So I’m a little late on this hot news item, but I’ve been trying to process some of the media and reactions before commenting. To get the low-down on the Thomas Beatie situation, read his own testimony about his pregnancy here. In short, he is a transgender man who decided to carry he and his partner’s child.
What has fascinated me most is the media reaction to Thomas’ pregnancy. At first, the media headlines seemed to question his pregnancy: Man claims to be pregnant, read the headlines, instead of Pregnant Woman claims to be Man. The fact that they questioned his pregnancy and not his masculinity was striking.
What this case brings me back to is the ideas and definitions around gender and sex. When people define what makes someone a “woman” the definitions shift shakily depending on the circumstances. For example, ability to reproduce and birth a child is often cited as a defining category of woman. But, as Judith Butler points out, there are many times in a woman’s life when she is not actually able to birth a child. Before puberty, after menopause, not to mention the larger number of women who experience infertility. Are people who cannot bear children still considered women? Yes.
The gender definition shifts again if you look at chromosomes–women are XX and men are XY. Well, increasingly we are discovering that there are people who aren’t either XX or XY, and that the gender categories don’t fit neatly with the chromosomes either. Same thing with secondary sex characteristics (Women are people with breasts. What about men with breasts? Women without breasts?).
These are things I think about a lot–not just the social construction of gender (the ideas that are associated with men or women, like weakness and strength) but also the social construction of biological sex categories. Particularly being part of a birth activist community, which in many ways is centered around essentialist ideas about gender (women know how to give birth), constantly makes me reflect on how we use these categories, often in ways that are limiting and too narrowly defined.
Thomas Beatie is a very stark example, and an exercise in gender definitions for the general public, who don’t often think about these categories. We take for granted the ways our gender identity (and our biological sex) define and limit who we can be. I believe this is because our gender is at the core of our identities.
Ever walked around in public with a pregnant woman? The primary question she will be asked is “What is it?” referring to the sex of the child. When we call something so fundamental to our identities into question, it is extremely destabilizing.
Is there room in the birth activist movement for more radical ideas about gender and sex? Here’s to hoping.