Forty Years Later: Reflections on Roe, Gender Identity, and Moving the Movement Forward

This post is part of our week-long series on the personal impact of the current state of reproductive health, rights, and justice.

by Verónica Bayetti Flores

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and artist who just moved to Holyoke, MA. She has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color, and helped to lead social justice efforts in Wisconsin, New York City, and Texas.

Forty years ago Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade and legalized abortion across the United States. Today, many of us see this historic victory as but one (albeit key) piece of the puzzle of accessing abortion in the US. Reproductive justice activists across the nation know that legalization means little to a woman who cannot afford an abortion, or has no transportation to a clinic, or a woman who has enough to cover a procedure but does not have paid sick time and simply cannot afford to take the time off of work to get to a clinic that is a day’s drive away with a 24-hour waiting period. We know that legalization is just one piece of access, just one piece of safety, and we are steadfast in our commitment to making abortion accessible and safe for everyone.

In our ongoing efforts to make abortion safe and accessible for all, people in the reproductive justice movement have been putting a lot of time into thinking critically about the ways we talk about reproductive health services, including abortion, and gender. For so long we have talked about abortion as only a women’s issue, but personally many of us know the story of a gender non-conforming friend accessing these services. We know that the gender policing that gender non-conforming and transgender people face in public restrooms also happens at the doctors’ office, and we know that queer and trans folks of color are hit especially hard, facing greater barriers to access, higher rates of refusal of treatment, and higher reported rates of violence while accessing care. In short: we know that abortion is not just a women’s issue – that plenty of trans men and gender non-conforming people have struggled to figure out how they will be able to find the money for an abortion, or have contemplated whether they would face violence trying to access extremely gendered health services. We know this because so many of us in this movement are queer, gender non-conforming, and/or trans ourselves, and yet the conversation about the connections between these issues historically has been fairly limited.

The truth is, it’s hard – how do we talk about such a deeply gendered issue while recognizing that it’s not just cisgender women that have a stake in this? How do we talk about gender in a broader way while at the same time recognizing that the marginalization of all genders other than cisgender male are at the center of the pushback against reproductive justice? Some of us have started to use gender-neutral terminology in our grassroots work; others of us aren’t entirely happy with the ways this takes the focus off of the fact that gender oppression is at the center of this for women and gender non-conforming folks alike. There isn’t an easy answer, or a one-size-fits-all.

This is not to say, of course, that this work is not happening. It’s happening in our living rooms and community centers, where non-funded activist groups led by queer and trans folks meet about ways to react to the latest round of state-level attacks to abortion; it’s happening at the meeting after the meeting, where queer folks and our allies in the movement debrief and strategize; and it’s happening at organizations, not without risks or sacrifice. Several organizations – largely reproductive justice organizations led by women of color – have been addressing these issues head-on with cultural change work that challenges the ways we define family, policy advocacy that demands the inclusion of quality services for queer and trans people in the implementation of health reform, and organizing that centers reproductive justice squarely within the LGBTQ experience. Others are taking time to do this work in less visible ways, doing the internal work necessary so that trans and gender non-conforming perspectives are included meaningfully, and do not just become words tacked onto the end of a sentence about whom they serve.

Forty years after Roe, we still have much work to do. On some days I feel disheartened by the consistent and repeated attacks on abortion access, the slow pace of progress, or the difficulties women and trans folks continue to face in accessing the care they need. But this quickly evaporates when I think about my herman@s en la lucha – people who are committed to bringing complex issues to the table; queers, trans people, and allies who are smart and strategic; people who are willing to make connections and take risks for justice. Our work – and the work of our queer and trans ancestors on whose shoulders we stand – is paying off, it is becoming more and more visible, and one day these connections will seem obvious to those who will continue the fight for reproductive justice long after we are gone.

Many of us in the reproductive justice movement already see the clear connections between the bodily autonomy frameworks we’ve used to demand abortion access and the right of all people to self-determine gender identity, and we’re exploding the narrative by also centering issues of sexuality, race, class, and immigration status. We are building the movement we need to see Roe into the next forty years.

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