If you’re one of the 1,936,621 people who wake up every morning in one of America’s top five most liberal cities, the idea of interacting with someone openly hostile toward you and your convictions may be foreign. However, there are over 78,000,000 Americans residing in states that have been given a failing grade when it comes to reproductive rights, and the pro-choice among that number can tell you exactly what the faces of intolerance look like because they do exist according to the polls. Not only do they exist, but for many pro-choice individuals, they are beloved and friendly family, friends, co-workers and colleagues.
To tell these stories, it is important to hear from advocates in hostile environments in their own words. For this reason, I interviewed Kate Black, a student at North Dakota State University who successfully worked with the Feminist Majority Foundation to campaign on campus against a dangerous “personhood” measure on her state’s mid-term ballot. The measure aimed to amend North Dakota’s state constitution to read, “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”
Black undertook the task of publicly denouncing a popular ballot measure in front of her peers at a young age. When asked why she would risk being harassed and ostracized on a campus in a state that is proudly at the forefront of national anti-choice legislation, she stated simply that the issue was important to her “as a woman, as someone with several family ties to the state, as a student of NDSU, as a person interested in public health, and,” bravely, “as a victim of rape [herself].”
Her willingness to channel her own feelings and experiences into help for other women, even those who may not agree with her, was courageous, but some didn’t see it that way. Former friends, including lab partners and co-workers, pointedly slandered and insulted her, re-posting her flyers to their Facebook pages with their own cruel commentary or asking pointedly spiteful questions loudly when she campaigned in the student union.
“I was raised Catholic,” Black stated, “so I tried to empathize with the many members of [the campus church organization].” In spite of this empathy, Black and her friends quickly became accustomed to the group chanting and praying loudly when they attempted to have conversations with potential voters and physically standing on their signs and campaign materials to keep them out of sight. “They also told us that […] we were only there because our mothers had chosen not to abort us,” she recalled. “Funny that they brought up choice.”
The betrayals of former lab partners and fellow parish members were the least shocking to Black, however. The worst incident is best relayed entirely in her own words:
“In attempting to have NDSU send out an official student Listserv regarding the upcoming election and student voting rights, I ended up speaking with Lucas Paper in student government, who informed me that he would be sure to send out a Listserv. A Listserv was sent, devoid of student voting facts, and signed with a campaign endorsement for Lucas Paper, a Republican candidate for state representative.”
Unfortunately, because of a lack of information regarding the requirements for student voters in the state, there was great confusion at polling places in both Fargo and Grand Forks, the cities in which North Dakota’s two largest universities are held. Had the Listserv that was promised to Black been sent, it is reasonable to assume that more students would have voted. The ballot measure was markedly more unpopular among young voters, which would certainly explain Paper’s interest in keeping relevant voting information away from their inboxes.
Students are being wrongly turned away from polls in North Dakota. Don’t give up,it’s your right to vote w/ a student voting certificate !
— KB (@JustKateBlack) November 4, 2014
The adversity Black has faced is not uncommon. Another advocate, who asked to be known only as Gigi, campaigned similarly against a proposed law on her college’s campus during the same voting cycle. She, however, faces an even more personal opposition than Black.
“I don’t want to be identified because my mother is not aware of any of my work in the measure, nor my personal beliefs on the matter,” she explained. The issue is not so much that her mother might be irreconcilably angry, but that Gigi is not yet comfortable addressing the topic with her family.
Although mounting a public campaign may seem counter-intuitive, for many advocates in hostile regions, maintaining a strong divide between political affiliations and family ties is simply a necessity when fighting for justice is seen as a moral imperative. Reconciling deeply-held beliefs with a desire not to hurt or offend one’s family is a uniquely personal and complex act that is may not even cross the mind of someone who was raised by progressive parents or in a liberal area.
Gigi explained that it was her childhood Catholicism that eventually influenced her decision to campaign for women’s rights: “Abortion, birth control, premarital sex — these were all sins. I wouldn’t say I was ever a devout Catholic, but I believed what I was told and I let it influence my decisions.”
She began making her own decisions in college and it seems she has never looked back, but her newfound determination to fight against the binding societal expectations for women she learned as a child has been met with unkindness. While volunteering with a group of her new friends, a man approached Gigi and called her a Nazi. He claimed he was writing an article for her university’s newspaper, but followed up his questions by informing the group that although they reminded him of genocide, he did not hate them, he only hated their sins, and he would pray for them. Of the incident, Gigi remarked that it “was surprising to learn just how hostile people could be.”
Gigi, like Black, remains optimistic and empathetic. She was careful to point out that she bears no ill will toward the propagators of the cruel opposition she faced, insisting that “both sides are fighting for what they believe is right.” She continued, “It can be extremely disheartening to be in the minority, and at this point, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live somewhere where my beliefs are the majority.”
Although neither of them has beliefs that can be seen as belonging to the majority in their states, the determination of both young women is admirable. Arguably, it is more admirable, in some ways, than the advocacy of someone who faces very little opposition or hostility in their home environment. That they have so much in common with each other –like their mutual disdain of the all-too-common-yet-unconstitutional integration of church and state in their respective home states– is encouraging. It means that there is a substantial amount of advocates willing to challenge unjust societal norms, even at a great cost.
Such outspoken intolerance begets itself and just as bigots encourage one another in their narrow-mindedness, so, too, must progressive activists encourage one another. The campaigns mounted by both Black and Gigi were ultimately successful in their mission to block attacks on women’s rights, so it is clear that these advocates do a very important job as they struggle with inhospitable circumstances.
“I was at work on election night, and first saw the results on a bar television at my friend’s birthday party. I’ve never been so excited about the results of an election. Although, at that bar, a guy informed me in the midst of my celebration that I supported killing babies. So, yeah, there’s still work to be done,” noted Black, who intends to continue working with feminist organizations and raising awareness of other important issues on campus and throughout North Dakota.
Gigi agreed that there is absolutely still work to be done, in spite of the successes they’ve had thus far. “But through all the hate, I’ve met some of the most amazing people,” she said. “People who truly care for all women, regardless of their decisions. Being part of the [campaign organization in my city] finally made me feel like I was somewhere I belonged.”
And belong they do.
Image via infowidget.