For those who have not followed the HonFest saga, it boils down to this: Organizers of this annual Hampden festival — a campy event that celebrates Baltimore women of a certain age and beehive hairdo, who appear to have stepped out of a John Waters movie set in the 1950s — denied Planned Parenthood of Maryland a booth, even though the organization has had one in prior years. The rejection was made, apparently, because issues related to women’s reproductive health are today seen as a “hot topic” that might lead to argument and protest.
There was an almost immediate outcry. HonFest organizers apologized and reversed their position. Planned Parenthood declined to participate as a vendor but announced plans to hand out literature from a local storefront during the festival. Meanwhile, this dispute has caused so much upset that it’s not clear whether HonFest will have enough volunteers to carry on with the two-day celebration (if it’s even appropriate to use the word “celebration” at this point), which is set to begin Saturday.
To quote Babs Johnson, the character played by Divine in “Pink Flamingos”: “Oh my God Almighty!”
For five decades, Americans lived with a shared understanding that women had a constitutional right to privacy and with it, the ability to terminate a pregnancy under certain regulated conditions. All that changed last June with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. One assumes HonFest organizers thought that abortion, particularly in the post-Roe v. Wade United States, is not a subject that partying festival-goers want to hear about — perhaps even screamed about, should pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights factions square off on the Avenue. And in so doing, they turned themselves into the very hot topic they dreaded.
This was unfortunate reasoning for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that too many Americans still seem unaware (or uninterested) in the harm done by the Dobbs decision. But the Planned Parenthood rejection also ignores the vital public good of providing local residents information about family planning, reproductive health, sexuality and the like, as well as affordable and high quality medical services, all of which are provided by Planned Parenthood.
Such short-sightedness plays into the public perception that Hampden residents are not just celebrating a certain kitschy aspect of their heritage but are stuck in attitudes of the ‘50s. That’s bad for Hampden, it’s bad for Baltimore, and it’s bad for a state where an estimated 40% of pregnancies that go to term are unintended. Is Planned Parenthood a controversial organization to some? Absolutely. Hampden, as a predominantly white, blue collar neighborhood famous for its longtime redlining of Black families, is controversial to some, too.
When you bar access to the critically important information and services Planned Parenthood provides — and has provided at prior festivals, mind you — you are not providing a public service. You are promoting intolerance and fear. This is how one caves to those who would deny women the right to control their own bodies: Not by bold declaration, but by small concessions. Today it is HonFest. What others will decide that shunning Planned Parenthood is simply an easy way to avoid conflict? Who else will censor or ban or stay silent? Should we roll over every time the far-right culture warriors get angry over something?
This may prove the undoing of HonFest. We hope not. Not because we are deeply invested in the event that has already suffered from the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But because it will deny organizers a chance to make amends and, frankly, for the public to rally behind Planned Parenthood.
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