I once heard a speech by an African-American Federal Judge in which he respectfully counseled a predominantly female audience, “Remember, power is not given. Power is taken.”
Standing next to Paulette McKenzie Leaphart on July 9, as she completed her 1,000 mile bare-chested walk from Mississippi to the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, I felt that power.
Paulette is an undeniable force and exudes strength, wisdom and love. She carried with her a message of peace and unity, but also a demand to amend national health care to screen for, treat and cover breast cancer. A direct and clear-speaking woman, Paulette told us breast cancer isn’t pretty, or cute. Breast cancer isn’t pink ribbons. Cancer is ugly and painful. And we need to talk about it that way.
The details of her entire journey can be found here.
Her actual day began in Anacostia at the New Macedonia Baptist Church, whose warm and loving congregation volunteered to be her local host. They provided route marshals and assisted with water and shuttles. The Natalie Williams Breast Care Foundation organized the speeches, public address systems and permits for the gathering in Senate Park adjacent to the U.S. Capitol.
Paulette led a mix of bare-chested and non bare-chested supporters of all genders right through the heart of Washington D.C. and received many gestures of support and gratitude from passersby.
Several speakers told similar stories of difficulty in getting their doctors to take seriously their initial concerns about lumps or abnormalities. Natalie Williams, founder of the Natalie Williams Breast Care Foundation, said it took several return visits and adamant insistence to get her doctor to agree to test for breast cancer, which turned out to be present. Even after cancer treatment and recovery, she said she had to convince her doctor to retest when she felt symptoms returning! And the cancer had in fact returned! She said her doctor repeatedly told her she was overreacting. She also spoke about how her modesty affected her care, and her gradual loss of modesty as it related to her breasts.
Aside from the breast cancer awareness, I have to say what struck me most was the open-mindedness of the New Macedonia congregation and other people who gathered in support of breast cancer survivors. At first, and it was palpable for a few minutes, there was some confusion about why Hontouni Heart and I were there and why we were bare-chested and whether or not we were going to bring legal trouble to the march or divert attention. But as we began to talk to people, and as Paulette introduced us, and as women and men alike began to hear that female bare-chestedness has been legal in D.C. for 30 years, and as people began to understand we were there in support and that we were bare-chested for the same reasons the survivors were bare-chested… to take ownership of and destigmatize our bodies and health and to feel free and happy…the gestures of support and acceptance were really just overwhelming.
Let me be clear, this day was not about Gingerbread and Hontouni Heart. It was about Paulette and Madeline and LaShawn and Natalie and Zee and all the other amazing survivors and family members affected by breast cancer. But to feel that openness and acceptance, the day after the Dallas shootings, in the context of the tension our country was feeling, made my heart happy, truly.
In the end, Paulette asserted this important truth: breasts do not define us as women, breast tissue does not make someone female and the removal of breast tissue does not remove femaleness. Paulette said on her Facebook page that she has received bullying comments which refer to her as “he” or “him,” and that attempt to demean her femaleness because of her breast removal. She told me personally, and has said publicly, that her great realization was that her identity lies within her, that her strength lies within her and her belief in God.
Breasts are a body part, not an identity. When we remove stigmas and preconceived notions about the female body, feminine modesty and gender identity, it enables us to have real conversations about our happiness and health.