When people talk about the summer of 2013 in Austin, Texas, they’ll inevitably talk about state Sen. Wendy Davis’ courageous 13-hour filibuster on the senate floor. They’ll talk about her pink sneakers, and her tenacity, and her calm in the face of overwhelming opposition from right-wing lawmakers out to silence her at any opportunity.
But I want to shift the spotlight. I want to talk about the people without whose support Wendy Davis could never have taken the floor that day. The hundreds of witnesses who stayed through the night at the people’s filibuster on June 20, only to be told by a Republican representative that their stories were tiresome, repetitive. The two sisters who cut short a vacation in South Padre Island to arrive at the capitol building in the early morning hours of June 25. The legislative staffers who worked tirelessly collecting testimony, researching precedent, combing through arcane parliamentary procedure. The tens of thousands of people who screamed and cheered and raged and cried in their own living rooms, in their office cubicles, from barstools and in classrooms across Texas, and across the country.
What Wendy Davis did was incredible—but it was no more incredible than the bravery I saw from my fellow Texans over those three weeks in June and July 2013.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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When folks started showing up for what would become known as the “people’s filibuster” at the House State Affairs Committee hearing, I didn’t have high expectations. I arrived at the capitol a little before noon that day, figuring we’d turn up a hundred people, maybe, to tell our right-wing, anti-choice lawmakers all the medically sound, science-based information they were already hell-bent on ignoring.
Twelve hours later, I sat in an overflow room surrounded by cookies, tacos, and pizza donated by people all across the country who’d tuned in to watch the Texas legislature’s finnicky livestream. And I heard the incredible number: seven hundred people had signed up to testify that night. The goal: run out the clock until the end of the special legislative session, suck up as much time as we could, in hopes of blocking what would be known as SB 5, the omnibus anti-abortion bill set to shutter all but a handful of legal abortion providers in a state with 26 million people.
I will never forget watching Lesli Simms testify that night, after State Affairs committee chair Byron Cook told the crowd he was growing tired of our “repetitive” testimony—growing tired of Texans’ abortion stories, of folks’ struggle to find affordable contraception, of hearing about heartbreaking but necessary decisions made to end wanted, but medically untenable, pregnancies.
“My presence isn’t repetitive,” Simms, a first-generation Texan, told Cook. Everyone was rapt. She gestured to the packed room and continued: “Their presence isn’t repetitive. I’m a Black woman, and I’m coming back.”
And she did come back—along with thousands of other Texans who refused to be cowed by the odds. When I talk about bravery, that’s what I mean: the resilience and determination of a people who knew they’d been dealt a losing hand from the get-go. Texas has been deep red for two decades, and the last six or so years have been particularly hard for moderate and liberal Texans alike, as the Tea Party has capitalized on white folks’ fears of an ever-diversifying Texas and of a Black president who will stop at nothing to take away their guns. The game’s been rigged by racist redistricting and voter identification laws meant to dissuade minority voters from exercising their most basic rights as Americans.
And yet still they came.
Over the next week, a thundercloud of orange settled over the state capitol building as Texans from all walks of life gathered to watch our indomitable pro-choice legislators fight for every minute they could find before sine e die, the end of the special legislative session. It’s usually chilly in the capitol building; not so last summer. The heat of a thousand angry—joyfully angry—bodies filled the house and senate galleries, and those who couldn’t snag a coveted seat inside to watch the action set up watch outside chamber doors.
The threat was so, so real: at any moment, we could make the wrong move and send SB 5 into the hands of Republican and Tea Party legislators who would pass the bill without hesitation.
But that thundercloud of orange held fast; by the morning of June 25, only Wendy Davis and 13 hours stood between SB 5’s looming passage and midnight, when Gov. Rick Perry would be forced to call another special session if his party wanted to take up the legislation again.
You know what happened next. You know Davis stood for 13 hours. You know she read the testimony of Texans who’d been turned away from that State Affairs meeting, You know she was reprimanded for putting on a back brace and for talking about family planning funding cuts—not “germane,” apparently, to the matter at hand: whether Texans would ever again be free to decide their own reproductive futures.
You know that with just fifteen minutes left before midnight, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte stood, defiant, and demanded to know: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be heard above the male colleagues in the room?”
You know that moment was when the thundercloud turned into a raging storm, with hundreds of Texans inside the senate gallery and hundreds and hundreds more outside screaming, chanting, and clapping with such ferocity that right-wing legislators couldn’t hear to take a final-moment vote. You know that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tried to change the timestamp on the final vote; you know that sometime in the wee morning hours of June 26, the good news came: SB 5 was dead.
When my husband and I stopped on the way home to grab dinner from the HEB—ranch dip, if I recall, and chips and salsa—I could see dawn hinting at the horizon.
“Were y’all down there? At the capitol?” our cashier asked. We said we were. We left with ranch dip, salsa, and fist-bumps from employees who’d been watching the filibuster from their break room and on their phones inside the store.
But a matter of days later, we were back at the capitol again: this time with thousands of orange-clad Texans swarming the state capitol lawn. Gov. Perry had called a second special session, and this time he came to pass the bill at all costs. Perry jammed the capitol with state troopers, hoping to subdue what David Dewhurst had derided as an “unruly mob.” Anti-choice groups bussed in students from out of state, and evangelical preachers convened in the outdoor rotunda, turning what had been a place of quiet refuge for overwhelmed protestors into a circle of soapbox misogyny.
And, you know, it worked. What was SB 5 became HB 2, and this time the Republican Party wasn’t going to be caught off-guard by a bunch of scrappy liberals. They confiscated our tampons at the senate chamber doors, and accused us of trying to bring 18—18!—jars of human feces into the senate gallery, jars which to this day have never turned up in evidence. And they passed the bill, just before midnight on July 12.
I filed my news story—”Texas Senate Approves Omnibus Anti-Abortion Bill“—from a crowded hallway somewhere on the third floor of the capitol building. Floors below me, state troopers began arresting—sometimes violently—the protestors who refused to leave, in last-ditch acts of civil disobedience. People streamed by me, sobbing. On the capitol lawn outside, we milled around, wondering what—anything please what—we could do next. But the night was over.
I woke up on the morning of July 13—a Saturday—feeling broken, enraged, helpless. Even after a few hours’ sleep, I was more exhausted than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Days before, I’d made the mistake of telling my husband I’d have brunch with his father-in-law and some of his work colleagues. When it came time to get out of bed, I didn’t even bother. I don’t know what I told my husband to tell the guys. I didn’t really give a fuck. I wanted to sleep, I wanted to cry, I wanted to fall through the mattress, through the floor, through the crawlspace, through the dirt, down deep into the Texas soil beneath our house and nest there, hide where no one could tell me it was time to go to another meeting, time to file another story, time to gather up my shit and move to another hearing room, time to plead with lawmakers who couldn’t even be bothered to pretend to half-listen to reason, lawmakers who played on their phones and passed notes while my fellow Texans broke their hearts open between pink limestone walls, telling stories they’d never even whispered aloud before that summer.
So I slept, and then I ate some Lipton instant rice with about half a tub of sour cream on top. That’s what I eat when I’m sad. Lipton instant Spanish rice. Daisy Light sour cream. I think I Instagrammed it before I went back to sleep, grudgingly setting my alarm for 4 p.m. Because I had another thing to do: drink beer. And I dreaded it.
Which is, uh, unusual for me. Let’s say that. Unusual. “Dread” and “drink beer” are about as far apart as two things can get on my emotional spectrum. But the Saturday after HB 2 finally passed was the same Saturday I’d scheduled our usual Austin feminist meet-up—really, more of a “drink up” group that’d been meeting monthly since November 2011. We called it #ATXFem, most of us knew each other from Twitter, and it had come to be sort of a thing. We’d wear name tags, drink beers, do feminist coloring projects, talk shit, organize. And for the first time in more than 18 months, I didn’t want to go hang out and get drunk with a bunch of feminists.
But #ATXFem is sort of my baby. So I dragged my ass out of bed, threw on my “Wendy F’N Davis” tank top, and arrived late to my own Internet nerd party.
When I walked into the bar, all I could see was orange. The Dog & Duck, a malty-smelling pub just a few blocks from the state capitol building, was packed from, well, dog to duck with people wearing orange t-shirts. I didn’t make it to the beer line for ten minutes—there were too many hugs, too many tears. That Saturday was our biggest #ATXFem meeting yet, and we closed down the bar making plans for what to do next: where to donate, who to call, who to write.
Since that day, I have seen nothing that looks like a loss of passion or a surrender to the inevitable, though GOP pundits and mainstream Texas newspapers seem to love the narrative that progressive, liberal and moderate Texans forgot everything they learned last summer as soon as they were home safe, tucked in their beds.
What I have seen is an incredible outpouring of time, of money, of soul. Because the knowledge that Texans gained last summer—how to testify in front of a committee hearing, how to contact their legislators, hell, how to just know the names of their representatives—can’t be taken away from them. They now see how the system works, and how the system has been manipulated by right-wing lawmakers who have grown lazy and self-satisfied, comfortable with their bully pulpit.
Who can say that Texans have lost faith, when 19,000 people sent comments opposing HB 2 to the state Department of State Health Services (DSHS), demanding our health-care regulators do whatever they could to mitigate the damage done by the new law? Never in its history had DSHS received that many comments on any new regulations. That, to me, does not signal surrender.
Nor did it signal surrender when, in February, Texans lined up once again to testify before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee’s interim legislative hearing, scheduled by right-wing lawmakers to be an assessment of their own “legislative achievements” in women’s health care. Instead, the orange army turned up once again, anxious to discuss the terrible impact of Republican-fueled family planning funding cuts and the clockwork-like shuttering of abortion clinics in the wake of HB 2.
Is Fund Texas Women a new nonprofit organization—started by a 20-year-old Austin woman—that helps rural Texans pay for the bus tickets and hotel rooms they now need in order to travel hundreds of miles roundtrip for legal abortion procedures, an act of forgetting? The nascent West Fund now operates out of El Paso, helping West Texans with the resources they need to access legal abortion in a part of the state that has seen the closure of three abortion providers in the last year.
Nor has Nuestro Texas, a collaborative study and storytelling project from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights, shied away from calling what havoc legislators have wrought in the Rio Grande Valley—rising and troubling reproductive organ cancer rates, rapidly shuttering family planning clinics that never even provided abortion care—a “human rights violation.”
When I traveled to East Texas earlier this spring to cover the closure of the Beaumont Whole Woman’s Health clinic—the last abortion provider in East Texas—I talked to college students who’d felt empowered to finally start a feminist club on the Lamar University campus, and University of Texas at Tyler students who told me they tuned into the filibuster last year, online, day after day. They told me that last summer has made it easier, just a little bit easier, for people to see shades of purple behind the pine curtain.
I know Battleground Texas volunteers in Dallas and Fort Worth who show up, week after week, to phone bank and block-walk for people like Sameena Karmally, the North Texas woman who is boldly challenging HB 2 sponsor Jodie “Rape Kits Clean A Woman Out” Laubenberg’s house seat. I see the Lilith Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, and the TEA Fund going stronger than ever before, organizing fundraisers and advocacy trainings for folks in Houston, San Antonio, and across the state.
I have seen Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, return to court time and time again for her right—and for other abortion providers’ rights—to provide legal abortion care in the State of Texas, despite the looming shadow of the anti-choice Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Two abortion providers in Dallas, whose clinics are doomed to shutter this September when HB 2’s mandatory ambulatory surgical center operational requirements go into place, successfully sued a hospital that tried to revoke their admitting privileges because they provide legal abortion care.
What Texans learned last summer can’t be unlearned. The passion they felt won’t be diminished, and they cannot and will not be unbound from their comrades in reproductive justice now. As I discovered that day last July, after I had lost all sense of purpose, any glimmer of hope: We now have thousands of sisters, brothers, family members, across the state who know what it is to proceed against all odds in righteous, joyous anger.
Come and take it.