The Value in Being a Red Herring

A red herring is a “deliberate attempt to divert attention” and can be a form of peaceful political protest. I have been a red herring at least thrice in my life–as an escort for planned parenthood, after 9/11 when I wore a hijab for 4 weeks, and when I was an officer of my high school’s Gay Straight Alliance.


At some point, all escorts draw the attention of protesters. My training stresses non-engagement (we are not counter-protesters, but walking guides); however, this does not stop protesters from getting in my face from time to time. In Pittsburgh I can formally tell the protesters to go away and they have to move 8 feet away because of our bubble-zone law. Often, however, I allow them to focus their outrage on me because that means they are not badgering a woman and her partner. On the mornings that I escort, I figure that I can take the verbal abuse and will come away feeling better than a client might.

Not all protesters yell and scream, and only an ugly few call me (or anyone) a “babykiller”. I have a great relationship with Pro-Life students on my campus, and have a great deal of respect for their peaceful protests. However, when dealing with less peaceful and more aggressive protesters, I have the opportunity to serve as a red herring and reduce the stress our clients feel as they go to the clinic.

Wearing the Hijab

After 9/11 I remember reading news stories about Muslim women being attacked at in California for wearing hijabs. As a new 7th grader, I did not have the skills to deal with a lot of the input I was receiving about the relationship of Islam and the West. One thing I did know: it was anti-feminist to attack a woman because of the clothes she was wearing. For 4 weeks after 9/11, I wore a hijab nearly every day to school, to church, everywhere I went*. I was wearing a hijab to confuse people: perhaps people who were prepared to hate a woman because she was covered might pause when they saw a 12-year-old freckly and blue-eyed girl wearing the same covering.

Is She Passing?

I was the Secretary/Treasurer of my high school’s Gay Straight Alliance for a year. That year, I practiced not clarifying my sexual orientation when I told strangers about my officership. I was trying to confuse the issue, to make people unsure of whether I was straight or gay or bi (there is a movement of high school students–who are functionally straight–identifying as bisexual to set themselves apart from homophobes in their schools and to show solidarity for their gay friends). I have found new, more subtle ways to do this now: in casual conversation, I refer to my boyfriend as “my partner” or “my significant other” because I want those terms to be safe for everyone to use, and to not have a specific orientation associated with them.

Being a red herring can be scary, ambiguous and upsetting–it is also a powerful form of peaceful political protest. A form which I think is effective.

*I do know that wearing the hijab as a political symbol is problematic, and that as a non-Muslim it could be seen as disrespectful. All I can say is that I meant well, and did it with as much humility as possible.

Inspirational Quote:

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” – spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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