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We Make the Road By Walking: Trans-inclusive Language and Reproductive Justice

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June 12, 2013

When I think about the ways that queer & trans issues intersect with reproductive justice, I don’t even know where to start. To me, one seems an intricate part of the other; the entire time I’ve been doing reproductive justice work, sexual orientation and gender identity issues have been central components. How can we possibly be liberated as LGBTQ folks without reproductive justice? And how can we meaningfully say as a reproductive justice movement that we center the voices of the most marginalized members of our communities if we aren’t taking sexual orientation and gender identity into account? The beauty of the reproductive justice framework is that it makes room for this kind of intersectional advocacy, and now more than ever I’ve seen LGBTQ issues become a part of the conversation.

In recent years, I’ve seen the reproductive justice movement grappling with one particularly difficult question: how do we meaningfully integrate the perspectives and issues faced by gender non-conforming and trans folks into our work? In a movement that has so long focused on cisgender women, how do we talk about the fact that there are also gender non-conforming folks seeking abortion? That trans women’s reproductive health care needs differ, often dramatically, from those of cisgender women? That there are trans men looking to get on birth control?

I ask specifically how do we talk about these issues because my central question revolves around language. In terms of analysis, it’s not a difficult case to make: we know that trans and gender non-conforming folks face myriad barriers in accessing health care, including low rates of health insurance, refusal of treatment and high reported rates of violence while accessing care. We know that trans and gender non-conforming folks of color are especially hard hit. And honestly, so many of us doing reproductive justice work are queer and/or trans that we know quite personally what it means to access reproductive health care as a gender non-conforming person. We’ve been to incompetent providers, we’ve helped our friends find the money for an abortion, we’ve heard our partners’ horror stories with the person at their doctors’ front desk. And we know from this personal experience that gender presentation and identity distinctly affect the ways our communities access these services. So what’s the problem?

The truth is, it’s hard – how do we talk about such a deeply gendered issue as reproductive health 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.

The fact is, we’re making this road by walking. Sometimes, there isn’t a model that fits, or a specific path to follow. Sometimes we are growing so much, challenging so deeply, that we need to imagine something completely different. It’s hard but beautiful work, and it’s work that has to keep going even if we’re not exactly sure where we’ll end up. We need to be gentle and forgiving with ourselves and each other, and we need to make sure that the voices of those most impacted by these issues are at the center of our conversations as we all figure this out. Most importantly, the show must go on – abortions still need to be funded, health care reform still has to be implemented, restrictions on access to care still must be fended off. In the meantime, we will try new things, we will fail spectacularly, and we will try again, until we get it right.


Veronica Picture-1Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and artist. 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. She currently is Assitant Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy program, a contributor at Feministing.com and sits on the board of the National Network of Abortion Funds. You can also follow her on twitter at @veroconplatanos.

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