About 5 years before I left teaching to go to seminary, a student (I’ll use the pseudonym “Katie”) came to me and asked if I would help her form a Gay-Straight Alliance. I’ll be honest. I was terrified. I loved my job, and I knew that previous attempts to form a GSA had resulted in lots of negative press coverage and huge pushback from school administration. I was very aware that the school district’s non-discrimination policy did not name gays and lesbians as a protected class.
My trepidation extended to what might happen to Katie, who wasn’t out to her mother. So I discussed with her my fears about media coverage, and what that might mean for her safety and her choice about when to come out to her mother.
The next day Katie showed up in my classroom and said, “I came out to my Mom and I wrote a letter that you can give to the principal and the school board to tell them why we need a GSA. And you can use my name.” And that was that. Inspired by her courage, I said some prayers, gathered some sympathetic colleagues as co-advisors, and with Katie, we formed a GSA. Despite what our school administration feared, there was very little backlash from the community, and we had between 7 and 10 members that first year.
Katie continued to be a strong advocate for herself and other queer kids throughout the school year and into the next, her senior year. I was so accustomed to her maturity and her courage that I was ill-prepared when she came to me one Monday morning, in tears, and recounted the story of her weekend.
She had gone to a large city nearby to “go out,” which was student code for going to a bar, and she had been raped.
Katie got pregnant as a result of that rape, and she decided to keep her child. I supported her decision then, as I do now. But I can’t help wondering how things might have been different for her if she had been on birth control. It certainly wouldn’t have taken away the trauma of the rape, and it wouldn’t have protected her from sexually transmitted infections, but it might have changed her chances of going to college. She could have chosen when and how to start a family, instead of being forced to choose whether or not to keep the child conceived through rape.
Barriers to contraception are high for young women like Katie. Barriers to contraception were high for me as well, back at the time of my life when I was, to all appearances, a young, heterosexual, married woman. I had moved to the Midwest from the South, and had taken a job teaching at a Roman Catholic high school, which meant that no contraceptive services were covered under my insurance plan.
In the beginning, I’m not sure I was aware of why the pill wasn’t covered under my health insurance plan, but other women on the faculty soon explained to me the facts of Roman Catholic school-teaching life. Growing up in a small Southern town where there wasn’t even a Roman Catholic Church meant that I had very little knowledge about its teaching on contraception (or anything else for that matter).
Oral contraception was expensive on my salary of $14,000 a year (even in 1991, that didn’t go very far), and my then-husband and I struggled to afford the $50 or so dollars a month. We tried going without my oral contraceptives for a couple of months, but the resulting pregnancy scare left us shaken. If we couldn’t afford birth control, how on earth could we afford a child? Thankfully, I wasn’t pregnant, but we knew we had to make some tough choices to afford the contraception that we needed and that worked for us. It was a struggle, every month. And we were among the more fortunate ones, as we both had jobs.
When I went to seminary nearly twenty years later, I never imagined my future ministry would involve speaking out on the subject of family planning. Now I am the Director of Education for the Religious Institute, an organization that seeks to change the conversation around religion and sexuality. Our most recent project is the release of our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning.
The Open Letter was developed at a colloquium of religious leaders and theologians from diverse faith traditions – including evangelical and progressive Christians, as well as Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Unitarian Universalists. Being a part of that colloquium helped me give voice to my deeply held conviction that my commitment to women’s reproductive health and choice is grounded by my faith, and not held in spite of my faith.
I am particularly proud of this passage from the Open Letter:
“Every individual is a moral agent with the right and responsibility to make their own decisions about procreation, including family size and the spacing of their children. These rights should be accorded equally to all persons regardless of geography, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class, or race.”
I’m also deeply committed to this concept:
“We oppose any attempt to make specific religious doctrine concerning pregnancy, childbirth, or contraception the law of any country in the world. Religious groups themselves must respect the beliefs and values of other faiths, since no single faith can claim final moral authority in domestic or international discourse.”
We need this statement, now more than ever. Neither of the stories that I related above is unique. Recent studies tell us that lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are less likely to use contraceptives than their heterosexual peers when engaging in sexual activity that can lead to pregnancy, and that pregnancy rates among lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are considerably higher than rates among their heterosexual peers.(i) And we also know that political attacks on access to birth control are increasing.(ii)
Sometimes the work that my peers and colleagues do – leading youth groups and performing weddings – seems more like ministry than my work. But my theological education, grounded as it was in liberation theology, reminds me that advocating for reproductive justice is equally holy work. As Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” For me, that freedom includes the ability for all people “to make personal decisions about their families and reproductive lives that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community.” (iii)
About Marie Alford-Harkey
I am the Director of Education and Training for the Religious Institute, a multifaith nonprofit organization working to promote sexual justice, education, and healing in faith communities and society. I’m also an aspirant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal diocese of Connecticut as well as a provincial coordinator for Integrity USA.
I preach regularly at St. Mark’s Episcopal Chapel in Storrs, Connecticut and at my home parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Hartford, Connecticut. I teach and speak on issues of faith and sexuality in contexts as diverse as “theology on tap” and workshops at seminaries.
I am unabashedly progressive in my faith and my politics. I come from a small, conservative Southern town, and a politically conservative, non-religious family, so the dialogue partners that engage my imagination on politics are interesting, to say the least. Before seminary, I had a twenty-year career as an educator, teaching French and Spanish in a large public school system.
I met my wife April when we were students at Episcopal Divinity School and we were married in May of 2011. We make our home in Hamden, Connecticut, along with one very spoiled cat.
I blog sporadically at Love is Strong as Death and you can follow me on Twitter @EMarieAH.
(i) Lis Maurer, “LGB Youth and Unplanned Pregnancy,” The Prevention Researcher blog, June 24, 2011, http://blog.tpronline.org/?p=1315, accessed September 17, 2012.
(ii) “If Opponents of Birth Control Have Their Way, Millions of Women Would Lose Access to Birth Control,” National Women’s Law Center, September 14, 2012, http://www.nwlc.org/resource/if-opponents-birth-control-have-their-way-millions-women-would-lose-access-birth-control, accessed September 17, 2012.
(iii) “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning,” Religious Institute, September 13, 2012, http://www.religiousinstitute.org/olfp, accessed September 17, 2012.