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The Good, the Bad and the Beatie

The Good, the Bad and the Beatie

Thomas Beatie became known as the world's first pregnant man and now he is pregnant with baby number three. Some argue that because he is a trans man, it's not the same. We are just like other American men -- nerds, cowboys, suits, metrosexuals, jocks, chauvinist pigs, etc. Maybe by admitting that, by being forced to see ourselves reflected in Beatie’s mirror, we’ll find a way to accept ourselves as we are, with all our flaws, even as we struggle to show the world our true diversity. Trans man Jacob Anderson-Minshall breaks down the Beatie debate.

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I’m a monster.

These are my first words after being introduced to a packed room at the 2008 Wordstock, Portland, Oregon’s annual literary extravaganza. The audience looks dubious. After all, they’re an eclectic representation of Portland’s queer community – while I look like a regular guy.  What could be hidden below my surface that would cause me to make that startling self assessment?

Tattooed bois, dykes on bikes, pierced punkers and homeless kids all stare at me, I continue. Their eyes dart from my belly to my face and back again. Unable to reconcile the scruffy goatee on my face with the inconceivable yet unmistakable baby bump below my flat chest, they continue to gawk. I’ve been called a traitor to the cause. I’ve been told that I’ve single-handedly pushed the movement back 10 years. I am a pregnant man.

It’s a story I’ve told a half dozen times since, and each time audience members come up afterward and want to talk more about my experience as a trans man who got pregnant banging boys.

I always feel awkward at this point, because the truth is, I am not and never have been pregnant and this tale far from auto-biographical. It’s an excerpt from my short story Chinook, but people get confused because many of the other stories in the anthology, Portland Queer, capture real-life experiences.

Women, especially seem to identify with my pregnant man and they tell me he has given them a whole new appreciation of the trans masculine experience. In some ways, that’s remarkably ironic, because I have conflicting feelings when it comes to trans guys getting pregnant. I may have written a believable and sympathetic character, but that doesn’t mean I celebrated when real life pregnant trans guy, Thomas Beatie announced last month that he’s carrying child number three. 

As everyone surely knows, in spring of 2008, Thomas Beatie, a Bend, Ore. resident, became an overnight sensation, and the focus of international attention, when news outlets around the globe declared him the world’s first pregnant man. Beatie originally revealed his story in the pages of The Advocate and then on the set of Oprah after he was reportedly offered a seven figure sum.

Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, Beatie was not the first man -- trans or otherwise -- to bear a child. In fact, back in 1999, trans guy Matt Rice had a baby with his then partner Patrick Califia. Of course, Califia and Rice were no hetero-normative, camera-ready couple. Instead, they were two gay-identified FTM men.

Califia was also an outspoken proponent of BDSM who penned sexually explicit LGBT material. In other words, the Califia-Rice family was far too queer for mainstream consumption.

Flash forward a decade, insert a hetero couple and sprinkle in a dash of the sensational (Beatie's beauty queen back story) and voila' you have a made-for-TV Oprah-approved world’s first pregnant man. In the blink of an eye, the captivating headline and photos of proof spread around the globe. 

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Not since Christine Jorgenson's sex change, in 1951, had a transgender person so captivated the world. Of course, Jorgenson was embraced by both the media, who trumpeted her solider-turned-bombshell curves, and an adoring public. In contrast, Beatie was alternately portrayed as hoax, freak and miracle. 

Then people learned Beatie’s pregnancy was far from a miracle, scientific or otherwise.  The vehemence in which people responded to that revelation was remarkable. It was as though people preferred Beatie’s pregnancy defy the very laws of nature. People felt betrayed by his transsexuality. Tricked. Because to them, a pregnant trans man simply wasn’t a man at all. 

For eons, the ability to bear young has been viewed as essentially female. Having the capacity to carry a child inside has always been the domain of Woman, her sacred role on earth, the one and only realm which women retained control when matriarchal societies were replace by  patriarchal oppression. The ability to bear children has been used to define (and confine) women for centuries. A woman’s womb, and related hormonal cycles, has been trotted out as justification to say, keep women out of politics or to pay them less than their male counterpoints. 

So, what does it mean for trans men to utilize their wombs for conception? And are they by definition no longer “men” once they make that choice? 

Most trans guys I know wish they hadn’t been born with female sex organs. After going through everything to transition, very few of them would even consider suddenly embracing the very thing they struggled so hard to leave behind. Don't get me wrong: FTM transition isn't so much a rejection of one’s female physicality as it is an embrace of one’s male identity. But once you have crossed over the gender divide, and become a man, I personally feel that you lose any claim you had to those things that were rightfully yours as a woman. A gender identity isn’t a piece of clothing you don when it suits you and reject when it’s inconvenient -- say, so you can attend the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. 

That’s not to say that genuinely two-spirited or gender fluid folks don't have a right to change their gender expressions. Everyone has the right to express their genuine gender identity how ever they wish to. But I’m frustrated by the trans guys who seem genuinely male-identified but who won’t accept the limitations that come hand and hand with the privileges they’ve gained. 

Beatie’s pregnancy also raises another question -- just because you can do something, does that mean you should? Our fascination with the Octo-Mom story illustrates that our culture is pondering that question more in regard to pregnancy, as medical breakthroughs expand the realm of what is possible. 

Pregnancy has been traditionally viewed as a natural state that is only natural to women. The disconcerting images of Beatie’s pregnant body revealed just how much medical technology has altered human reproduction, gender presentation and the human body. 

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As gender theorist Judith Halberstam was quoted as saying in a July 2008 Salon.com article by Thomas Rogers, What the Pregnant Man Didn't Deliver, “The pregnant body is so sacred, and the pregnant woman still represents something to people about nature.  His pregnant body is evidence that pregnancy has become another site of human engineering." 

If pregnancy is no longer a natural state, when did it change? Was pregnancy only natural when a man and a woman conceive? Did it stop being natural when doctors began to intervene? When women started taking medications to become more fertile? Did pregnancy stop being natural whenever insemination was involved? Is it natural for lesbians to bear children? For trans people? 

While plenty of trans women and men have had biological children, most of them did so before transitioning. For those of us who can afford to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a full gender reassignment including genital reshaping and surgical removal of reproductive organs, the privilege comes with a hidden cost -- sterility. Trans men can’t create sperm. Trans women can’t create eggs and can’t carry a child. Transitioning fully means giving up the ability to produce offspring that shares one’s DNA.  For some people that’s simply an unbearable side effect. 

Personally, I can’t even begin to understand why it’s so important to so many people to have children that share their genetic material. But clearly it is. I’ve seen people go to extreme lengths trying to conceive and there’s no reason to expect trans people to be less motivated. As a foster parent, I can tell you there are so many reasons to adopt, overpopulation being just one of them. But that experience has also shown me how much easier it must be to bear your own children without having to jump through hoops or waste precious years with child while they’re lost in bureaucratic limbo. And that’s not even mentioning the costs (we’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars in administrative fees).

Beatie’s pregnancy may make people see the engineered elements of modern pregnancy, but a pregnant trans men is far less of a technological marvel than one might think. In fact, it illustrates the limits of human engineering and medical intervention. Because, despite all the modern medical miracles, a womb is still as necessary a component in reproduction as it was when human ancestors swung from trees. Even “test-tube babies” are still carried to term in a woman’s uterus.

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So far, scientist haven’t been able to replicate that womb-environment. Even in the day and age of pregnant men, you still need to have been born with a working female reproductive organs in order to carry a baby inside you.

A pregnant trans man may be no less natural than a pregnant 50 year-old. But now that Beatie is on his third pregnancy we have to ask, what does it mean to pop out not just one baby, but three? In a world threatened by global warming, we all have a moral obligation to understand the consequences of our choices and recognize the impact they will have on the planet and lives of future generations. So, what is the carbon footprint of adding yet another child?

A 2009 study by Oregon State University determined that having one child could significantly counterbalance most environment-saving efforts the parent might undertake. The study revealed that in the U.S., “each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent -- about 5.7 times the lifetime emissions for which, on average, a person is responsible.”

Beatie’s on-going story illuminates our feelings about the nature of pregnancy and the impact of pregnancy on nature. It has also revealed naïve beliefs many Americans had about trans men’s bodies. Pregnancy may be seen as essentially female, but in this country it’s the penis that makes a man. The penis is so essential to manhood that one isn’t considered a “real” man without one. That deeply held belief -- furthered by Americans’ faith in the omnipotence of medical science -- apparently led to the widespread assumption that all trans men have penises.

And this is probably the single greatest disservices Beatie has done to the trans masculine community. Before Beatie most people in the mainstream never thought about trans men at all. But when they did, they assumed that trans guys had all the standard male equipment. Post Beatie, the public perception of trans men is now melded with the image of the pregnant body and many people now think of trans men as women without breasts.

When Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications, a New York City-based PR firm first heard about Beatie’s story she shared concerns with The Advocate, saying "My sense is that this story has all the hallmarks of one that could easily set back some of the improvements that have been made by transgender people."  Renna raised another concern as well, worrying that "anti-trans groups [could] use this as ammunition to influence politics to make laws that won't let trans people make decisions about their own body."

I still remember attending a march on Washington, D.C., proudly raising a sign that read, “Keep your laws off my body!” As a feminist who fought for women’s reproductive rights, it seems dangerous to now question Beatie’s choices without also acknowledging that he too has the right to control his body and make his own choices about reproduction. While I have concerns about the kind of choices he’s made, I'm far more concerned about how Beatie has managed the media attention sparked by those choices.

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With his discordant body Beatie could have changed the world. He could have shaken long held gender stereotypes or broadened the categories of man or father. He cou’d have provided insight into the growing number of individuals who are comfortable outside gender binaries. But I don¹t think he did any of those things. Perhaps time will demonstrate otherwise, but I don’t think his notoriety has actually benefited the transgender community.

Unfortunately, Beatie has done little to capitalize on his celebrity status for more than personal gain. Even with his third pregnancy, Beatie has done little to drawn media attention away from his swollen belly and on to more pressing issues, like the number of trans people without medical insurance, or the economic disparity and  the violence that continues to plague many transgender communities.

Some activists have expressed concern about the health and welfare of Beatie’s children being exposed to media scrutiny. Jamison Green, author of Becoming a Visible Man, told The Advocate in 2008, “I wish he didn't turn himself over to the media. It makes me wonder: Down the line, will all this publicity hurt them or hurt their child? Will the media ever leave them alone?"

Two years later, I think the media had actually started to do just that -- leave the Beaties alone. Media outlets might have camped outside the Beaties’ home back when the first pregnancy broke, but by this time they’d undoubtedly moved on to other stories. So when the news of Beatie’s latest pregnancy hit the stands it was clear to media-insiders that the Beaties had invited the attention.

Overall, it’s difficult to discern Beatie’s impact on trans right movement. There have been positive benefits. It showed, for example, that trans people can be parents, that we want to be parents, that we share that basic human desire with our non-trans counterparts.

Matt Kailey, author of Just Add Hormones, writes in his blog, Tranifesto, “I know that some people worry that pregnant trans men make it difficult for the non-trans world to take us seriously, and that a baby-toting Beatie undermines the progress of our movement. But as I've said before, it's impossible to control the message. There are too many of us, with too many different messages and too many different experiences, to be managed.”

Kailey is right that the trans community is incredibly diverse and none of us can prevent the media from focusing in on a particular person. Beatie’s story brought trans men to the attention of the world. But it’s frustrating that the media spotlight settled on a single individual rather than the community at large. Especially when that individual neither represents the majority of trans men nor the breadth and diversity of the broader trans masculine community.

Instead, Beatie’s legacy is a world whose primary knowledge of trans men emerged from the sensationalized media around a pregnant man who was revealed to be a former beauty queen (one more thing antithetical to maleness). That’s not the kind of story many trans men would chose to express themselves to the world.

At least it’s a true story. As trans men, many of us spent significant portions of our lives in the guise of women and some of us tried so hard to fit in that we embraced traditional standards of femininity. Some of us are mothers and fathers, and others of us want children as much as anyone else and are willing to go to extreme measures to get them. We are just like other American men -- nerds, cowboys, suits, metrosexuals, jocks, chauvinist pigs, etc. And we are different. Our bodies are different. Our personal histories are different. Our struggles are the same and different at the same time. Maybe by admitting that, by being forced to see ourselves reflected in Beatie’s mirror, we’ll find a way to accept ourselves as we are, with all our flaws, even as we struggle to show the world our true diversity.

Jacob Anderson-Minshall is a trans guy who wrote about trans pregnancy in the short story Chinook in the Ariel Gore edited anthology, Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City.

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