church gave me the strength of a peer group that did not engage in those things. (Though to be fair, anyone who’s spent any time in youth group can tell you there’s plenty of hanky-panky going on behind the building.)

In fact, I would send my own kids to church, if I intended to have any. But I would tell them, especially if they are girls, that they need to think about their own plan as much as they think about God’s. Because too often, what is presented as God’s will, presented with perhaps the best intentions, is actually the will of a culture of patriarchy that tells women that their lives aren’t theirs to live.

Commentary Race

Black Lives Matter Belongs in Canada, Despite What Responses to Its Pride Action Suggest

Katherine Cross

Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada's history or present ignores the struggles of Canadians of color, including those who are LGBTQ.

As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.

For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.

There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.

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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.

Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.

Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.

In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.

Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.

Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.

Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”

This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.

We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.

Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.

A 2015 Toronto Star special investigation found hundreds of Greater Toronto Area officers internally disciplined for “serious misconduct”—including the physical abuse of homeless people and committing domestic violence—remained on the force. In 2012, the same outlet documented the excessive rate at which Black and brown Torontonians were stopped and “carded.” The data is staggering: The number of stops of Black men actually exceeded the number of young Black men who live in certain policing districts. And according to the Star, despite making up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, Black Torontonians comprised at least 35 percent of those individuals shot to death by police since 1990. Between 2000 and 2006, they made up two-thirds.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.

Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.

One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.

It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.

If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.

Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

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

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.