OK, I’ll admit it. When I got my recent copy of People magazine in the mail (that’s probably a horrifying enough confession right there), I did a little head-scratching as I read the story “He’s Having a Baby” accompanied by a photo of Thomas Beatie and his pregnant belly. For those of you who might have missed the story, Beatie is a black belt in karate who can bench press 255 pounds; he drives a Ford truck and, at work, runs a 2-ton T-shirt press; he’s also about 5 feet 10 inches tall and has a trimmed beard. Oh, and he’s six months pregnant. He and his wife, Nancy, are expecting a daughter this summer.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one a bit confused. Almost immediately, my journalist listserv jumped to life. “Can a transgender person have his or her birth certificate changed after transitioning?” “Should he have kept it a private matter, if only because of the potential backlash?” Finally, a colleague from southern California seemed to sum up most of our thinking: “A pregnant man. It really does … screw with your headand with some people’s political ideology, about that there can be no dispute. Because men don’t get pregnant, of course.”
Men don’t get pregnant, right? Let me double-check that, stat.
Over the years I’ve spoken publiclyin my former role as president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Associationabout transgender nomenclature and issues as well as the difference between sexuality (male vs. female) and gender identity (masculine vs. feminine). Without doubt, I have found even educated groups (if you care to refer to journalists that way) somewhat confounded over the language: “male-to-female,” “female-to-male,” “transvestite,” “transsexual,” “transgender” and “intersex.” More than ever in these discussions, language is crucial, and I know many of my colleagues worry about using the wrong word choice for fear of being pegged ignorant or, even worse, prejudiced. Just last week, a longtime leader in LGBT rights issues said to me from San Francisco in reference to Beatie: “I completely get the transgender thing, but this … ?”
He’s not alone. Frankly, it’s taken many in the gay and lesbian community a long time to accept the “T” in our LGBT acronym. To be certain, there was a time when all this was new and uncomfortable for me. I thought back to my parents’ generation, many of whom had had difficulty accepting their gay and lesbian family members and friends. Why? I’d say largely because of the shock of the new (“I don’t know any gay people!”) and our basic, almost genetic predisposition against anything different in the family of man (“difference = bad”).
In 2002, I recall being approached by the first transgender person (male-to-female, Ira to Ina) I had come to know at an NLGJA convention. The topics she proffered: the importance of transgender-friendly bathrooms and the bias in transgender news coverage. Not surprisingly, our conference hotel had only “mens” and “womens” restrooms, and Ina explained to me how uncomfortable that made some of our transgender members, but how even more uncomfortable it made some of our non-transgender conventioneers. The answer? Gender-neutral restrooms or transgender-friendly ones. Mind you, this is easier said than done in a major hotel. But until that discussion, I can tell you I had never thought one second about the “restroom issue.”
As for news coverage, Ina explained to me that most media outlets at that time still had no consistency in how they applied pronouns to transgender people, often identifying individuals by their gender of birthnot gender appearance or expression. Now, most newspapers have adopted a policy to use a transgender person’s chosen name and pronoun. For instance, the San Jose Mercury News, after repeatedly failing in how it identified transgender individuals in the much-publicized murder of Gwen Araujo, adopted this much more fair and accurate policy:
We encourage you to ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. If it is not possible to ask the person which pronoun he or she prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression. Also, please do not put quotation marks around gender pronouns, suggesting that the pronoun does not reflect the person’s true sex.
If you think this is a case of “special” treatment, think again. We in the media often use the chosen names of celebrities as both a measure of respect and clarity rather than insisting on using their birth name. (For instance, Muhammad Ali is no longer referred to by his birth name, Cassius Clay; similarly, we all know the former Cherilyn Sarkisian as the one-syllable diva: Cher.)
But for all the change that has occurred, some members of the media, in what might aptly be called “the Beatie affair,” have crossed the line in voicing their fear and loathing of the Beatie pregnancy. David Letterman referred to him as an “androgynous freak show” on his Top Ten list, while the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe vied for the title of most objectionable. Castigating Oprah for “legitimizing this” (the Big O had Beatie on for what is generally considered a thoughtful and respectful segment), Joe Scarborough, one of the anchors, would not even watch the “O” video: “I’m not gonna look at this. Tell me when it’s over. We don’t want the facts. I can’t handle the facts.” His co-anchor, the usually fair and balanced Mika Brezezinksi, added to the outrage: “I’m gonna be sick. I’m gonna be sick. I am upset. That was not only stupid and useless, but quite frankly, disgusting.”
Many in the LGBT community have wondered whether the transgender community will see “some backlash” from the Beatie story and whether it will hinder the movement toward greater social acceptance of transgender individuals. When you have Letterman saying someone is a “freak show,” you’ve got a bit of a problem. This reminds me, though, of another so-called problem. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as gays and lesbians sought greater visibility and acceptance, more conservative members of our “community” (which I put in quotation marks here because there was a decided lack of community in their views) argued vociferously that leather men, drag queens, porn stars and transvestites should go to the back of the lavender bus because they were not good PR vehicles for the gay rights movement. In short, we were urged to put our “best” faces forward: The Brooks Brother Homosexual.
Hunter Madsen (along with the late Marshall Kirk, both tidy young men, then) wrote the seminal treatise on this: After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ’90s. They argued against shock tacticslike PDAs in the streetand in favor of a Madison Avenue-like public relations campaign that aimed to make gays more mediagenic (think Will & Grace). Looking back over the nearly two decades since their book was published, we can easily see that acceptance of gays and lesbians has been helped by our mainstream brothers and sisters: Ellen DeGeneres (TV superstar), Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) and Greg Louganis (Olympian) as examples. Yet, don’t mistake the power of our more outré companions in shaping the culture, in pushing the culture: the “divine” filmmaker John Waters; NPR’s most famous “lisper,” David Sedaris; and the androgynous chanteuse k.d. lang. Madsen and Kirk would likely have chosen to obfuscate this latter trio of LGBT heroes in their PR campaign for gay acceptanceand what a sadder, more narrow world that would have been for everyone. Similarly, Beatie might not be the poster child for transgender acceptance that some would like. Too bad, I say. He’s one among many, and if we know anything from recent history, it’s the importance of each of us standing up to be visible, recognized and accepted for who we are.
Here’s the kicker: The Beaties are a mind-bender. No, they’re not “just a husband and wife who are having a baby,” as Nancy Beatie has claimed. They’ve pushed our buttons and our boundaries about sexuality and gender identity because we’re so used to thinking in binary terms: man/ woman, masculine/ feminine and gay/ straight. The world’s more complicated than that, as Thomas Beatie is certainly showing us.
One of my journalist colleagues wrote about all this recently: “The best way I’ve learned to describe the transgender community is on a spectrum. Many young transgender people do not consider the dichotomy of gender to be a useful model … [But] as we all know, there are plenty of times when we are forced to declare ourselves as male or female. Our society doesn’t understand that gender can be more fluid.”
So, yes, Virginia, men do get pregnant.
Steven Petrow is the past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and is at work on his memoir, Out of the Box.