- Expecting Bodies: The Pregnant Man and Transgender Exclusion from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act
In April 2008, news about an Oregon man’s impending parenthood spawned a media tsunami across the United States and even internationally. “Man Is Six Months Pregnant,” reported CBS news. “The Pregnant Man Speaks Out,” announced People magazine as it hyped the first published show-all pictures. “Pregnant Man Is Feeling Swell,” punned the New York Post. ABC news highlighted his television debut in its story “‘It’s My Right to Have Kid,’ Pregnant Man Tells Oprah.” “She’s Pregnant, but She’s a Man,” headlined the Sydney Morning Herald. “Pregnant, yes—but not a man,” huffed an editorialist in the International Herald Tribune.
The riveting “pregnant man” lead drew readers and viewers further into the story. It was usually in the second paragraph that audiences were provided with an explanation. The pregnant man was Thomas Beatie, a transgender man who had had “top” surgery and been on hormone therapy but had stopped taking testosterone in anticipation of getting pregnant. A quick and unscientific survey of the blogosphere indicates that the news was met with disbelief, curiosity, revulsion, annoyance, indifference, and, less often, celebration. Some bloggers felt that “she” was still a woman; others thought transitioning should mean Beatie had forfeited his right to give birth; still others (usually women) expressed annoyance at all the attention the first “pregnant man” was getting. A small proportion seemed to have no problem getting their mind around the idea.
The story originally came to light at the end of March, when Beatie published a first-person account in the Advocate, a Time–like weekly magazine marketed to the U.S. gay community. In that essay, Beatie describes the travails he and his wife went through as they tried to find medical professionals who would work with them. Some refused to treat Beatie because of their religious beliefs; one physician told Beatie he [End Page 330] would have to shave his beard; a third consulted with his hospital’s ethics board and then turned him away (Beatie 2008).
For trans people in the United States, much of Beatie’s narrative resonated with their own experience. While it is rare, but not unheard of in trans communities, for people who have transitioned to give birth, his larger story of discrimination in the health care industry is depressingly familiar. T. Benjamin Singer has studied the inability of many medical professionals to provide appropriate care to people whose bodies somehow exceed conventional expectations. He examines the “terror” engendered by the unknown through a frame he labels the “transgender sublime,” which he describes as the “conceptual limit to a service-provider’s ability to recognize the legibility and meanings of trans identities and bodies” (2006, 616). The “common sense” of gender says that birth sex, gender identity, and the secondary sex characteristics that later develop will all be in alignment.
But the histories, spatial arrangements, and physical terrains of trans people’s bodies can confound conventional expectations. Some bodies are modified through hormones, various types of gender reassignment surgeries, or both, to produce bodies culturally commensurate with gender identities. In those cases, the perceived incongruence comes only from knowing the history of that individual’s body. Other bodies, however, have unexpected configurations in their particular geographies— for example, breasts with penises for some, male chests with vaginas in others—that produce a dissonance. (This dissonance, to be clear, belongs not to the trans body but to those gazers who have conventional gender expectations.) The more easily read and specific physical terrains of bodies, such as the presence or absence of facial hair, baldness, or patterns of musculature, can add a third layer of potential contradiction. (Ironically, these configurations of geography and terrain often are determined by one’s lack of access to medical care. Medicaid and almost all private insurance plans specifically exclude hormones and gender reassignment surgeries for trans people. From personal choice or because of the great expense, the vast majority of transgender men and most transgender women forego genital surgery (Pooja and Arkles 2007). Hormones, whether attained through prescriptions or bought on the street, are cheaper.)