Missy Bird: Getting Paid to Make Trouble

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Those who attended this year’s Dyke March may remember the Barbie dolls that participated in a riff on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The fabulously dressed fashion dolls were puppeted by Missy Bird.

“I used to play with Barbies when I was a kid,” said Bird of the speech, in which she encouraged the women to think about their sexual health by asking, as in the play, what their vaginas would wear. “I was just going to borrow the Barbie clothes from my goddaughter, but I was like, no, you have enough Barbies here to let me borrow them and I can dress up the Barbies! It was more fun to me.”

Fun is a good word to describe Bird, the openly lesbian executive director of Utah’s Planned Parenthood Action Council, whose sense of humor and whimsy is as powerful as her commitment to women’s reproductive health.

“I have a very firm belief that until we ensure that women have full reproductive justice and access to full reproductive healthcare unhindered by any law that nobody will have full equality and control over their bodies,” she said.

Born in Salt Lake City and raised “mostly in Park City back when Park City was a small town,” Bird initially worked as a nanny and thought that she was “going to teach preschool for the rest of my life.” But after getting a job as the volunteer coordinator for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a group that provides court-appointed advocates for abused children, Bird found that nonprofit work was her true passion.

“I loved that job,” she said. “But when I got a job at another [nonprofit] organization, I was fired because I was gay. That was life-altering for me in a number of ways. I was out of work and I didn’t know what to do.”

Bird said that her grandmother convinced her to return to school and get her masters degree in clinical social work, which she received from the University of Utah. Inspired by her classes and by memories of the homeless youth she saw while living in San Francisco, Bird said she began researching the needs of Utah’s homeless youth who identified as queer. Her interest both in homeless youth and gay rights lead her, in 2003, to a young grassroots organization called Equality Utah.

“I called Michael Mitchell [then Executive Director of Equality Utah] and said, ‘Hey, you need to hire me,’” Bird recalled. “He said, ‘To do what?’ I said, “I don’t know, I just want to work here.’”

Bird got her wish. For three years, she worked part time at Equality Utah, answering phones and doing odd jobs while lobbying for the organization’s sponsored bills. In 2006 Karrie Galloway, CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, hired her as PPAC’s executive director and the Vice President of Public Policy for PPAU. Her first task upon coming on board? Open a dialogue with Utahns about the services Planned Parenthood offered.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘OK we’ve got to figure out a way for people to see that Planned Parenthood isn’t just about abortion,’” she said, adding that the group also provides prenatal care and adoption services. It made sense, then, that the first bill the group sponsored under her leadership sought — and secured — Department of Health funding to educate pregnant women about drug and alcohol abuse, and to give them priority if they entered detox treatment.

Bird said she is also proud of “The Fertility Protection Act,” a 2008 bill that created an education campaign about chlamydia and gonorrhea, two STDs that have been on the rise in Utah during the last decade. The legislation, she added “is now a national model for other states.”

“It destigmatized what Planned Parenthood is about and helped us next year when we pursued expedited partner therapy legislation,” she said, referring to the 2009 bill that allowed physicians to write antibiotic prescriptions to the sexual partners of people with gonorrhea or chlamydia. Last year also saw the unanimous passage of legislation mandating hospitals to inform rape survivors about emergency contraception.

“That was the first time in the country [a bill like that] passed unanimously in the year it was presented,” said Bird. “In most other states it takes five to six years and isn’t unanimous.”

“I think that speaks to how our elected officials and mainstream Utahns feel about birth control,” she continued. “Here people use it and don’t have a problem using it. And more than people admit they live our vision, which is every child is a wanted child.”

In keeping with her concerns for homeless youth, Bird has also worked with Legislators on both sides of the aisle to change Utah’s laws about homeless shelters, so one for youth can be built.

“I will not stop fighting until we build a homeless youth shelter in this city. It’s appalling to me that we would let our children sleep on the street,” she said. “We just gotta find the money and, as always, I’m working on finding the money.”

As a lesbian, a Planned Parenthood employee and a youth advocate, Bird does not see issues affecting lesbians, youth and women at large as separate.

“Since I’ve been at Planned Parenthood, one of biggest things I’ve been doing is getting the queer community involved in Planned Parenthood issues,” she said, noting that she has worked with the Utah AIDS Foundation and has served on the Utah Pride Center’s board of directors. “All of us lesbians have vaginas and we need to keep them healthy. Just because [some of us] are not going to have babies doesn’t mean that we aren’t at high risk for breast cancer and cervical cancer or STDs.”

And because she sees reproductive health and freedom as being connected to all forms of oppression, Bird insists that the most important part of her job is keeping conversations about these issues going.

“The community at large thinks a win comes in passing the law, but it’s not just about that,” she said. “It’s about how many people did you get to have the conversation about it.”

“I joke a lot that I get paid to cause trouble, but this isn’t about the politics for me,” she continued. “It’s about women and their stories. It’s about the record and what am I doing to change the record and what are we are doing to change the record as an agency.”

And sometimes, yes, it’s also about using Barbies to tell lesbians to keep their uteruses healthy.

“I still think people remember that speech,” she said, laughing. “I’ve gotten a lot of comments about it.”

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