Imara Jones: Hey there. It’s Imara. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives.
Well, we are just days away from the midterms and I’m sure many of you in battleground states know that all too well. But one of the things that has fascinated me for quite some time, basically starting in last year, was this connection between trans’ rights, specifically the ability for us to control our bodies, and that of reproductive justice and abortion writ large, kind of all under the guise of bodily autonomy, and the ways in which these movements have been linked for almost 50 years, but in ways which go unacknowledged.
So, we started this year our Trans Bodies, Trans Choices film series, and that series has gone on to win awards and has been in many, many, many film festivals throughout the year, something that we’re all gratified about here at TransLash. But with the midterms looming, it occurred to all of us that it’s really important for us to spotlight the way in which, again, bodily autonomy is going to be on the ballot with regards to trans people and our rights, and, of course, abortion and reproductive justice. That’s why we are launching the latest part of our series, Trans Bodies, Trans Choices, which will include not only three new short films, animated films, our first animated films at TransLash, which were really excited about, but also a zine, this podcast, as well as other content. And you can find the link to that in our show notes.
But I just want to encourage all of you to remember what’s at stake, to not take anything for granted, and to do what you need to do over the next couple of days, and afterwards, to protect yourselves and your rights and to stand up for them. And this program is designed to help you be able to do that, to remember what’s at stake, and to perhaps see it in some new and interesting ways.
That’s why first, we’ll be speaking with journalist, Sydney Bauer, about the political landscape of trans bodily autonomy and a new piece that she wrote for us here at TransLash.
Sydney Bauer: And we’re seeing now with these issues, such as bodily autonomy, which they have been chipping away at at multiple levels for a long time, become nationalized, which is a huge problem when public opinion that has been trapped for decades is completely out of step with one party who has disproportionately seized political control using our institutions.
Imara: Then, we’ll talk to reproductive justice activist, Renee Bracey Sherman, about the need for more inclusive abortion stories which center trans people.
Renee Bracey Sherman: I think that any spaces in repro that want to support and welcome trans people, stop treating them as if they’re just like, “Oh, a-a type of person we need to have.” No, you actually need to do the work and really show up as best as you can.
Imara: But before we get to those incredible conversations, let’s start out, as always, with some trans joy.
Animation can bring stories to life in an inclusive and powerful way, that’s why as part of Trans Bodies, Trans Choices, we’re publishing an animated film entitled Road From Roe, which shows the interlinked history between the ability of trans people to control our bodies and the reproductive justice movement. And we were thrilled to work on this project with the creative and talented trans animator, by Valor Aguilar[?]. Valor is a queer, biracial artist based in Los Angeles, whose identities both influence and transcend his work.
Valor Aguilar: My identity is a huge part of my art. You can’t help but draw from your life experiences, so who I am as like a- a trans man, it’s always going to be in my work, but I think really great art is something that, sort of, transcends all of that. And I think that it’s like something that should be connecting people’s souls together. You know, I think like great art unifies.
Imara: Valor Aguilar, you are trans joy.
I’m now joined by a long-time friend of the show, Sydney Bauer. Sydney is a transgender journalist and researcher based in Atlanta, Georgia, whose work focuses on the genesis of anti-trans [inaudible], online harassment, and legislation. I’m especially excited to talk to Sydney about her article, which dropped today, entitled “Bodily Autonomy is on the Ballot in 2022”. We’re publishing this incredible piece on our very own writing platform, TransLash News and Narrative, as part of our Trans Bodies, Trans Choices program. She’s also written for the Daily Beast, HuffPost, the New Republic, and them[?] about the impact of various efforts to target our community. Sydney is also a sports writer, having actually began her career as a sports journalist. Sydney has also advised us here at TransLash on our award-winning investigative series, The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality. Sydney, thank you so much for joining us today.
Sydney: Thank you so much for having me.
Imara: One day, we’ll actually have you on to talk about sports.
Sydney: I hope so. I could talk about sports for hours.
Imara: Listen, I follow you on social media and I know that to be true, [chuckles] so like various, various things. So, if you all are sports heads out there, make sure that you follow Sydney for that, as well. Uh, it’s one of the ways that I know what’s remotely happening in the sports world, and I do mean remotely.
But on a more serious and this heavier topic, I wanted to talk to you about where we are on bodily autonomy in this election. It really strikes me that, unlike other years, this convergence of trans rights and abortion and reproductive justice underscoring control of our bodies, overall, is really front and center in, as I said, in ways that it hasn’t been for years. So, I’m wondering just broadly before we talk about some specific places and states and races, what you’re seeing as you look out on the landscape.
Sydney: Yeah. I think what you said about how this year is different from previous years with regards to bodily autonomy is super prescient and really apparent outside of states having individual questions regarding the legality of reproductive healthcare and abortion access. We’re really starting to see this become a major campaign talking point, and on both sides for both parties, it’s moving just beyond reproductive access in terms of abortion, which has always been a political issue that’s salient in the United States, but it’s moving on to other things, such as transgender healthcare, as people start to realize how connected reproductive healthcare is to gender-affirming care and all other aspects of healthcare, in just terms of bodily autonomy, in general. So, this election, which a lot of people have called the inflation election and the crime election, really is a confluence of those issues with regards to whether or not people will have the same access to healthcare they did last month versus in January of next year.
Imara: One of the things that strikes me is the right sees these issues as connected with regards to bodily autonomy, regardless of whose body they’re talking about, with respect to gender gender identity. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing, you know, over 300 pieces of legislation in state houses across the country and why we’re seeing various abortion bans on the ballot or people who are pushing those bans on the ballot. But largely on the left, there’s not that analysis. Like, they see these things as highly compartmentalized and is separate. And I’m wondering, kind of, with your lens of having studied and written about the far right and the way in which they approach issues through kind of a Christian nationalist lens, I’m wondering why you think there’s that difference in analysis. That is, say, why doesn’t the left get what the right sees?
Sydney: Well, I first off want to say that I don’t necessarily agree completely that the left doesn’t see these as connected issues. We’re starting to see mainstream center-left politicians start to understand it as they’re starting to see how the far right has worked to undermine bodily autonomy for different groups, but I do think that this has on the left always been kind of a reproductive justice topic. People have always known that abortion healthcare wasn’t just for cisgender women. The issue was that they were working on educating the rest of the country while politicians were conflating them in the past. Now that we’re starting to see these anti-trans bills being pushed in parallel with the, essentially, four-decade-long project to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, now, that is the frame in which the far right is approaching this. And because center-left in this country never codified Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, assuming that people weren’t going to overturn this, there hasn’t been a need for a comprehensive legislative package until now. So, you can see the ways in which the two political parties in this country approach this. One was to completely undo one court’s decision through legislation, through pushing boundaries, through targeting as many different individual sections of bodily autonomy as possible, basically with the hope that one day, the floodgates would break open and they’d be able to essentially pass these wholesale bans, given that this one Supreme Court decision that was pretty landmarked would be undone, whereas the center-left in this country was working through expanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other legislative packages without essentially passing a new Civil Rights Act for the 2020s.
Imara: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that’s a really important point that one of the issues here is the failure of Democrats when they’ve had majorities, both the White House and both houses of Congress, didn’t codify Roe v. Wade nor a whole host of other things, such as the Equality Act and other things that would be really helpful.
You go through in your piece particular races where at all levels, where these issues are on the ballot. I think one of the points that you make is that, you know, they’re really inconsequential senate races, they’re really consequential places where this is literally on the ballot in terms of being a constitutional amendment or some type of referendum, and the fact that because lots of these are decided in states and at the state level, that there are dozens of uncontested state legislative races, which together if they were contested and were able to be won, would make a huge difference in terms of how these issues are coming out. So, kind of a crisis in all three levels.
I wanted to drill down on some of the specifics here, though. First, starting with Georgia and Raphael Warnock. And this is a particularly consequential race because we know that there’s so many queer people like you in Georgia, and trans people who are in Georgia, overall, it’s become a consequential state. And can you talk a little bit about what Herschel Walker’s position is on this and what he would support if he won his senate race?
Sydney: Like you said, Georgia has kind of become, for the last three or so years, the center of the political universe in the US, though a lot of other close races have, you know, taken that fully away from Georgia when it literally was the fulcrum of the United States was going to be decided by two senate races here. So, in the race down here, Herschel Walker has come out and supported the, I believe it’s the 15-week abortion ban, but with no exceptions. So, if a woman is raped, there’s no exception for abortion. If it’s incest and sexual assault within a family, there’s no abortion access at all, and he has held pretty firm on that. And really, that sort of notion of a 15-week ban and a bill has really come from National Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham, who has introduced a bill to basically say, “This is what we’re gonna do when we have power.” And I think a lot of mainstream Republicans bristled at that because they don’t want to nationalize this issue because it will likely work against their favor because abortion access is one of the few policies in this country that has over 60% support. That means if you get 6 out of 10 Americans in a room, six of them will likely support broad open access for abortion, uhm, in many cases, which, for many issues in this country, is rare to find that much consensus. So, you know, Herschel Walker has come out and is really just trying to pair at that mainstream Republican line of, “This is what we’re gonna do.” There have been stories of, you know, Herschel Walker, providing abortions for his past girlfriends, and they haven’t really moved the polls because it’s kind of, you know, a dug-in issue. He has dug in and said, “I support this National Abortion Ban after 15 weeks. No exceptions, whatsoever. This is where I’m at. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done in the past, this is where we’re going.”
Georgia is a state where, I think, pollsters are having kind of a hard time predicting what the electorate is going to be, because especially the female electorate in this state has changed, and its voting intentions have changed considerably, especially with a realignment in suburban areas and ex-urban areas. So, this is a true toss-up race but it is kind of one of those races that is a microcosm for, “This is where Republicans say they’re going. We should be listening to them and that’s what we need to pay attention to when deciding our vote.”
Imara: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think that it’s a really good example because it’s such a clear choice. And there are other races that people will be able to read about in this piece that are important, where there’s also this very clear choice such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where these votes matter because the Senate is essentially 50/50. If a couple of these races go one way, then the Republicans control the Senate. So, that’s why even though it’s three races, three races are really consequential. I just want people to know that.
On the other side of the bodily autonomy ledger, in addition to reproductive justice, is, of course, trans issues, and one of the things that you mentioned that’s different this year is the way in which Republicans are nationalizing trans issues at the federal level, not just at states. I’m wondering if you can just paint the picture of what’s happening there and what could happen if the GOP wins Congress on trans rights.
Sydney: Well, I think the biggest thing to note is that, for the first time, we’re starting to see Republican National platforms that they put out were, for the first time, they’re bringing wildly successful bands of being able to talk about transgender issues in school or allowing school children to participate in sports teams that match their gender identity, so it’s interesting because there hasn’t been a push at a national level to ban any of this. The Republicans have always said their most successful strategy is doing this on a state-by-state level, especially because courts have been notorious for allowing transgender rights to stand as a civil rights issue. So, for the first time, we’re starting to see Republicans get a lot more socially conservative and a lot more bold in presenting these as National issues. They’re doing it into wedge issues, which is sports and parental access in schools. They’re pushing something called the Parental Bill of Rights, which essentially undermine school authorities for allowing for parental challenges to curriculums and opting students out of vital, you know, necessities such as sexual education under the guise of religious freedom. And then, with sports, a lot of this issue has really been turning the issue of instead of allowing transgender kids to compete in high school sports that match their gender identity, they’re trying to make transgender kids seem like they are the opposite gender that they are based on a letter on their birth certificate to highlight how unfair sports would be if we just dropped protected class of gender in how we organize our sporting events.
So, those two issues have now bubbled up nationally. We’ve seen plenty of states ban transgender kids from being able to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity, but it’s really interesting to see this push to essentially stop talking about gender identity issues in schools under the guise of parental rights. Ron DeSantis took that to a new level with his Don’t Say Gay or Trans bill, which is overly broad and basically opens up any teacher to discuss these topics to a lawsuit, which is the end goal, which is not necessarily to ban talking about these discussions. It’s just put teachers at risk if they do anything. So, it essentially forces them to hide their identities, hide talking about things, hide addressing students’ identities for fear of a parent suing them into oblivion.
Imara: I think one of the other things, as a part of this nationalizing conversation, is that Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has told the Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, that if they win that one, she should have a prominent leadership role, and secondly, that if Republicans win, that she will introduce among the very first bills a ban on trans people competing in the sports which conform with our gender identity. And so, therefore, that could be an immediate- an immediate game-changer.
One of the other interesting things that you mentioned, moving beyond races at the federal level and what’s happening in Congress, is this point that you make about down-ballot races and just the absence of candidates contesting Republicans and state legislatures, where so many of these issues are decided, such as, you know, the 40 states that are contemplating in various ways, trans bans, you know, those are decided by state legislators. The same is true for various restrictions on abortion and Don’t Say Gay, and all of the things that we’ve touched upon. There’s no one running against many of the Republicans who are running for office at the State Legislative level, and that really blew my mind. And that’s one of the ways in which they’re having so much success in moving their agenda at the state level, is that people aren’t running against them. And I’m wondering if you can just touch upon that and why that might be.
Sydney: Yeah. Well, first off, I want to say that it’s not just Republicans. There are…
Imara: Mm-hmm. Okay.
Sydney: … Democratic-controlled states where because they are so controlled by Democrats, Republicans don’t even mount credible challenges. So, it’s disproportionately Republican states, which is the important part. Now, in the United States, through gerrymandering, there are very few contested races this cycle. There’re only about 20 to 30, I think, truly toss-up competitive elections in the entire House of Representatives, which is over 400 delegates. Now, that means most people, they already know who’s going to represent them because there’re double-digit leads, major fundraising gaps, but districts have been drawn to ensure certain parties have power. Now, that goes even further in state houses. You know, it’s a lot easier to gerrymandered districts, which have less people in them, to disproportionately disenfranchise people at- at a state house level than it is at a national house level. So, showing so many races that are uncontested, that essentially guarantees one party to control an entire house of a State Chamber should be a five-alarm fire for how democracy is run in this country. Clearly, something’s wrong here because, without the ability to run competitive elections at all levels, people start to become disengaged from the process, politicians know that they’re not gonna have any credible challenges so they can get more extreme, lobbyists know who to target so that they can pass their extreme bills, so on and so forth. So, you know, it’s not really healthy when you have controlled one-party domination in a state, either on the left or the right, but we’re seeing on the right the willingness to use that power in a way that harms people, that you’re not seeing on the left at all.
So, I don’t want to make it seem like this is a both sides issue. But seeing this, its down-ballot races are so important, and over the last 10 years, we’ve started to see that play out as one party, the Republican Party, been really focused on controlling local governments, state governments, and these positions that have a lot more power than the average American realizes because the median American voter is a low information voter. They’re not down the middle, policy-wise. They just don’t know what they want and they don’t know what people are saying. So, when people like to talk about how American democracy can be strengthened when both sides come together, no, American democracy can be strengthened when more people have access to voting and can express their beliefs, and have a meaty ecosystem that properly explains what the beliefs they are deciding on are to them so that they can make that informed choice. It’s not being a centrist in the middle of the two parties with polarization. It’s creating a healthy civic environment for people to exercise their beliefs and creating it so that they have beliefs.
But a lot of that has atrophied over the last 30 or 40 years in the United States, which is a huge problem, and we’re seeing now with these issues, such as bodily autonomy which they’ve been chipping away at-at multiple levels for a long time, become nationalized, which is a huge problem when public opinion that has been tracked for decades is completely out of step with one party who has disproportionately seized political control using our institutions.
Imara: Yeah, and being very much aware that that’s what they’re doing. And I think that you know, your point about the press and media is exactly right, but one of the issues there is that, as we’ve spoken about together, that the right-wing has created an ecosystem, which essentially bullies and influences the mainstream press to not do their job in terms of explaining things in a way that’s clear and which reveals the truth, but which forces them to obfuscate out of fear of this larger, uhm, operation. As you say, there’s a lot of crises in American democracy right now.
But let’s end on a good note. There is a good note and good news. As you say, there are a record number of trans candidates, uh, this year since the Victory Fund has been essentially counting the number of trans who’re running for office, this year breaks the record. So, can you talk about that hope and what you think that means for us as a community and possibly for American democracy that the number of trans people running for office continues to grow?
Sydney: Estimates put trans people between one and two percent of the United States population…
Sydney: …But there has never been an openly trans person to serve in the House of Representatives.
Sydney: And I think the trans community has finally moved away from being so marginalized. You know this is not the community’s fault that it hasn’t been like this. It’s… they are fighting back from this marginalization in a way that they are realizing that, “We have to accumulate some political power for our own to enact our basic civil rights.” And that, historically, has been how marginalized communities have been integrated into broader American culture and have been able to win rights. So, the more and more trans people running for office is a great thing because basically, the community is saying, “Hey, if no one else is going to fight for us, we have to fight for ourselves to get people to fight for us.” We talked about how one party has used institutions to their advantages to disproportionately gain power to create these National issues against us, trans people are saying, “This is what we have to do to take it back. And we need people to help fight with us.” So, getting into those halls of power, demanding a seat at the table, showing the world that we have political clout and political might will get people to do that. So, I think it’s a wonderful thing to see trans people running in so many different races all over the country, and I think it’s long overdue. And I think it also needs to come with a conversation about why trans people have been shut out of halls of power for so long. If we want US Congress to look like this country, if there’s 400 seats- plus seats in this country and we represent 1% of the population, that means there should be about four trans people serving in the House of Representatives. So, where are we? Why haven’t we been able to get there? That conversation needs to be had. While celebrating, we’re breaking down those doors and saying, “We have been here all the time. We demand to be here, as well.”
Imara: Yeah, I think that’s right, and showing that we can run and win in all parts of the country. I know that there’s a trans-non-binary candidate running for the State House in Georgia this year, for example. You know, we have… Andrea Jenkins is a black trans woman who is the President of the Minneapolis City Council. So, I think all across the country, trans people running, winning, and even if not winning, running, laying the groundwork for this to become more normalized in terms of people seeing us as candidates and us seeing our power to be able to run and have a voice, I think, the… all those things are really important.
Sydney: Yeah. Could I add one thing to that?
Sydney: I mean, I think it’s really important when you talk about just running because we talk about the crises of American democracy and how important they are to be fought. One of the things is even if you lose a race, you’re ideally talking to people in that community. You’re getting people to understand those issues. You know, people are voting for you so clearly, there is a constituency that matters about these issues. And the supposed beauty of American democracy is that there’s this peaceful transition of power between winners and losers, and losers accept election results. But losers accepting election results doesn’t necessarily mean that their issues don’t resonate, they don’t matter, and they can’t be brought to the forefront in non-election years. So, the more people you have running, the more people understand the platforms that trans candidates are running on, and those people can then use their voices in the process of influencing local school boards, influencing local governments to enact non-discrimination protections, for example, which are all things that people can do when they participate in the government process. So, you know, just being able to run and getting ideas out there is the first step in building that civic life that we need to have a healthy representation of ideas throughout the year.
Imara: Well, we’ll see how all of this turns out. I know that I felt that I had a better grasp of what was happening after reading your piece. I want to thank you for writing it and for your insights, and for coming on today. I really appreciate it. Thank you for your work.
Sydney: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I thought this was a great conversation.
Imara: Thank you. That was Sydney Bauer, a transgender journalist in Atlanta, Georgia.
And now, I’m excited to welcome reproductive justice activist, Renee Bracey Sherman. Renee has been working for over a decade to elevate stories about abortion from those often left out of the conversation. She is the founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to supporting abortion storytellers and addressing abortion stigma in various communities.
Since 2016, We Testify has provided logistical and emotional storytelling support to people of color, queer people, and those with varying abilities, citizenship status, and access to care. In fact, two out of the three stories in our Trans Bodies, Trans Choices film series from earlier this year come from people who have been through the We Testify program.
In addition to her work at We Testify, Renee is an Executive Producer on Ours to Tell, an award-winning documentary elevating the voices of those who have had abortions. Renee is also the co-author of the upcoming book, Countering Abortionsplaning, which is set to be published in 2024. The book will include resources for navigating abortion stigma for BIPOC communities and testimony on the importance of reproductive justice.
Renee, thank you so much for joining me.
Renee: Thank you so much for having me. It’s quite an honor.
Imara: It’s interesting that for the first three films that we did for Trans Bodies, Trans Choices, which have been in over eight film festivals and have now won awards, that two out of the three stories, as I mentioned, were those people who have received support from We Testify to shape the way in which they were sharing their stories, and that was totally inadvertent. We did not reach out to We Testify directly for that. We just put out an open call, and it just so happened that Jack and Cazembe responded, and as a result, were so powerful in the way that they told their stories that they ended up in the series. And for me, it just shows the power of what you do.
And one of the questions that I’ve always wanted to ask you is what made you include trans people in the development of stories around abortion to reach the public on an emotional level? And I asked that because the traditional abortion rights movement is often about marginalizing trans people and so many others in order to appeal to what they think is a broad audience for them. So, why is your approach different?
Renee: That was never like a- a decision that I made. It was just like a, “Yeah, of course. If we’re going to be talking about who has abortions, we have to include every single identity and person, and make sure that all of our voices are heard.” When I first started sharing my abortion story over a decade ago, at the time, I was working at an LGBT Youth Organization with queer and trans-co-workers and young people, and it was through that work that I saw the power of storytelling, to begin with, and then I started sharing my abortion story. And the day that my abortion story went up, I shared it with my co-workers, and there, I saw the power of abortion storytelling because several of my co-workers told me that they had had abortions, too, and they were a trans person and several lesbians. And so, it was just like, “Duh. Of course.” And so, the work that I’ve been doing with abortion storytelling has always included queer liberation because it is part of the larger conversation about bodily autonomy, sexuality, sexual freedom, and the ability to decide what to do with your body and if, when, and how to grow your family. And early on in my work, I truly did not know that many ciswomen who had abortions. I knew more queer and trans people who had abortions. And then when I came to the Repro movement and saw how trans-exclusionary so many feminists were and how much they pushed back on trans inclusion in abortion storytelling, it made me want to do it that much more. But in the beginning, it was just because that’s who I knew who had abortions. It was just that simple.
Imara: What has been the biggest surprise for you in terms of broadening the stories that are told about abortion that you didn’t anticipate before you started this project? That is to say, I’m sure when you started We Testify, you had an idea in a sense of what the goals were and what the impact might be, but what has been a surprise for you as that’s unfolded?
Renee: Well, I think the way in which I- I started doing this work, it was out of, uh, selfishness, not in like a negative way, but like because I was constantly in rooms and conversations where decisions were being made about abortion, but the people in the room did not look like me. They did not sound like me. They did not say that they had had abortions, and it was really frustrating to be able to do this work but not have people have abortions like it… the decision-making table, or at least those that were there didn’t feel comfortable in sharing their stories. And so, I thought about, you know, what would it take for me to feel less lonely? I’m tired of representing all people of color who have had abortions. I have no idea what it’s like to be trans and have an abortion. I have no idea what it’s like to be Asian and have an abortion. I don’t know what it’s like to live in the South and have an abortion. I only know what it is like for me as a Black [inaudible] woman who had had an abortion in 2005 in the suburbs of Chicago at the one Clinic I did. That’s the only experience I can really speak to, and so I wanted to make sure that the stories that we heard about abortion were as diverse as the people who have them. And when I learned the simple stat that the majority of people who have abortions are people of color, yet I looked around and (A) didn’t see[?] that many people talking about their abortions, and those who were-were overwhelmingly White, I felt so alone and I just wanted to do that- that selfish thing and just like, have some friends to organize with. That’s truly how it started.
And then, of course, I saw things like how we’re represented in photos and on television shows and films, and how we’re talked about by people who purport to support us but actually say really stigmatizing things. I felt like, “Well, we can change this,” and so I felt like if we could band together and work together to undo the internalized stigma that we’ve all learned and been taught, we could actually continue to share our stories and change the world for others who are just like us.
Imara: And given the fact that you’re in these rooms where there is a lot of exclusion, I’m wondering if there’s ever been a backlash to you including trans stories in storytelling about abortion. And the reason why I ask is because we all know, for some reason, there’s been a lot of agitation…
Imara: …Being very kind of that word. There’s been a lot of agitation from people who are pro-choice, who believe in abortion access for everyone, in the inclusion of language that represents the fact that trans people have abortion. And so, I’m wondering if you’ve ever faced that in the rooms that you’ve been in. Have people raised questions about that?
Renee: I mean, I think the first thing I want to say is like, “Yes, I-‘ve I’ve experienced it. And I also don’t care.”
Renee: I just- I’m sorry, I don’t. Like, “Okay. Go be your irritating, like, self over there. I’m going to keep doing what I’m gonna do.”
Once… I will never forget, it was one of the… very early in my career. The movement was kind of going back and forth about whether or not we use gender-inclusive language, and do trans people actually have abortions. And I was at a huge National Abortion Federation conference and they had a keynote speaker who’s a-a very famous columnist. It was actually [inaudible]. I’ll just say it. And so, she was being asked about the use of gender-inclusive language and-and her argument was that, “Well, not that many trans people have abortions,” and I remember feeling a bit nervous but also not caring because I found it really offensive and I knew trans people who had abortions. So, I stood up at the mic and I pushed back and said, “I actually- I disagree with this and I want to be clear. I’ve had an abortion. I’m actually someone who has actually had an abortion, and I’m telling you, it takes nothing away from me to include trans people who have abortions. This is not a problem. We can actually just pull more seats up to the table. There’s nothing that gets taken away, from my experience as a bi-racial Black woman to say that trans folks have abortions, too, and to say the people who have abortions and any other gender-inclusive language that we want to use,” and after that, I can’t begin to tell you how many nasty looks I got after that conference from older cis-White women who, like, straight-up wouldn’t even speak to me at the rest of the conference. And honestly, I was okay with it because guess what? You’re saving me a click. I don’t have to go…
Renee: …and figure out, “Are you transphobic? Because the thing is that if you’re transphobic, you’re also racist. Like, you’re also anti-immigrant. You also have abortion stigma, and I’m not interested in organizing with you,” and I’m definitely seeing a lot more of that whenever I’ve talked about it in an interview when I was on the board of [inaudible], I wanted to have a lot of conversations about gender inclusiveness and having inclusive language there, and the board often rolled their eyes at me, right? But again, I don’t care because my job is to continue to push the boundaries and I’m happy to take those eye rolls if it means that someone, a trans person, non-binary person who’s had an abortion doesn’t have to walk in the room and, like, see that because I’ve already, like, fought with them, right? It’s going to take all of us to continue to do that. And, of course, I want to create a space where trans and non-binary folks can speak for themselves and share their own stories, but also, I want to make sure that you all don’t have to deal with the bullshit. That, to me, feels like my job as a co-conspirator or an ally or however, you want to identify it, to, like, actually get my people to get cis-people to get their shit together.
Imara: So you’ve spoken about what you do, that you say, the inclusion of these stories, and kind of the backlash that you have experienced from time to time from doing so. I’m wondering why you believe it’s important. That is to say, what is the fight for abortion rights and abortion access missing by not including stories of those who are left out, including trans people? And the reason why I ask that is because I’ve heard a lot of [inaudible] people in the mainstream abortion rights movement be like, “You know, this is mostly a women’s issue and we need to reach women in the suburbs and we have to talk to them in a language that they understand. And if we do that, then that’s the way that we can preserve abortion rights.” I mean, I personally think that the last year shows the absolute fallacy of that, like, that’s a dead ideology and a dead approach. From strategy, why do you think it’s important to tell these stories? Because a lot of people don’t think that it is. What’s your response to, “This is why we have to do this.”
Renee: I mean, a couple things. One, those same people who are like, “This is a women’s issue,” like, “We don’t need to talk about that,” are the same people that five minutes later are like, “Well, why aren’t cis-men joining in the conversation?” So, they want men in the conversation but they want a specific type of men. They want cis men. They’re not including trans men and non-binary folks, which again, is just their transphobia, and I try and push back on that when we get media requests where they’re like, “Oh, we want to talk to men who’ve been part of abortions,” and I’m like, “Cool. Are you open to talking to trans men? Are you open to expanding your idea of what ‘masculinity and manhood’ is?,” because I think that we really need to broaden all of these categories. I also think it- it’s very clear that all of our liberation is tied up with one another. Some of the stereotypes about people who have abortions that are based in misogyny towards cis-women are because cis-women are not performing womanhood in a certain way, right? We’re not getting married, wanting to have children, having sex at the right time, wanting to cook in the kitchen, all of those things, so as trans folks and non-binary folks are breaking down these barriers when it comes to gender identity and who gets to play what roles and all of those things, my liberation is caught up in that, too, because then, I get to be who I am in my most authentic self, right? And so, I don’t think that you can separate the two at all.
I also think it’s quite like a- a “duh” moment of that every single time abortion is being attacked, so are trans rights because it’s the exact same people. And over history, again, it is about controlling people, particularly Black and Brown people, but also White people in this adherence to whiteness, white supremacy, a gender binary that actually restricts all of us. To me, all I want to do is continue to just make beautiful art and storytelling and creative work that includes people who have abortions in all of our ways of being, and then we get to see ourselves in it, right?
Like, when Nick was in our film, Ours to Tell, they were in there talking about their gender identity but also becoming Jewish, like, converting to Judaism and growing in their faith, and their experience as a White trans person dating another trans person. And like, actually, we’re just going to present that as that’s just them talking about their life alongside their abortion, just like all of the other cis folks in the piece we’re talking about it because it’s just a fact. I’m not gonna argue this with you. I’m not arguing my humanity, I’m not arguing trans people’s existence or humanity. That shit’s for the birds, right? I am here to make sure that trans folks feel welcomed in whatever corner of the abortion access movement that I have control over, and I feel like I can actually only do that by just doing right by the trans folks that I work with.
And- and I have to say, like, when I first had our retreats with Jack and Cazembe, they were in our first two, you know, I said to them, I was like, “Look, I may not get this right, but I want to make sure that you have a space here and that a lot of the other storytellers are probably learning. So, like, please tell me if there’s something that we need to fix and how do I make you feel as supported as possible,” right? And so, we did a- a lot of work to make sure that the space we created could hold both of them. And I just honestly feel so beyond-the-moon lucky that Cazembe and Jack and Nick and- and Hannah and Aaron and- and all of our [inaudible] continue to work with us because I consider that a privilege. I want to just continue to stay in a relationship with them and do the best that I can for them because I know at any point that they can walk away if we are not doing right by them. And so, I think that any spaces in Repro that want to support and welcome trans people, stop treating them as if they’re just like, “Oh, a-a type of person we need to have.” No. You actually need to do the work and really show up as best you can. I don’t take that lightly, and it-it’s very, very important to me.
Imara: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the things I say all the time is that the way that you win is through addition, not subtraction.
Imara: And so, you should always be trying to expand your conversations and expand who’s included because that’s how you get more and more support, and by narrowing who’s featured, the stories that are told, who matters in the discussion about abortion, having stereotypes about that and limiting who is reached. It’s not a surprise that we are… sadly, where we are in abortion rights in this country because in many respects, the Mainstream Abortion Rights Movement has been subtracting and trying to remove people out of the story. And so, of course, you’re gonna have less and less support over time.
Renee: Also, it’s just boring. It’s so boring to see the exact same stories from the exact same White girls over and over.
Imara: But you know what? It’s not boring if you’re them.
Imara: Because you’re- you continue to be validated, right? Uhm, which is ultimately one of the things, as we both know, stories and storytelling does, is that it acts as a major source of-of validation about who matters in this moment. Lastly, I wanted to ask about the overall approach. I get asked this question all the time so I’m going to ask you.
Imara: Because, uh, this is your work, as well. Why do you believe that stories and storytelling are an essential component of building out a world where we could all live and thrive?
Renee: I think it goes back to the reason why I created it overall, right? It was this selfish reason of that I wanted to be able to hang out with other people who’ve had abortions. I wanted to not feel alone, and I think when we share our stories, it is extremely liberating and freeing because you can just say what you’re feeling, the thing that’s been bottled up inside, maybe sits at the pit of your stomach or is bouncing around in your brain constantly and you just don’t know what to do with those thoughts. You get to say them out loud and then have them validated by someone who says, “I’ve been feeling the same thing, too.” And that, to me, is- is what’s so critical, the ability for us to open up our hearts and just talk about what we’re feeling, what we’re seeing, what we’re experiencing and not be judged. And one of the things that we do with We Testify before we work with storytellers out in the public, they come to a retreat where it’s only people who’ve had abortions. We sit together, we talk about our experiences, we talk about the hard things that we maybe don’t want to talk about in public or with people who haven’t had abortions because they just might not get it. And that ability to build connection is what builds confidence and power, and is the organizing muscle and is truly just everything that brings us together. And I think stories are simply that way that gets us there. People often ask me like, “Well, we don’t have any proof that stories change people’s minds.” Actually, I don’t care if the stories change someone whose anti-abortion mind or not. Like, honestly, they’re okay with kids in jails. Like, I don’t care what they think. My goal is to actually ensure that people who are sharing their abortion stories feel really confident to do it so that someone else who’s had an abortion and who looks like them and sounds like them gets to see someone who’s like them, sharing their story, and then they get to have that connection. And it just builds this sea change from there. So, it’s really about that heart-to-heart connection and that type of organizing.
Imara: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I also think that there’s tons of evidence about the power of storytelling and shifting attitudes.
Renee, thank you so much for taking the time and thank you for your work and for just the power of your own voice and the way in which you are helping other people share the power of what they’ve been through and how we need to change. I’m so grateful for it and I know so many others are, as well.
Renee: Thank you so much for having me. It’s truly an honor. I just… I’ve been such an admirer of your work for so long. And thank you for the amazing videos that you did with Jack and Cazembe because they are truly just a stunning piece of art. And I’m- I’m just so honored that we could partner on that.
Imara: Thank you. Thank you so much.
That was Renee Bracey Sherman, who is the executive director of We Testify.
Thank you for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now, listen all the way through to the end of this show for something extra.
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The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver Ash-Klein and in Aubrey Calloway. Our intern is Mirana Munson-Burke. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show and our sound engineer. Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.
I am looking forward to two things. First of all, next week, we’re going to be dropping a bonus conversation for our Trans Bodies, Trans Choices series with, uhm, a trans doula, and I’m excited about that, uh, specifically a trans abortion doula, uh, and I’m super excited about that. We had so many powerful voices to include that we weren’t able to do so in our standard format so we’re dropping a bonus conversation, and that’s going to be, uh, amazing. There’re just always so many people doing amazing things in our community more than we actually have time for. So, uhm, we are squeezing this one in, but it’s a good problem for us to have, so super excited about that. Stay tuned.
The second thing is next week’s election. I want to urge everyone to please go out and vote. It’s off-year election, and often, what happens in off-years is that people tune out. And also, you know, let’s just be honest, the past couple of years, uh, have been uneven, that’s a charitable word, uh, in terms of what’s happened in Washington, but regardless of how you feel about that, we know that there’s a change in Washington, again, being charitable, that there are laws that are waiting in the wings to be introduced and passed, targeting our community, and that’s something that we need to be very aware of. And secondly, as Sydney said in this episode, there are dozens of races, hundreds, actually, of state legislative races that are consequential in this election. And State legislative races, I don’t know if you guys have ever looked at any of the election totals on election night. I’m a nerd, so sometimes I do that sort of thing, but they can be decided by a couple of hundred votes. And a couple hundred votes in your district is the difference on a local level between whether or not your schools get funded, whether or not abortion gets outlawed in your state, whether or not there’s an anti-trans law that’s passed, whether or not your state accepts Medicaid and it’s going to open up a route for people who can’t get access to healthcare to get access to healthcare. So, I really want you to think about the fact despite that, you know, you may have been disappointment or there are things that you want to shake your fist at, and there’s so many reasons to actually show up on Election Day, and what’s going on immediately in your state and your county and your city is an amazing reason why, and also at the federal level, you know, Marjorie Taylor Greene, as I mentioned in the show, is waiting to introduce an anti-trans piece of legislation as one of the very first things that they do. So, next week’s election and afterwards, you know what? Whatever happens, we’re going to be here and our community is going to keep doing what we have always done, which is to find ways to survive and thrive. So, Election Day, November 8th.
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