When Cecile Richards, the CEO and president of Planned Parenthood, announced she was stepping down from the organization in January, it stirred up a frenzy. With an antichoice administration guided by evangelical values and new bills proposing abortion bans, reproductive rights are under assault more than ever.
The organization has kept a cool head under the watchful eyes of Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood's executive vice president and chief brand officer and who's stepped in as the organization's acting spokeswoman. "We’ve been preparing for it, obviously," she told The Advocate about the leadership transition. "That’s how we are at Planned Parenthood — 'planned' is a big part of how we do things."
Though Laguens is yet to be as public a face for one of America's most important yet most vilified organizations, she's not afraid of trolls to come.
"Basically I’ve been training with the master; [Richards is] like the Jedi Master of being out there, and I’ve had a great time over the last years being also out and giving a lot of speeches and being in the media, so it’s not all new, but it’s definitely another level, " she explains. "Planned Parenthood is happy, though, to be taking on the fight, and to be standing up against some of these outrageous attacks that we see both at the federal and state level."
"Actually, the vast majority of people do support Planned Parenthood, right?" questions Laguens, who believes opponents of Planned Parenthood are louder than its supporters. "It’s more like 80 percent of people in this country say they support Planned Parenthood and want Planned Parenthood to be part of the health care system. Seventy percent of people say they support Roe v. Wade. Obviously, we have so much growing support [in response to the] backlash for the care that we provide for our LGBTQ community."
The queer community has an intimate place is Laguens's heart. She herself identifies herself as "a member of the gay community" and is proud to boast of how the organization, even its pink marketing, is not gendered. To be a patient at Planned Parenthood, you don't have to be a straight woman or identify as a woman at all.
"A really exciting thing we’re doing is offering PrEP in 44 of our states, in terms of AIDS prevention work," Laguens says of the HIV prevention strategy. "We now offer hormone therapy for our trans patients in 20 states and counting. And, as we have always done, we offer nonjudgmental, welcoming care, knowledgeable care for LGBTQ young people, all throughout their life."
Education is half of the equation when it comes to queer people receiving the medical attention they need. The other half is finding doctors who offer dignified care.
"We had one of our trans patients say that PP is 'the first place I ever went for care where the doctor maybe knew more about my health care needs than I did.' That’s what we try to be for every patient of course, but so many young people are left out of sex ed if they’re LGBTQ."
Planned Parenthood also created an updated gender-neutral website, which receives visits from around 72 million people annually. In a recent patient survey, 20 percent of respondents identified as LGBTQ.
"A lot of people don’t know how many folks we serve in the LGBTQ community, but also don’t understand that we offer a wide range of services for men," Laguens said.
The "men's rights activists" who seethe at the mention of Planned Parenthood may not realize that 12 percent of Planned Parenthood's patients are male.
"A lot of men come to us with their partners; they come for STI testing and treatment. In many of our locations we offer vasectomies; pretty much a full range of sexual and reproductive health care."
The organization is currently working to further engender itself with millennials and Generation Z, with installations at Refinery 29's 29 Rooms experience and sweepstakes that allow winners to meet record executives and dine with the editors of Harper's Bazaar.
— Refinery29 (@Refinery29) September 9, 2017
For Laguens, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements offered an opportunity for a larger conversation about body autonomy.
"So many people are getting the connection that it’s not like #MeToo and #TimesUp over on this side of the equation, and then [on the other side] there’s whether the government will allow you to have birth control or access to abortion or access to honest, accurate information in sex education — it’s all connected, because again it’s all about how do you be equal, and how do you be free?"
In her eyes, "it starts with owning your body, and being able to say, 'No, you can’t touch me like that, and no, you can’t tell me that I have to be pregnant.' And those are really interconnected concepts."
The right to say no to those infringing on our rights and yes to accessible, reliable health care has absolute importance. "It is tied to whether you are likely going to finish school, it is tied to the kind of job you’re gonna get, and your ability to progress."
While the relationship between Planned Parenthood and the administration is strained, there's one thing Laguens thinks the organization's adversaries should know: "Planned Parenthood is making a difference every day in the lives of people you know, allowing them to have control of their body, to have a shot at their dreams, to be able to complete their education, and of course to participate economically. So Planned Parenthood is actually the solution, not the problem in this country."