Red Lion, Pa.
I met Marlene Miller-Dyke in 1984. She was teaching health and coaching the girl’s swim team at Red Lion High School in south central Pennsylvania. James Carville once said that politically the state of Pennsylvania was Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, separated by Alabama. It was not that much of an exaggeration. Marlene was teaching and living deep in the Alabama part of the state. And she was a critical mass of the attributes that tend to set the more intolerant evangelical Christians to twitching:
She was teaching sex to teenagers in health class, including contraception and homosexuality (which were in the curriculum). And, speaking of homosexuality, she was spending a lot of time with the near-naked teenaged girls on the swim team. She was also going through a divorce. And, contra to the swim team nonsense, there was another set of rumors–she was dating the football coach, who was married. And, just to top things off, she was volunteering at the Planned Parenthood office in York.
Some of these rumors were true. She was dating the football coach, Don Dyke, whom she later married. She was also teaching sex education. She was also volunteering at Planned Parenthood. But an awful lot of the rumors weren’t true–and they were being retailed from local pulpits and the local Christian TV station. There were petitions circulating. The Red Lion school board stood with Marlene, but the situation was getting pretty ugly–and so she decided to sue 113 people for slandering her, including the TV station, some of the more mouthy ministers and an entire trailer court, filled with people who had signed a petition filled with rubbish against her.
I heard about Marlene from my book editor, who thought the trial could be a corker. The book never happened because the evangelicals quickly made a cash settlement and shut their yaps. But Marlene and Don became my life-long friends. They are kind and quiet, generous and smart, and fun. They are members of the local Methodist church. Don’s an outdoorsman, an avid hunter and fisherman. He used to have a Toyota pickup with two bumper stickers–NEA on one side and NRA on the other. This curious symmetry, teachers’ union and rifle association, is part of the reason why I love Marlene and Don: they don’t conform to anyone’s expectations. “But I quit the NRA,” he told me the other day when I stopped by their house, “because of the ridiculous nonsense they’re putting out against the President. They’re sending out mailings that say if he’s reelected, he’s going to take hunting firearms away from hunters.”
Don had other asymmetrical interests–asymmetrical, at least, among those who like to put Americans into carefully arranged boxes: he was an avid supporter of Planned Parenthood, even before he started going out with Marlene. It began in the 1980s when he would make his annual contribution to the United Way through his union: he would designate Planned Parenthood as the sole charity he wanted his money to go to. In addition to being a football coach, he was a biology teacher and, despite Marlene’s best efforts in the classroom, the amount that a lot of the local kids didn’t know about, well, biology was staggering.
After he met Marlene, Don became a Planned Parenthood activist. He would provide security for the young women coming in for appointments–most of which had nothing to do with abortion, by the way. Most of the women were–and are–coming for pap smears, pregnancy tests, information about contraception and to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (which is the latest term of art for what used to be called venereal disease when I was a kid, and sexually transmitted diseases more recently). “For a time there, it was very rough. We were out in the streets, confronting the protesters who’d surround the office,” Don says, “so the women could get safely in the door. Things have calmed down now because we’ve improved our security procedures.” But there’s still the occasionally brick that comes through the window, and constant fear that something really terrible will happen. “By the way, about 10% of the people we see now are men, who are concerned about infection and looking for condoms.”
Marlene was a member of the Planned Parenthood board for a year, “But it wasn’t a good fit,” she told me. “I just like doing things, taking care of problems, rather than talking about them.” She says the type of women who come to Planned Parenthood looking for abortions have changed: “They’re older now, many of them are married and already have kids, and don’t feel they can afford or handle another. We see a fair number of cases where the contraception has failed. And sometimes I’ll see women I know from the evangelical community–everyone knows everyone here–come through the door.”
I asked Marlene and Don if they had mixed feelings about abortion. (I certainly do.) “I don’t have mixed feelings about early term abortions,” Marlene. “I’m old enough to remember the 1950s when the daughters of doctors and dentists were taken care of, because their parents had friends who were willing to do it. But everyone else who wanted an abortion would wind up with someone who might or might not be a doctor in a motel room,” she said. “On the other hand, I have very mixed feelings about late term abortions. There are cases when they’re absolutely necessary, though. So I’m not sure about a total ban.”
The contentiousness between red and blue in York County seems to be eternal. “You’ve got a lot of people who talk about not wanting to give the President another term,” Don told me. “But I’m a poll watcher at our local precinct, and you rarely see some of those people show up. Who knows? They’re so upset with the President, they may this time. I don’t think some of them ever expected a guy named Barack Obama could get elected.”
As for Marlene, the decision to talk to me about the past was a tough one. The 1980s weren’t easy for her or her children. But she wanted people to know what it was like to volunteer for Planned Parenthood in the red zone. And there are occasional signs that people have learned something over the past 30 years. She recently received a letter that said, “I’m so sorry I did to you what I did. I wish I could undo it, but I can’t.” It was unsigned, but Marlene has a sneaking suspicion she knows who wrote it–a student who spread false rumors about her, and has now come out as a lesbian.