Thomas Beatie, a transgender man who has retained his female reproductive organs and is six months pregnant, recently appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Let me be clear at the outset: I support Beatie’s decision. I also think it’s remarkably brave of him to be public about his decision. It takes a lot to be out as a transgender person, even in famously liberal Oregon, but to be a pregnant man in public goes beyond the pale. Sure, I could have done without all the gendered rhetoric, as when his wife said, “He’s going to be the father; I’m going to be the mother. It doesn’t change how I feel about him as the husband.” This will be a family with a father who gives birth to his child. But this will not, apparently, be a feminist family.
Everything has changed with Beatie’s pregnancy in terms of our ideas about what gendered bodies can do. However, nothing has changed in terms of the context in which reproduction and child-rearing are carried out today.
In Beatie’s own words on the Oprah show: “Different is normal.” In a piece for The Advocate, he wrote, “ … our situation ultimately will ask everyone to embrace the gamut of human possibility and to define for themselves what is normal.”
He’s right. And that’s the problem.
Beatie’s words, and the coverage so far, imply that reconfiguring our sense of what is normal, in favor of its former opposite—the supposedly abnormal or deviant—is all that’s required to make fundamental changes in society.
Reproduction is part of the language in which we discuss changes in society, whether in terms of the freedom granted by birth control or in terms of the restriction of abortion rights. Lately, we’ve been obsessed with the seemingly endless expansion of child-bearing capabilities, marveling at grandmothers who give birth to more offspring. The Beaties used purchased sperm, and that sort of intensive and expensive reproduction technology is hailed as miraculous even though it’s strictly a matter of science. But the language of miracle-creation also obfuscates the embodied realities that face transgender people and/or people who raise children.
The Beaties clearly enjoy middle-class privilege: they’ve run a successful business; have accrued enough in savings to go into seclusion for a while; and his recent book deal is probably quite lucrative. But hormone therapies and surgeries remain expensive for most transgender people, who often also have to battle employment and housing discrimination—which, in turn, can lead them to commit survival crimes and end up in incarceration.
Just as importantly, while birthing seems easier for some, rearing children is an entirely different matter. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, “[ a ] bout 39 percent of the nation’s children—nearly 29 million in 2006—live in families with low-incomes, that is, incomes below twice the official poverty level ( for 2008, about $42,000 for a family of four ).” Add to that our failing public schools and a lack of health care, and the situation for the children of the underprivileged is even more dire. A 2006 UNICEF report on child well-being in 21 wealthy nations ranked the United States as the second worst (after the United Kingdom) in children’s quality of life.
So, yes, Beatie’s pregnancy does expand “the gamut of human possibility.” But it does so while reinscribing the transgender body within terms of bourgeois respectability. And yes, potentially, from now on, a larger number of people can bear children. But we ought not to lose sight of the fact that fewer people today can afford to raise the children they bear or adopt with everything they need.