I was 16 the first time I visited Planned Parenthood. I’d had sex, you see. Actual sex! Three whole times! My gay best friend Hayden and I had decided, despite his homosexuality, that we were so “emotionally close” that it was only natural for us to lose our “straight virginities” to each other. It happened at boarding school, though, so my Mom had no idea. Also, I didn’t want to tell her. But I knew that my newfound sexuality required a speculum and various tests and evaluations, pronto, and so I covertly made my first Planned Parenthood appointment while home for the summer, and I went.
Since that first visit to the Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I’ve been to Planned Parenthoods in Traverse City MI, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Downtown Manhattan and Oakland, California. My most recent visit to Planned Parenthood was about a month ago. I’ve been visiting Planned Parenthood for 13 years, which makes it my longest relationship with any health care provider. Or really, with anything.
Planned Parenthood serves more than three million women, men and teens nationwide every year and right now its ongoing existence is again in jeopardy. From XXFactor’s Going After Planned Parenthood, published yesterday:
There are 154 co-sponsors in the House for a bill denying government funding to any organization that provides abortion services. Congress already prohibits any government money being directed toward abortions except in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, and has since 1976. The $300 million-plus in government funding and contracts Planned Parenthood currently receives goes toward providing family planning and medical assistance to 1.85 million low-income women. As Gail Collins points out in “The Siege of Planned Parenthood,” there’s no comparable organization in this country offering those services. If Planned Parenthood closes its doors (the clear hope of Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and the 154 colleagues who’ve jumped on his bandwagon), then those women will go without—when for every dollar in public funding spend on family planning services, Medicaid saves $4.02 the next year.
Right-wing pro-life action groups have been attempting to discredit PP’s benefits for years, and they’ve lately been resorting to one of their favorite tactics — sending fake pimps and prostitutes to clinics with cameras in some kind of To Catch An Abortion Provider style propaganda campaign.
But Planned Parenthood isn’t just about providing abortions (which account for only 3% of the services PP provides) or services to at-risk populations, although that’s what it’s most revered for. It’s also a rare beacon of support and care for average everyday teenagers who, for a number of culturally reinforced reasons, are scared to talk to their family doctor or parents about birth control but are responsible/educated enough to know they need it. I’m extremely lucky — I was reared on Our Bodies Ourselves in a liberal college town with great sex ed. Although abortion was a forbidden topic (pro or against), we were thoroughly schooled about contraception. Most of my Ann Arbor friends were sexually active by the time we hit university, but nobody I knew ever got pregnant. (Although according to Facebook, those girls are poppin’ ’em out these days!) We were all on the pill. Planned Parenthood saved us from ever needing to consider abortion in the first place. In fact, our county (Washtenaw) maintains the third-lowest teen pregnancy rate in the state.
Furthermore, as an adult I’ve noted that amongst queers and sex workers, Planned Parenthood can be the only place where these women feel comfortable speaking openly about their sex lives without fearing rejection or political attacks. (See also: Why Are Lesbians So Afraid of the Gynecologist?) It’s a vulnerable place to be — half-naked, legs splayed, cold metal wrenching your vadge open while someone pokes wooden sticks up there. In a country where 50.7 million people are uninsured, Planned Parenthood isn’t something extra we could do away with. It’s something we can’t live without.
Where I grew up in Michigan, the closest Planned Parenthood was just off a major parkway that connected Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, right by the Denny’s and Big Boys we’d haunt late at night in search of french fries, key lime pie and smoking sections. Planned Parenthood was set back off the road and shrouded by trees, obscuring any lifers standing outside with fetus posters. Services were free for people under 18 and then proceeded on a sliding scale. Boys slangily called it “The PP,” so when a boy said his girl was going to “The PP,” other boys got jealous that he was apparently heading for the dreamy destination of no-condom-ville, enabled by magical pills and a litany of STD tests.
I felt sort of grown-up after that first visit, when I left Planned Parenthood with a paper bag containing six months of Ortho-Tri-Cyclen, but I didn’t actually take the pills at first. It felt silly because due to, you know, my partner’s homosexuality, we weren’t exactly fucking like bunnies. I’d only see Hayden for ten days that summer, anyhow, and we’d maybe do it 2-3 times and I’d be wracked with insecurity 24/7. So did I really NEED to take Ortho-Tri-Cyclen? No, not really.
But two weeks into my senior year at boarding school, I had unPlanned sex with Brett Wyatt. I remember, acutely, sitting on the cold concrete steps of his dormitory as he dashed in for the condoms his roommate’s girlfriend had smuggled from the Traverse City Planned Parenthood. My limbs felt hot and dizzy, like I might faint or melt, and I halfway wanted to disappear but I couldn’t ’cause Brett was sexy and had dated all the prettiest girls last year. He was a drama major — compact, strong, fit, with serious dark eyes shot through with erotic violence. I remembered seeing him push a girlfriend against a soda machine and start kissing her last year and I’d wished Hayden would push me against a soda machine.
He emerged, we went into the woods, we found an empty cabin. I felt like a real person, desired for all the right reasons, no longer the scrawny girl with no chin and mosquito-bite-breasts that nobody wanted to kiss. It lasted about three minutes and afterward he jokingly asked me, “So, where are you from?” I already knew where he was from ’cause when they’d called out “Georgia” at our opening assembly, he’d stood up and hooted/hollered in a Southern twang. He was like that. He always stood up and yelled and made everyone laugh.
Now he was on top of me. It all happened so fast.
My best friend Kyra was convinced I was out of control and would shortly acquire AIDS or a baby. We’d seen the movies where Trojans split open like banana peels, uncovering sheaths of sperm and disease. I told her about the birth control I had in a paper bag.
“Okay then, you are going to start taking that right now. Okay?” she said. “RIGHT NOW.”
So I did. Taking the first pill felt like a commitment to something, but I didn’t know what yet.
I was 16. I was a “late bloomer,” so I’d only had my period for about a year and a half before submitting my cycle to modern medicine.
Brett and I dated all year. We never talked about sex, we just did it. Meanwhile the Ortho-Tri-Cyclen pushed me, at last, into something resembling puberty — I gained weight and a whole entire cup size! I loved it. Every night at 10pm I took my pill and it felt like I was wrapping a permanent condom around my dreams.
Life moved gamely forward and from the age of 18 on, I stayed on the pill and had sporadic health insurance coverage but always found something innately reassuring about Planned Parenthood’s existence, wherever I was living at the time.
In retrospect, the Ann Arbor Planned Parenthood is a rare bastion of efficiency. Still, even there I’d wait for hours sometimes, sulking with jealousy towards the girls who’d somehow convinced their boyfriends to accompany them. These bored, lofty teenage boys flipped through old magazines and complained about Jerry Springer while I had thoughts like “I wish [x] cared about my sexual health as much as I care about my sexual health.” But always being alone did make it feel like my sexuality was about ME first, and about whatever partner I had second.
In 2002 I successfully cajoled my live-in boyfriend Zach into joining me at the clinic. By the time I finally got seen and got my pills and was ready to go, Zach had turned three chairs into a bed and was sleeping on my winter jacket. It meant a lot to me, though. Him coming. Like we were in this together.
In 2004, I moved to New York. I quit the pill ’cause the brand they’d switched me to made me bleed constantly, in contrast to the discontinued brand I’d started using to procure no more than 3 periods a year. Going off the pill felt like coming up from underwater and also signified, for me, the end of the era in which I constantly put myself at risk for pregnancy by using male sexual desire to validate my existence which required taking sole responsibility for their irresponsibility. Then, within a year or two I’d stopped dating men altogether.
But I continued patronizing Planned Parenthood, mostly because it was free or almost-free — I still have never had my very own gynecologist, that seems fancy and unnecessary. The Manhattan Planned Parenthood was a mini-nightmare. The waits were seemingly endless, the waiting room overstuffed, the doctors frazzled and overworked. The Brooklyn Planned Parenthood’s waiting room was also a total shitshow, though the staff was as friendly as always. I’d recommend The Bronx Planned Parenthood, where I went for my annual because it was easier than going through Medicaid. I only waited an hour and the nurse laughed at all my jokes.
But even in those crowded Planned Parenthoods I felt comfortable. Like they were on my side, and whatever I said wouldn’t be judged, because PP is Liberal, right? With a capital L. I guess it’s how people feel when they go into Subway or Starbucks in a new town — “I know this, I know what to do here.” The comfort of knowing that this has always been here, exactly the same every time in every place, and will never go away. Unless, I guess, it does.
Last month in Oakland I put “homosexuality” as my preferred method of birth control and the nurse practitioner told me I needed to be in the market for birth control to be seen there, so she was just gonna write “condom.” It seemed odd but I didn’t panic. It was Planned Parenthood. Maybe she was new or hadn’t seen a homo before.
Sure enough, when the doctor came in 20 minutes to a year later, the first thing she told me was that the nurse was wrong about that birth control thing. The doctor was tall and broad-shouldered, with glasses and short alternatively lifestyled hair and I knew she was gay before she even told me so, or showed me photos of her daughter and made sure I knew they welcomed queers there.
It was free. I donated $20, like I’ve always done. I left. I thought about how my life has been so all over the place that I rarely have a chance to return to old spaces as a new person and reflect self-indulgently on how much I’ve changed, but I felt really grown-up this time.
I wasn’t the insecure 16-year-old clutching my paper bag and thinking how I’d never actually need it.
I wasn’t the 21-year-old too embarrassed to tell my asshole boyfriend that I thought I might have a yeast infection let alone tell him I was going to PP to check it out let alone ask him to come with me.
I wasn’t the 24-year-old accompanying a girl I was sleeping with to the Manhattan Planned Parenthood to get her annual and her pills because her boyfriend was an asshole, too, feeling a desperate shot of validation when she wrote “1” next to ‘female sexual partners’ on her intake form.
Now I was 29 and had a partner who texted to ask me how it went the minute I left the building. I hadn’t been irrationally scared that the doctor would out me to myself when she saw my bisexual stats.
I hadn’t even been performing my traditional role of the girl who habitually disregards her health due to a lack of health insurance! This thing, this sexual health thing — this is a thing I can do. This is one thing I can take care of. Even in America.
The act of walking into a room and essentially asking somebody to look at your vagina is an inherently nervewracking experience, especially for queers AND especially for sex workers (who are being targeted by the Live Action group as somehow unworthy of any medical care). Even though it’s not personal, the idea that someone could walk in and say, “No, it is not necessary/legal/acceptable for me to look at your vagina, please close your legs and get out of here” is petrifying.
When discussing the necessity of Planned Parenthood’s existence, we rightly focus on the work its doing to bring sex education, contraceptive options and abortions to women who wouldn’t know how to access it otherwise.
But there’s also places where Planned Parenthood is already working, where they moved in uneventfully and succeeded immediately — like Ann Arbor. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood, which relies on government grants and contracts, individual contributors, and large donors like Bill Gates to fund its 820 health centers, is the only reliable source of no-hassle, agency-empowered, low-cost/free health care of any kind for uninsured women like me.
Without Planned Parenthood, I wouldn’t have gone on the pill in 1998 and, seeing as I haven’t slept with a dude since 2005, I probably wouldn’t ever visit a gynecologist now. It’s our best model for how socialized health care could function in this country – countless hours spent in waiting rooms and all! PP has certainly served me better than the nonexistent health coverage that the U.S.’s cultural and political “superiority” ought to guarantee.
Funding Planned Parenthood is the one and only thing the U.S. government has done to demonstrate even superficial interest in my health (or the health of its citizens) and I will fight like hell to keep this relationship going. And you should too.