The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have a national profile. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with anarchist activist, Renee Maxwell. Responses were provided during a one-on-one radio interview, and this write-up was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
You are the founder and leader of the Guild of Silly Heathens. How would you describe this group?
I would describe this group as a reproductive rights group that counter-protests the anti-choice religious zealots at Planned Parenthood who push anti-abortion and anti-sex messages. We’re pretty silly. We are the Silly Heathens, after all. I wear a very large vulva costume – that I refer to as Super Vulva – that gets a lot of laughs and attention. We choose to use signs that are silly, ironic, or satirical. We also incorporate sex positive messages because anti-choice rhetoric is fundamentally anti-sex. We use humor and satire because we’ve arrived at a point in discussions around abortion where facts just don’t matter anymore. Medical science, evidence, and facts are entirely on our side, 100 percent, but despite that, we are still having the same conversations over and over and over again. We use humor to mock the people on the sidewalk who are repeating these lies. We counter-protest to provide a voice and visibility to the pro-choice position because anti-abortionists have monopolized the messaging in front of Planned Parenthood.
Who are the protesters that the Guild of Silly Heathens are counter-protesting?
The group in Columbia we counter-protest is associated with 40 Days for Life from a church in a town that’s 30 minutes away, but they are also affiliated with a variety of churches. They hold their signs and prayer rosaries, but they also “counsel women” which means they have a voice amplifier that they use to talk to women who are seeking care at Planned Parenthood. They’re not allowed inside the fence and have to stand on the sidewalk, so every time someone pulls into the parking lot they try to dissuade them from entering Planned Parenthood and refer them to their fake clinic across the street. They call it a crisis pregnancy center, but we refer to it as a fake clinic. The goal of their fake clinic is to counsel against abortion and use a variety of tactics to try and dissuade them from seeking that as an option. One of the things they like to promote is abortion reversal, which is a misleading claim that you can reverse medication abortions. [NOTE: Reproaction has worked extensively on the unproven and unethical theory of ‘abortion pill reversal,’ and we encourage you to review a recording of this webinar for more information.] They also use their voice amplifier equipment to call out the staff by name, which I think is a pretty blatant intimidation tactic. They write down people’s license plates that come and go in and out of the clinic. They do a lot of creepy stalkerish things that a lot of people aren’t aware of.
How did the Guild of Silly Heathens come about?
I have lived in the neighborhood by Planned Parenthood for 15 years, so I had been seeing the anti-abortion protests for years before I started this group in 2015. They have an annual Jericho March where they walk around the block seven times. I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw it, not once, but seven times. They were largely uncontested with the exception of one pro-choice activist who would occasionally be out there fighting the lone fight. The zealots were always there dominating the area. I had the time and resources to become an activist, had a lot of costumes, lived in the neighborhood, and I’m good at making signs; so I rounded up my friends and said, “Let’s do this wacky thing,” and they said, “Okay.” Now it’s a thing.
How have the anti-abortion protesters responded to your counter-protests?
It’s funny because we’ve had a variety of reactions. Early on they were more combative, but they kind of backed down from that. That’s something that sets 40 Days for Life apart from more aggressive activists in other cities. They hate the Super Vulva costume the most. They also really hate our chalk that we do on the sidewalk where they position themselves. They’ve called the police to report my costume as obscene. The police have shown up and explained to me why they were there but how they weren’t going to arrest me because I wasn’t breaking any laws. It’s kind of ironic because my costume is not at all immodest. It covers most of my body. Only my face and feet are showing. But it is a large vulva and some people are afraid of women’s anatomy. Of course, their favorite line is, “What about the children?” My response is that children have vulvas too. Another thing is that we try to keep things low key when the clinic is open but when the clinic is closed and the zealots are there, it’s game on!
How has the community responded to the Guild of Silly Heathens?
Overall, I’ve received a very positive response. People love stopping and taking photos with Super Vulva. We get a lot of honks, waves, and smiles from people passing by in their cars. People like humor and we definitely make people laugh. However, that has not really translated into participation which is a frustrating aspect of activism. People love and support what you do but they don’t want to leave their house. I get excited to see new faces but mostly see the same people come out all the time. But if people want to keep up with us and find out when we’ll be counter-protesting or having any events, we have a Facebook page and that’s the easiest way to follow us. We’re very active during the 40 Days for Life season which happens every spring and fall.
How has your involvement as the leader of the Guild of Silly Heathens impacted your activism within and outside of women’s reproductive rights?
It’s given me a lot of enthusiasm for organizing. I’ve found it’s something I enjoy doing. It’s something I’m good at, but it has also compelled me to do more. Counter-protesting is good and has its place but it’s not really going to change anything so I’ve sought out other avenues like mutual aid and direct action at the community level – which is where my passion is right now. I’m also doing some homeless outreach; so quite a lot really.
What has most compelled you to prioritize activism in your life?
Early on, I was radicalized as a single mother who had an unplanned pregnancy during college. Not having access to abortion and raising a child with special needs radicalized me around healthcare resources, mental healthcare, and education. Then more recently, the Ferguson protests woke me up to police brutality and hit close to home. Just to see the militarized police response was beyond alarming.
What are some things that make your work the most frustrating?
One of the things that frustrate me a lot with reproductive rights issues in particular is the fact that anti-choice rhetoric is composed of the same lies that they have been repeating for years. It really doesn’t change and yet, we’re still combating the same lies and the media continues to amplify their lies. It’s really frustrating that the media feels like fair and balanced reporting requires them to report false information. It’s absurd.
What are some things that make your work the most fulfilling/rewarding?
I get a lot of fulfillment from networking with other activists. I also get some satisfaction in knowing that I’ve been annoying a lot of zealots. They hate it when we show up. I love making people laugh and smile. I’m not going to lie, it’s not a very positive issue to work on because we’re losing, but I’m pretty stubborn and the only way I know is to keep fighting.
What lessons from your activism, thus far, are you taking into 2019?
One is to amplify marginalized voices. I have a platform now, so I’m going to try and use it for good. Direct action is really where I’m at; trying to focus my energy and efforts on the community level. A lot of us get overwhelmed with our daily news cycle and it can seem impossible to make any difference at all, but we have to look around and see what the needs are in our communities. It’s where we can really make a difference. Doing work at the community level helps me see the difference I’m making in real people’s lives, and makes me feel like I’m not wasting my time. I think this is the most accessible for most people.
Renee Maxwell is an anarchist organizer who enjoys sharing the message of dog’s love while hanging out on the side of the road dressed as a giant vulva. She would rather be living in a cabin in the woods communing with forest creatures, but the patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself. Her other hobbies include reckless dancing, collecting wild animal bones, and skeet shooting.
Like the Guild of Silly Heathens Facebook page to stay up to date on what they’re up to.