When it comes to abortion and religion, most people think of people who want to chip away at people’s reproductive rights. For the past decade in America, the religious right has done just that. Even though abortion is legal at the federal level, state after state has passed bills, with little fanfare, taking away a person’s right to an abortion or to determine their own reproductive health needs.
Thank God for Abortion wants to change that. Viva Ruiz, the founder of Thank God For Abortion, grew up Catholic and is using religion as a way to get people to think about why a person’s right to choose should be considered a part of our theology, not against it. Ruiz sat down with TheBody to discuss religion, sex work, and her new short film, “Chloe Dzubilo: There Is a Transolution,” which is about the late trans activist Chloe Dzubilo.
Mathew Rodriguez: Can you just introduce yourself first?
Viva Ruiz: That answer always changes. I’m Viva Ruiz. I am an Ecua-Yorker. I always like to start with my parents are immigrants. So I have that Ecua-Yankee experience. I’m an artist, I’ve always been an artist, but I only recently started using that label, because I didn’t feel—I just didn’t have people that did that when I was a kid. And there was a lot of class stuff in the way for me. But I’m an artist and cultural producer. I’m a sex worker and pleasure-based person. Firstly, I was a dancer and a very body-centric sex worker. I’m a retired sex worker. I like to say, “retired for today.” Ask me tomorrow what that is like, maybe it changes. But I was a dancer for many years at a lot of mom-and-pop strip clubs when they were around, pretty grimy places that I would call my art school. And it was all the education I needed.
I care a lot. That’s in the middle of the work that I do. I was at a conference about queer and reproductive health, and they put sex work right in the middle of it. And the speaker said that often—like, there were studies that showed that sex workers, when they stopped doing sex work, often go into caregiving or healing work. And I was like, that is incredible. To frame sex work as healing, as care work. And it is. And so it’s not different what I’m doing now, because I always did feel like the work I was doing was energetically healing for myself and radiating out. And TGFA is body work.
MR: When did you start TGFA as a campaign? And what led to that framing of it?
VR: So I guess it was about five years ago now, and just as somebody in touch with what’s happening around sex, sexual health—that’s always been a thing for me, the world that I like, being a sex worker. And ACT UP. I feel like ACT UP is very much in my studio, growing up in New York and having a sexual awakening in the middle of a sex life born in flames, where you didn’t have a language about sex without consequences.
I was raised very Christian, very Catholic. I thought I was going to be a nun. Like for real, when I was a kid, I prayed the rosary every night. I was very devoted, and church was a safe place for me. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens. At the time, there was a lot of crack on the streets, and there was danger on the streets and in my house. Danger was a part of life. I can speak to poverty, be dangerous, you know, it’s dangerous. You don’t get information, and you don’t get safety that money can give you. That’s why I love church, because church, in theory and in its sweetest form, is a sanctuary. I had a big break with the church because of LGBT stuff and because of misogyny, but I came back around with TGFA to loving the concept of faith, because how can I judge that?
Jesus was a compassionate, safe place regardless of who, anything I was. It was just unconditional love, and that’s what I love. And the part that made me divorce from it were the people enforcing their bigotry. The year was 2015 or something like that. And I knew that all these abortion clinics were being closed. They were just being disappeared, taken off the map. I was disgusted by how they got away with so much and they were getting away with. I knew that these clinics were closing, but it wasn’t the news, it wasn’t on the front page. You know what I mean? It wasn’t on the front page, but it wasn’t a secret.
And when I would talk about it with my friends in the, I’m going to say less “queer,” more “gay,” community, I got push-back or felt silenced. Like that some people’s ability to make humans is everybody’s business, like to propagate the world. For some reason, these attitudes were still in the gay left. How is this happening in plain sight? And then being confronted with that with my friends, I just started going hard, using Christian language that upset those people the most.
MR: One thing that you’ve said before that I really resonate with is that, obviously, abortion clinics are closing, and so many reproductive rights are under attack in the U.S., but because it’s still federally legal, it doesn’t feel like there’s the same urgency here as in other countries, where they are still fighting for legalization. So people are like, “Oh, well, it’s legal,” but they don’t think, in some places a woman has to drive for eight hours to just get to somewhere where they can access abortion. And they’re going to be told, “Oh well, this is a living baby inside you.”
VR: And these increasing laws that they’re inventing every day that are just like torture. Like to insist that somebody have a sonogram, like invasive procedures for no reason. You know, making somebody wait to think about what they’re doing after traveling and fighting, having to leave work, to take time off to travel to another state, to find housing and then made to wait to think about what you’re doing. Like that is some straight up fascism. Yeah, it has been federally legal for a minute, but is it accessible? And if it’s not accessible, then it doesn’t matter if it’s legal. I grew up in Ecuador, partly, and I have a lot of family in Ecuador, where it’s illegal—in a lot of South America, it’s illegal. And in Poland, Ireland wasn’t—up until recently, it was illegal. And that was another thing that was igniting me, that like, with gay marriage, there was a big celebration. I celebrated, when they had that in Ireland, the most Irish Catholic over there. Right. And then marriage passed. Same-sex marriage passed. But abortion was nowhere near being talked about. And I was like, “How did that happen way before this?” And I went, “Because we’re missing the cis men in this, and the muscle—the access men have moves things, because who has more access than white men?”
MR: That leads into one of my questions—you were talking about as opposed to “queer,” talking to the gay left about these things. I don’t think that people understand that reproductive rights are a queer issue. So what do you say to someone? Let’s say you were having a conversation now, how do you connect that synapse for them?
VR: Yeah, and you have to walk people—take their hands and walk them through it. As activated as they can be, you know? I am experiencing that, where people go that they can love me as a person, as a personality, they can like my work, but they don’t get why I’m at Pride or they don’t get why this is queer or gay people should be concerned. I’m like, OK, and this is where the strength of the project is for me, is that it’s not theory. I’m a queer person, and I’ve had two abortions.
That’s it. You know what I mean? I am embodying that a queer person has had an abortion, abortions, and needs abortions, because not only men have semen. It only doesn’t make sense if you dismiss a nonbinary world. If your world is binary, then it doesn’t make sense. So it is a very cis premise. That’s where queerness disrupts that, you know. People have been baffled. There have been sadly right-wing gay people that think we’re deranged, that gay people can’t have babies or whatever. But that’s not true.
And you know what I like to say? “Let go! The world has never been binary. Let go or be dragged.” And for people that care that are activists and being like, “Well, why is this here?” I’m like—know how to hold a mirror up! The project has been really unexpected. You know, it’s grown unexpectedly—like it’d be, it was an artist’s expression. It was a personal expression. It’s a thing that is gaining energy, because there’s been so much under this rock that people don’t want to pick up. Coming back to my Christianity, to my spirituality, is authentic to me.
I’ve never not been a spiritual person, but I feel a “calling,” as they say. You know, because I inhabit these spaces of like Christianity, Catholicism, Latinx, queerness, to just tell my truth. People are identifying with that that haven’t had that before as much. I think because how fascist things are, there’s more momentum, and it is amazing to feel people, to see and connect with people, with people that are doing this.
MR: Can you sum up, if someone were to ask you, what is your theology when it comes to bodily autonomy? And how does abortion fit into it?
VR: I love that. And I claimed Christianity, because Christianity has the word Christ in it. And as far as even the accepted Bible, it’s a curated work, first of all, right? Based on who gets to have power. But if we’re talking about Jesus, who is a recognized prophet, and the metaphor of unconditional love, the parts that pertain to me is not the church beliefs or what they have picked out as what they need to pick out to stay in power. So I’m overlooking what is accepted doctrine, because the Christ message is unconditional love and made in God’s image and that’s where sex is sacred to me. It’s a comprehensive picture of sexual health, that we need equity in sexual health. Just the same way that sex—you know, who gets criminalized, who gets penalized for having sex? Not everybody, not everybody. Why men are the industry, white guys, straight cis white guys. Carte blanche, as they say.
But meanwhile, Michael Johnson. Talk about being criminalized for being a sexual person. Like even having disclosure, HIV disclosure, he went to jail. Like who gets sent to jail for sex? Not everybody. You know, and this is holistic for me, like in the same way that ACT UP tore me in pieces. You know? That movement against—look what the Catholic Church did. And this is related, and it’s not new, because even the protests then, there were abortion rights activists next to ACT UP, because it’s our battle together, and we do ourselves a disservice to separate ourselves, ’cause they’re not separating us. You know what I mean? We’re the same bag.
To them, we’re all the same. And honey, you can make that distinction from here, because you need some more power than someone else because of colonization. I get it, but they don’t see us as different. They don’t see any nuance. So in that same way, they’re not picking us apart, we’re being marched into the same hell, you know. They don’t care who’s there. This Christian white supremacy is a real fucking thing. And my desire with this project has been to provoke, agitate, celebrate.
And the point is like, if you’re upset by it and you’re my friends, we have had other things in common, then what’s missing? What aren’t you seeing? What keeps me from being human, really? And that’s the usefulness, I think, of agitating. I think it is agitating to a lot of people to uncover where we’re not seeing each other, because now it’s out there.
MR: The benefit that colonists have is that they get to colonize a lot of people at once. But decolonizing is one person at a time.
VR: It’s like mass produced versus a mom and pop.
MR: I did want to bring up, “There Is a Transolution,” and how much I love the film. One of the things you were talking about with TGFA was about celebration, and I felt like [your] film was such a celebration of humanity, and I want to know what it was about your subject in the film that made you want to celebrate her.
VR: Yeah, I could talk about Chloe Dzubilo for millennia. She was my mother. I called her, “Mother.” We were very close. She was like a spiritual guide for me and really took me in. She kept me under her wing. That’s what she was to me, and I got to see—in this very special place—her do her work. She had so much chronic pain. This was a person that had daily chronic pain, you know. And to see what she devoted her energy to when she was suffering like that. And having side effects. She was just kind of relentless and glamorous as fuck. That was part of her medicine, was just how she walked around.
She was very attractive, in a very pure sense. Like, you wanted to be around her—and that was part of her medicine. That’s queer medicine. And she was pansexual. She was a pansexual trans woman. I met her as she was dating Kelly McGowan, that was her girlfriend who was just like a fierce activist, and she had so much language around whiteness and about the misogyny of gay men, to be honest. She was the one that burst my bubble in this amazing way, ’cause she was like, “You can’t take it as a given that, like, everybody, because they’re GLBT …”
She was very spiritual. She would go to the pier, she had a goddess. She said she saw her in a dream. They’re called Sheila. She was a rallying call. She was very inclusive. She’s tender, she’s a mother. And she wanted to be. Kelly McGowan says I was her first daughter. And there’s tragedy in that story. She had a big circle, and we’re entrusted to carry the work forward and not let these people disappear—that is a job I take seriously. I’m going to cry, ’cause she’s still alive, and this is just energy. You know, she’s fierce, and she really saw big things in me before I did.
She would do house music about like AIDS and HIV and then pop rock music about Kaposi sarcoma. She just had such a light, she was an entertainer, you know. And that’s a very special way to carry a message. She was such an example of how you can merge purpose, purpose as an artist, purpose as a creative person, as a worker among workers, as a person wanting to change things. She was very concerned about queer youth. She was obsessed about leaving a legacy and wanting to archive her work.
So for me, the process of the film is so cathartic and beautiful, you know that people are seeing it and being touched by it. She had wanted that, and that’s what she’s doing. She can do that through me. I was like, “Come through, Mama!” And she did.