Soon after I published Part 1 in this series, which focused on the egregious civil rights abuses suffered by women in the Rio Grande Valley in my home state of Texas, a reader asked why I didn't write about lesbians. Why, she wondered, was my article "focused mainly on women who choose to have sex with men and reproduce?"
Excellent questions. And a nice segue into the next piece in this series.
Part 1 in this series was written out of outrage for what is happening in my hometown of McAllen, to people with very similar backgrounds to mine: women immigrants, living in poverty, with no access to health insurance, who are unable to receive appropriate access to reproductive health care.
Are they lesbians? I don't know.
When a woman cannot access preventative care, develops a cancer of the reproductive system and is denied treatment because she cannot pay for it, it does not matter whether she is lesbian, straight, queer, blue or red. The politically motivated funding cuts happening in Texas affect all women, regardless of sexual orientation. So the answer to the question "why didn't you write about lesbians?" is that I did.
I strongly believe that reproductive rights are an LGBT issue that we all need to prioritize. Many have written eloquently about this topic, including my colleague at NCLR, Lauren Paulk. As she explained in relation to abortion, but her argument is equally applicable to reproductive healthcare in general:
We must understand this issue in terms of a broader social justice movement and the overlapping forms of marginalization that further victimize LGBT people attempting to access their full reproductive rights....We cannot continue to talk about access to abortion as just a "woman's issue" because this erases transgender, genderqueer, two-spirit, and agender individuals that may need access to abortion.
Which brings me to my email correspondent's second question: why I "focused mainly on women who choose to have sex with men and reproduce."
The reality is that many lesbians (as well as bisexual women who may be questioning their sexuality, but have not self-identified as lesbian) do have sex with men and reproduce -- but not always by choice.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 18 percent of all U.S. women are raped at some point during their lives, and the National Lesbian Health Care Survey found that 32 percent of lesbians polled had been raped or sexually assaulted. Lesbians are raped at twice the rate of women overall, and in many cases, their sexuality (or perceived sexuality) is the reason for the attack.
If you are a LBTQ woman of color, as I am, your chances of being a victim of violence are even worse: the 2012 Anti Violence Project found that LGBTQ people of color are almost twice as likely to experience physical violence as white LGBTQ people.
I've seen this first hand on my frequent trips home to the Valley, where I've been called on as a civil rights lawyer to help with cases involving attacks against young LGBTQ people. In one case, a brutalized victim and his friends claimed that a homophobic hate crime had occurred, but the police -- and even the victim's own family -- said the injuries resulted from an "accident."
And we can't ignore the fact that some lesbians do have sex with men by choice. Not all lesbians have acknowledged their sexuality, or are able to come out, from day one. A study of 7,000 self-identified lesbians found that over 70 percent had engaged in vaginal intercourse with a man at least once, and 88 percent said that they had not used a condom.
The unintended pregnancy statistics bear out this reality: various North American studies find that young lesbians are two to 10 times more likely to get pregnant than heterosexual youth. Some explanations for this include "camouflage sex" (having heterosexual sex to cover up their sexuality), "reproductive amateurism" (the experts' term, not mine), high concurrent rates of sexual and substance abuse, and high rates of runaways (young men and women who are rejected by homophobic families) engaging in "survival sex" and prostitution.
So let's go back to my childhood memories, of my midwife mother helping other women in our communities have their babies in the tiny room in the back of our house. I don't know whether those women were straight, or lesbians, or questioning. I also don't know if they were pregnant by "choice." It doesn't matter.
What does matter is that they were poor, and uninsured, and that my mother stepped in to deliver their healthy babies. Today's generation of poor, uninsured women seeking reproductive health care is having a much harder time getting the services they need. I write this series not to focus on "women who choose to have sex with men and reproduce," but to focus our collective attention on a serious problem that affects an entire community.
The politically motivated attacks on the reproductive health of vulnerable women in rural South Texas must stop. But they will not unless everyone cares enough to act: gay, straight, blue or red. In Texas, the constitutional right of women to safely and legally end a pregnancy is at stake. A sweeping anti-abortion law would force many clinics to shut down, forcing women in rural parts of the state to travel up to 1000 miles round trip to access abortion care.
But the issue is much broader -- and less controversial -- than abortion. It is an issue of basic human rights. The recent report Nuestra Voz, Nuestra Salud Nuestro Texas: The Fight for Women's Reproductive Health in the Rio Grande Valley eloquently outlines how the U.S. Constitution, and the international human rights treaties that the US is signatory to should protect our citizens from the abuses that are happening in South Texas. The report's recommendations to lawmakers are clear and urgent, and we all -- every one of us -- must ensure they do not fall on deaf ears.
What you can do:
Texas voters should write to their legislators and protest the funding cuts to women's reproductive health services
Anyone can support the grassroots campaign of Wendy Davis (she of the pink sneakers and epic pro-choice filibuster) in her Texas gubernatorial race
Take the pledge to support the Nuestro Texas campaign, available at www.NuestroTexas.org, and learn more about the other work of the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
This is not a lesbian issue. This is not a women's rights issue. This is a human rights issue, and we all, as humans, have a moral duty to act.