AlterNet wasn’t wrong when they called Texas the second worst state in the country for women. No, they pretty much nailed it. Our mostly white, male conservative legislators are happy to let our Medicaid Women’s Health Program expire because they believe Planned Parenthood forces abortion on every woman who walks through clinic doors. Amid a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall that has threatened to cripple what little existed of Texas’ social programs, our governor, Rick Perry, declared it an “emergency” that abortion is legal and accessible here. Soon, Texas will require women who want an abortion to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound at least 24 hours before their procedure and tell a doctor they do not want to see an image of the fetus or hear its possibly available heartbeat, but they’ll still have to listen to a description of the fetus. And rape culture? No shortage here.
Rick Perry and his legislator buddies refuse to tap into the state’s “Rainy Day” fund to help keep women healthy and children educated properly because the needs of women and children in Texas are secondary to political posturing and big business. Texas has more uninsured people–notably, more uninsured women and children–than any other state. Of course, that’s not a problem for Texas legislators who believe crisis pregnancy centers provide pap smears. And then there’s the array of ways in which the state treats LGBTQ Texans like second-class citizens: here, conservatives hate gay people so much they almost, through a legal technicality, outlawed all marriage in an effort to keep gays out of the institution.
These are not fringe elements of conservative whack-a-doodle politics in Texas. They are business as usual. They are the norm. They are status quo. We may once have had Ann Richards, but those days are past. Today, we are a state run by old privileged white guys for old privileged white guys. Great Tex-Mex, excellent musical traditions and beautiful weather ain’t gonna fix it, y’all.
What is going to fix it are smart, feminist people staying here in Texas and doing the hard work of grassroots activism, writing and talking and campaigning instead of hopping the first flight to a cold city with a Democratic congressperson and a Sunday night erotic reading series at an adorable indie coffee shop.
Believe you me, I have tried to leave. More than once.
The first time, I was 18 years old and headed for college at New York University, anxious to get out of the cookie-cutter suburb of Fort Worth where I grew up. But at NYU, I struggled to love the city that I had longed to live in my entire life. I found myself too often defending Texas against people who saw the state, and its people, as punchlines. Still, I thought, I couldn’t be right to miss Texas. Maybe studying abroad in London would help–maybe the problem was that I wasn’t far enough away from Texas. To my dismay, studying abroad only made me less enchanted with New York. I didn’t miss anything about NYC, and I was desperate for a decent taco.
Disenchanted with the city, I graduated a year early from NYU. I left the man I was sure I wanted to spend my life with because I didn’t want to follow him to Washington, D.C. I took the first job I was offered post-graduation at a newspaper in Dallas. I thought I’d capitulated to Texas life, but I was wrong. I tried to leave one more time.
It was during graduate school in cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where I was writing a thesis on female stand-up comics. I went back to New York City to conduct fieldwork, thinking perhaps it was my awkward youth that had made my first try there such a failure. I interviewed comedians and went to summer concerts and hooked up with incredibly hot bearded men in my six-floor walk-up apartment. I even brought my cats. By anyone’s account, I was doing it right as a liberal, feminist twenty-something activist in the big city. But god, I just wanted to get back to Texas.
I say all this because I want you to understand that I’m not trying to play the martyr here. I am not trying to show off the feminist cross I am forced to carry uphill both ways in 115-degree summers, all the while crying jalapeno tears because I touched my eyes after I made salsa.
I know why liberal, feminist or otherwise progressive and left-leaning people leave this place, and I don’t blame them. Anyone who lives here whose wellbeing is harmed by constantly feeling in conflict with others or discriminated against absolutely deserves to live a life of peace and comfort.
I know it can be bad. My conservative, Republican family never fails to make fun of my feminist bumper sticker. I¹ve been practically laughed out of the offices of legislators I¹ve lobbied for pro- choice causes. I know how Texans take it personally when anyone dares criticize their state. It’s fucking ridiculous that there exist cake pans shaped like Texas. And it’s always nice to remember that it’s still technically illegal to have anal sex in Texas if you’re gay.
I asked many of my Texan feminist friends why they don’t leave for friendlier political climes, and many spoke of the intangible Texanness that natives of this state experience and that I feel in my heart. I don’t expect outsiders to understand it. Maybe it happens in other states, I’m not sure. I’ve got the Texas blinders. It’s incredibly hard to separate oneself from one’s Texan identity, maybe because we all grow up eating cakes from stupid Texas-shaped cake pans. I don’t know.
Allison in Austin told me: “because being a Texan matters so very much to me, I feel strongly that working towards making “being a Texan” a good thing, an easier thing, a fairer thing, is important work for me.”
Marla, in Dallas: “Because we have a right and an obligation to effect change in the place we call home.”
Some feminists were more practical: Texas is a cheap place to live, and it’s hard for many people to live far from their families and long-time friends. Some feminists I talked to are in graduate school and tied down by academic responsibilities. My friend Rachel says she stays for the bourbon. But by far, my favorite reason was from Emily in Dallas, who gave as her reason, simply, “SPITE.”
I know that I love Texas too much, and I love Texans too much, to pack my bags and leave this state to be stripped down into something unrecognizable by people whose hearts are filled with hate and ignorance and contempt for equality. Yes, our elected representatives have, along with those in many other parts of the country (Indiana!), spent recent years doing all they can to make life worse for women. But I wonder if that’s largely a reflection of a Texas that doesn’t know, or perhaps has forgotten, what feminism looks like and can do for it.
If feminist Texans leave, who will be left here to fight? I refuse to believe that Texas is a lost feminist cause.
I’m not the feminist savior of Texas, but if I don’t leave, and if my feminist friends don’t leave, maybe we can bring more people to our side. Maybe we’ll get to change the minds of people who might otherwise have spent their lives hearing anti-feminist, anti-choice voices on the radio, in the legislature, on the television, in the streets, at the restaurant, behind the bar. Maybe if we don’t leave, we can change the conversation instead of scoffing and tsking from outside while anti-feminist, anti-woman laws and social practices leave a legacy of lasting, visceral harm on real, live Texans.
If you’re a Texan, and you’re a feminist and you can stay, please stay. I’ll get you a cold Lone Star. Let’s us stay here on the porch and talk about stirring some shit up, y’all.