Shadow dancing in Buffalo

A drag show kicks off a week of abortion protests, as gays and pro-life Christians square off in a culture-war showdown.

Published April 19, 1999 11:39AM (EDT)

The woman in a man's suit sauntered down the runway smoking a cigar, music pounding, a cowboy hat held over her crotch, and the crowd packed into the hall clapped and hooted with joy. Suddenly the "drag king" stopped and swept the hat aside, revealing an enormous flesh-colored dildo protruding from her fly. The crowd roared, even louder when one woman lept from her seat and began performing mock fellatio on the sex toy. The crowd of 250 people, mostly gays and lesbians, went wild.

Welcome to hell, Rev. Benham.

The drag show Saturday night in a rented American Legion hall in this wary, rain-swept city certainly would have appalled Rev. Flip Benham and his
Operation Rescue, which kicks off its campaign here Monday against abortion
clincs, book stores, high schools and other outposts of what it calls
"Godless America."

Buffalo, still reeling from the unsolved slaying of abortion doctor Barnett
Slepian here last Oct. 23, and protests which culminated with nearly 700
arrests in 1992, gave a cool official welcome to the anti-abortion protesters,
unlike the previous pro-life mayor's enthusiastic invitation in 1992.

Flanked by police and fire officials Friday, Mayor Anthony Masiello scorned
the protesters as outside agitators who were attempting to divide the city
and "could care less what they leave behind."

"Let's all hope and pray that it's peaceful and that we can move on with
tranquility," he added.

Organizers of the drag show, a benefit for Buffalo United for Choice, were not optimistic however, expecting the protesters to challenge new
restrictions on how close they can get to abortion clinics, issued by a federal judge last week.

Asked about that at a news conference outside the courthouse downtown Sunday, Benham said "no comment." A colleague of Benham's confided afterward, however, that "it hasn't been decided yet, to tell the
truth." Operation Rescue was also reported by sources to be
planning to "wake up America" by disrupting morning rush-hour traffic at a
major Buffalo intersection Monday.

Saturday night's long sold-out drag show, the weekend's major event for
pro-choice forces, symbolized the widening differences in the
struggle over abortion rights. For both sides, the rights of homosexuals are
inextricably wound up in the struggle. Gays, who are clearly in the forefront of countering Operation Rescue here, said that the
same forces organizing to shut the clinics were targeting other groups
who didn't agree with the Christian conservative agenda.
Abortion seems to be emerging as a wedge issue for both sides.

"From the racial murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, to the murder of
Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., to the assassination of Dr. Slepian,"
said Leslie Feinberg, a female transgender activist in a military-style
haircut speaking at a pro-choice rally that drew over 200 people to a downtown park Saturday. "When it comes to who's going to stop this
violence, I quote from the African-American poet June Jordan, 'We are the
ones who we've been waiting for."

Robert Behn, 61, a local organizer for Operation Save
America, agreed that homosexuality was as much an issue as abortion to his

"It's all on the agenda," he said softly, as pro- and anti-choice partisans
shouted at each other outside the federal courthouse. "It's a symptom of the
same problem."

Protesters seem highly upset about books with pictures of
nude children, particularly three books by San Francisco-based artist Jock
Sturges, and plan to picket local Barnes and Noble stores.

Hospitals that perform abortions will also be targeted.

Both sides agree that the anti-abortion movement has been successful in
influencing the reduction of procedures performed in hospitals. More than 50
percent of the medical schools that used to teach abortion no longer offer
instruction in it, according to one estimate. In Birmingham, Ala., where
an off-duty policeman was killed and a nurse gravely wounded in an abortion
clinic bombing last year, only one clinic remains open, according David
Lackey, the director of Operation Rescue there.

Likewise, the murder of Slepian continues to plague his former clinic, which
has suffered from high staff turnover.

Participation in this week's protest will likely be a shadow of the turnout in 1992, when thousands showed up in a deliberately militant attempt
to close the clinics. More reporters and television news crews than protesters showed up at
Operation Rescue's news conference Sunday, suggesting that less than a
couple hundred demonstrators will be taking to the streets in the cold rain
forecast. More people showed up for Saturday nights drag show than are expected to demonstrate this week.

But a strong cadre of abortion opponents will show up nonetheless. Tom and Linda McGlade, both 47, drove 24 hours straight from Bradenton, Fla., with their seven children to join the protest. America has rejected God. Our leaders are stupid. Were losing wisdom and weve thrown Jesus out of the schools, Tom said as he unpacked in his hotel room. He said abortion should be recriminalized.

Children are the gifts of God, his wife interrupted softly. Peoples hearts need to be changed. Her husband added, Abortion isnt a womens issue, its a mans issue.

Asked for a vision of what theyd like America to be, Linda said: Husbands loving wives, wives loving husbands, husbands loving children. Were not anti-abortion people, were just Christians.

Harsh new federal penalities on violations of clinic access laws may not
only be dampening the spirits of potential protesters, but influencing the
more militant wings of the anti-abortion movement to change tactics.

Operation Rescue's Benham repeatedly declined to denounce the growing phenomenon of murder, arson and bombing against doctors and clinics. As long as abortions are performed, he said, there would be violent efforts to stop it.

"The conditions of peace," he said, " are to stop shedding the blood of
innocents. When you reap blood in the womb, you reap blood in the streets."

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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