Written by Chanel Dubofsky for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Button: Will You Stand with Planned Parenthood?

The stories of male allies at abortion clinics.

Recently, I was having a conversation with some other reproductive justice-inclined folks about cisgender men who are clinic escorts. Escorting, regardless of your gender, can be taxing. (It can also be powerful, rewarding, and beautiful.) You wake up early and stand outside an abortion clinic for hours. You may have to answer questions from people who are just walking by and want to know what’s happening, without knowing whether or not they’re going to be sympathetic. Anti-choice protestors will try to make your job harder via verbal or physical harassment.

For the most part, it is women who take on the job of escorting at clinics, but on occasion there are men. Generally speaking, in the abortion conversation, men are either providers, the partners of those getting abortions, or protestors. “I am constantly having to stop myself,” said MB, a female clinic escort, “from asking both the dude protestors and the dude escorts, what does this mean to you? Why are you here?”

I decided to track down some men who are clinic escorts to get answers to these questions. And I read their answers with this quote from Natalie, a clinic escort in Los Angeles, in mind: “Some cis male clinic escorts are great, and it’s an honor to volunteer with them. I think cis men who choose to get involved with clinic escorting have a responsibility to be conscious of what they bring to the dynamic. They have the power to present a male-inclusive feminism to patients, protesters, and passers-by, or to perpetuate the status quo.”

P is a 25-year-old data scientist who lives in Boston. He has escorted at a private clinic in Philadelphia and at a Planned Parenthood office in Boston.

RH Reality Check: Why did you decide to start escorting?

P: My girlfriend and I met in college. She had been a clinic escort with her mom before college and was continuing that before we started dating. She told stories about these crazy people who would protest, so after we started dating I was feeling like there was this remote possibility that something bad would happen to her while she was escorting, and if it did then I would feel terrible. So I started going along with her. It’s worth noting that she had been escorting by herself for a long time, so it wasn’t like I thought anything would happen. But I was appalled at the thought of not being there if something did happen. I also am pro-choice, but as in this paragraph, that was a bit of an afterthought.

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

P: I think there was some extra special vitriol from anti-abortion protestors in some cases. One time I was volunteering in Philadelphia and there was this old white dude who was protesting, and he came up to me and started telling me how unmanly I was in various ways. The most memorable part was that he called me a “sissy bitch.” The clinic has a non-engagement policy for the volunteers, so I didn’t respond to him.

RHRC: What’s been the best part of escorting for you?

P: Like any kind of volunteering, it always feels good to have people express their gratitude. This wasn’t usually from patients so much, because they were usually pretty stressed out, but passers-by would sometimes say “Thanks for being here” or give thumbs up or whatever. That’s always nice.

Eric is 39 and works in high tech marketing. He escorted at the Summit Women’s Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

RHRC: What was your motivation to start escorting?

Eric: Some good friends of mine were organizing these escorts at a clinic in Bridgeport, about 40 minutes from where we were at college. I came from a family of activists, and I myself had participated in political and issue activism going back to middle school. I was eager for the opportunity to make a difference in individuals’ lives and experience life in the middle of the abortion conflict.

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

Eric: We had some strict rules about how men could escort. Two escorts would walk with every woman, and at least one of them had to be a woman. But we also occasionally had other groups join us for escorting, and they didn’t abide by these rules, which annoyed me. I understood that these women were going through hard times, such as being told by a male-dominated society that they were murderers for making their own decisions about their bodies. So I respected our rules.

Harry Waksberg is a 25-year-old writer who volunteers at a clinic in Los Angeles.

RHRC: What was your motivation to start escorting?

Harry Waksberg: I’d been pro-choice forever, and I’d known about clinic escorts for a few years (I am 24 years old when this story takes place; I had never been to a clinic that had protesters and, while pro-choice, I was fairly uneducated about anti-choice activism), and had thought “I should do that” but then never did. Then I watched the documentary 12th and Delaware and was like “I have to do that.” (Side note: I got to meet Heidi Ewing once and told her that her movie made me want to clinic escort and she hugged me. Lifetime high.) So I Googled “Los Angeles clinic escort” and in two weeks I hit the sidewalk.

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

HW: I think there are a few elements to this: a) As a cis man, I’m definitely more prone to being confrontational and so on, which are pretty bad traits for a clinic escort to have. I feel myself getting aggravated sometimes, and I worry that at times I’m not noticing I’m escalating situations instead of de-escalating them. I think this is a thing all cis men have to deal with, and it’s sort of a matter of doing your best to undo what society does to you. b) Antis constantly assume I’m in charge. It’s pretty silly, except for the way it isn’t. I am, at this point, a shift coordinator with L.A. for Choice, but on days when I’m not coordinating, antis yell at me in a different way than they yell at other escorts (I’m also tall and white; these are almost certainly factors). I have worked shifts where antis urged the coordinator herself not to follow me, that I was leading her astray. c) I understand that patients and employees at the clinic are going to be less comfortable with me, because for a lot of them (well, for a lot of women—well, for almost all women) men are the source of a lot of their problems. When I’m in the clinic, using the bathroom or grabbing a pro-choice clinic escort t-shirt for a volunteer, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible; I speak very quietly and I smile as often as I can. When offering to walk with women past the protesters, I check my tone of voice to make sure I’m as not-scary as possible.

RHRC: What’s been the best part of escorting for you?

HW: Clinic escorting is one of the absolute best parts of my life, no question. I think the best part is the escorts themselves. I’ve been escorting for a little over a year now, and the other clinic escorts are among my very closest friends in the world. It will come as no surprise to anyone that people willing to spend their Saturdays defending reproductive rights are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. And I’m biased, but our escorts in L.A. must be some of the best in the world. They are incredible people working hard to make the world better. I’m kind of tearing up right now.

Scott Goode is 46 years old and lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he is a database administrator. He escorted at Planned Parenthood in Charlotte, from 1994-1996, and since 1997 off and on at a private clinic in Richmond.

RHRC: What was your motivation to start escorting?

Scott Goode: I am a man who has been doing clinic escorting since 1994, when Paul Hill went on his murder spree in Florida. I had supported the cause before, but that incensed me enough to call Planned Parenthood in Charlotte and volunteer.

 

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

SG: I think being a man … has a tendency to make the argument [outside of clinics] be only between men since the other side is usually males. There is also a tendency for me to try and be the “protector” which I realize is sexist. But I am a large guy, so I can appear threatening to the other side if I have to.

Ken, 49, escorted for four years at EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a caregiver at a long-term care and rehabilitation facility.

RHRC: What was your motivation to start escorting?

Ken: At first, my motivation was to maintain the separation of church and state. I was not going to stand by and allow bullies to force their dogma on people. But as time has gone by and my eyes, heart, and head open to privilege and patriarchy, rape culture, and institutional misogyny, it is all too clear that the sidewalk in front of EMW is but one of the more vocal, visible fronts where this war is raging. It is one place to take a powerful stand in favor of equality. But chaos is the weapon of choice on that sidewalk, so to stay calm, focusing on the immediate need to support and create a space for empowerment for the client, is the best way to counter the chaos.

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

Ken: As a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, I can often use my perceived authority with the antis to affect positive change. An FP (female presenting) escort and I are walking a client up to the clinic. Toward the door, things become crowded and compressed. My FP companion can scream, shout, holler, and spit for them not to block the entrance. They don’t budge. But a deeply toned “Watch behind you” parts them like Moses. Also, if we see someone acting crazier than usual for the sidewalk, I can approach the various sect leaders and ask that they watch this person or talk to that one or correct the behavior, and it is more likely to be well received and acted upon than if an FP does so. Interaction with most police officers also follow this same pattern. It is a place to use privilege to a positive advantage for the good of the collective. But in reality, a middle-aged, middle-class white dude is out of place in this arena. Orange vest or not, for two petite women of color on a strange street in a strange city, a six-foot man approaching causes pause. Whenever possible, in these situations, I hang back and follow the lead of one of my FP buddies. If no one is available, I have developed a toolkit—[wherein] I soften my shoulders and slump a little, I wear white mittens in winter, I don’t cover my face, I stop within earshot, but far enough [away] for comfort, I wave this goofy little Forrest Gump wave, I immediately identify who I am and why I am approaching—that works most of the time. I’m also scrutinized closely, because while the FP escorts live this battle every minute, I am a visitor to these troubles, and if I don’t “get it,” then I could do more harm than good.

RHRC: What’s been the best part of escorting for you?

Ken: I had the opportunity to accompany two other escorts to Bellevue, Nebraska, for a stand-off with Operation Rescue and Army of God at Dr. LeRoy Carhart’s clinic. I connected with activists from 17 states, many of whom I am still in contact with today. I have been escorting here in Louisville since March of 2009. Unlike any other type of activism or advocacy, escorting provides the opportunity to help those most in need immediately, concretely, thoroughly. The idea and ideals are clear-cut. The mission is straightforward, the goal—the clinic door—right in plain sight. As for personal gain, the best thing has been finding my “real” family—those folks with whom you can connect and sync with little or no effort, those you can go months without seeing and run into and be as comfortable as if you’d been sharing a hearth all winter. These are my people. And it only took me 45 years to find them!

Andy Bartalone lives in Maryland and has been escorting since 1994.

RHRC: What was your motivation to start escorting?

Andy Bartalone: I have always felt that choice is a woman’s decision, and the organized protest of that choice was wrong. In 1993, a friend told me that a local organization, the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force (WACDTF), needed volunteers. I came out for Roe v. Wade, and two weeks later the coordinator that I volunteered under called me and I escorted every weekend for the next seven years.

I have had a significantly broad set of experiences in escorting, and I am not sure it plays into my identity as a man. I am a feminist, have been for 30 years. When I was in undergrad (early 80s) … the escorting group local to me didn’t take men, and I accepted that. In the 90s, I met a group of folks escorting in the D.C. area (WACDTF), and I have been escorting with them since then.

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

AB: Being male typically has put the antis on the defensive. They did not expect to see men on-site at clinics and they had issues with us (there were more men than just me). Being male (and large) I typically didn’t approach patients, but I have a ton of experience speaking to companions and re-enforcing what they do.

Dan Rudyk, 57, escorts at EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

RHRC: What was your motivation to start escorting?

Dan Rudyk: My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died at the age of 32 in 1949, of complications from a back-alley abortion. With five daughters already, ranging in age from 16 to 4, and barely surviving on a milkman’s salary in a two-bedroom apartment, they couldn’t afford any more children. The price she and the family paid as a result of an unsafe, illegal abortion was devastating.

In addition, I’ve had the opportunity to be educated in the feminist perspective by my wife of 28 years. She is an excellent teacher and I happen to be a good listener. And lastly, I will always be grateful that abortions were legal in 1979, when my first wife got pregnant for the second time. Our relationship was already torturous. A second child would not only have made our lives more miserable, but the child’s life ultimately would have been worse. Our first and, thankfully, only child suffered terribly. Putting two children through that would have been abusive.

RHRC: How do you think your identity as a cis man has affected your experience as an escort?

DR: The Louisville clinic escorts have a list they call the Points of Unity. The ten statements in this list help to keep us all focused on why we’re there at the clinic and remind us of the best ways to accomplish our goals. There is one point I feel demonstrates the difference between the male and female experience of escorting: “Escort interactions with anti-choice protesters should be purposeful, focused, and calm.” As in most things, there is a spectrum of interpretations of this point of unity, and every escort falls in a place on that spectrum based on their personality, background, and life experiences. But speaking in general terms, the female escorts interpret that very strictly. They do not talk to protesters. They will not engage in conversations, they will not react to their comments, they will not acknowledge their presence if possible. They will address them only in dire circumstances when it cannot be avoided.

I, on the other hand, have purposeful, focused, and calm conversations with anti-choice protesters. Not all male escorts do this, but some do. Some men want to, but they hold back. The women don’t do it at all.

In conversations with my female cohorts, I’ve been told it’s because I’m not vested in the cause. It’s not personal to me because I will never personally need an abortion. The transgressions of these protesters will never be directed at me. The restrictions they want to impose will never affect me directly, only indirectly. Therefore, I can open myself to protesters in friendliness, accept their right to be there, their right to free speech, seek compromise in their approach, find common ground on which to negotiate. The women claim the protesters do not belong there. This is a private affair, none of their business. Any acknowledgement of their rights only encourages them to continue in their rudeness and offenses.

One morning several years ago, the first client I escorted that morning was a young woman who was probably about 19 years old. She was accompanied by a companion of the same age. She was very affected by the presence of the protesters. As we approached the door, the throng of protesters grew in density and intensity. I felt her hands and arms wrap around my arm, and with each step she drew herself closer to me. By the time we reached the door her face was buried in my shoulder and she was sobbing audibly. I was still rather new to escorting at the time. I’ll always wish I had held her hands with my free hand and comforted her with assurances that all would be OK. But I will always be glad that I was able to stand in as a surrogate father to this young woman whose actual father, for whatever reason, was not there when she needed him more than anything.

RHRC: What’s been the best part of escorting for you?

DR: I absolutely love and respect every one of my escort friends. This has been the best part of escorting for me. I have a wonderful community of very special, like-minded, impressively empowered friends. I have been an atheist for many years, but have missed the community of family and friends attending church provided for some. Now, going to the clinic on Saturday mornings is my church.

As in any community, we each offer something to the group in whatever way we are willing or able. While I may never carry or birth a child, I share the experience and the nurturing. We all have our role to play. The female escorts cannot and will not talk to protesters. I completely understand and respect that position. I can and do talk to protesters. I can’t make them go away, but I have reduced some tensions, and I’ve even influenced a few. I’ve shown some anti-abortion people that escorts are thoughtful and kind and loving. They may not have changed their minds about abortion, but some don’t come to protest anymore, and some have toned down their rhetoric.

As the interviews above show, men who escort can find community in the act of clinic escorting and in the sharing of an experience, while bringing their unique perspectives and strategies when interacting with anti-choice protestors, female clinic escorts, and those who need the services provided by the clinic. They have a variety of personal and political motivations, contexts, and understandings about the work and what it means to occupy a space of gender privilege, and how to be part of a movement for reproductive justice.

Photo by Women’s eNews released under a Creative Commons license.