Amelia Bonow had tears in her eyes as she held a cigarette by her kitchen window. “There is strength in being vulnerable. I want to reclaim that. There is no wrong feeling.” This was the second cycle of laughing to crying and back again that we had gone through in the first thirty minutes of talking.
Amelia is well-known. After the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood, she took to the Internet, writing the most forthright open letter talking about her abortion. And she was grateful for it. She was grateful that she had the option. She was grateful to her community, to the doctors who were kind and humanizing.
That was the first step in what became Shout Your Abortion – a movement started by one woman who told her story, and allowed others to tell theirs. But she’ll tell you about that.
What I want to talk about is how I walked in thinking Amelia was going to be a some goddess sky wizard, all wise and cool and maybe glowing? That she would be somehow more than human. And why? Not just because I read too many fantasy novels. Because she did what is so hard – she started a conversation.
Abortion is a possibly the hardest thing to talk about as women, but it is an issue that lives inside our bodies. Paradoxically, women are not the ones driving the discussion. To reclaim this conversation, I have broached this topic with women in my life who disagree with me, for whom abortion is an impossible thing to reconcile. I sit down with sweaty palms, say I support it, and then listen to reasons they might not. And, miraculously, I walk away from those conversations with not only my friendships intact, but stronger. No one yells. We remember we love each other. They know me better. I know them better. And old white men who don’t know where the clitoris is, much less what a uterus is for, didn’t tell us what to say. But goddamn it, every time I get so scared.
Amelia intimidated me. Here was a woman so brave that she opened her life up to the world in order to give more women the courage to speak. When she answered the door in a whirl of energy and easy smiles, I noticed her skin did not sparkle and she had no wizard’s staff. She picked a record and invited us to sprawl around her apartment like we had known each other forever. And then it became clear – Amelia is 100% human, and that’s why she’s incredible.
She talked openly about her life, her grad studies, how she spent years learning about the pro-life movement, not so she could dismantle people’s arguments, but so she could foster empathy. How at the heart of it, she wants to take back this conversation and the shame attached to it and let women learn from each other. She is goofy, and she hates irony. She is warm and kind, and she is fierce when confronted. She stands by her convictions, but she does not bully. She believes in burning the establishment down to save the world.
She is our own rogue vigilante in orange platforms, fighting for women’s rights and reclaiming the right to be open and complex in a world so hostile to women’s vulnerability. She is not some sadboy loner superhero. In fact, she doesn’t want to do this alone and isn’t. She is bringing everyone she meets into the fold; offering us the power to burn this shit down and rebuild it anew. And it all starts by sitting on a floor, face to face, and talking about it.
Words by Kathleen Tarrant
In less than 250 words, tell me your life story:
Grew up outside of Seattle. Played in the woods and swam in the Puget Sound. My parents were solid and believed in me.
At 14, I was in a gruesome car accident with my best friend and her two sisters. I was uninjured and my best friend was crushed, but miraculously survived after many days on life support. It was terrible; we lived.
In high school I was a total cunt in ways that seemed reasonable to me at the time. Attended Seattle Central Community College and was devastated to learn that everyone/everything (including me) is racist.
Discovered that music could complement any possible emotion, worked at many restaurants and bars in spite of my inability/unwillingness to perform basic requirements of employment, stayed up all night talking to all sorts of people about what everything means.
Fell in love. Traveled. Drugs! Studied anthropology at Seattle University and discovered my conviction that reproductive autonomy is the foundation of justice.
Left boyfriend of 6 years and accidentally burned the house down the day I moved out, incinerating everything either of us had ever owned and also the cat.
Volunteered at King County Crisis Clinic, answering phones. Decided to pursue MA in psychology in spite of becoming increasingly unhinged because of impending apocalypse and feeling crushed by my perceived inability to affect change. Drugs!
Fell madly in love with my current person who is my person. Accidentally started #ShoutYourAbortion movement and quit everything else. Landed a $250K grant. Boom!
Tell me about how you changed course from grad school to where you are now.
Over the last year, I began realizing that my friends and I were talking constantly about the peril of abortion rights but we weren’t actually talking about our abortions. Kimberly Morrison and I decided to put together a zine of abortion stories from people in our community and Seattle writer Lesley Hazelton and I started talking about creating an “It Gets Better” style YouTube channel where people told their abortions stories on video.
Then, on September 18th, the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood. At this time, I was working on an MA in psychology. That day, instead of writing a paper, I lost my shit. I felt enraged and helpless. The next day, on a whim, I wrote a status update about my own personal experience with abortion:
“I’m telling you about my abortion because I believe that the people fighting to take this right away from us are relying on the expectation of silence from women like me. Plenty of people still believe that on some level — if you are a good woman — abortion is a choice which should be accompanied by some level of sadness, shame or regret. But you know what? I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way. Why wouldn’t I be happy that I was not forced to become a mother?”
I texted my friend Lindy West, who screengrabbed my post and tweeted it to her 62K followers along with her own abortion disclosure, adding the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion. The hashtag blew up immediately, becoming a conduit for people all over the world to share their own abortion stories, often for the first time. Within a few days, #ShoutYourAbortion had been used 250,000 times.
The range of disclosures was staggering. The hashtag had created an opportunity for people to claim their own abortion experiences as integral parts of their pro-choice identities, and it had made coming out less scary because there was a sense of community and safety in numbers.
The media went nuts. Lindy was frantically trying to finish writing her book, so she started forwarding me all the media requests. I was completely unprepared to speak to the world on that scale but it felt doable because I was simply talking about my own experience. I knew that hearing me talk about my abortion with an unmitigated sense of gratitude would be the first time many women realized that they had options other than shame and self-hatred. I knew that for some people, reading an interview with me would be the first time they were able to hear a woman talk about her abortion without hating her. And that was it--I never went back to class, I never went back to my bartending job, and I dove blindly into the maelstrom.
Lindy continued to hold down the conversation on Twitter as Seattle took it to the streets. We started having button-making parties and buttons started appearing on jackets all over town. SYA graffiti appeared. People made their own zines and mixtapes and got SYA tattoos and we put together fundraisers and rock and roll shows. Over a few months, SYA evolved into a full-fledged movement that was constantly generating new ways to talk about abortion, creatively, and on their own terms.
So yeah—over a few months, with zero paid employees, we built a website, recorded people's abortion stories for our YouTube channel, and had dozens of events. And then we got a huge grant! Now we have non-profit status and we are taking SYA nationwide in 2016.
How did Shout Your Abortion affect your community and relationships? How have you seen it shape people outside your community?
Telling abortion stories has a ripple effect. One person’s disclosure often inspires others to tell their own stories, authentic conversations start happening, and gradually, talking about abortion becomes normal. I’m living in a post-SYA version of my own community; it’s undeniable. From my vantage point, it’s clear that compulsory silence around abortion is fading.
I have so many anecdotes about the change I’ve seen that I don’t know where to start. I’ve watched women reject shame that they carried for years but never felt that they deserved and I’ve watched as these women found support through SYA that they never knew they had. I’ve watched straight men and queer people join the conversation and say “we want to hear what this is like so that we can support you better”. I have watched so many people get their lives back that it’s made me mourn the time that we have collectively lost.
In terms of broader culture change, the shift is quite palpable but more difficult to pinpoint. The abortion rights movement has been focused on elevating personal narratives in order to attack stigma for some time now; organizations like the 1 in 3 Campaign, Sea Change, and Martha Plimpton’s A is For have been working this angle for years. In the six months since SYA broke, there has been a fairly dramatic, large-scale shift in the way that abortion is discussed in the media. Personal disclosures are becoming common in op-eds and abortion is beginning to be depicted in television and film in relatively neutral ways. Abortion is no longer a plot device used to signify that a character is promiscuous or troubled or devastated. I think that SYA helped break a wave that had been building for a long time and as a result, we are seeing a broader, more complex range of abortion narratives represented in many avenues of culture.
How do you think others see you?
I think people think I am kind, brave, and some combination of invigorating and fatiguing. And that I am fun, with cool boobs.
How do you see yourself?
Pretty much like that, with the addition of all of the things I dislike about myself that I keep secret.
Depending on your answer to the previous two questions, describe why you think the perspectives are the same OR different:
I have spent one hundred million dollars on therapy so I have a fairly expensive sense of self-awareness and I’m naturally pretty good at reading other people.
What do you love about yourself?
My intuition. My willingness and ability to apologize. My ability to adapt.
What don’t you love about yourself?
I don’t like when I say mean things to myself like “Your body looks like a bag of shoes and nobody will ever want to fuck you and if nobody wants to fuck you, you should die”. The saddest part is that this isn’t actually a thing I dislike about myself, it’s just a dumb script I learned because this culture teaches women that nothing we ever do is good enough and our primary function is “dick holster”.
Sometimes when I drop into this self-loathing sewer and start splashing around, I get really sad that even though my politics and heart are so diametrically opposed to that bullshit, even though the people who I admire the most in the whole universe have managed to mostly crush that part of themselves, I still periodically succumb. Sometimes this self-loathing launches into a second layer of self-loathing about the fact that I have succumbed to self-loathing, and then I go lie down.
I hate feeling controlled by this kind of poison because it makes me feel I’ve allowed myself to be defined by men. I am so fucking sick of being objectified, and yet a broken part of me that I’m devastated to even name still feels like dudes wanting to fuck me is the most important thing about me.
I think it’s important to talk about this sort of complexity. Feminism isn’t a theory that magically erases your damage and it isn’t a contest. We need to be kind to ourselves and to each other. We are in the process of redesigning the world so that the game is less rigged for women--the idealistic part of me believes we are finally on the verge of burning some shit to the ground and creating a female future--but walking through the same old minefield in this twilight is fucking confusing.
Since it’s sort of cheating to say that getting brainwashed by the patriarchy is what I don’t love about myself because it’s basically blaming dudes for everything (WHICH IS REAL) I will give you some other things I do not love about myself.
I’m shitty at doing the kind of foundational relationship maintenance where people take turns reaching out to one another after it’s been awhile in order to remain connected. I forget my turn a lot. That’s because I sort of only exist in real time--I’m like a geriatric person with dementia and my focus is generally on whatever I am experiencing. I’ve accepted this about myself and so have most people in my life, but sometimes people get hurt because they feel devalued or forgotten. I really do not like hurting peoples’ feelings. I also really like doing whatever I want all the time and forcing people to accept me or beat it. It’s a fine balance.
I have such a hard time doing basic self-care, probably because I barely even try. What is water?
My memory is made of quicksand and because of this, normal things are astoundingly difficult for me. However, magical things are sometimes easy! I do not know how to count to 35 but sometimes I am psychic.
Talk about an instance in your life that made you feel vulnerable:
Going to therapy has forced me to hold myself accountable for my own patterns of behavior and wrestle all that shit to the floor, even when it makes me feel like I’m destroying my own reality. An extension of that vulnerability has been falling in love and committing to being the realest possible version of myself in my current relationship. IT IS VERY SCARY BUT GREAT!
What did you do to make it through?
I don’t know if I’ve made it through; I don’t think I’ll ever want to feel as though I’ve conquered my own vulnerability. I’d rather force myself to evolve and confront my own vulnerability in the process. At this point, I think that’s the only way I’ll be able to continue existing without freaking the fuck out.
When is the last time you remember feeling incompetent?
In general, I’ve managed to quit participating in the systems that require the sorts of competency that I do not possess or care about enough to cultivate. Paperwork, counting, time management, knowing what day it is, paying bills, sleeping, Twitter—there are all sorts of things that other people do not even see as a skill which are so difficult or boring to me that I am completely unable to do them. I know that this is a bratty, bad answer. If you are a baby boomer who is getting hot under the collar reading this because petulant shitbags like me are ruining the world with our entitlement and sour ‘tudes, I would like to point out that the world was already pretty much ruined when I got here; I am just trying to figure out how to live here without dying.
Oops, let me give you a less annoying answer. I guess the last time I felt incompetent was when I recently locked myself out of my apartment for the seventy-fifth time and then partially pissed my pants. Or, the other day when I was happily bounding down the water tower stairs in Volunteer Park and then I clipped my toe and began hurtling to my death and barely caught myself on the railing but smashed my knees and broke my headphones. Hurting myself makes me feel incompetent and that happens pretty regularly.
Why do you think people perceive Shout Your Abortion as hostile? And what do you wish you could communicate to them?
I’m not hostile; the suppression of female voices is hostile. We live in a culture where a woman speaking honestly about her own experience is shocking but we’ve accepted the fact that the mainstream GOP platform relies on the proposition that a third of women in the United States are murderers.
People who have abortions have been so thoroughly dehumanized that it’s become terrifying for women to talk about our own lives; we’ve had our vocal chords ripped out. In a world where women walk through a gauntlet of emotional terrorism in order to enter a health care center and abortion doctors are regularly terrorized and murdered, it is fucking audacious for someone to take issue with my tone. I’ll never beg for respect from someone who wants to watch me drown.
Saying that SYA is hostile is a reductive take on the spirit and the work of this movement. #ShoutYourAbortion is about love; it is about people finding their power and deciding to forgive themselves when they have been taught to believe that they are bad.
SYA is not a monolithic movement. How I feel about my own abortion (GREAT) has nothing to do with SYA’s mission; that’s just a lazy take. SYA is hundreds of thousands of unique instances of expression representing a vast range of people and experiences and emotions. You just can’t generalize the tone of a movement like this one.
I would encourage those reacting negatively to SYA to take a deeper look at what we’re doing. Watch some of the videos on our YouTube channel--these women and their stories represent a huge range of emotional perspectives, none of which are hostile. I would encourage critics to read our Dear Doctor zine, which is a collection of letters of love and gratitude to abortion care providers. If a reader feels this zine is hostile, their reaction is probably more about their own issues than the content. Perhaps they feel alarmed at the prospect of systemic change because they are in a position of power and are reluctant to acquiesce some of their own comfort in order to make room for other people. Perhaps they have their own unresolved pain around abortion and watching other people get free is deepening their own sense of isolation.
I’m not telling anyone else how to feel about their abortions; I’m not even trying to change the minds of people who think that abortion is wrong. I don’t intend to invalidate anyone else’s experience of pain by speaking about the fact that I felt none. But I refuse to allow other people to invalidate my experience by saying I should have felt something negative, or suggest that I alter my tone in order to confine myself to an oppressive definition of tact.
When it comes to the super messy abortion debate, who is the enemy?
The part of me that wants to see the best in people would say that the enemy is silence. People are not actually as judgmental about abortion as our political and cultural climate indicates; we all know and love many women who have had abortions, we just don’t know we know them!
The opposition can only get away with legislating this issue in a way that is so fundamentally out of touch with the values and experiences of mainstream Americans in a culture where we do not talk about our lives. As silence is replaced with reality, abortion access will expand to meet peoples’ needs. Or maybe high school teachers were just joking when they explained the function of government and we will all die in a burning lake of plastic.
Also, the enemy is much bigger than the GOP--the left has been so terrified to talk about abortion that they’ve allowed the ludicrous goblins on the right to completely control the conversation. They have never figured out a way to have our backs and they have been such apologists for abortion that they are partially to blame for the pervasive notion that women who have abortions have something to apologize for.
More concisely, I’d say that the enemy is white dudes.
How do we as women talk to each other about issues that are so sensitive?
Women often enter sensitive conversations with curiosity, empathy, and a readiness to accept ambiguity. Women care less about convincing others that our perspective is correct than we do about deepening our own understanding of different experiences. Women usually know how to navigate difficult, complex emotional situations without trying to win, and it’s easier to have a tough conversation when you know it’s an exchange as opposed to a contest. Women are generally better listeners than men. These are all reasons why women should be in charge; things would never have gotten this bad if we ran more shit.
Where does your sense of gratitude come from?
I grew up a white girl in the suburbs. My parents are happily married and they like me a lot, in spite of my continual efforts to make that very difficult. I didn’t lose my first grandparent until I was in my late twenties, I’ve still got three, and they are too beautiful for words. I’ve always known I had a whole lot to be grateful for.
I lost everything in a house fire when I was 27. My community saved me; they helped me rebuild my life and gave me room when I needed room to lose my grip. I experienced the benevolence of the human spirit in a way that was staggering and transformative and I’ll take it with me forever.
I’m very aware that the hand I’ve been dealt is one in a million millions. Gratitude probably fuels me more than any other feeling, which is good because anger is exhausting and the world is terrible.
Tell us about the future of SYA, and the ‘zine you released.
SYA is planning to zero in on a handful of cities, connect with people there who have ideas about how to get some shit started, go there, and help generate the kind of creative, grassroots change that we’ve seen in Seattle. I don’t think you can export a formula for social change—the tone and objectives and projects and considerations of SYA will be different in every community, and ultimately, each new SYA chapter needs to be self-generated in order for it to resonate.
First stop: Chicago! Lindy and Kimberly and I are going next week and are very excited to meet a whole bunch of bad bitches and support them however we can.
Oh man, the zine. In March, I attended the Abortion Care Network's annual meeting in Florida. The group is made up of independent care providers and allies from all over the country. My goal was to go meet these people, listen to them, hug and kiss them, and try to make them feel how much we appreciate them. I didn’t know how to express all those feelings myself, so SYA made a zine called Dear Doctor comprised of dozens of love letters to abortion care providers.
Meeting these folks and handing out the zine was the specialist thing of my whole life. They were beautiful; they are the best that people can be. The way that they spoke about abortion was profound. They spoke about being proud of their work and of the people they serve. They spoke about abortion as the most basic component of social justice. Of liberation. They exuded love and I tried to give it back to them. It was a transcendent experience; it felt like church. I’m so proud that the Dear Doctor zine has now found its way into dozens of clinics; some of them will end up in places where people have been murdered.
Name one of your girl crushes, and why you are crushin’ on her:
Ladies and gentlemen, Martha Plimpton! Martha and I became friends through Lindy and through abortion stuff because Martha heads a phenomenal organization called A is For that is dedicated to eradicating abortion stigma. Martha is a force. She is sharp, gracious, hilarious, and disarmingly genuine. She is a famous lady with a lifetime of cred, but she has a completely equalizing presence and she clearly treats her mailman the same way as she treats her famous friends. She also just does not give a single fuck about speaking her mind in a blistering way and somehow manages to listen just as well as she rants. She seems to be a sort of den mother to a circuit of artists and activists and miscreants who she hosts at her gorgeous home in Brooklyn, and Lindy and Aham and I stayed with her this last winter. And I’m currently writing this from Martha’s kitchen table because she let me come back! Her place is a bourgeois commune where you are allowed to smoke inside but everything is gorgeous and white. Look how fucking cute this place is and LOOK AT MARTHA!
Fun story: after I stayed at Martha’s the first time, I sent her a shift dress I designed that says “ABORTION” all over it and has hearts in between the ABORTIONS. Not only did she wear that shit all over NYC and LA, she wore it in a gorgeous spread in the LA Times about her current role as Dan Savage’s fictional mother on an ABC sitcom called The Real O’Neals. So it was a great time for Martha to wear an abortion dress in the newspaper because the Catholic church is already very annoyed that a mouthy abortion activist is starring in a gay TV show.
When was the last time you were guilty of judging a woman too quickly?
I’ve got all sorts of problems, but being judgmental isn’t one of them. I mean, I suppose I feel judgmental if I suspect another woman is judging me, or if I perceive someone to be intolerant. For instance, if a woman tells me on Twitter that she wishes I would have been aborted, I instantly assume that she’s not very smart because that is a stupid thing for a person to say who is trying to make a case against abortion. But in general, I notice my negative judgments about other people and hope to be surprised.
What frustrates you about the way women treat each other?
There are a lot of girl on girl social formalities that freak me out. I hate that routine where women volley meaningless compliments and self-degradation and apologies back and forth. I don’t like when women get together and it becomes a circle jerk of self-subordination. I don’t like when women have a hard time being proud of themselves around other women and saying “I did a good job at this thing” or “I really like myself”.
In general, I think we talk too much shit about each other, which is hard to fix because talking shit about people is really fun. But women are so goddamned hard on ourselves and we are often too hard on each other. I want women on top everywhere; in a basic way, I don’t really give a fuck if I like them personally or not. Like, if a woman I know gets a great job, and she is competent but annoys the shit out of me, I’m still going to count that as a win.
What do you love about the way women treat each other?
I love that we can talk to each other like this.