Monday, July 12, 2004

On choice and harassment...

I wrote this yesterday, reflecting on my first experience as a volunteer escort at a women's health clinic.

I was at “the March” on April 25th, 2004. On that particularly warm spring day, I remember yelling a lot, holding signs and how sore my feet were by the end. But the thing that will stay with me always is that feeling- the feeling of being at a complete loss for words when I realized how many people were there. The feeling that, my god, maybe we young'uns weren't as apathetic as we had been so persistently painted. For a couple of hours that day, slogans were the only words that flowed easily out of my mouth. I just didn't have the vocabulary to express how I felt.

As a guy, it's hard sometimes to have an opinion on women's health issues. I've never had an abortion, I have never had my insurance company decide to bill me more to see my gynecologist because he or she is considered a “specialist”. I have never had to choose between birth control and food. All I could do was empathize, shake my head and donate what I could afford to organizations like Planned Parenthood. Anything else, I felt, would be viewed with suspicion or maybe even anger.

Then, sitting at a bar on a Friday night with a friend of mine, I was given an opportunity I hadn't really considered. She was the lead volunteer escort at the clinic in town this Saturday morning, but she was pretty sure she was going to be one person short. Would I be available to help out?

I didn't even blink when I said yeah, of course I would. Escorting to that point had been a pretty abstract idea to me. I had friends who had done it for years, but I had only really seen pictures and heard stories- some sad, some funny, some horrific.

As the night went on, I thought more and more about what was to happen the next morning. Nervous would be putting it lightly. I didn't know what to expect- didn't know how many protesters would be there, how they would behave, how I would react to them, how I would feel afterwards, any of it.

I didn't sleep worth a damn that night. When I finally just got out of bed around 6am, I must have called for directions two or three times, even though I pretty much knew exactly where I was going. I parked about a block away, and felt the butterflies grow as I approached the back of the clinic and saw my first real life clinic protesters. There had been scores of pro-lifers at the March, but being in the majority that day was far different from today, being the one who was being yelled at, and knowing I couldn't ethically say a word in return.

The four of us gathered at the back of the clinic and put on our vests, so as to clearly identify ourselves as “not one of them”.

The jabs started almost immediately. Being the only male in the group, I was singled out for special attention by the 81 year old man standing on the other side of the street. There were vague allsuions to my manhood and why wasn't I in the army, because they were over there dying for me, blah blah blah. All in all, pretty easy to ignore. It was a beautiful day, so I watched the birds and made comments about the architecture of the surrounding buildings to my fellow escorts. Pretty easy stuff, this, I thought. These windbags, I mean people, seemed harmless enough.

As the morning went on, more cars pulled into the parking lot. Quite a few appointments this morning, we were told, so it was going to get pretty busy.

And as the day got busier, I saw far more than I expected. There were teenagers, college kids, women whose partner and kids waited in the car, men who felt helpless and men who channeled all of their fear and anger at the protesters. There were tears, smiles, grimaces and people who had the weight of the world on their shoulders who took a second to look me in the eye and say thank you, as though I was the one who had shown courage that morning and had to make an incredibly tough decision. I was humbled by all of it, truly and deeply.

All along, the small but determined group across the street kept up their siren song, alternately trying to lure the women towards them and damning me to hellfire for standing steadfast between them and their quarry. It stuck me several time that these people were making huge assumptions, not just about me, but about the women who were walking into the clinic. The women I saw that day were not all ones who had marched on Washington, nor were they all people who would have identified themselves as being “pro-choice”. They were people, each with their own story and reason for being there, plain and simple. So, while accusing the lot of us of “playing god”, the protesters did the same thing, passing judgement on all who did not stand side by side with them on that sidewalk.

As I left the clinic after three short hours that felt like they had taken all day, I realized that there was no emotional release for me that morning. I didn't get the satisfaction that comes with shouting down a small-minded bigot. And somehow, I was going to have to be okay with that. I didn't know what to think or how to feel. Once again, words failed me.

I may become a regular in the escort brigade now, or I may never do it again. I don't know. But I do know that this morning has made proud to say that I AM pro-choice, I AM pro-women, and I AM going to fight to my last breath anyone who tries to take rights away from them, in whatever form the attack may come.