In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need abortion clinic escorts — women would be able to access reproductive care freely and safely. But in this current hellscape, they’re an integral part of ensuring that patients can get services at clinics like Planned Parenthood with a minimum amount of harassment.
If you aren’t familiar, a clinic escort is a volunteer who helps patients into and out of abortion clinics, wearing clearly-marked uniforms to distinguish them from anti-abortion protesters who often surround these buildings. The protests can involve shouting at patients, waving gruesome signs and harassing patient guests. The job of a clinic escort is to distract and shield the patient from all of this to help them do something that most of us take for granted — going to the doctor.
Being a clinic escort doesn’t typically involve any direct confrontation with protesters — it isn’t a “counter protest” role, instead it focuses on the patient’s immediate needs. Yet, violence against escorts isn’t unheard of. In 1994, for example, a 74-year-old clinic escort, veteran and retired teacher was shot to death along with Dr. John Britton outside of the Pensacola Ladies’ Center.
Jeff, 30, who is identified here only by his first name to protect his identity, has volunteered as an escort in Aurora, Illinois, for almost a decade. Yes, men do this work too. As Jeff says in our interview, it’s a concrete way men can put their pro-choice politics into action — and even use some of their privilege in a feminist way.
Speaking before we started the interview proper, Jeff made an unexpected connection between his volunteering work and the artistic career of my last interviewee, Robert Yang. “Ultimately, the risks are kind of the same for someone like Robert Yang and a clinic escort. You just don’t want to attract the attention of a very small subset of people who are very fierce about their tactics.”
How did you get started doing this work?
I’d been around it a bit in college, but I started after I graduated. I had all of this high feminist theory, but outside of the activism I was doing at the time, I didn’t have a lot of ways to go out in the world and perform a feminist act. I was thinking a lot about bodies and spaces, and the ways in which my particular body and my intersections of privilege can be read as something to be rightfully suspicious of. So I sat down and thought for a long time about the ways I could take these things and turn them into assets; I settled on clinic escorting. My theory at the time was, here’s a space where the size, shape and me-ness of my body will be read as positive.
How do the kinds of people who hang around outside of clinics and other parties treat you as a male clinic escort?
The patients are mostly very chill and happy. A cool thing you learn when you’re clinic escorting is a heightened emotional awareness, meeting people at their own energy. Because coming to a Planned Parenthood is fraught for people for a lot of reasons. I wish that weren’t true.
But it’s also the case that everyone’s mood is a little different coming in, and you have to learn how to navigate those unspoken spaces of, this person is a little happier, I can be nicer to them, or this person seems like they’re working through some stuff, I need to take a more somber tone. Along with that, there’s just going to be a subset of patients who are freaked out by the whole thing. So it’s a weird, important lesson in how to deal with people in the world, which I think is a recurring theme of why clinic escorting is especially good for dudes to do.
There are times when I’ll approach people at their cars, and they’ll assume that I’m one of the protesters. Because the protesters have taken the tactics of wearing the same vests that we do, and when we switched the colors of our vests, they did too. There’s a lot of obfuscation tactics from the other side, trying to confuse who’s who. The cool thing about that is you learn how to get rid of all of that very quickly — swat it away and disarm it. I have go-to jokes that I now use to defuse things. And you realize how easy that is to do in the world in ways that you wouldn’t expect.
A thing I talk to clinic escorts a lot about when I’m training, especially dudes, is that it’s a good lesson in the idea that sometimes showing up is 90 percent of the battle. It can feel really good in the moment to just be there for someone without judging them in a way that’s really real and that you can tell they appreciate.
For the protesters, the inverse of all of that is true. They prefer to yell at dude escorts, which I guess is the best case scenario for everybody — they get it out on us. What you learn quickly is that they don’t have a lot of space for women’s agency in all the ways you’d expect. Like, when they yell stuff at me, it’s particularly targeted at how “men are supposed to protect women.” The idea that women have choices isn’t involved at all. Certainly that’s the case with patient guests too. Like if you’re a girl coming in with her boyfriend, they’ll usually target him and tell him that it’s his job to be a father. You see that kind of erasure of agency happening in real time in ways that are both strange and instructive.
What kind of training do you receive for scenarios like that?
The training is a lot easier than you’d think. It’s about two hours long. We don’t prepare for any extreme scenarios. Because I think it’s important to note that while there is a rash of violence against clinics in the U.S., both rhetorically and literally, clinic escorting is still an incredibly safe thing to do — contrary to what a lot of people would have you believe.
At Planned Parenthood specifically, the nice thing is that we don’t have to train specific scenarios too much, because we have the blanket policy of no-contact, which says that under no circumstances should you interact with protesters in any way — not to converse or debate at all, which is something they try to do constantly. The policy works really well and has held in every scenario I’ve ever had. A lot of times they’re just trying to bait you into saying something you shouldn’t, so it works best to not get anybody in trouble.
Plus, like, there’s no point, since if you’re protesting outside of a clinic regularly, you’ve already demonstrated a level of commitment that if anyone can talk you out of, it probably isn’t going to be us. It’s something I wish guests — especially male guests — of patients understood a little more, because a lot of them scream back. And while I can certainly understand how that can be cathartic, all it does is rile up the protesters for the next people coming in.
Overall, it’s not as cloak-and-dagger as you’d expect. We teach people how to be safe identity-wise, the rules of what is and isn’t trespassing and what is and isn’t allowed in terms of bubble-zone rules. But for the most part, our policy is just don’t interact with them, because there’s not really a point. Not to mention, we as escorts can’t be in the business of escalating things. So we do our best to focus on the patient, and after a while, the protests fall into white noise. You realize that the specific scenarios you’re going to have to deal with are a lot more patient- and guest-focused than protesters-breaking-the-rules-focused.
Like six months ago we had a guest of a patient who was outside smoking a cigarette, and she had a seizure. We were the first ones to be there, call an ambulance and make sure that she got the care she needed. Other times, I’ve changed people’s tires. I’ve jumpstarted cars. There’s a whole concierge aspect of it that can be fun sometimes.
It seems like protesters looking for escalation, though, right?
Protesters are prepared. That said, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to ignore them when they’re calling you names, challenging you to a debate or whatever, when they flip a GoPro on first. You can tell that they’re really trying to bait you into talking.
Speaking of being recorded, you mentioned before we started that you’ve been doxxed before. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, I got doxxed seven or eight years ago for the first time, and it’s happened once more since. It was partly poor data security on my part and partly just happenstance. I’m still not sure how they figured it out — if it was my license plate number or my name on social media or what, but my name got around to the wrong people. I don’t know if you’re familiar with LifeSiteNews or WorldNetDaily, but there’s this whole anti-choice media wing that doesn’t interact with the traditional right-wing media in this country. Once those sites start circulating information to their Twitter followers, though, you know it’s going to get out.
Thankfully, other than a few threatening DMs, nothing ever really came of it. And that was a long time ago, so I appear to be in the clear for now. It’s something I think people are afraid of happening more than it actually does. At some point you learn that it comes with the territory. I’m not out there trying to obfuscate my appearance, and I’m not going to cover up my license plates and go to those lengths. I’m proud to be a clinic escort. If my name is out there attached to it, I don’t really care.
I’d also like to slightly clarify that I’m sure what I experienced wasn’t nearly as bad as what it would’ve been were I not a cis dude. It was mostly a few people contacting my then-employer. Also, it’s not a common occurrence for escorts and was the result of decisions I made to talk about my experiences publicly on my Twitter account. It’s not something anyone should worry about too much if they’re considering it.
Are there any other unusual situations you’ve had to deal with?
There are situations that are rhetorically intense. But what you learn quickly is that the regular protesters know the rules and have a self-interest in being allowed to come back. [Editor’s Note: According to Planned Parenthood’s security information, “The protesters can carry signs and they may try to hand you pamphlets, show you pictures, and tell you what they think. Legally, they are not allowed to touch you or block your way into the clinic or the parking lot. You do not have to take anything from them or talk with them if you do not want to… As long as the protesters do not break the law they have a right to protest.”] As such, they’ll always follow the rules — not to say that they’re the type of people you shouldn’t worry about. But when someone has threatened you for the 12th or 13th week in a row and it hasn’t happened, you tend to be like, Okay, whatever.
But the other side of clinic escorting that I really like comes from interacting with patients or their guests. It’s just a hard day for some people, and sometimes people just want to go outside and smoke a cigarette and shoot the shit with somebody. There are times when people will disclose to you things about their lives or situations that are heavy and hard, but are born of that beautiful interaction you can have with someone where you know you’re probably never going to see them again. There’s an honesty that comes out of it that’s really cool. What you learn after a while is that on a day like that, people just need someone to vent to. Because all of this stuff has been so stigmatized that a lot of them don’t have people who aren’t going to judge them.
What’s cool about that is you get to realize the positive spin on emotional labor that’s been lost in the discourse. There are times when I honestly think about that, like I’m also out here to perform emotional labor for these people, and it’s going to be beneficial for me as well. That’s a thing we could all focus on a bit more, because there’s positive lessons to learn from it — about how to meet people where they’re at and not overwhelm them with your energy. You know, we’re out there because we care a lot about reproductive rights, but that’s certainly not the case for all of our patients. That’s also why I find it such a fraught and interesting space.
It’s very telling the ways in which the free speech debate in this country has mostly occurred on campuses, where there aren’t people in the middle. When you’re thinking about Milo or Richard Spencer talking on a campus, we set up these huge sides — their audience on one end and anti-fascist activists on the other. There’s no middle ground. As much as someone like Jonathan Chait has these lofty, high-minded ideals about the marketplace of ideas, someone who’s in the audience to see Milo has already made a few decisions about what they want to hear in their lives. But what you learn outside the clinic is that all of that is infinitely more complicated in the spaces where free speech is actively contested on a weekly basis.
Planned Parenthood has a broad ban on support for counter-protesting, which at points has frustrated me. I didn’t quite understand it. Then I saw a couple of counter-protests happen, and I realized that the patients were mostly confused by them. It was just adding another group of people yelling, and all it did was muddy the waters. I’ve been supportive of deplatforming tactics in the past, but I learned that none of that holds true here. Because in the middle of all this is some poor woman who just wants to go to the doctor. I wish people got the chance to see the real-time effects of that more.
We had a trans patient a couple months ago, and the protesters said all the stuff you’d expect. I was giving her a pep talk and realized that people don’t often get to see that this kind of speech has consequences — and this is what they are. Being an escort is navigating those liminal spaces everyday. Like what constitutes a threat, what constitutes harassment, and then blurring those lines even further — like what constitutes what I think of as a threat and what constitutes what an officer or a protester is going to think is a threat? Protesters learn very well how to butt up against those lines and navigate those spaces, and that’s something you have to learn too. Ultimately, they’re just all speech acts, and it’s above my pay grade to figure out which is what in those instances.
In terms of intense experiences, there have been times when someone’s partner found out they had an appointment, and those are always really hard. Not only can I not allow them on the premises, but obviously for HIPAA reasons, I can’t even confirm or deny whether this person is in the building. But the person outside has an idea that someone they know is inside and has some statements to make. That happened a few weeks ago, where someone’s male partner was outside and started causing a scene, then started calling members of her family, who then started arriving.
It got to the point where we had to call a police escort to get her out of the building, because it was like, “Hey, somehow, somebody you know found out about your appointment and pretty much everyone you know is waiting for you to come outside right now.”
Those types of days suck, but they’re in the extreme minority. Most of the time everybody follows the rules, and there’s a weird kind of détente between protesters and escorts.
To close, what are some things that men can do to get more involved in pro-choice activism?
If you contact your local Planned Parenthood or abortion clinic, they’ll almost always be looking for escorts. We never have enough. If you just go to the Planned Parenthood website, they’ll sign you up; it’ll be probably a month-long process — we usually need a couple of references — but other than that, it’s about a two-hour training.
The thing that sucks is you have to get up pretty early on a Saturday. I get up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays to be there at 7, which is when the clinic opens. But other than the hours, it’s pretty easy to do. The other escorts I’ve met are genuinely some of the coolest, smartest people I’ve met in my entire life. It’s cool to be out in solidarity with people who feel the same way about stuff as you, and can have conversations in the same way that you can.
Sometimes just weird, fun stuff happens, too. Last summer, for example, we had this older lady show up with a huge tote bag. It appeared she had props. We didn’t really know what was going on, but she just keeps fumbling through her bag. We’re like, ‘What does this woman have?’ Finally, she pulls out a Bluetooth speaker, like a Beats Pill basically, goes to this vacant lot next to the clinic, hides the speaker in tall grass and leaves her phone next to it. She walks 40 or 50 yards away and starts praying with a rosary. All of a sudden, maybe 20, 30 seconds later, we heard this loud voice of a baby crying. She’s taken recordings of babies crying, and she’s playing it directly at the clinic; she hid this speaker because she wants it to seem disembodied, non corporeal.
A little bit of time goes by, and I realize the sounds aren’t looping. Sure enough, about five minutes later, there’s this weird pause. What happened was she had had a YouTube auto-playlist of babies crying. But she didn’t have adblock or anything, so an ad came on. The ad was for Summer’s Eve. The first line was, “Why Summer’s Eve? Because thongs, that’s why.”
The woman turned beet red, took off in a dead sprint and closed this 40-yard distance faster than I’ve ever seen a human being run, because she was so embarrassed that she’d accidentally played a Summer’s Eve commercial. It was amazing because it entirely undercut her argument; she tried to set it back up, but she’d lost it. Within 10 minutes, she was gone. I guess she couldn’t live with the shame.