I once heard a scholar of queer theory say that masculinity is fragile—if masculinity were so resolutely powerful, why would it need so many institutions, -isms, and machinery to hold it up?
As I look back on the year that’s just passed, I wonder if abortion stigma, too, isn’t oddly fragile: Deeply entrenched, yes, and manifest at multiple levels—from individual to institutional, from cultural to legal—but always threatening to break. Without constant scaffolding and upkeep, stigma fractures; exposed to lived reality, it tends to collapse.
And yet the system that fuels stigma is massive, is well-stocked, does have the weight of ignorance and denial behind it. I know it’s not a system that can be simply exploded, as much as I would like to push that button. Rather, what if it’s a system that comes apart with tinkering, with little jeweler’s hammers, with unscrewing something here and replacing parts there? The individual parts, in the end, may fall away relatively easily; they are not very well made.
When I think about abortion stigma and all the oppressions and injustices we face together, I feel both a great sense of urgency and also a commitment to this process of meddling and mending. It was after the November 2016 presidential election that I needed to think seriously about tinkering as an essential political and cultural tactic, as a way of working and being in the world—as perhaps the way of working and changing what’s un-free. In the past, I may have feared that “tinkering” was simply an excuse for not doing enough; I now think it may be the main mode through which we can counter the right’s tendency towards absolutes, and the left’s tendency to ricochet between action and despair. To tinker is to retain conviction while refusing the ultimatum; it is to embrace what’s intelligently improvised and rigged; it is not so much a saccharine faith in the unseen effects of small deeds as it is a commitment to changing both the subject and the form of our debates. Not only do we need to change what we say, but we need to say it in a different way—sometimes we may need not to march and shout, valuable as those actions are, but to whisper and sing and converse and laugh, to come in through the screen door.
Over the past year, I’ve tried different kinds of tinkering on for size. I’ve taken steps forward, steps back, and alternate routes. I’ve talked into a pink megaphone across the street from men holding red banners and rosaries. I’ve sat in a circle at a farm with a dozen women telling our abortion stories, while chickens and hogs cluck and grunt in the background; I’ve listened afterwards to friends troubled by the stigma even within that circle. I’ve accepted the reporter’s offer to film my shoes rather than my face. I’ve felt afraid to tell co-workers and new friends what I write about, felt afraid of hearing what others have to say, felt unwilling to do the intellectual and emotional work I might have to do.
Yet I’ve blasted episodes of Jackie Day’s Provider Podcast and Melissa Madera’s Abortion Diary at work anyway, both hoping and fearing that my co-workers would come in. I’ve taken the hands of a man I didn’t yet know, a man in the middle of speaking loudly against abortion at a Christmas party, and begun to talk. I’ve stood in the middle of thousands at the Women’s March in New York, hearing and seeing the word “choice” on hundreds of signs and in chants, but never once the word “abortion”—and then I’ve heard the abortion story of the person standing next to me, just as a brass band and gold-clad dance team went by.
Most importantly, I know that I’m tinkering at the same time that countless others are doing the same. While I’m tapping away at a piece of stigma here, #ShoutYourAbortion is getting ready to release a beautiful coffee table book filled with photographs, artworks, and stories related to abortion experiences. In partnership with Abortion Conversation Projects, SYA will get this book into hundreds of clinic waiting rooms across the United States—and the tinkering will continue one person, one reader, one story at a time. I know that the Ohio Chapter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is about to launch a series of trainings for clergy and lay caregivers on how to provide spiritual and emotional support to those seeking abortion care; they’ll also be helping clergy to change the conversations in their congregations. I’m sure that those trainings, like all acts of tinkering, will disassemble stigma in creative and local ways. I know that Denver-based COLOR, a reproductive justice organization that uses art + activism strategies to destigmatize abortion, will tinker in profound ways this year as they tour a photo essay exhibit, along with a documentary play, aimed at honoring and lifting up Latina/x abortion experiences. All of these folks, and many more, give me the confidence to keep tinkering away. As we weaken stigma one fracture at a time, we make space not so much for the whole thing to fall apart, but for many, many cracks of light to shine through.
Here’s my favorite personal tinkering moment from 2017: In September, I am standing with eight people on the sidewalk at the bottom of a hill. On top of the hill, hundreds of people gather, surrounded by balloons, strollers, and bikes—folks getting ready for a fundraiser 5K in support of our local Crisis Pregnancy Center. The nine of us in our little line are holding signs—“Thank You Abortion Providers”; “Good Women Have Abortions”; “Pregnancy is not a crisis, but withholding abortion access is.” The CPC director comes down the hill and tells us that she hopes our intentions are peaceful and she wants us to be blessed. “We want you to be blessed, too,” I say. A man comes down the hill and starts to sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” at us, but he can’t remember the words.
For me, 2017 was a year of finding those places where I could tap on stigma’s fragility. Nothing massive caved, nothing exploded, but I could hear little pops and pings, little bursts of song and fire as I went.