Thursday, April 10, 2008

The beginning of an end to maternal essentialism? I sincerely hope so...

Thomas Beatie is a pregnant trans-gender man from Oregon. There's been a fair bit of media coverage: most of it skeptical, some of it downright prejudiced and inflammatory.

The Guardian remarks on how the "common reaction is to wonder how someone can identify themselves as male and yet embrace pregnancy" and suggests that this is in fact "like saying you can't be a woman and have a career". There has indeed always been this widespread social assumption that equality has only to do with women attaining the same opportunities and privileges as men, and never about men attaining the same opportunities as women. When it happens, society balks!

As the F-Word puts it so well:

"Of course, the reason that the story has gotten so much attention is because Beatie doubly upsets the expectations of a society that is still quite rigid about gender conformity. If transitioning from male to female, or female to male, is still hard for some to accept, then folks who fall somewhere in between, or, as seems to be the case here, are not threatened by forays across the gender divide, totally confound. The concept that Beatie doesn’t feel like being pregnant threatens his identity as a man seems to be difficult to understand for those who are still not entirely comfortable even with those who break down gender roles, such as a female boss, a stay at home dad, etc, let alone challenge the concept of gender as a simple binary divided by an impenetrable wall".

In any socially collective way, we rarely get beyond the quite scandalously over-simplified gender binary that exists between us. Due to its apparently intrinsic and unshakable hold on society, most ground covered on issues of equality works with this divide rather than making any attempt to subvert or transgress it.

Pregnant men do subvert and transgress it, and it's a rare and beautiful thing.

When pressed for reasons why such an occurrence is so offensive, even professionals were struggling for articulate, sensible reasons. Most medical concerns centre around the testosterone treatment taken by Beatie to become male. According to Lisa Masterson, a Los Angeles obstetrician, excessive testosterone "can cause male-type characteristics in the female baby." But this can happen anyway, quite naturally, in more 'regular' births.

And most social concerns centre around the bullying the child might face at school having been born to its father. Bullying is always a favourite tool utilised by conservatives against any moves towards more unconventional parenting: it's been used against everything from single parenting, to adoptive parenting, to gay/lesbian parenting, and even to home schooling and special needs. It is not an argument - it is a non-argument - because the sad fact of the matter is, children get bullied for everything and anything and nothing - from being overweight to wearing the wrong kind of footwear. There's no logic in bullying, and it cannot be preempted. It's just a convenient, authoritative-sounding tool that is always effective in turning public opinion in support of conservative values. Kerrick Lucker, a gay activist at the University of California, gets much closer to the point when he says that "the only unusual challenges these kids face come from members of the public who see gender ambiguity as a great wrong". The bullying, this suggests, is traceable to a very adult public.

Anything that ever suggests a transgression of the old, tired gender binaries inevitably sees a creaky wheeling-out of those hideously reductive and inherently prejudiced arguments about what is considered 'Natural'.

For some reason, regardless of their moral behaviour or lifestyles, any normatively male and female couple have more right to have a baby than a gay/lesbian/trans gender couple who have had to fight everything from social and legal convention to intrusive state surveillance, and often hefty financial pay-outs, to conceive a child or adopt one. Yet reason must surely suggest, as Lucker goes on to point out, that "generally speaking, a man whose desire for a child is strong enough to overcome the obstacles that transgender men must face in bearing one is likely to be an extremely caring father".

As Beatie so eloquently puts it himself: "Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire". How long is it going to take us to realise that we are human before we are gendered?

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Andrew said...

Hi there, we kind of not really met a while ago, on the comments page of one of's posts about "female empowerment" and the Pussycat Dolls, where I wrote as echo.
I chanced upon your website, which is very well written and sadly under-read, or at least under commented.
While I don't have contrary thoughts on Thomas Beattie, I was wondering if you had an opinion on a gender/family question I had, as you seem to be very knowledgeable on the subject.
This might be a simple question, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on last names, and the almost universal tradition of both the mother and children adopting the father's last name. Is it possible to adopt a gender-neutral system? Hyphenated names would get unwieldy in a few generations, and making amalgamations of last names would create bureaucratic nightmares.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
Or even when same-sex couples marry, what happens then? Does one spouse adopt the last name of the other?

Thanks in advance!

jennifletzet said...

Thanks for your comments Andrew. I went in search of that post you mentioned, and I remember it now. Thanks for searching me out! Also, sorry for how long it's taken me to respond. I think this may be why I'm not particularly widely read: in a saturated blogosphere, I don't update my blog enough to keep people coming back regularly.
Surnames are a really interesting topic. Maybe I'll do a proper post on them... because the traditional patriarchal system isn't as universal as it might seem. In Spain, for example, everyone has their mother's name. Surnames are passed down matriarchally. And in some countries, the surnames of women are different from the surnames of men: in Iceland, a woman's surname will end with 'dottir' (daughter), like Bjork Gudmundsdóttir, and probably 'son' or 'sun' for a man (although don't quote me on that, because I don't know officially what the male equivalent is). Also in Russia most surnames will end with an 'a' for a woman, but without it for a man: eg. Kornikova and Kornikov.
I don't know why Spain is matriarchal, but I can only guess that it may have something to do with them originally being a Catholic country, and the Catholics' emphasis on motherhood. I can't say I like the division between male and female surnames either, because that absolutely reinforces this gender divide we have; where we totally insist, without exception, on everyone being categorised as either male or female.
It's an interesting dilemma for me personally, because I adopted my 'husband's' name when I married. I'm not sure what difference it makes really anyway, since if I had kept my so-called 'maiden' name, it is still the name of my father. Actually, my decision to change my name involved other factors: firstly the sound and the meaning I liked more than my original name, also it's much shorter (my previous surname was stupidly long!) and I actually suffered from alphabet discrimination (yes, it really does exist - I can provide evidence that it does!) since my previous surname was very far down the alphabet at 'S' and I have a much better chance of avoiding similar discrimination now that my surname begins with 'G'!
I can appreciate that for census and registration purposes it is necessary to have more than one name that distinguishes ourselves from one another, but perhaps it would be nice to see people making up their own surnames, as a collaborative effort between two partners, and then allowing those names to be slightly changed or adapted or have other bits added on to it, or taken off it, as children grow up and marry and have more children etc. If the name is neutral or collaborative to start with, and then later becomes an amalgamation of different partners' names, the legacy of naming becomes much more gender neutral, while at the same time not making it impossible for records to trace a person's parentage.
What do you think?

chris said...

Hi Jen, a fascinating story, and the point about bullying is spot on. That argument is always fallen back on by people who otherwise realise that all their objections about the narcissism, selfishness, irresponsibility or destructive character of culturally unusual acts don't apply when that act is supporting the homely family-first attitude that they otherwise bang on about. Seems even that family-firstness is nothing about love and all about conformity (with, ahem, a very basic genetic imperative...).

Glad to have found your blog again.

Chris "Timsson"