Massive Demo for Women’s Rights

LGBT activists lend voices to largest gathering in capital’s history

An estimated one million activists gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, April 25, for the March for Women’s Lives, an event that organizers said was the largest ever organized march on the nation’s capital. The massive gathering was called to protest recent actions by the federal government to roll back reproductive rights for women.

A wide consortium of feminist and abortion rights groups sponsored the event, including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Feminist Majority, Black Women’s Health Imperative, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Organization for Women, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Actress Whoopi Goldberg pointed out during the post-march rally, “This is the largest march because it is the most diverse march.”

The mile-long crowd featured women, men, and children of all ages representing every race, nationality, and sexual orientation from almost 60 different countries, as well as hundreds of celebrities and prominent politicians.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people attended the event, with representatives on hand from such prominent advocacy organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), and The New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.

New York’s LGBT Community Center has recently spearheaded a new initiative, “Causes in Common,” which links reproductive freedom to LGBT liberation and works to create an alliance between LGBT activists and reproductive rights activists.

Terry Boggis, director of the Center’s long established family program, Center Kids, indicated that the project was implemented in response to very specific trends in the LGBT community.

“The Center has always been a pro-choice organization, [but through the work we do on Center Kids] we began hearing about women who could not access good reproductive health because they are lesbian-identified, gay men who can’t be sperm donors at sperm banks,” said Boggis. “The issue of abstinence-only education was particularly impacting queer youth, [there was a lack of] condom distribution in the schools––a lot of specific stuff.”

Boggis said that the preservation of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion has implications on families led by same-sex parents.

“We wanted to push the definition of choice to [signify] not just a straight woman’s right to have an abortion but LGBT people’s rights to create a family or not and have children or not.”

Boggis said that events like Sunday’s march are the first steps toward a larger reciprocal goal.

“The next step is then to go to choice organizations and say, ‘Please make LGBT liberation more central, more vocal, and more present in your work,’” she explained. “We have a really nice working relationship now with some major choice organizations. We’ve been doing organizing [for the March for Women’s Lives] with NARAL and Planned Parenthood and NOW for months, so to have a queer presence injected into that organizing has been a really good vehicle for coming together.”

Ross Levi, ESPA’s public policy director, further emphasized the importance of having an LGBT presence at the march.

“In the end,” said Levi, “both the issues of choice and the issues of LGBT rights are about coming together for control of our bodies and about government not having anything to say about what we do with our own bodies. There is a natural connection between the two issues and so it is absolutely natural and essential that the choice and LGBT communities work together on these issues.”

Two of the most recent attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights, both implemented under Pres. George W. Bush, include the “global gag rule,” a presidential executive order, and the “partial birth” abortion ban, enacted by statute.

Bush issued the gag rule measure on January 22, 2001––just two days into his administration. The measure bars the federal government from providing economic assistance to foreign family planning agencies that provide abortion services, including counseling or political lobbying. Actress Susan Sarandon expressed her outrage at the broader implications of this measure during her address to the massive crowd.

“[The Global Gag Rule] means the closure of significant numbers of planning clinics that give women access to contraceptives, pre- and post-natal healthcare, and management of STDs, including HIV and AIDS,” Sarandon said. “These clinics are often the only health care providers for entire communities in rural Africa. When clinics close down, women in Africa do what women in this country did years ago… they turn to black market abortion.”

Sarandon quoted an estimate that said that more than five million African women seek unsafe abortions resulting in the deaths of more than 34,000 women. She also pointed out that “this rule also denies funding to AIDS organizations that share medical workers or clinical space with family planning non- profits.” Sarandon denounced Bush for his claims of combating AIDS in Africa, where the disease has ravaged certain nations, but then imperiling the funding required to address the epidemic.

Last November, Bush signed into law the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which outlaws “intact dilation and extraction,” or D&X, abortions. Medical experts say the procedure is sometimes necessary in aborting fetuses as soon as twelve to 15 weeks into a pregnancy, and the law’s critics complain that the measure’s title misnames a medical procedure. According to the Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, “This law directly interferes with a physician’s ability to provide comprehensive care, and is so vague that it potentially affects the provisions of all abortion.”

The ban also marks the first time in U.S. history that the government has outlawed a medical procedure.

At Sunday’s events, speakers from Planned Parenthood warned that the 1973 landmark ruling in the Roe v. Wade case is only one vote away from being overturned by the Supreme Court. The last Supreme Court decision clearly upholding Roe v. Wade, 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, came from a narrowly divided 5-4 vote. More recently, in 2000’s Stenberg v. Carhart, the court again split 5-4 in striking down a Nebraska statute that would have severely restricted abortion rights.

One speaker, the actress Camryn Manheim, mentioned the close votes in those court decisions before emphasizing to the throngs gathered on the mall the importance of voting in this year’s presidential election.

“The single most important thing we can do to protect our right to choose is to make sure that the next president to make an appointment to the Supreme Court is named John Kerry!” exclaimed Manheim.

The March for Women’s Lives also marked the first time that organizations representing women of color have played a central role in organizing a national march for women’s rights. Since the 1970s, the feminist movement has often been criticized for not acknowledging issues specific to women of color. According to a National Organization for Women press release, “women of color are least likely to have healthcare options and most often suffer from reproductive health disparities,” a condition attested to by the president and C.E.O. of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Dr. Lorraine Cole, who said at Sunday’s rally that “the reproductive health of black women is in a state of crisis.”

As the long day drew to a close, Carmen Vazquez, the deputy executive director of the Pride Agenda, spoke on behalf of the LGBT community, expressing her outrage at the administration’s policies toward women and LGBT people, and emphasized the importance of various groups collaborating on shared goals.

“LGBT liberation and reproductive freedom are causes in common that cannot ever be severed,” declared Vazquez.

Like many of the day’s speakers, Vazquez then addressed Bush directly, exhorting him to “keep your dirty, stinking hands off our bodies. Keep government out of our bedrooms, keep your morality to yourself…”

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