April 03, 2008

Thomas Beatie, Oprah, and pathologizing pregnancy

So it's been pretty interesting, and also disheartening, to watch the media flurry surrounding Thomas Beatie, a transman from Oregon who chose to keep his original reproductive organs and is now pregnant. emily0 and I discussed it briefly, and she mentioned that it's a bit strange how Thomas has been receiving so much press when he's not the first example of a transman choosing to become pregnant. I don't know too much about the history, but I suspect it might be the result of the striking gender dissonance that his image (by now widely circulated on the interwebs, even more so now that Perez Hilton has picked up on the story) creates: Thanks to testosterone therapy and chest reconstruction, Thomas has facial hair and a chest that appears masculine, yet also a prominent pregnant belly which is usually culturally coded as feminine and, perhaps even more important to the discursive dissonance, motherly. So there's some serious genderqueering and binary destruction going on here, and it seems like not too many people are really okay with that so much.

Thanks to Perez Hilton (go go gadget guilty pleasure), I watched the first few parts of Thomas's interview on Oprah. What struck me about it was that even in an environment where his pregnancy and gender identity were being ostensibly respected and celebrated (cf. Letterman, who referred to him as an "androgynous freak show"), there was a lot of problematic rhetoric that seemed to indicate that we've got a long way to go before we get past this immense discomfort with anything that distorts the gender binary.

Throughout the interview, Oprah attempts through leading questions and rhetorical implications to classify Thomas into some legible and stereotypical transgender narrative, which Thomas himself seems reluctant to confirm. Oprah notes that after Thomas's mother died when he was twelve, he was "basically left with not a lot of feminine images" (looks like she found his root, eh?); she then asks if Thomas felt if he was "in the wrong body" as a child--some transgender people with whom she had spoken previously knew at a very young age. Thomas replies, "I don't feel like I was born in the wrong body. I felt like I was meant to be exactly who I am today. It's kind of hard to explain." Thomas's story, as he tells it, defies a conventional and pathologizing transgender narrative into which Oprah attempts to place him: Thomas is a man, but he was not "born in the wrong body." For Oprah (and likely for most of her audience) a set of female reproductive organs certainly appears "wrong-bodied" for a man. It is unfathomable to Oprah why someone male-identified would not choose to have a penis, for penises are essential to men just as female reproductive systems are to women. After all, pregnancy is culturally wedded to motherhood, and motherhood to womanhood. A man cannot be pregnant, because a man cannot mother.

For this reason, Thomas's body is popularly read as something of a monstrous visual and cultural contradiction in terms. We're unable to celebrate the pregnancy of a man ("A man got pregnant! How cool and liberating!"), because pregnancy is antithetical to manhood if anything is, and bodies must fit into either the male or female idiom. It's not "normal" for a man to want to be pregnant. So, as em0 put it when I talked to her, everyone's got a Very Concerned Face, and that's super annoying, when what we really should be doing is celebrating the ability of a couple to have the biological child they wanted when the odds seemed slim.

So the next question becomes: How do we get past this? A lot is at stake, culturally and psychologically, in maintaining a strict notion of a gender binary, often even in queer communities. How does awareness and activism move forward to a point where we can all be okay with a man giving birth?


tea cozy said...

great post, daftgiraffe!

I think one of the most interesting things about this is that I've always thought it was completely normal for a man to want to be pregnant. why?

Because lots and lots of men (male-identified biomen, that is) have told me they wish they could be pregnant/carry a child/etc. Pregnancy and motherhood are traditionally figured as a woman's greatest reward --- not just in the sense that it is supposed to be "rewarding" but also in the sense that it is somehow supposed to make up for all the injustices visited upon women in a male-dominated society. I can't remember a specific citation for this, but i feel like it's in Shakespeare or the bible or something. somebody google it!

So I would have thought that everyone would have been like "yeah, pregnant man, awesome." And that dudes who claimed that giving birth is a woman's greatest privilege would scream "so lucky! he's SO LUCKY! he gets to be a man AND he gets to have a baby!"


(sorry if i'm not super coherent, everybody: it's thesis crunch time)

emily0 said...

That's a very great article you wrote. My brain is too fuzzy to render things with such clarity, o thesisiser.

I think we should have a baby-in. All transmen who want bébé, PREGG UP AN' FREAK 'EM OUT!

Ily said...

Great post.

Kate Welshson said...

The only "problem" I have is the media toting that this is a man having a baby. This is a woman who pretends to be a man who is having a baby. She's an insult to the transgender community. Let's call it for what it is: a TRANSVESTITE is having a baby. An preggo with no boobs and facial hair.

daftgiraffe said...

Kate, your comment is really illustrative of exactly what I mean about discomfort with stepping outside of gender binaries even in queer communities, and I think it's also pertinent to a post WTTO had about people questioning Thomas's gender identification without primary basis a while back. I'm curious about your rejection of Thomas's identity as a transman. Why is it that Thomas is an "insult" to the transgender community?

emily0 said...

Kate, I don't understand your rage. Your anger is palpable but I can't understand why you are so enraged that a transman is "an preggo" (sic)?

highland said...

This was a beautiful, coherent piece on the issue. Thank you. You said it, so I have not much more to comment, but wanted to share my "yay"!

icarus said...

thanks for the post! i'm glad you shared your thoughts on this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. It's a topic I've been thinking a lot about with all of the media attention and community reaction.


Grace C. said...

i have never understood why (some) people are so voyeuristic about crap like this. live and let live for crying out loud. why should thomas have to explain himself?