Lon Newman And His Big Red Gay Balloons

Image Management gathered the employees of the Wausau Family Planning Clinic together to advise them Catholic protesters were coming to hold an “Adoration of the Eucharist” in front of the clinic. A voice in the rear, one of the new staffers, was heard to whisper, “What’s an Adoration of the Uterus?” 

Everyone loves a good morality play. Well, maybe not, but you are going to love this one. There is pomp and pageantry – heavy on the pomp. There are elaborate costumes; capes and sashes and flowing robes, ceremonial swords and funny hats with plumes. There are unique stage props, like giant silver candlesticks  a silver chalice of wine turned to said to be turned to blood, and a solid golden monstrance, home away from home, whenever the holy host travels. The monstrance is protected by an ornate canopy carried along the parade route on four spear-tipped golden poles. There is incense in a high volume dispenser, artfully handled by a backward walking dedicated incense waver, making the production a treat for the olfactory as well as the visual. And, thanks to the irreverent sense of humor of Lon Newman, Executive Director of Wausau’s Family Planning Health Services, (FPHS), this year the pageant had big, red, frisky, gay balloons.

ACT ONE: The curtain rises on a group of kneeling supplicants lining both sides of the walkway to the Wausau, Wisconsin Family Planning Clinic. The (mostly) elderly men and women, and a few of what I assume to be their conscripted grandchildren, mumble prayers as a desperate teenage girl heads toward the building. It’s 4:00 in the afternoon, and rush hour traffic has slowed so the looky loos can snap a picture with their cell phone cameras. The anxious girl hides her face, painfully aware someone passing by may recognize her, but she bravely trudges past the protesters. Some merely stare at her accusingly. Others hiss words meant to shame her. She wants to run away, but she has no money, and there is nowhere else she can go for help. Hers is a problem that cannot be prayed away. Her eyes fill with tears, but she refuses to let them fall. She keeps her gaze on the entrance; five more steps, three, two. One more step and a push of the door and this nightmare will be over. Inside she will find medical help. She will find compassion without judgment. After weeks of suffering, of tossing and turning and worrying about what she was going to do, the teen is about to find someone who will help her end her unwanted……… yeast infection.

I did not get last part wrong. Family Planning Services in Wausau does not offer abortion services. In fact, they are forbidden by the terms of their state grants from even referring a woman to an abortion provider. (Remind me to do a column about that little piece of injustice sometime.) What FPHS does, is help pregnant women of low to moderate means to have healthy babies. They educate young people about contraception and STDs. They help women (and men) avoid pregnancies that would end in abortions. Their Wic program gets fresh vegetables and fruits from local farmers into the diets of mothers and their young children. You would think the Catholics, with their history of community charity, would be holding fundraising Bingo nights, and bake sales to help them. But nope, they have opted for a pageant instead.

Year after year, the Catholics from two local parishes come and protest outside the Wausau FPHS Clinic. Most are members of 40 Days For Life, an anti-choice group whose national website boasts McDonald’s style: Over 700 babies saved! The mission of the group is to hold a 40-day vigil at abortion providers each year, but since the small number of Wausau members can’t sustain such a prolonged occupation, and since they don’t have an actual abortion provider close by to harass, the Wausau branch of 40 Days For Life schedules an opening and a closing ceremony 40 days apart, in front of FHPS. The priests puts on flowing robes and fancy vestments, and Knights of Columbus members don color-coordinated capes and sashes, and they lead a ragtag parade of true believers around the block, before settling in front of the clinic to glower at FPHS clients who are – not having abortions.

After years of suffering patiently through the 40 Days of Life protests, last week, Lon Newman, Executive Director of FPHS, had an idea. In a surprise move that made me think about General Mills management, who cleverly had employees offer refreshments to anti-gay marriage protesters dumping cereal in front of their Minnesota offices, Lon decided, if company was coming, why not put up some decorations and make a party out of it? So, last week, when he knew the protesters would be arriving for their closing ceremony, he rented two 18 foot red inflatable dancing tubes to give them a warm Wausau welcome.

The balloons immediately brought a festive air to the day. The wind was brisk that afternoon and the two tubes danced together merrily, oft times friskily, under the banner on the clinic that read “Birth Control is Health Care.” The children visiting the clinic, who come from neighborhoods where such displays are not an everyday occurrence, were enchanted. Suddenly, it was the balloon dance that drew the attention of the passing drivers, and not the depressive 40 Days of Life parade. The clients of FPHS were instantly relieved of their long walk of shame by the distraction the balloons engendered. And as an unintended but ironic bonus, the two 18 foot red cylinders tangoed together with unmistakable phallic symbolism.

Lon told me he shared a laugh over this unintended aspect of the waving tubes with our first openly gay Senator-Elect, Tammy Baldwin, at an event they both attended this week. “So they looked gay, Lon?” She asked, obviously amused. “Yes, they were really quite affectionate.” Lon admitted. The Catholics, however failed to see humor. They held their initial prayer service around the block, away from the amorous balloons, before approaching the clinic to save the babies who were…..you know, not being aborted

But what might have been an even better reward than the discomfiture of the protesters was the brilliance of the balloons themselves, a bright, happy, non-confrontational symbol, that bolstered community spirits and quietly, without violence or angry rhetoric, made an unmistakable statement on behalf of women: “We are not bit players in a dark passion play. Look up. Look away from these men in their silly costumes.  Look at the faces of our children laughing. This is where you will find life! FPHS is a vital part of our community, and we women want and need its services. Who are you to try to take this from us? This clinic is here to save the lives of the already born, not for 40 days, but 365 days a year.”

While the 40 Days For Life Catholics might not have been fans of the balloon solution, I for one, am a huge devotee. No violence. No confrontation. No police cordons or restraining orders. And, I think it has to be said, gay balloon porn is always a crowd pleaser. Smiles. Lon poked fun at the absurd and put smiles on faces. I find smiles very “Pro-Life” don’t you?

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