LESBIANS AND ABORTION
and how queer liberation and reproductive justice (must) go hand in hand
By Quirine Lengkeek, Advocacy Coordinator at CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality
TW: sexual assault, rape, corrective rape, abortion
Access to abortion is a reproductive right we commonly understand to belong to hetero, and maybe whilst pondering… also to bisexual women and girls. When advocating for SRHR like me, both diverse SOGIESC and access to safe and legal abortion will likely be part of your vocabulary. The two are however, hardly ever connected, especially for the ‘L’ in LGBTQI+.
And this doesn’t serve us. Us, lesbians. Us, queer women. Us, women. Us, youth.
Reproductive justice is a queer issue. You might think of achieving pregnancy, or legal parenthood for lesbian mothers. But abortion is also a queer issue. First of all, because sexual history doesn’t define sexual identity. Once married to a man and now out & proud, a transgender backstory, you were just experimenting: your identity is your own to define. In these intricacies, one might become pregnant, and need an abortion.
There is unfortunately, also a more sinister reason why lesbian and queer women need to be included in our call for access to safe and legal abortion.
Where most data suggests about 1 in 5 women are raped at some point in their life, this goes for a third of lesbian women (Robson, 2011). Lesbianism can be an aggravating or motivating factor for sexual assault. Revealing you’re a lesbian may make the (potential) perpetrator more violent or aroused – the ‘You just need a good fuck from a real man’ trope that will sound so familiar for those who share versions of my own lived experience as a lesbian.
Such lesbophobic (sexualized homophobia) comments are part of rape culture: they completely ignore the agency of the lesbian woman in question, the seriousness of her current relationship (isn’t my partner right HERE?), and the validity of her identity.
The particular form of a hate crime these beliefs could turn into, is what we call ‘corrective’ or ‘curative’ rape, meant to instill heterosexuality in the victim. It is a punishment for being gay, or for breaking away from what is believed to be the traditional gender expression. A lesbian is raped by a straight man to show her ‘how to be a real woman’. For not following patriarchal and heterosexual behavioral norms – especially if you dare to express yourself in a public space and refuse-the-advances-of-a-man-while-queer! Remarks hinting at participating in sexual encounters with you and your partner, and ‘turning you straight’ that sexualize and threaten lesbians, suffice to remind us we will, or could be punished (again) for failing to conform what society understands as womanhood.
Although I’ve definitely experienced first-hand how a high-femme expression can add to the anger, disbelief and insistence a perpetrator shows, most victims of corrective rape are identified because, or punished because of their gender presentation. ‘Butch lesbians, known for the strength and power communicated through their expression of their sexual orientation, paradoxically become the most vulnerable because of the tripartite threat they pose: to heterosexuality (through their relationships with women), to gender norms (through their expressions of masculinities and disregard for femininities), and to sex (through challenging expectations surrounding somatically female bodies)' – Sarah Doan-Minh, 2019.
The lesbian body is a body ‘out of control’ in a heteropatriarchal sense, and the cishet perpetrator handles ‘in the best interest’ of the victim by bringing her back under control. Doan-Minh further writes: ‘Just as rape is used as a weapon of war to terrorize and subjugate a population, corrective rape, and the fear of rape, remains a tool to subordinate non-heterosexual and gender nonconforming individuals as a group’. Abortion in this case, is an end to the rapist’s terrorization of her body and attempt to cut down her queerness.
(Heightened risk of) sexual assault and rape obviously raise the possibility of unplanned pregnancy and thus people seeking an abortion. Plus, lesbians are less likely to be on birth control. But there are other situations particular to young lesbian women and other queer youth, that increase the likelihood of unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, and subsequent obstacles in accessing abortion services.
16 and pregnant (and gay)
Queer youth face higher levels of homelessness, substance abuse and sexual abuse, due to a lack of acceptance of their identity once revealed or suspected. And because of how queer youth is made vulnerable by their unaccepting parents, church or community, they are also more likely to engage in survival sex or sex work, heightening the risk of unintended pregnancies further. These factors combined, make young queer women two or more times as likely to become pregnant in their teens than their heterosexual counterparts (Robson, 2011; Saewyc et al., 1999).
This then spills into experienced obstacles. Where parental consent is needed for a minor to access abortion, queer minors are less likely to get this third party consent, as family relationships might already be difficult. Homelessness, substance abuse and hostile attitudes in healthcare towards queer people, add to the puzzle. Programs around teen pregnancy should therefore specifically target socially marginalized groups, and our thinking about who requires comprehensive information about reproductive health and services, must change. For the sake of the young women we’ve overlooked.
Rape is not a heterosexual issue. Abortion is not a heterosexual issue. Nor cisgender. Butch, femme, trans masculine, stud, stone bodies – we need abortion too. Queer your efforts around abortion. It will serve us (all).
‘How we want the Queer and Reproductive Justice Movements to Love Us Back…’ by Mia Mingus:
I am not afraid of love. I am not afraid of my whole self asking your whole self to join me in liberation. I am not afraid of love.
I am not afraid of difference. I have dreamt of you seamlessly weaving together, loving the places you reflect each other, and touching the differences that define you with admiration. You are the kind of beauty that is fierceness in pain, in laughter, in survival. What I mean to say is, we are too precious to turn away from one another. Too precious to think we can leave our work to our respective movements. Because the warriors, the people, who straddle the borders of fear know that we were never enemies. We were always kindred. We were always each other’s gravity and air. Because when the fire comes, it comes to burn us all and your seeds blow over our fences and take root in our soil.
This is a love letter for reproductive justice activists who are too afraid to publicly incorporate a queer politic into their work. A love letter for queer people who are complicit in reproductive oppression every day. A love letter for the heteronormativity and sexism that exists within the reproductive justice movement and the racism and misogyny that exists within the LGBT and queer movement. A love letter for our fears which seek to strangle us every day through criminalization, silence, and isolation. A love letter for repeating our histories.
This is for those of us who know that building intentional families, intentional community, intentional love, genders, and bodies can never be separated from justice; can never be separated from healing, from truth – and will always be transformative. This is for our desires lying down together outside of oppression, outside of ownership, outside of abuse.
This is a love letter for those who have come before us and never stopped pushing their way into the conversation, the family, the agenda.
This is a love letter for those who will come after us and look back with pride and strength at how we wrestled our fears and hate to the ground and didn’t stop until our bodies were whole, our children were free, and our land could breathe.
This is my love, out in the open, reaching a hand to you, asking you to join me in our liberation.
- Hetero: heterosexual/straight
- Rape culture: the social environment that allows sexual violence to be normalized and justified, fueled by the persistent gender inequalities and attitudes about gender and sexuality
- High-femme: a very 'feminine' lesbian
- Gender expression: the way in which a person expresses their gender identity, typically through their appearance, dress, and behaviour
- Butch lesbian: tends to denote a degree of 'masculinity' displayed by a female individual beyond what would be considered typical of a tomboy
- Cishet: cisgender (meaning: relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with the sex assigned at birth) and heterosexual
- SOGIESC: sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics.
Sources and further reading:
Sarah Doan-Minh, Corrective Rape: An Extreme Manifestation of Discrimination and the State’s Complicity in Sexual Violence, 30 Hastings Women's L.J. 167 (2019).
Available at: https://repository.uchastings.edu/hwlj/vol30/iss1/8
Robson, R. (2011). Lesbians and Abortion. NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change, 35, 247.
Saewyc, E. M., Bearinger, L. H., Blum, R. W., & Resnick, M. D. (1999). Sexual intercourse, abuse and pregnancy among adolescent women: does sexual orientation make a difference? Family planning perspectives, 127-131.
Poetry from Mia Mingus taken from: Ross, L., Derkas, E., Peoples, W., Roberts, L., & Bridgewater, P. (Eds.). (2017). Radical reproductive justice: Foundation, theory, practice, critique. Feminist Press at CUNY.