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.


Transgender Day of Remembrance

Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Julia Serano, a writer and activist whose work I really love wrote a great short piece for Feministing about the day. Check it out.

Police Brutality Strikes Fifth Anniversary of Sylvia Rivera Law Project

This is just sad.

Police Brutality Strikes Fifth Anniversary of Sylvia Rivera Law Project

Jack Aponte (
Naomi Clark  (

NEW YORK – On the night of Wednesday, September 26, officers from the 9th Precinct of the New York Police Department attacked without provocation members of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and of its community. Two of our community members were violently arrested, and others were pepper sprayed in the face without warning or cause.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is an organization that works on behalf of low-income people of color who are transgender, gender non-conforming, or intersex, providing free legal services and advocacy among many other initiatives. On Wednesday night, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was celebrating its fifth anniversary with a celebration and fundraising event at a bar in the East Village.

A group of our community members, consisting largely of queer and transgender people of color, witnessed two officers attempting to detain a young Black man outside of the bar. Several of our community members asked the officers why they were making the arrest and using excessive force. Despite the fact that our community was on the sidewalk, gathered peacefully and not obstructing foot traffic, the NYPD chose to forcefully grab two people and arrested them. Without warning, an officer then sprayed pepper spray across the group in a wide arc, temporarily blinding many and causing vomiting and intense pain.

“This is the sort of all-too-common police violence and overreaction towards people of color that happens all the time,” said Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. “It’s ironic that we were celebrating the work of an organization that specifically opposes state violence against marginalized communities, and we experienced a police attack at our celebration.”

“We are outraged, and demand that our community members be released and the police be held accountable for unnecessary use of excessive force and falsely arresting people,” Spade continued.

Damaris Reyes is executive director of GOLES, an organization working to preserve the Lower East Side. She commented, “I’m extremely concerned and disappointed by the 9th Precinct’s response to the situation and how it escalated into violence. This kind of aggressive behavior doesn’t do them any good in community-police relations.”

Supporters will be gathering at 100 Centre Street tomorrow, where the two community members will be arraigned. The community calls for charges to be dropped and to demand the immediate release of those arrested.

– END –

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Transgender people in the media: Anti-trans women bias?

I haven’t touched much on transgender issues so far in this blog, but recently there have been three interesting pieces.

The first is a story on ABC News, I Want to Be Seen as Male, about a transgender (female to male) teenager, Jeremy and his process and struggles around transitioning. I thought it was a (surprisingly) thoughtful piece.

The second is a short film, Mookey’s Story: A Transgender Journey,  that has been entered into the VC Filmfest in Southern California, also about a transgender (female to male) person and his transition. It’s good to see trans people of color being discussed and highlighted as well.

It’s important to note that these stories–which represent trans people in a mostly positive and humanistic light (yay!)–are both about trans MEN (female to male). Trans activist and writer Julia Serano, author of the upcoming book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, has written some really interesting stuff about the representation of trans women (male to female) and I think this is another example of her theories about how most depictions of trans women in the media are negative (like trans women prostitutes) and focus a lot on their appearance (particularly the act of getting dressed or putting on make-up).

A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

The most recent example of trans women being represented in the media is the NY Times video and article about a shelter for homeless transgender youth in Queens, NY. While not an entirely negative depiction, it does paint these women in a light which emphasizes their difficult pasts: broken homes, sexual abuse and drug problems. A very stark contrast to the seemingly well-adjusted trans men in the first two pieces.  

Is this just another reflection of sexism? There has been some discussion around the idea of trans male privilege (that by living and identifying as men, trans men achieve some level of male privilege), and this seems as if it could be related. I also think that people are more frightened by the idea of men giving up their male privilege to become women than the idea of women wanting to be men, leading to what could be called trans woman phobia. Just some thoughts.

Apparently women don’t have a sexual orientation

A recent NY Times article argues that human sexual behavior is a long drama whose script is written quite substantially in the genes. Author Nicholas Wade explains how science has made it crystal clear that sexuality, and sexual preference, is completely determined by genetics.

He focuses on the brain–which, shockingly enough, is a full fledged sexual organ–and explains that the two sexes have profoundly different versions of it. Thanks for clearing that one up for us, now I get it, men and women have different brains! Forget feminism and arguments about equality—let’s just accept it boys and girls, god made you different!

Apparently scientists, theorists and feminists have been wrong all along, at least according to one doctor from UC Irvine. The most infuriating thing about this article is the author’s blaise and sexist tone, which implies that “Oh wow! Now the mystery is solved.” Not only does he argue that women don’t really have a sexual orientation (while male sexuality is determined before birth), he also argues that homosexuality in men can be attributed to the “fraternal birth order effect”—having older brothers.

He also quickly dismisses all arguments about social and cultural influences on sexuality.

The most direct evidence comes from a handful of cases, some of them circumcision accidents, in which boy babies have lost their penises and been reared as female. Despite every social inducement to the opposite, they grow up desiring women as partners, not men.

What?!? Circumcision accidents? There have got to be better ways to try and debunk the social constructionism myth than that one.

His conclusions seem based more on his own shaky opinion than any scientific fact, and he only occasionally cites a handful of studies or researchers. He makes no mention of the existence of bisexuality, intersex or transgender people in his arguments, who could all through a wrench in his neat theory.

Blog against Sexism Day!

Blog Against Sexism Day

So, in commemoration of International Women’s Day (which I want to make a plea for us all to have as a holiday–let’s replace Columbus day, come on) it is also Blog Against Sexism Day, or Blog for Gender Liberation. I personally like that title the best, and will interpret it in my own way.

I like the opportunity to bring up this subject, because it’s one of the main reasons I identify as a radical doula. It’s also one of the reasons I pulled back from the midwifery/birth activist community a few years ago. As I got deeper into theories about the social construction of gender and sex (particularly Judith Butler), I started to push back on the rhetoric used by midwives and birth activists about women’s bodies.

How did some of this logic fit into an understanding that the biological difference between men and women is really socially constructed? How do birthing women (and the ability to reproduce) fit in? Butler has some interesting responses to these ideas, which I admit are kind of obtuse and difficult to decipher. But once you get through the intense academic language, there are some important ideas there. Bear with me.

The midwifery/birth activist movement is very heavily based on embracing femininity and the female body, particularly its perceived reproductive capacity, as the necessary center of the movement toward gender equity. This idea is kind of problematic, particularly if you believe that we need to move beyond these perceived biological differences.

Keep reading for more explanation…

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