You can read this series from the beginning here.
"My guess is that they’re meeting with an Iowa contingent upstairs," Emma said.
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"Well, think about it, Justin. They sent us all the way out to Falls Church to get sandwiches from Honeybaked Ham for this donor conference. They wouldn’t do that for a delegation from a Muslim country."
"Well, of course not. Or for an environmentalist group, or a vegetarian group, or a Jewish group. So what?"
"I don’t know. I think pork, I think Iowa. Unless it’s a bunch of lobbyists, and your Aunt Joan is trying to be whimsical."
"Did you see any of them? They were all dressed kind of… oddly. Not to be judgmental, but lobbyists wear Armani. And you take lobbyists out to lunch at a steakhouse, and they pick up the check."
"Another argument for them being Iowans," Emma said.
My phone rang just then. (The ringtone, in case you’re interested, is a guitar riff from Pete Seeger, from his collection of folk songs from the Spanish Civil War.) "Hello," I said.
Aunt Joan said, "I need to see you and the other members of the intern leadership committee up here, right now."
"Emma and I are right here," I said. "Monique took a personal day." I suspected she was at home binge-watching House of Cards but I didn’t know that for sure and it didn’t really matter.
"Hurry," she said, and hung up the phone.
*
They weren’t Iowans. "We are transgender activists and allies," their leader said. "All the individuals attending have agreed that this room is a no-gendered-pronoun zone."
I had said that the group was oddly dressed before. I was mostly talking about the leader, who was wearing a shapeless black poncho. The leader also wore thick, chunky black frames on her glasses and a single black ear-gauge in the left ear. I could not tell if he or she was biologically male or female, and he or she did not have any sort of gender expression whatsoever. Which, of course, is perfectly fine and not anything to comment on, but you understand how the no-gendered-pronoun thing was helping me right at the moment.
"I am a transgender ally," I said, "so I am very glad to make all of your acquaintance."
"It’s not enough to say that you are a transgender ally," the leader said. "You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. And given the gendered hate speech that your organization uses, I wonder about your sincerity."
"I’m sorry?" I said.
"Don’t apologize just yet, Justin," Aunt Joan said. She was looking remarkably female today for some reason–floral print dress, low neckline, high heels. The only thing that spoiled the effect was the odd smirk on her face. "You haven’t heard what this is about."
"Could you explain, please?" Emma said. "Obviously, we didn’t do anything that was intentionally hurtful."
"How very cis-normative of you," one of the other attendees said. This attendee had a female gender expression–she was wearing just about the same sort of dress as Aunt Joan was, although it looked to be a Wal-Mart rip-off–but was also sporting impressively muscular and hairy forearms. She also had a smear of mayonnaise from the Honeybaked Ham sandwich on the corner of her mouth.
"Are you here to sneer at my interns, or, as we discussed, provide helpful and constructive feedback on our social media campaign?" Aunt Joan asked.
"We can’t be Ready if you’re not equally ready to listen," the leader said.
"So talk," Aunt Joan replied. "Explain, please, to these two fine young people exactly what sort of offensive language we are using in our social media efforts–language, I will remind you, that have been focus-grouped over the course of many years."
"Cis-normative focus groups," the leader said.
"Be that as it may." Aunt Joan shrugged. "Explain. Please. I want them to hear this."
The leader glared at Aunt Joan, who was returning the glare with interest. (I recognize that’s a capitalistic expression but I couldn’t convey want I wanted to convey without having to resort to that particular metaphor.)
"Our concern regards the language used by your organization related to abortion," the leader said. "Namely, that you don’t use the word ‘abortion’ when you talk about abortion rights."
"Um… I guess not," Emma said. "We don’t say ‘pro-abortion,’ because no one is really in favor of abortion per se. We say ‘pro-choice,’ because that’s the element that we want to preserve–the choice to make the abortion. But the Republicans don’t use it either–they say ‘pro-life’. Nobody likes that word."
"Except you don’t say ‘pro-choice’ anymore, do you?" the leader asked. "When you’re talking about opposition to partial-birth abortion, what phrase gets used?"
"Women’s health," I said. "Because partial-birth abortions can be necessary to save the health of the mother. And because it encompasses contraception, not just abortion."
"Women’s health," the leader said, as though there were something nasty in her ham sandwich. "Life of the mother. You don’t see how hurtful and offensive that is, do you? How sexist."
I opened my mouth to apologize, but before I could even speak, Aunt Joan elbowed me in the ribs. "Do not apologize, Justin."
I wanted to say sorry to Aunt Joan, but that would be apologizing, too. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t an apology, so I kept my mouth shut. Or I tried to. I think I said something that sounded like "urp."
"You’ll have to excuse Justin," Aunt Joan said. "He gets a little excitable."
"NO GENDERED PRONOUNS," the leader said.
"Getting back to the subject," Emma said, "can you please explain how saying ‘women’s health’ is sexist? That doesn’t make any sense to me."
"I would have thought that was obvious," the leader said. "It is not inclusive. It does not speak to the concerns of men who have abortions."
"The concerns of who again?" I asked.
"Men who have abortions. Or who have had abortions, or would like to have abortions. When you say ‘women’s health,’ you marginalize those men and ignore their concerns."
"The men who have abortions," I said. "Those men."
"You are not serious," Emma said.
"Just to be clear," I said. "We’re talking about individuals with biologically female sexual characteristics, including fully functional ovaries and uteruses, who have a male gender expression and self-identify as men, and who become pregnant, and have abortions. Those men."
"It is not that hard a concept to understand," the leader said. "Unless you’re determined to hold a cis-gender worldview and commit yourselves to bigotry."
"Oh, please," Emma said. "With all due respect, abortion is still a women’s health concern, even if some women do identify themselves as male. It’s not hateful or discriminatory. If you go running around and insist on saying that men can have abortions too, all you are doing is setting yourself up for the Republicans to laugh at you."
"I hate to say I told you so," said Aunt Joan. "But I told you so. You’re never going to sell the culture at large on the concept that male abortions are a thing, especially not if you can’t manage to bully liberal millennials into accepting it."
The leader’s face went scarlet. "You did not just call me a bully."
"If the poncho fits," Aunt Joan said. "You want to talk about transgender kids being bullied, we can talk about that. That’s an area where the former Secretary has an interest. It’s an area where we expect your immediate support–moral and financial. But you can’t expect us to let any one group dictate all of our messaging. It’s not reasonable and it’s not helpful."
"Then let’s talk," the leader said.
"Good," Aunt Joan said. "You two, run along. Grab a sandwich on your way out if you like."
*
We took the elevator downstairs together. "I want to be your Aunt Joan when I grow up," Emma said. "That was impressive."
"She’s not really my aunt," I said.
"Maybe she can adopt me," Emma said. "She really made a difference in there."
I couldn’t disagree with Emma, although I thought the leader had the better of the argument. Who would speak up for the abortion rights of men if we didn’t? Could we do more to bring their concerns to the forefront? I understood that it wasn’t an overwhelmingly pressing issue at the moment, but I made a note of it once I got back to my cubicle. Maybe it would be something the former Secretary could take on in her second term.
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