27 December 2009

Thomas Beatie: the "pregnant man"

An article on female-to-male (FtM) transman Thomas Beatie, whose pregnancy in 2008 became worldwide news. Originally published in 3SIXTY in 2008.

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When female-to-male (FtM) transsexual man Thomas Beatie announced that he was pregnant, did he anticipate the ensuing furore? The 34-year-old’s conception, described as a “miracle” by Oprah Winfrey, was premiered in The Advocate, a Los Angeles-based LGBT publication: the story spread like wildfire, with newspapers worldwide reproducing The Advocate’s quotes verbatim.

“How does it feel to be a pregnant man? Incredible,” ran the ubiquitous quote. “Despite the fact that my belly is growing with a new life inside me, I am stable and confident being the man that I am.”

The press revelled in the details that Beatie was born Tracy LaGondino, and before gender reassignment surgery was a finalist in the Miss Hawaii Teen USA pageant. So many questions were raised – what did it mean that a woman wanted to become a man, and then to give birth, before assuming the role of father? And did this mean it was impossible for science to transcend biology, and did it confirm the prejudices of certain religious groups and fringe feminists, that transsexual people were self-mutilating freaks seeking to undermine nature?

Amidst the sensationalist headlines – and anxiety that the story was a hoax, given that Beatie said his confidentiality agreement ended on April Fools’ Day – further personal details were published. Beatie had his breasts removed and had taken testosterone to give himself facial hair, but had not undertaken phalloplasty to give himself male genitalia (a notoriously difficult and unreliable process, even now). He decided to stop taking hormones when his legally married wife, Nancy, proved unable to conceive, and at the second attempt had sustained his pregnancy with donated sperm. Despite eight years of treatment, Beatie became pregnant just four months after ceasing hormone replacement therapy.

So he had conceived before full surgery, using his uterus and womb. This, of course, raised questions about whether he could be called a man (and, by implication, when transsexual people become their desired sex – if, in the beholder’s eyes, they ever do, or can). Jeff Jacoby, writing in The Globe (13 April), was outraged: ‘Could anything be more incoherent or sad? Gender Identity Disorder is not “incredible”, no matter how politically fashionable it has become to claim otherwise. It is not just another hue in the rainbow of diversity. It is a dysfunction. It should be met with sympathy, counselling, and therapy, not with five-page spreads in People and appearances on Oprah.’

Cluelessly, Jacoby’s polemic linked “transgender activists” and “radical feminists” – an awkward alliance at best, as anyone familiar with Janice Raymond or Julie Bindel, both fierce feminist critics of transsexual people, can explain. Like The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, he peddled the “think of the children” line – but so too did Jamison Green, author of Becoming a Visible Man and one of the few prominent FtM activists willing to discuss the case.

“I wish he didn’t turn himself over to the media,” said Green. “It makes me wonder, Down the line will all this publicity hurt them or hurt their child? Will the media ever leave them alone?”

Courting tabloid attention is a dangerous game. After the initial coverage turned sour, Thomas and Nancy went to ground, temporarily closing their business. Nancy said Thomas would recover their shortfall by writing a book. Will the child continue to attract unwanted attention, wondered Green, who also expressed concern that Beatie’s case “brings back the whole ‘freak’ label to transgender people.”

In The Village Voice in June 2000, fellow FtM writer and activist Patrick Califia discussed ‘Two Dads with a Difference – Neither of Us was Born Male.’ Perhaps this didn’t attract such attention because, without a “normal” woman present, it didn’t overturn notions of the conventional heterosexual family so spectacularly, instead being a different slant on the already unholy idea of same-sex parentage.

So the case made “normal” people nervous – the anxieties of transsexual people, of course, didn’t make the mainstream media, although both sides worried about the child, and its parents’ motives for courting such attention.

This judgement seems somewhat unfair – Beatie, at least initially, did one interview with an LGBT publication – no more, then, than Califia’s interviewees. The couple then refused to speak to the ‘straight’ media – so they reproduced the story themselves, and perhaps Beatie had little choice but to use that media to further his side. On a personal level, it seems most important that Beatie and his wife do their best to give their child a happy, comfortable home, free of further intrusion (as far as possible, anyway).

For the wider transgender community – especially those trying to “pass” – the publicity seems unhelpful, and has certainly prompted numerous jokes at our expense. It reminds us of our ‘difference’, and of how the media would like to portray (and exploit) us – but also that we remain best placed to highlight how far we have transcended imposed ideas of what ‘men’ and ‘women’ do, and are – and how far the rest of the world lags behind us.

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