Would You Wear a ‘Thank God for Abortion’ T-Shirt?

Photo: Courtesy PARTICIPANT INC. Photo: Mark Waldhauser

The first time I saw the THANK GOD FOR ABORTION logo was on a friend’s T-shirt at the Dyke March last June. The shirt was black with white print, with the words THANK GOD FOR ABORTION floating above an image of hands releasing doves into flight. Numbed out as I am to the mainstream political T-shirt trend, in which once-potent activist slogans are repurposed by everyone from Urban Outfitters to Prabal Gurung to Benedict Cumberbatch (he is what a feminist looks like, after all), I didn’t register the slogan as particularly radical at first.

Then, on my birthday last fall, my friend Martin Keehn, a designer and a friend of the slogan’s creator Viva Ruiz, gave me a THANK GOD FOR ABORTION T-shirt. The words, doves, and hands were printed in white against a white background, giving it a crisp and holy hue. I remembered the phrase from the march, and felt slightly more affectionate toward it, as if re-meeting a forgotten mutual friend. The next day, I got dressed to leave the house and I put the T-shirt on. I was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure why. Truthfully, I had not felt emotionally connected to the issue of abortion rights in a very long time. As a lesbian-leaning queer, I hadn’t had pregnancy-risk sex in (many) years, and most of my friends, also gay and/or of a certain age, if interested in babies at all, were desperately trying to get pregnant. As I gathered my things to leave in my new T-shirt, I realized: I was scared.

From hour to hour, my feelings wearing the shirt changed, expanding my understanding about its power. On the subway, I felt very nervous as I sat down across a mother and her young child; I instinctively crossed my arms over my chest. Uncrossing my arms and sitting back up, I interrogated the ideas behind the discomfort: it was as if my self and my body weren’t mine suddenly, and had been politicized into an incontrovertible, scary, public debate. In this way, sporting TGFA mirrors the experience of being a vulnerable person trying to get an abortion this country: in, say, one of the 27 cities in the U.S. where one has to travel 100 miles to get an abortion, or as one of the 18 to 37 percent of women on Medicaid who would otherwise get an abortion but are forced to give birth because of lack of funding.

Photo: Courtesy PARTICIPANT INC. Photo: Mark Waldhauser

“Thank God for Abortion,” is a multi-platform art project by Ruiz — queer video artist, performer, and beloved NYC nightlife luminary. Part fashion object, part meme, part prayer, part coup, it’s a call for change and a spiritual “tool for celebration and agitation,” says Ruiz. After my own experiences with the T-shirt, I wanted to understand the project better and sat down to talk with her after catching her show, “ProAbortion Shakira: A Thank God For Abortion Introspective,” which is up at Participant Inc on the Lower East Side until March 10. With it clear, direct message, the exhibition is uncharacteristically political for the art world. “I mean, it would be ideal if this issue was irrelevant; that’s the goal,” Ruiz says. “Normalizing abortion by repeating it over and over.”

Viva Ruiz was raised by working-class Ecuadorian immigrants in Jamaica, Queens, and the Catholic Church loomed large in her childhood. “I loved church,” she says, which was every Sunday and unabridged: communion, confirmation, confession, all of it. “I was a lector but wanted to be an altar boy — wearing that gown, smoking the place up with incense.” Gender expression and experimentation were not exactly encouraged in the church: “My love for Jesus got beaten out of me” in that “misogynistic gender cage.” Ruiz would get to fulfill her genderqueer aspirations when she discovered gay nightlife as a teenager. “I learned how to be a performance artist dancing in strip bars” and transgressive, “very chic and really dirty” queer NYC dance clubs like Jackie 60 and SqueezeBox! in the 1990s, later joining performance group the Dazzle Dancers and DFA band Crystal Ark as a vocalist, and screening her experimental films at Deitch Projects, Outfest, and MOMA PS1. In that time, she also had two abortions, for which, she says, she is truly blessed. “Now, I can claim this in the name of Jesus Christ: Thank God for abortion. I’m walking with this and it’s true for me.”

Viva Ruiz, ProAbortion Shakira: A Thank God for Abortion Introspective, 2019, installation view at Participant Inc, six b&w photographs © Safi Alia Shabaik. Photo: Courtesy PARTICIPANT INC. Photo: Mark Waldhauser

Ruiz debuted the TGFA slogan on T-shirts and tote bags at a LadyFag party back in 2015, going on to emblazon it on large banners, stickers and posters for the Women’s March in 2017 and NYC Pride in 2018, where she created a full-scale TGFA float. Amid air raid horns and thumping reggaeton, float players dressed in TGFA jumpers danced and chanted, with Ruiz in a crown and white cape at the helm repeating: “I’ve had two abortions and God loves me!” to roars from the crowd. For Ruiz, Thank God for Abortion is more than a political platform: “It’s a lived, emotional truth … and the release [that happens] when people identify or wear the [swag] is so strong.”

A friend of mine who attended the Gay Pride March in June told me she was excited to see the TGFA float, with its striking black and white lettering amid all the rainbow flag paraphernalia, but also nervous: “I felt scared for their safety.” Indeed, the very sight of “Thank God for Abortion” has the effect of conjuring and indicting the violent pro-life movement to end abortion in the same breath. People who have joined TGFA in the Women’s March and Gay Pride report having difficult but empowering encounters. Ruiz collected some testimonials people shared with her from the NYC Pride March into a zine: “I have had two abortions, and I’ve never talked about it. As I was passing out stickers along the route, a woman took the little stack from my hand and threw it back at my face, screaming, ‘I’m pregnant.’ By choice? I asked. Be grateful for that. I have two brilliant daughters of my own. By choice.” Others, like reproductive rights activist Stephanie Castro, said that wearing the T-shirt works as a spiritual, transcendent salve: “When I put on my Thank God for Abortion shirt I felt an immense power overcome my body and surrounding space. As if generations of women … had been freed to live unapologetically and in control of their destiny and bodies.”

Ruiz herself recalls that while marching with a TGFA banner at the NYC Women’s March in the months after Trump was elected, a contingent of white women in pussy hats yelled at her: “This is not your march!” And queer people have questioned Ruiz about why abortion rights should be part of a conversation about queer rights. “I identify as a queer person and the first person I was pregnant by was a trans woman,” she says. “Penises don’t just belong to men … People get very proprietary about gay rights, but gender complicates that.”

Ruiz describes the power of the slogan as “kaleidoscopic.” “It’s not centrist, the middle or even the left.” We decide that maybe it beyond politics; as Ruiz told ArtForum back in June, “This work is a futuristic piece, a vision of a time when the ‘Thank God for abortion’ statement would be banal.” Oh, TGFA: I look forward to your banality.

Talking with Ruiz, I’m reminded again of the revelatory experience of wearing the shirt that day back in the fall. How by crystallizing the experience of living in a targeted body as it relates to abortion, it made me think about the experience of being targeted for other reasons, being a woman, being trans, being POC. In this way, the shirt shifts perspective, connecting the wearer to an embodied experience of “standing in a bunch of intersections.” For Ruiz, intersectional feminism is not just a theory, “I am a queer person and I needed abortion access.” To quote another TGFA testimonial, “The shirt is magic, period.” Indeed, the future might be TGFA. I want to believe that.

Would You Wear a ‘Thank God for Abortion’ T-Shirt?