Wednesday, May 27, 2020

AKA Jane Roe and the Human Cost of Homophobia

Linda McClain

The recently released documentary, AKA Jane Roe, is generating keen interest for its (spoiler alert!)  “deathbed confession” by Norma McCorvey, a/k/a Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade (1973), that her apparent conversion in 1995 from supporting abortion rights to born-again Christianity and the pro-life/anti-abortion cause was not genuine, but “all an act.”  McCorvey reveals (in words that may bring the lyrics of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” to mind) that she used them and they used her:  “I took their money and they put me out in front of the camera and told me what to say and that’s what I’d say.” Evangelical minister Rob Schenck —at the time a militant leader of the anti-abortion movement -- corroborates her “confession.” In soul-searching statements, he admits to having wondered if she was “playing them” as they were “playing” her. He expresses regret for the unethical way that he and other religious leaders in the movement mistreated McCorvey, whom he describes as the movement’s prize, trophy, or “big fish” (a term she also uses to describe herself). That part of the documentary warrants the buzz it is generating, but so does another: the human cost of homophobia. McCorvey’s conversion and new role as spokesperson came with the price tag of ending her over twenty-year relationship with her partner, Connie Gonzales.  If “Jane Roe” had to die so Norma McCorvey could live (as Reverend Flip Benham, then of Operation Rescue, puts it, in the film), so too did McCorvey’s sexual identity as a lesbian because homosexuality was a grievous sin.

The documentary is a sobering reminder of the link between abortion and homosexuality in the culture wars of the 1990s. Just as McCorvey’s public “confession” at various anti-abortion events included an apology for her role in legalizing abortion and the “killing” of children, it often included a renunciation of her sinful lesbian lifestyle. One scene features McCorvey, along with Benham, burning pages from Roe v. Wade, a gay pride flag, and Quran.

It is impossible not to feel empathy for Connie Gonzalez as she looks on as Norma is baptized by Reverend Benham and as they absorb the directive that they can be friends, but can no longer be intimate sexual partners. The documentary has remarkable and poignant footage of Connie and Norma in domestic scenes during their long relationship.  Amidst Norma’s complicated and troubled life, her relationship with Connie seems to have provided love and stability. Connie fondly recalls that she fell in love with Norma as soon as she met her. And what a meeting – as Norma recounts, she was trying to shoplift something from Connie’s store and Connie took the startling step of giving Norma the keys to her car, giving her money, and telling her to get the car washed. In a 1994 New York Times profile of the couple, one year before Norma’s conversion, she describes the pride the Connie felt upon learning of Norma’s identity as Jane Roe. Norma comments: “I don’t require that much in my life. With Connie, my cats and my plants, I’m a pretty happy girl.”  

Connie and Norma continued to live together in Texas for another decade, but, at least as far as Norma’s new colleagues knew, they did not have sex. Connie, at least, seems forlorn and bewildered even as she tries to explain that they still share love, just a different kind.   

Against the backdrop of photos and videos of their evident domesticity before McCorvey’s conversion, it is painful to hear the reductive description of their relationship offered by Reverend Flip Benham. Calling homosexuality a form of lust and temptation that must be avoided, he makes the absurd comparison to resisting the desire to eat “bon bons” all day: he wants to do so, but if he indulges, it will make him overweight. Akin to gluttony, then, same-sex sexual desire is a temptation and sin to be avoided. It is sobering to consider that, in 1995, the year of McCorvey’s conversion, the prospect that Hawaii might permit same-sex marriage sparked Congress, in 1996, to enact the Defense of Marriage Act and numerous states to enact their own mini-DOMAs.  Only in 2003, with Lawrence v. Texas, would the Court overrule Bowers v. Hardwick and strike down Texas’s sodomy law.

By contrast with Benham’s demeaning analogy, Schenck recognizes the value of Norma and Connie’s relationship and the human cost of ending it. In a column reflecting on the film, Schenck confirms that Norma’s relationship to Connie was “the only thing that no one in my circle would countenance,” even though he knew that Norma “continued to love Connie.” Schenck, in his own words, at a “very different place on abortion and LGBTQ persons” by the time of Norma’s illness and death, adds: “My callous part in their break-up will always be one of the worst sins I’ve committed against two human beings.”

Director Nicholas Sweeney, as a gay man, was drawn to McCorvey’s story because he wanted to understand how and why an “out-and-proud lesbian” “gave up her sexuality” and where she now saw herself on the “spectrum.” Near the end of the documentary, when the mercurial and opportunistic McCorvey confesses that she said whatever “they” wanted her to say and was a good “actress,” it is not clear if that applies as well to her public confession and repentance of her lesbian “lifestyle.” Even so, McCorvey at one point says that she loved Connie “with all my heart” and wished she could see her. McCorvey clearly retained her sexual attraction to women until the end of her life; Sweeney observes her giving a “wolf whistle” at an attractive woman in a restaurant. Yet, McCorvey does not offer an explicit embrace of LGBT equality comparable to her statement that abortion should be a woman’s choice and that Roe will not be taken away.

In the documentary, Charlotte Taft, founding director of the Routh Street Women’s Clinic in Dallas, shows visible pain at McCorvey’s deathbed confession, when she considers the high stakes in the abortion wars and the symbolic value of Norma’s public repudiation of abortion rights and regret  about being the “Jane Roe” that made abortion legal. But the pain suffered by Gonzales from McCorvey’s public repudiation of her own sexuality is also palpable. As a snapshot of the not-that-distant past, AKA Jane Roe vividly shows the human costs of homophobia. Sweeney has observed: “I think my generation takes for granted the freedoms that we have to be ourselves and to be openly gay, or queer, or any sexuality – in some places, not everywhere, obviously” and contrasts that with McCorvey’s 1990s disavowal of her sexuality and the heartbreak for Gonzalez. I found myself wishing that Gonzalez (who predeceased McCorvey) had lived long enough to experience the sea change in law and society concerning LGBT persons and the status of their intimate relationships. As Justice Kennedy observed in Masterpiece Cakeshop: “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.” The journey is not complete, but Reverend Rob Schenck's own evolution on this issue shows signs of that sea change.    

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