HonFest kicked off in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood once again this weekend, but along with the usual bevy of big-haired, 50’s-styled women going for that kitschy “hon” vibe, many participants were sporting a decidedly different look.
Hot pink “I stand with Planned Parenthood” t-shirts were everywhere. So were buttons bristling with slogans like “Not your body, not your business,” “Stand up for Choice!” and “Against abortion? Don’t have one!”
Michele Danoff went for both looks, proudly displaying a “Bans off my body!” button on her pink flowery blouse, along with a towering purple wig and pink cat’s eye glasses.
“We came to support them,” said Danoff, referring to Planned Parenthood of Maryland and gesturing toward the local salon where the organization had set up tables after being rejected by the event organizers, stirring up considerable blowback.
“We had friends who wanted us not to come, but I was like ‘No, no, no, I’m coming with my buttons!’” she said yesterday, striking a fierce pose with a friend who had once been a runner-up in the Miss Hon contest.
“I think you need to be here and open your mouth.”
Erin Wilcox and a friend, Karen Campos, each carrying a large Planned Parenthood placard, said they were disappointed by what they considered the event’s bizarre misstep.
“I think it’s because Denise Whiting is tone deaf,” Wilcox observed, referring to the event organizer and owner of the former Cafe Hon, who appeared to be keeping a low profile Saturday.
Hot Topic Issue?
The nonprofit group, which provides low-cost reproductive health care services, including abortions, had announced on its Instagram that it had been turned away after having been a vendor at the annual event for years.
HonFest then doubled down in a social media reply, saying that it was invoking the festival’s stance against vendors displaying “political, religious and hot topic issues” that Planned Parenthood had, it implied, become since the fall of Roe v. Wade.
In a progressive neighborhood in a liberal Democratic city, people weren’t having it.
“I’m a nurse myself, so I know the severity, the importance, of having healthcare for everybody,” said Jujuan Bonaparte Allen, who had come to the event with two friends.
“You have women who get raped. You have women who have been in unhealthy relationships, who have been pregnant,” she said. “I think most of these people making these laws, they don’t know what it is to have a child.”
That was the message Karen Nelson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, stressed when she spoke with The Brew from the group’s temporary festival headquarters at the Flaunt Hair Boutique.
“If other people want to make it political, that’s their problem,” Nelson said, as festival goers flocked to the stacks of Planned Parenthood shirts and other merchandise and free buttons and informational literature.
“I can tell you, the patients that walk in the door and receive healthcare are not sitting around thinking about the government and politics when they’re making decisions about getting birth control, planning pregnancies and trying to keep themselves healthy.”
Striking a Balance
In some ways, the 30-year-old annual event looked as it always had. People sporting Elvis pompadours and flamingo-headed foam hats were sipping smoothies and walking down 36th Street – “The Avenue” – as a band belted out “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”
But gone were the days of dodging beehives to get through the crowd. At midday Saturday, the turnout was decidedly lighter than in past years.
“It’s usually packed by this time,” a vendor selling “Hi, Hon!” greeting cards and other merchandise complained, blaming the controversy.
In years past, she said, “people were asking to buy things before I was even finished getting the stuff out of the boxes to set up.”
The diminished turnout comes amid the severe backlash following the event’s treatment of Planned Parenthood.
HonFest’s Facebook page was flooded with over 1,000 comments condemning the decision. The Parisian Flea rescinded its contribution of the tiara to crown whoever is named “Baltimore’s Best Hon.”
The organizers eventually apologized and invited the group back – after one of the event’s major sponsors, Union Craft Brewery, dropped out.
Other vendors were torn.
Would they forgo the festival and lose out on both their deposit and potential business? Or participate in an event that had compromised their own morals?
For many, it was a difficult balance to strike.
“Usually when stuff like this happens I get more of ‘alright, what can I do to counteract this,’ rather than leave and not be a presence,” said Michael Bracco, owner of the clothing company Spaghetti Kiss and a longtime HonFest vendor.
Bracco’s solution was to donate all proceeds from his HonFest-designed shirt to Planned Parenthood.
“I feel like I’m being responsible towards something that I believe in while still surviving as a small business,” he said.
Parisian Flea was auctioning off the pageant tiara and giving the proceeds to Planned Parenthood, along with a percentage of sales. Other vendors and merchants were doing likewise, displaying signs prominently declaring their support for the group.
Done with Hons?
Vendors weren’t the only ones expressing misgivings about the event, whose theme celebrating working-class women of yesteryear has been successfully commercialized to draw visitors to the neighborhood.
“Both my grandmothers were hons,” said Wilcox, of Belair, noting that one of them “lost a thumb” at a washing-machine factory where she worked.
“Never again. I’m not doing it again” – HonFest vendor Melisa Mitchell.
The hon concept’s focus on white women has made it increasingly controversial, along with Whiting’s various public relations fiascoes like trying to trademark the term.
For Melisa Mitchell, founder of The Space Within Reiki, the latest controversy was the last straw.
“As people who have commodified the stereotypical Baltimore working woman, who claim to celebrate it but are making a whole lot of money off of it,” Mitchell said, “to exclude an organization that serves the people that the HonFest organizers claim to celebrate was baffling.”
Never a fan of the event, she nevertheless is participating in HonFest for the first time this year, something she felt necessary to promote her business, located about 10 minutes from The Avenue.
She’s donating a portion of her proceeds to Planned Parenthood, but says she won’t be back to the Fest next year.
“Absolutely not. Never again. I didn’t want to do it this year. I’m not doing it again.”