Over the weekend, a fury unfolded in Baltimore. At the center were women’s rights and one of the most beloved and iconic street festivals the city has ever hosted: Honfest.

The festival, named for the warm, proud, stereotypical Baltimore women who wore beehive hairdos and cat-eye glasses—most notably portrayed in the John Waters film Hairspray, starring Ricki Lake—is a summer tradition that has been taking place in the Hampden neighborhood for decades. (“Hon” is the Bawlmer term of endearment short for “honey,” according to the festival website.) While liberal Baltimore is known for being vibrant, eclectic, and inclusive, Hampden is its unofficial hub of diversity. Its alleyways are homes to edgy murals, and on the streets you’ll find everyone from preppy moms pushing strollers to hipsters and drag queens.

So when the Honfest organizers decided to exclude Planned Parenthood of Maryland (PPM), a longtime vendor and valued nonprofit—which provides inclusive quality, compassionate, and affordable healthcare—the city practically shook.

“Planned Parenthood of Maryland was rejected as a vendor at HonFest, then told we could ask another vendor to share if we abided by a gag rule,” the organization wrote via social media. “We will not perpetuate silence and stigma of our services.”

Honfest quickly issued a necessary response, in which organizers noted that there have been “very unfortunate public incidences” since Roe v. Wade was overturned, and they simply wanted a fun, family-friendly festival sans spectacle. “We invited them to join the only non-artisan vendor, the Baltimore City Health Department, in their booth and use that space to promote women’s health issues like breast health, female-related cancers, and STDs,” the festival wrote.The post attracted hundreds of angry comments at warp speed. Longtime festival goers vowed never to attend again, calling out the fact that, in a town known for being inclusive, at a festival that celebrates women, Baltimoreans, who generally feel safe from having their Planned Parenthood locations shuttered and their rights to healthcare stripped, the implications of Honfest’s decision are significant.

Of course, Planned Parenthood has long provided dozens of necessary services, only a small fraction of which involve abortion care. If the idea that it is suddenly so controversial can take hold among organizers of a public celebration of women in Baltimore, where else could it be uninvited to participate? The decision didn’t just feel controversial. It felt almost ominous—terrifying.

Once news of the decision broke, sponsors began pulling out. When Union Craft Brewing, one of the city’s most popular breweries, signaled it wouldn’t be supporting HonFest 2023, it became clear the event was in trouble. “We believe it is essential to support organizations that provide crucial resources and care to individuals in need,” the brewery said in a statement. “We will continue to actively seek out partnerships and events that share our commitment to fostering an inclusive and supportive community.”Just a day after the shocking announcement, Honfest backtracked, posting that while it had intended to “remain politically neutral” with the decision, it had “inadvertently created the controversy” that organizers didn’t want.

But the damage had been done. Baltimore feminists, and just about anyone who values inclusive healthcare, felt that Honfest hadn’t only rejected Planned Parenthood. In a time when women are nearly bleeding out at home after being denied medically necessary abortions, the festival’s decision had signaled something far bigger and more dismal: that Marylanders might not be safe, either.

Rahne Alexander, a well-known trans artist, author, and musician in Baltimore, told Fast Company that Honfest, which is “kind of a drag show,” and takes place in the middle of Pride month, is inherently political. “Producing Honfest is not an apolitical decision, and it never has been,” she says.

Alexander noted that organizers seemed to show their true colors by not welcoming Planned Parenthood at a time when supporting such organizations is so deeply important. “They seem to want to celebrate an iconography without examining the political history that directly enabled it, and that’s not a problem we can continue to overlook at a time when women of color, trans people, and others are under direct threat of losing our rights as U.S. citizens,” she says.

Fast Company reached out to the festival for additional comment but did not hear back.

By the end of the weekend, Planned Parenthood said it had declined the too-little-too-late request to be a vendor, writing that a “dangerous precedent” had been set. “This is bigger than PPM not being able to purchase a vendor space at a festival,” it wrote on social media. “Nationwide, reproductive healthcare providers deal with silencing and efforts to block or decrease access to their services on a daily basis.”

It added that Planned Parenthood of Maryland would be a block away from the festival, at a business that offered it space to promote its services on the day of the event.

Baltimoreans certainly let organizers know exactly how they felt about Planned Parenthood not having a booth, which in turn felt like a triumphant moment for both the city and the nonprofit. Still, its original exclusion from a festival that is supposed to be pro-women, pro-inclusion, and full of joy has cast an unexpected shadow that seems to be showing up everywhere—even where we least expect it.


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