No kissing. No holding hands. No casual touching at the convenience store. Do not draw anyone’s attention. Or else they’ll know.
This is my experience as a lesbian living in the Deep South. Anywhere outside of New Orleans, where we live, my partner and I are very careful about appearing too affectionate with each other. I am acutely aware of the possibility of harassment while we are filling the tank at a highway gas station. My androgynous look coupled with a quick kiss from my honey could lead to real danger.
I also encounter fear, but not my own, when I escort patients seeking abortions through a crowd of protesters to get to the clinic. As I approach patients in the parking lot, wearing my yellow vest, emblazoned with “Clinic Escort” on the back, they often ask, “Are you with those people yelling? Am I safe here?” The abuse, shaming, and religious condemnation do not stop once these people leave the clinic.
The vitriol targeting them feels familiar, as state and national lawmakers question their decisions and attempt to limit their rights. This is a stark reminder that so many of our struggles are shared. That’s why celebrating Pride, for me, includes unapologetically supporting safe, legal, and accessible abortion care.
In addition to helping patients get safely from their cars to the clinic door, I also help people in my community pay for abortion care. As a long-term hotline operator for the New Orleans Abortion Fund, I have spoken to many people who are putting off paying rent, cutting back on buying groceries, and selling their belongings because their private insurance or Medicaid won’t pay for this vital health care. This is because the Hyde Amendment, attached to the annual federal budget for 40 years, bans federal funds from being used to pay for abortion. That means anyone enrolled in Medicaid, military insurance, Peace Corps volunteer insurance, Native American health care, and prison health care cannot use their insurance to pay for an abortion.
According to the National Network of Abortion Funds, there are approximately 70 abortion funds across the country. The purpose of the funds is simple: We help fill the funding gap in paying for abortion care not covered by health insurance. Volunteers like me take shifts answering the hotline, returning phone calls, and making pledges to callers to help them pay for their abortions. For many people, an abortion can cost as much as one month’s rent — or more — depending on their circumstances. While clinics do all they can to keep costs low, the bans on insurance coverage create a truly heartbreaking need.
In fact, some people are not able to have an abortion as soon as they would like, simply because they are still trying to put the money together. In Louisiana, abortion care after 20 weeks of pregnancy is no longer available, forcing those who need care at that time to leave the state or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
Bans on insurance coverage aren’t the only barriers. In 27 states, politicians force people to delay abortion care, and many states mandate multiple visits to the clinic — even though these restrictions aren’t medically necessary and have no benefit to patients.
People may decide to end a pregnancy for many reasons, and once they’ve made that decision they should be able to get the care they need without delay, insult, or needless and harmful barriers.
I tell people who seek funding for their abortion, “You don’t need to explain your decision to me unless you want to. I am here to support you, not judge you.” However, judgment comes swiftly from anti-abortion protesters at the clinic where I escort, as they shove into people’s faces offensive pamphlets and medically inaccurate information. Often, a speaker is blaring the sound of a crying baby. I’ve seen a protester scream at a person of color entering the clinic, accusing them of racism.
At the same time, I am called a dyke and a faggot by one of the pastoral leaders. While I don’t engage, the harassment makes clear to me that the same people who want to push abortion care out of reach also want to stop me from loving and living the life that’s right for me. For these extremists and their counterparts in Congress and the White House, having an abortion is a sin. So is being a lesbian. We bear our stigmas together and, hopefully, lose our shame as we become empowered.
Pride, for me, means being an ally for people who have had abortions — because Pride is about celebrating all the ways we live, love, and build our chosen families. Even after the rainbow flags come down, I will still be supporting abortion rights and meaningful access to reproductive care. Those who want to take away our rights are working together, so why shouldn’t we? Our struggles are shared, and our road to liberation is too.
*I want to hold space for those members of our community who are trans or nonbinary who may need abortion care, which is why I chose gender-neutral language throughout the piece.
VANESSA SHIELDS is a hotline volunteer and clinic escort with the New Orleans Abortion Fund and a nurse for people living with HIV in New Orleans.