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Dan Haar: How a debate over 'pregnant persons' and 'expectant mothers' hurts Democrats

The Register Citizen - 4/19/2024

Apr. 15—Outside observers might not have expected fireworks when state Rep. Robyn Porter pitched an amendment to add three words to a non-controversial bill on April 4 in the General Assembly committee that controls state spending.

The bill itself had nearly universal support from Democrats and Republicans alike. It would help Connecticut steer more federal dollars for mental health care to young families.

Porter, a New Haven Democrat, just didn't feel comfortable with the words "pregnant persons" to describe all mothers-to-be. Yes, she understood that the Human Services Committee, which advanced the bill with those two words, intended to embrace all people who are pregnant, including those who don't identify as women or mothers.

Porter, though, has no interest in identifying herself or other mothers as "persons." Her suggested amendment: add the words "expectant mothers and" right in front of "pregnant people," so she and others with her viewpoint would feel included.

"I do understand the reason why we are using 'pregnant persons' and I am totally fine with that. But I, as a woman with a womb, identify as an expectant mother. And so will other women that don't identify as the people being categorized as a pregnant person," Porter, a mother of two and grandmother of three, said in a meeting of the appropriations committee, which was next in line to approve the bill.

"My children call me Mother, Ma, Mommy, depending on the day but something along those lines, right? And that is what I answer to. I don't answer to 'pregnant person' or 'birthing person,' " Porter proclaimed. "And a huge part of my identity is wrapped around being a mother and a grandmother."

What followed was a 45-minute debate that has reverberated in the days since, with some national coverage — and not to the benefit of Democrats in what we all agree is one of the most important presidential elections in American history.

That's the danger here: This battle in the culture war over gender could help the far-right, especially former President Donald Trump, who drools at the chance to say Democrats are out of control with woke politics designed to control how we think and live.

I hope I'm wrong about this. Top state Democrats including House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, the East Hartford peacemaker, say it's a healthy debate, not a gift to the GOP. I disagree.

A racial and ethnic divide

As I saw it, Democrats walked right into the trap.

On one side: Porter, along with almost all of the other Black and Hispanic Democrats on the large committee; and every Republican. On the other side, liberal Democrats, almost all of them white, led by Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford.

The fact that Democrats divided along racial and ethnic lines — and not by happenstance, as many of the Black and Hispanic lawmakers pointed out — raises the political stakes all the higher.

Gilchrest, co-author of the original language and co-chair of Human Services, did not back down.

"'Pregnant person' is actually the inclusive term, it is a gender-neutral term and it would encompass expectant mothers, pregnant women. And so as we talk about DEI, this is the direction we are hoping to move in, in this state and ideally across the country," Gilchrest said, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion. She asked members of the committee to vote against Porter's amendment.

Gilchrest is correct in the strictest use of the language. Clearly, "pregnant persons" includes mothers and of course, her whole intent was to include everyone.

And in fact, the legislature has systematically updated Connecticut statutes over the last several years to install gender-neutral language. Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, co-chair of human services, cited at least nine similar examples. The new wording is not meant as a label, Lesser said; only as broad legal language.

Unfortunately, inclusion is not a dictionary definition. It's how people feel. That's the point that Porter, along with others who supported her, made when they spoke: In their view, "persons" does not include them or their mothers.

"I don't think you could speak with those of us from Black culture," said Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London. "For us to go home and call our mother something other than Mother, we end up with a slap across the face."

Gilchrest insisted the language was designed to address discrimination. "What we know to be true is that individuals in the LGBTQ community experience significant mental health troubles in large part because of the discrimination that they're facing in this state and across this country," she said. "No one is taking away an individual's ability to identify the way they want to identify."

That's when Porter's comments grew sharp.

"You want to talk about discrimination? Well I'm here to tell you that Black people in America know that very well," Porter said, never losing her cool. "This structural and systemic racism that's built into the system is what we have fought from day one for centuries. And this is where I really get frustrated in this building because what we say is dismissed, disregarded, disrespected and there's no compromise in that. But I'm always asked to compromise when I come to the table....and today again we're having this conversation."

Porter referred to an earlier exchange on the topic behind closed doors in a Democratic caucus room. She continued, "If I'm telling you that this is not how I identify and I don't relate to don't get to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion and exclude me and the other women like me who identify as mothers, as women with wombs."

She emphasized that she was fine leaving in "pregnant persons" as long as the bill also included "expectant mothers," and she later told me "expectant" is the word she felt most comfortable with, not pregnant.

The title of "Mother" holds special significance, Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-Waterbury, a former chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said at the debate. "Culturally, I have to tell you as a Puerto Rican person, in my mind there's nothing more sacred than the mother," Reyes said, "and I wouldn't change that title for anybody."

Porter's amendment carried the day 32 to 16. All Republicans gleefully joined her as they watched Democrats battle one another. The underlying bill then passed 48-1, with the lone nay coming from Gilchrest, who had championed the bill in the first place. Now it heads to the House floor.

A boost for Trump?

I spoke with a person who's part of several groups affected by this debate about the importance of gender-neutral language in laws. "No mother is slighted by being referred to in a piece of legislation as a 'pregnant person,' " said Devin Avshalom-Smith, one of the first publicly transgender elected officials in the state as a New Haven alder from 2021 to 2023.

"However, by adding the language 'expectant mother,' it begs the question," said Avshalom-Smith, who works for the House Democrats as a legislative aide but was speaking for himself, not the party. He is Black and said it's unfortunate the debate divided along racial lines, as he does not feel the need based on his culture to add "mother" to the law. "To me, it slights people who are transgender. It others them."

I can see both sides of this language debate. No one wants laws to discriminate, and there are people who get pregnant who do not identify as women.

On the other hand, language can get out ahead of what the public is ready to accept. If that public includes vast numbers of people in one group who have faced centuries of discrimination, we must respect that. To repeat, inclusion is a feeling, not a set of facts.

My concern is not the language in this bill, it's politics — and not in Connecticut. Democrats can afford to lose a few races in this deep-blue state with one-party rule. No, the issue here is Donald J. Trump. This pregnancy debate is sparking ridiculous accusations that Democrats are trying to eliminate gender altogether.

If that sways voters in swing states, it would be a terrible outcome. If it weakens Black support for President Joe Biden, it would be a terrible outcome.

"I don't see it that way. We're a diverse party," Rojas, the majority leader, told me, repeating an oft-cited point when leaders face intra-party squabbles. He's not going to tell both sides to knock it off, though he will try to bring them together. "An existential threat to us? No, I don't think so, not as a party."

Connecticut has had similar debates including one last year involving the word "Latinx," a word Reyes opposed as not representing either gender in that community.

Porter, like Rojas, believes the debate is safe for Democrats and could even be "a tool for empowerment." It remained civil at all times.

"At the end of the day it's about policy, not politics," she told me.

I'd like to see debates like this flourish. After the election.


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