MATTER OF CHOICE 'Churchladies' lighten up protests, but anti-abortion forces are not laughing.

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From: [email protected] (Scott Safier)
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Subject: Churchladies for Choice (cross posted from talk.abortion)
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Date: 24 Apr 90 14:11:34 GMT
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[[ Pittsburgh Press, 4-22-90, p. A6 ]]

MATTER OF CHOICE

'Churchladies' lighten up protests, but anti-abortion forces are not laughing.

----

It began with a small group of men wondering how they could express
their support for legalized abortion, demonstrate their solidarity
with women and catch the news media's eye, all at once.

They decided they would wear skirts and dresses.

In search of a theme, they considered "Cheerleaders for Choice"
or maybe dressing as waitreesses calling themselves "Operation Menu,"
a play on the anti-abortion Operation Rescue.

"Then it hit," said one of the men, who has taken the stage name
Isabelle.  "Churchladies for Choice."

That was in October.  Since then, skirt-wearing, wig-topped
Churchladies chanting "Pray for Brains" have become regulars at
abortion rallies.

To abortion advocates, Churchladies for Choice mock the anti-abortion
forces, injecting humor into often-tense rallies and boosting the
morale of pro-choice forces.

To anti-abortion advocates, the Churchladies are publicity hounds
diverting attention from the issue and demonstrating the "shallowness"
of the abortion argument.

"I think the more the public sees of them, the better they'll know
what the pro-abortion movement is about and they'll be less likely to
support that movement," said Helen Cindrich of People Concerned for
the Unborn Child.

The Churchladies manifesto says they are a "non-aligned,
non-denominational, non-partisan, pseudo-anarchist, faerie-identified,
pro-active, pro-feminist policital action group."

It's a loose-knit ("and sometimes double-knnit," one member noted)
group of 15 to 20 men of various background sand sexual orientations
who favor keeping abortion legal.  There are no officers or by-lauws.

Most of the Churchladies are in other groups such as the Pittsburgh
Men's Collective, National Abortion Rights Action League and the
gay-rights group Cry Out!

"It's sort of a neat collection of men from a lot of different
organization s who work for abortion rights," said a member known as
Lil' Arlette Lamb-Levine, Arlette for short.

The men, whose work acquaintances and family members don't necessarily
know of their dress-up activities, asked that their real names not be
used.  At public appearances, they give their stage names.  And they
have even gone so far as to give fake "real" names when interviewed,
such as for this story, before the ruse was discovered.

The Churchlady name comes from the moralistic Dana Carvey Church Lady
character on NBC's Saturday Night Live, the one who has added "Isn't
that _special_" to the lexicon.  But they more closely resemble
members of the British Comedy troupe Monty Python.

"I almost think it's more of a name than anything else," Arlette
said.  "It's sort of catchy.  Everyone knows who he is."

The group's first action was at the Oc.t 28 rally in East Liberty --
the same rally where more than 80 abortion protesters were arrested.
Sixty-eight of those protesters went on trial at David L. Lawrence
Convention Center this month.  The cases of all but 20, who remain on
trial on charges of failure to disperse, have been dismissed.

The day before that rally, said Isabelle, 39, of Regent Square, some
Churchladies went to a Halloween party in drag -- a dress rehearsal of
sorts.  The next day, about eight of them met at the Pittsburgh Men's
Collective office in Wilkinsburg, changed into their skirts and
dresses and headed to East Liberty.

"Some of us were real frightned," he said.  "We thought we were going
to get beaten up."

"I was a bundle of nerves.  I needed to be slapped," said Arlette, a
28-year-old convenience store clerk from Garfield.

But at the rally they had no problems.  Isabelle said his group walked
down the street, formed a circle and changed, "Clap your hands, raise
your voice, we're the Churchladies for Choice."

"The shock value was so immediate people didn't have time to process
it."

Since then, the group has been to four or five other rallies.  They
have also held a wokshop on abortion rights for the Pittsburgh Men's
Collective and appeared at a fund-raiser for Second Step, a program
for counseling men who batter women.

The attended a City Council meeting in November to say "tsk, tsk" to
then-Councilman Otis Lyons because he had spoken against federal
funding for abortions for victims of rape and incest.

When the current trial of abortion protestors began April 9 at the
convention center , the Churchladies were there to protest the cost of
the trial, estimated by Judge Robert Dauer at more than $300,000.

Advocates for legalized abortion said the Churchladies have been a
welcome addition to their cause.

"They're helping to point out the hyprocrisy and craziness of the
other side," Jeanne Clark, co-president of the Squirrel Hill National
Organization for Women, who has been an adviser to the group.

"I guess I feel they add a certain kind of humor in certain situations
which is not offensive and sometimes, in what can be a real
antagonistic face-off between one side and another, is a welcome
diversion," said Janet Catov of the National Abortion Rights Action
League.

But anti-abortrion activist aren't amused.

"I think they're ridiculous," said Doug James, area coordinator for
Operation Rescue.

"I refer to them as 'Transverstites for Choice,'" said Richard Hatch,
a Christian radio talk show host.  "It's pretty cute, but it loses its
cuteness when you reconginze they're killing babies."

"We just feel a sadness that this is the best that the pro-abortion
side has to offer in response to the innocents that are being
slaughtered in the abortion clinics," said anti-abortion activist Mary
Irwin.  "Because we do take this very, very seriously."

Ms. Irwin said she believes the Churchladies are trying to distract
attention from the issue.

But anti-abortion activists also said they believe the Churchladies
have helped their cause.

"I think they have swollen the ranks of the pro-lifers because people
realize quickly that this has stopped being just a pro-life issue and
is now an issue of the persecution of Christians," Hatch said.

Churchladies say thery are not mocking Christianity or Christians.

They also said they don't believe they are belittling the abortion issue.

"We have to admit we're as angry as anyone else and are furious with
the anti's [sic]," Arlette said.  "This is an opportunity, a vehicle
to do street theater, to make a political statement as well as a
fashion statement.  I think that adds so much more to what's going
on."

"It's easy to be angry for a few months and to fight for an issue and
to not completely lose heart," said Churchlady Basia Kwiatkowska, 25,
of Squirrel Hill.  "I think when the months turn into years, it really
does get to the point where you need some levity, you need something
to prop you up.  We've tried to contribute to that."

Despite the strong feelings on both sides, there has been little
direct confronation.

The Churchladies recalled an incident during the Feb. 17 Project
Multitude prayer rally Downtown where an abortion protestor kept
asking, "What are you going to do on Judgement Day?"

"Get dressed up," responded member Lunatique Fringe, 35, of Swissvale.

"I think our experience," Lunatique said in an interview last week, "is
the more outrageous we are, the safer we are -- that there's a certain
safety factor in being so outrageous that people keep their distance."

Churchladies also have no doubt they have helped their cause.  They
take credit for Lyons' political downfall, even though their protest
occurred months after he decided no to seek re-election.

"His political career disintegrated the day we walked into council,"
Arlette said.

"As a matter of fact," Lunatique said, "it was what -- a week, week
and a half after our first action the Berlin Wall started coming
down?"

For the interview, Lunatique, a psychotherapist, wore a black dress
and a black and white hat.  Arlette wore a yellow sweater vest with a
pink blouse, a flower print skirt and a scarf covering his head.

Basia, a self-described "computer person," wore a blond wig, bright
red lipstick, a black hat and black dress.

All three wore sunglasses, as Churchladies usually do.  They also
wore sneakers.  Churchladies don't wear high heels.

"They're so oppressive," Arlette said.

Churchladies are quick to mention that they are not trying to look
like women, which is especially obvious with the mustachioed
Lunatique.  But the Churchladies also stress the importance of their
garb.

"One thing that this organization has always felt very strongly about
is a fashion statement is very much a political statement," Alrette
said.

Fashion is an important part of Churchladies' lives.  A Churchladies'
newsletter debated the question "Is it black or is it navy?"  Rayon
has "most favored fabric status."

Basia said he has worn dresses for political purpose and for Halloween
-- not for casual use.  Areltte, though, wears skirts around the
house.

"I just like skirts, the way they feel," he said.

Lunatique said he favors basic black.  "I'm a tad color blind, so it's
easier to avoid ridicule.  There's been some fashion faux pas."

"I think men, generally, including myself, have no sense of fashion,"
Basia added.

"Speak for yourself," Arlette said.

Among most of their friends and relatives, they said, there is little
shock about their Churchladies' activies.   Basia said his wife helped
him pick out his dress.

But despite their pride in Churchladies, they are reluctant to divulge
details of what they call their "boy" lives and decline to identify
employers.

It's like superman," Arlette said.  "No one knew who Superman was.  The
more elusive the better."

Isabelle, who does public relations work, said his boss considers his
Churchladies work "moderately weird."

His wife isn't thrilled with him being in the group.

"She really thinks, 'Why are you doing this?  This isn't going to get
you anywhere.'"