Trans Positions

By Jen Christensen

Originally published on Advocate.com May 02 2008 11:00 PM ET

“I’m going to be sick. I am upset….
That was not only stupid and useless but, quite
frankly, disgusting.”
—Mika
Brzezinski, cohost, Morning Joe, MSNBC

“There is no way this child will be able to lead
a normal life. Oregon is a strange state, but they
cannot seriously allow this to happen. It is
unethical, immoral, and disturbing.”

—a comment posted on a Washington Post
blog

 

When Oregon trans
man Thomas Beatie first told the world that he was
pregnant in The Advocate in March, readers learned that he
transitioned about 10 years ago, underwent a double
mastectomy, and began testosterone injections. He and
his wife, Nancy, decided to have a child, but because
of a hysterectomy years ago, Nancy couldn’t carry the
baby. So Beatie stopped his hormone injections,
underwent artificial insemination, and, after several
doctors refused to treat him, finally found an obstetrician
who would. His pregnancy, he wrote, was “free of
complications.” Health complications, maybe,
but it would not be without other difficulties.

For all the
personal trials Thomas Beatie has endured, his decision to
go public may cause even broader political and
cultural implications for the transgender population
as a whole. And some trans people worry that the
sensational—and occasionally nasty—media
coverage that’s appeared since the article was
published is only the beginning.

Good Morning
America, the Associated Press, Fox News, and the BBC picked
up the story. Overnight, readers from China to Chico, p

Calif., were
digesting what one blogger called this “real Mr.
Mom’s” incredible journey. Headlines
screamed, “This Is No Belly Gaffe—Pregnant
Pop Aims to Deliver,” (New York Post),
“Pregnant Dad Was a Pin-Up Girl,” (South
Africa’s Sunday Tribune), and “Case of Bearded
Mummy” (the U.K. Sunday Mirror). Some media
organizations wondered if the story was an elaborate
April Fool’s joke timed to Beatie’s upcoming
appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Some of
Beatie’s neighbors in Bend, Ore., went on the
record saying the story wasn’t true. One speculated
he just had a large beer belly.

But after an
exclusive agreement to pose for a People magazine photo
shoot and appear on Oprah, which showed video of him getting
an ultrasound, everyone had to believe it. During the
hour-long program Winfrey gently teased the story out
of a shy Beatie. His stepdaughters, neighbors, and
ob-gyn also weighed in, confirming how happy they are
about the pregnancy and stressing how normal the Beaties
are.

Beatie, however,
did have one complaint that might have been lost in all
the baby news. He said he reached out to transgender
organizations before he went public. Half never called
back; most of the others discouraged him from the
exposure. Ultimately, they said, they were worried.

The worry seems
to stem from a couple of different issues. First, some
people are concerned specifically for Beatie’s
family. Transgender activist Jamison Green admits he
was in this camp. He says he’s thrilled
Beatie’s pregnancy is healthy and that he knows other
transgender people who have had children, but none
have been so vocal about it. “I wish he
didn’t turn himself over to the media,” says
Green, author of Becoming a Visible Man. “It
makes me wonder, Down the line will all this publicity
hurt them or hurt their child? Will the media ever leave
them alone?”

In a larger
sense, the attention already has hurt the Beaties. With so
many reporters nosing around, the couple had to put a
“closed” sign temporarily on their
screen-printing business. Neighbors told reporters the
couple has left home and “gone to ground” to
avoid the press. Nancy told Winfrey if they lose their
business, so what? When the talk-show host inquired
what they’d do financially, Nancy said they had some
savings—and Thomas has been writing a book about his
life story. Perhaps all the publicity will make it a
best seller.

Margaret
Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for
Medicine, Ethics, and Law at McGill University in
Montreal, thinks if the media continues to hound
Beatie it will hurt the child. “Could you imagine the
child growing up with all this publicity?” she asks.
“The child, who never could have consented to
this, will be hurt. Imagine having to always explain
that your father is your biological mother. The child will
never fit in.”

Some trans
activists also note that this story has a high
“ick” factor for the general population.
The first reactions Green read online were
discouraging. “They wrote ‘disgusting’
or asked, ‘How can someone do that to
themselves and think he is a man?’ and worse,”
he recalls. “I worry that for the uneducated
and less accepting, this brings back the whole
‘freak’ label to transgender people.”
When she saw the teaser for the Oprah show, alarm
bells went off for Cathy Renna, managing partner of
Renna Communications, a New York City–based firm that
develops communications strategies for LGBT
organizations. “My sense is that this story has
all the hallmarks of one that could be easily
sensationalized—one that could easily set back some
of the improvements that have been made by transgender
people,” she says. “Beatie’s article
opened the Pandora’s box.”

Think about what
happened in 2003 after the Massachusetts supreme
judicial court ruled that the state had to allow marriage as
an option for gay couples. Other state governments
panicked. Twenty-three states amended their
constitutions to limit marriage to one man and one woman,
joining three that had done so earlier. Some states, such as
Michigan, even went further—using their
amendment to justify denying health benefits to the
gay partners of state employees.

“Generally, with the public and mainstream media
we’re still doing Trans 101,” says
Renna. “I worry this kind of story will create a
whole new level of regulation. Anti-trans groups will
use this as ammunition to influence politics to make
laws that won’t let trans people make decisions
about their own body. I so hope I’m wrong.”

That’s not
just negative thinking. In Japan it’s illegal to
transition if you’ve already given birth or
fathered a child. So far no such law exists in this
country, although three states—Idaho, Ohio, and
Tennessee—will not allow their transgender
citizens to legally change their gender on birth
certificates.

“I think
there is a significant amount of churn over this,”
says Donna Rose, a transgender activist. “And
we can expect any number of people to grab a hold of
this story and move it in a negative direction for
personal gain. But while there are significant concerns
about potential impacts, we must remember potential is
the key word. It’s premature to jump to
worst-case scenarios.

“We may
hear all kinds of noise in terms of morality and ethics, but
to me it’s just that,” adds Rose, who
says she has no problem with Beatie speaking out.
“We heard the same noise when people first started
talking about test-tube babies. But then the
discussion faded.” Rose is wary of spelling out
all the things that could go wrong with the trans
man’s pregnancy, saying, “I don’t
want to give our enemies a road map on how to hurt
us.”

Which may point
to why, for the most part, LGBT and trans groups have
stayed relatively quiet about this story. Though some have
issued press releases condemning the sensationalized
press coverage, none of the national organizations The
Advocate contacted would say what plans, if any, they
have to counter possible backlash—like Oregon laws
becoming more restrictive toward trans people.

Currently
Beatie’s home state happens to be progressive on
transgender issues. In 2007 it enacted a law
forbidding discrimination based on gender identity.
And Oregon law states that the courts “may order a
legal change of sex and enter a judgment indicating
the change of sex of a person whose sex has been
changed by surgical procedure.” Notice that
this doesn’t define or limit what kind of surgical
procedure is required. Lake James H. Perriguey, a
Portland lawyer who represents several transgender
clients, handles a number of legal sex-change cases a year.
“Sure, some people will panic,” Perriguey says
of the Beatie aftermath. “But out here we have
assisted suicide and medical marijuana. I’m not
worried. Around here it’s really no secret that there
are a lot of transgender people who have children.
It’s really ‘live and let live.’

Karynn Fish,
communications director for Basic Rights Oregon, a gay
rights group that monitors state politics and works on
legislative issues, doesn’t anticipate problems
either. “I don’t think this brings up
any particular policy issues in Oregon,” she says.
“We’ve had good laws on the books for a
couple of decades now.”

“I
don’t imagine there will be negative legal
consequences for [the Beaties] personally,”
says Dean Spade, a lawyer who specializes in
transgender rights. After all, the couple is legally married
and therefore has all the parental rights a marriage
provides. “The idea of someone challenging this
doesn’t make sense. The biological tie is
generally respected in court.” Spade adds that
Beatie’s legal gender can’t be
questioned, and because this is a marriage between a legal
man and woman, he doesn’t see how the story
could have any impact on heterosexual marriage laws in
Oregon.

Worried or not,
Donna Rose perhaps summarizes the situation best:
“He’s incredibly proud of his
relationship. He’s not afraid to share his story
about it. Some will see this as self-serving. I don’t
see it like that. We as a community are not hiding
anymore.The upheaval that comes with a story like this
-- when it all settles down -- is headed in the positive
direction. Acceptance of our community will
continue.”

Rose, who
transitioned in 2000, says Beatie’s desire to tell
his story is consistent with the general transgender
experience. “I feel my own journey is about
self-discovery and challenging notions of
constraints,” she explains.
“That’s what he is doing.” On a much
grander scale, Rose believes the story may help more
people begin to understand that not everything about
gender fits into this “neat little binary.”
And she hopes the sensational stories will spur more
thoughtful discussion about gender and transgender
issues.

If the audience
at the Oprah show is any indication, perhaps there is
hope. At first they reacted just as the media initially did
-- women sat openmouthed with eyebrows raised as they
listened to their beloved host explaining the
show’s theme. But after hearing Beatie’s
story, things quickly changed. They laughed when
Beatie joked “Does size matter?” as he
explained that testosterone injections enlarge his clitoris
so that it resembles a small penis. Oprah summed up
the show with a quote from Beatie’s Advocate
story: that his situation will “ask everyone to
embrace the gamut of human possibility and to define
for themselves what is normal.” And when she
added, “I really applaud you for having the courage
to do it,” the audience applauded too.