Sunday, February 12, 2012

The men with baby bellies - reloaded

PregKit

It's almost four years since the story of Thomas Beatie, the 'Pregnant Man' first hit the International headlines.

News first broke on this story in the Advocate in March 2008 and then had a replay in July of that year when the baby arrived.

Since then the issue has had further replays around the world as Thomas and his partner announced first a second and then third baby.

Not the first, just the most prolific

Contrary to the usually lazy reports, Thomas Beatie was not the first trans man to carry a baby to term … just the most prolific to date.

And, if some trans men were a bit uneasy about the apparent contradictions in deciding to perform that most quintessiantially female of roles once, the controversy has grown with each successive pregnancy.

Juliet Jacques wrote about the topic in 3SIXTY in March 2008, after the Beatie story was first broken by the Advocate. Her account is reproduced here on her blog.

Now the whole issue has wings again, as Pink News carries a story today claiming the first case of a trans man in Britain.

Again the claim about the British case being the 'first' is wrong. Unfortunately journalists make these assertions rather too often. Really it means they've not personally heard of another case before and can't be bothered to research.

A deeper analysis

Anyway, it provides a reason to dust off an essay which I first wrote and released only as a Podcast back in March 2008, when the first big story broke. Here it is if you'd like to listen again:

However, I'm well aware that some people can't hear the Podcasts for whatever reason … perhaps because they use a computer at work or they lack the time or even the equipment on their PC. That's a shame in this case because I went to some lengths to get behind the hype and take a philosophical view of the issues. So now, at last, I've dug out the script for people to read instead.

The Men with Baby Bellies - March 2008

A couple of weeks ago an article appeared in the Advocate, a US gay and lesbian magazine. It was a first person account written by an Oregon man, Thomas Beatie.

To look at him Beatie looks like just about any other American man, I guess. He’s got a beard; muscular limbs; deep voice – you know, all that “man” stuff.

The difference is that his bulging belly isn’t an all-american beer gut, but the outward sign of what’s been growing now for five months in his uterus (yes uterus).

For, as Thomas explained, he is pregnant. And he’s pregnant for the simple reason that his legally married wife, can’t have children herself.

(Hmmm.. just think. How many wives have jokingly told their husbands that they’d have a family if he could be the one who did the hard bit?)

Deadly serious

In Thomas and Nancy’s case, of course, it was no joke. They had been married for ten years. To neighbours in the quiet Oregon logging community where they live, they are just an ordinary heterosexual couple.

There was no need for anyone to know that Thomas had a transsexual background. And, in the normal run of things, the two would have planned for Nancy to do the childbearing – using donor sperm by one means or another. Other couples do this all the time – whether officially through fertility clinics, or unofficially, with an ovulation calendar and a turkey baster.

But twenty years ago Nancy had needed to have a hysterectomy, as a result of severe endometriosis, so she couldn’t conceive herself.

A couple in Tom and Nancy’s position would be very unlikely to succeed in adopting a child. The false, negative, beliefs about transsexual people make that a very difficult proposition even in Britain. In redneck Oregon the prospects would be zero.

Pragmatic

So caught between the strong human desire to have a family – and the absence of any other viable options – Thomas made the decision to offer the womb he still possessed to bring a dearly wanted child into the world.

In the normal run of events that kind of generosity would be readily applauded. We’ve all read cases of mothers, sisters and even total strangers donating eggs – or even the use of their womb for nine months – to overcome another woman’s inability to conceive or carry a child herself. Most of us don’t need it to be explained why people do these things. The desire to bring children into the world and bring them up in a loving relationship is accepted as an axiom of humanity.

The assumption we all share this instinctive urge is so strong, in fact, that (even today) women and couples report feeling pressure from society if they don’t have children. Questions are asked. Fingers are pointed. Relatives express profound disappointment.

Thomas and Nancy’s desire to have a family therefore ought not to require more explanation than that.  ... Except that I’ll add, of course, that it’s also an enshrined human right too:

Human Rights

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, made by the UN in 1948, says that “Men and Women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family”.

For us Europeans the same spirit was expressed in Article 12 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, signed in Rome in 1950. It says, Men and Women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right.

And just before you speculate whether these expressions are meant to include families in which one partner is transsexual then two decisions of the European Court of Human Rights are worth noting:

The first, in 1997, confirmed that the relationship between a transsexual man, his female partner and their children by donor insemination was a family in the eyes of the court.

The second, in 2002, unanimously affirmed the right of transsexual people to marry and to found a family. In Britain, of course, these convention rights are underwritten by the Human Rights Act. The right of transsexual people to marry and to be recognised in law for all purposes in their acquired gender is also underpinned by the Gender Recognition Act. So the law on these matters is just about as unequivocal as it gets.

Biology 101

Before we go on, of course, many of you will be wondering how a transsexual man can be a man and yet still have the apparatus to produce eggs and nourish them to full term. Perhaps this underlines, however, how little is known about trans men as a whole.

You see, whilst male to female surgery is relatively straightforward and has come to be very sophisticated and successful these days, genital surgery for people going from female to male is a very different kettle of fish.

Instead of one stage, it takes four or five. That makes it correspondingly more expensive too. In the US, where Thomas lives (remember), the $100,000 required isn’t covered by most health insurance schemes either. So if you’re not rich enough to afford the equivalent price of a substantial house, you’re never going to be able to remove your female apparatus, let alone afford a penis.

Female to male surgery is also nothing like as sophisticated (yet) as the reverse. Modern surgery to fashion a vagina and the bits that go with it can require very close scrutiny by a gynaecologist to tell it’s been constructed.

By contrast, manufactured penises still tend to look a bit odd, they may not be able to work properly just to pee; sexual function is even more hit and miss. It’s no surprise, therefore, that most trans men have learned that being a successful man in our society has surprisingly little to do with having a penis.

So it’s not at all unusual or remarkable, therefore, that a man like Thomas would still have the innards and genitals he was born with – in spite of looking, sounding and feeling like a man in every other respect.

For that reason it’s also not surprising to learn that Thomas is not the first trans man to have conceived and carried a child in his belly.

Not the first

In June 2000 the US magazine, Village Voice, carried the story of Patrick Califia and Matt Rice – two men living together; both of whom had been born as girls; and cradling the eight month old son which Matt had carried.

And in the week that I’m writing and recording this piece the papers in Britain have unearthed the similar case of a 39 year old businessman, Sam More, who conceived and gave birth in the UK.

According to the same newspaper it’s believed that, worldwide, there have been at least a dozen other cases overall.

Hostility

One thing that these men tend to have in common is the reports they give about the hostility or indifference of medical personnel they encounter.

More describes, for instance, NHS ante-natal staff refusing to talk or even look at him. Thomas Beattie similarly describes going through nine separate doctors to try and get pregnant with clinical assistance before resorting to DIY means.

None of this is surprising, given the kinds of reception which trans men often report from other clinical encounters. The film Southern Comfort documents the death of Robert Eads, a trans man who died from cervical cancer that doctors in the southern US refused to treat. A trans man in the UK recently reported the horrifically disrespectful way he was treated when he had to go into an NHS hospital for a hysterectomy.

You see, doctors aren’t even keen to remove these organs from trans men when there are strong health reasons. As a society we can’t therefore be too precious about what trans men do as a result of having them.

Ignorance

Watching debate about these cases in the last week or so – in the US and in the UK – has certainly been interesting. In the US the Blogs and noticeboards have lit up with posts from people who, regardless of politics or ideology, share a woeful ignorance about the facts we’ve discussed here. In the UK we’ve been blessed initially that the journalists who’ve approached folks like me for research have been astonishingly sophisticated and intelligent in their approach. Whether that will last among their peers is another question.

But it’s certainly interesting to see how people have difficulty being clear about what it is they feel most uneasy about. Is it the question of a man having a baby? Or is it the question of a transsexual person being fertile either way, or having a family and bringing up children?

A Philosophical Question

The irony in the first case is that writers and philosophers, feminists and theologians, have long enjoyed speculating about men having babies.

Throughout the past century in fact, people have been writing about pregnant men. The people in Ursula Le Guin's novel “Left Hand of Darkness” are all one gender and therefore "men" can get pregnant. In Marge Piercy's novel “Woman on the Edge of Time”, everybody grows babies in artificial wombs but both men and women can nurse the infants when they're born. And in the film “Junior”, male scientist - Arnold Schwarzenegger - carries a pregnancy in his own body as part of a fertility research project.

A Legal Question

When it comes to the question of transsexual people being fertile then, in any other contexts, the ideas put forward would send shivers down the spine.
In Germany, one of the very first countries to legislate to recognise gender changes, applicants were required to be permanently sterile. Note – not just unable to take their former reproductive role, but to be sterile full stop. In any other context people would have been alarmed. Yet it seemed a wholly reasonable proposition to require this for trans people.

Fortunately Germany’s model wasn’t followed by any of the dozens of other states that now legally recognise a change of gender. Yet, when the Gender Recognition Act was debated in Parliament in 2004, there were still people prepared to stand up and call for such a requirement – or to insist that rights could only be claimed in return for mandatory surgery.

Those voices didn’t win, fortunately. Parliament realised the unacceptable nature of stipulations of those kinds. We therefore have an Act in Britain which recognises that someone can be a man or a woman without genital surgery, if there’s a good reason why. And there’s no talk of denying people the right to passing on their genes, having babies or bringing up children by any means possible.

What about the children?

And what about those children? Well, for decades trans people used to be advised that the cure for the way they felt was to go and marry and have children. So we have lots and lots of examples of children with one (and sometimes two) parents who are trans – and all the evidence points to them being happy and well adjusted.

Some might argue that such children might be the butt of teasing or bullying at school. Well, that happens. Children get bullied when they have a single parent, or parents of different colours. They survive family break-ups and acquiring step fathers or mothers. They survive having parents in prison. They survive abuse. Children are resilient and the thing that matters most is not what your parents are, but the fact that they are there – and the knowledge that they love and care for you. As for the school situation, bullying is wrong – whatever the reason. The solution isn’t to prevent children having trans parents, but to deal with the bullying. Full stop.

Summing up

Trans parentage inevitably raises lots of questions, but I hope you’ll see from this discussion that the best way to deal with those is to start from the basis of facts rather than supposition and hysteria. And if all else fails? Well, as always, those handy Human Rights principles are a good basis to start from.

The last word on this comes from one of those US bulletin boards that I mentioned at the outset though. One of the correspondents there asked what kind of maternity clothes a guy like Thomas Beatie should wear over his bump. The answer, from another correspondent, was disarmingly simple: The same kind of shirt all men wear when they’ve got a pot belly.

Difference is, Thomas’s belly will get small again.

3 comments:

Liam ( @AutistLiam) said...

And lots of people need transcripts of podcasts because we're Deaf or Autistic! Podcasts are not really a very accessible medium.

Also, great post. I'm fully expecting when I have my baby in a few year's time, I'll be "Britain's first pregnant man!" despite the dozens of men to give birth before me.

Christine Burns said...

Hi Liam

I quite understand that Podcasts aren't accessible to everyone. Equally, I hoped that they would be more accessible for people with visual impairments ... plus people can listen when they are doing other things.

When I started the Podcasts I did try and include the scripts too. You'll see that, back in March 2008, I was trying to blend the Podcast and Blog content together.

In practice that kind of blend was very hard to keep up, especially as the Podcast came to cover events and interviews, so the essays moved to the Blog almost exclusively.

If anyone would like to volunteer to produce transcripts of any of the Podcasted interviews then I would be delighted to run them on the blog

Christine Burns said...

PS Liam, good luck with the baby. The media can never have too many firsts :-)