Some thoughts on gender and pregnancy

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.

It seems some people thought the whole thing might be a hoax (maybe because he just looked SO masculine!) but after Thomas went on Oprah and People Magazine, the hoax possibility was disregarded.

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.


4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on gender and pregnancy

  1. ERICA April 20, 2008 / 9:39 am

    Yes! Thank you Radical Doula! I’ve been desiring some good gender/sex breakdown of pregnancy and birth norms – this is quite refreshing to read! I’m a Queer woman, about to attend my first bit of doula training in Madison, WI, and finishing my first year of nursing school – you can count me in on pulling for moving traditional thoughts about gender/sex in the birth activist movement.

    Also, if you have any time to write about/point me toward some good resources (i know there’s a book by a couple queer midwives in SF area, though i haven’t gotten a copy yet) – I’d love to hear more about Queer midwives/doulas, and how you/they address homophobia in doing birth work …

    PS: My girlfriend showed me ur website a few months ago, and you’re my homepage now – you bring me great hope! Thanks so much for your radically hopeful, powerful, & obviously loving work!

  2. radicaldoula April 20, 2008 / 9:57 am

    Thank you Erica! It’s awesome to keep connecting with other budding radicals in the birth movement. Keep up the awesome work (yay for becoming a doula and a nurse!) and I will definitely look into writing about resources on queer midwives/doulas.

    Thanks for making my Sunday.

  3. johanna April 28, 2008 / 10:55 am

    Thanks for weighing in on this … I’ve been following this story since it came out in the Advocate, and I’ve been unhappily surpised at a lot of the reactions, especially in the birth activist community (some places/individuals) and the GLBT community (same). Just this weekend, I had a father/daughter pair of friends in town (both identify as bi, to boot) and I picked up a local GLBT publication in which there was a “sound-off” piece from someone who was pretty angry/hateful toward Thomas Beatie. When I expressed my shock at this, both friends responded in agreement with the writer.

    I mean, I know we live in a transphobic world, but seriously? I’m still dumbfounded that so many people are so angry about an obviously loving, stable family having a baby. I say, three cheers to the Beatie family! 🙂


    PS to Erica – I’m about to start my doula training and am relocating to Madison in about 2 weeks … it’s cool to know there will be at least one other radical-doula type in the area!! 🙂

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