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a black and white photo of a blonde woman. on her right forewarm is a piece of masking tape with sharpie ink that reads “abortion is healthcare”
Erin Smith of Feges BBQ and co-founder of I’ll Have What She’s Having
Emily Jaschke

These Houston Hospitality Veterans Are Teaming Up to Fight Back Against Texas’s Abortion Law

Despite the potential for backlash, some of the industry’s most prominent players are protesting SB8

On Thursday, Houston bartender Lindsay Rae is planning a party at her Midtown drinking den Two Headed Dog. Instead of the usual birthday celebration or themed cocktail party, Rae and others plan to make signs — and connections — with people planning to attend the Houston Women’s March on Saturday, October 2 to protest the state’s highly restrictive new abortion law.

The march is one of many happening throughout the country this weekend in response to a series of laws already enacted or in the works that restrict reproduction rights. The Texas law, known as SB8, went into effect on September 1, and prohibits all abortions after six weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The law also makes it possible for anyone suspected of aiding a person in obtaining abortion to be sued. Texas’s law has already become the model for similar legislation in several other states.

Tonight’s event, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., will give people an opportunity to meet march buddies, discuss safe protest strategies, and build camaraderie amongst those planning to attend the march on Saturday. Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons of reality TV show Top Chef, which is currently filming in Houston, will lead the march.

“Maybe you want to attend the march, but you’re afraid, or you don’t have anyone to go with,” Rae says. Her plan for Saturday is to meet up with other industry folks at the march, and spread the word of I’ll Have What She’s Having, a Houston organization that supports women in the male-dominated hospitality industry.

It’s just one of several events organized by IHWSH in response to SB8. Earlier this summer, the group, led by Rae and pastry chef Valerie Trasatti, hosted a series of happy hours benefitting abortion funds in the state. More recently, IHWSH organized a campaign called the 1973 Project to raise funds and awareness that abortion is an essential component of health care.

IHWSH was initially founded in 2017 as a response to the election of Donald Trump, according to co-founder Lori Choi. Although she is now a vascular surgeon, Choi worked in the hospitality industry for years before attending medical school. Her husband, Ryan Pera, is also a chef with Agricole Hospitality. In talking to Pera’s female coworkers, she realized that women in the hospitality industry were working in a male-dominated field — much like she was in medicine.

“I realized we needed to be offering women an opportunity to network,” she says.

So she teamed up with a handful of prominent chefs and restaurateurs, including Erin Smith of Feges BBQ and Lisa Seger of Blue Heron Farms, to launch I’ll Have What She’s Having. Shortly after the organization was founded, it shifted to providing access to medical services like mammograms and birth control to marginalized people in the hospitality industry. That is especially important considering that, according to Choi, more than two-thirds of people in the service industry do not have health insurance.

IHWSH has been providing support to those workers for a few years, but really went into overdrive in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when many workers found themselves out of a job due to stay-at home ordinances. When the state reopened, restaurant employees had little help from the government in navigating the pandemic.

“Hospitality workers were already at a disadvantage,” Rae says. “We had a government that did not help you, did not assist you, then told you that you had to go back to work with no support.”

a woman in a chefs apron with nothing on underneath. on her chest are a few pieces of masking take with sharpie that read “86 the abortion ban
Jess Timmons of Cherry Block Butcher
Emily Jaschke

For the 1973 Project, the organization is asking for donations of $19.73 — a number that represents the year Roe V. Wade was decided — and to pose for a selfie with a piece of masking tape, for the makeshift labels used in restaurant kitchens daily, somewhere on their body proclaiming their opposition to SB8.

A number of Houston’s hospitality veterans have already donated and posed for the project, including restaurateur Benjy Mason, chef Monica Pope, Keisha Griggs of Ate, and restaurant consultant Jess Timmons, Money raised will be distributed to Texas abortion funds, including Lilith Fund, West Fund, and Clinic Access Support Network, which provides transportation to people seeking abortions.

At least one Houston bar owner is making the trek to Washington, D.C. for the official rally there. Mary Ellen Angel, who owns Downtown charity bar Angel Share, will leave Friday for the nation’s capital. She wants to stand on the steps of the Supreme Court and be seen. “It’s super important that the people who are making these laws see the people that they affect,” Angel says.

While she’s away, Angel Share will act as a gathering spot for demonstrators after the march. Even thought the bar usually opens at 4 p.m., her staff all agreed that they wanted to come to work early and open the bar at noon to support the movement. In addition, the bar will highlight four reproductive health nonprofits during the month of October.

At times, Angel worries about the ramifications of speaking out against the bill. “It is scary to me as a business owner, that there might be some pushback,” she says. “But this issue is core to my identity as a person.”

One Houston restaurant has already seen backlash. Sarah Lieberman, owner of Bellaire breakfast spot Dandelion Cafe, says she’s been targeted by a troll after posting her support of the 1973 Project. A commenter on the restaurant’s Instagram starting expressing views in support of the ban, and soon, the discussion turned nasty. Leiberman says that after she blocked the woman from commenting, that person took to Facebook and Yelp to falsely claim the restaurant was infested with roaches. After posting about the incident earlier this week, the cafe received an outpouring of support.

For Rae, the event highlights the importance of “third places,” outside of work and home where people interact. “Historically, taverns and other third places have played a significant role in helping change the world,” she says. “We have some of the most prominent people in the food and beverage industry speaking out,” she says. “That law is not Texas. We are Texas.”

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