Why We Need Gender-Inclusive Terms for 'Father' and 'Mother'

As a trans dad, I know these words matter—and that LGBTQ, adoptive, and donor-conceived families are as real as any other kind.

Jan 10 2022, 5:49pm
A column about being a pregnant trans dad, and all the prejudices, healthcare challenges, personal dilemmas, and joys that come with making a family in 2021.

Merriam-Webster defines “parent,” primarily, as “a person who is a father or mother” or “a person who has a child.” “Mother” is defined as “a female parent” and “father” is “a male parent.” In my experience, this is exactly how most people—parents and non-parents alike—use these words. That’s how it’s meant to work: As any lexicographer will tell you, mainstream dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. In the words of Simon Winchester, dictionaries “tell of the language as it is, not as it should be.”

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We also have “to father” and “to mother” as verbs, which gets a bit more complicated. “To father” is synonymous with “beget” and “sire”—though Merriam-Webster notes, in a circular way, that these words are considered archaic, except in relation to domestic animals. “To mother” seems simpler on the face of it, maybe less overtly sexist? “To mother” is defined as “to give birth to” or “to care for or protect like a mother.” The first definition is the biologically essentialist one, but at least unlike with “beget” and “sire,” there are no caveats or domestic animals to be found. 

It’s subtle, but already we can see clear signs of a patriarchal system of society embedded in language. Is it less problematic to reduce female parenthood to biology nowadays? Surely, no feminist would argue this (except perhaps the trans-exclusionary kind). To me, and likely to any queer parent, the unqualified foregrounding of a biological role in relation to women seems like a less overt, yet much more insidious example of linguistic sexism. 

Thankfully, where dictionaries might oversimplify by describing majorities first and foremost, our laws increasingly do not. With conspicuous exceptions like the UK, democratic states tend towards updating legislation to afford all parent-child relationships equal status and protection under the law, regardless of genetics or gender. 

I’ve written before about birth certificates, for example. In Canada, Australia, and many US states, gender-neutral birth certificates are available to all families, not just queer ones; in Canada and the US, three or more parents can be recognized on a birth certificate; and in the EU, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that all member states must recognize cis-queer parents on their children’s birth certificates.

The unavoidable, pragmatic, progressive—however you see it—consequence of such laws, and, perhaps the ultimate one, is to deprivilege the “traditional nuclear family” structure, i.e., a married cis-hetero couple and their biological offspring. Usually, discussions on the topic center on LGBTQ+ families—and we also tend to be most visible in campaigns to equalize outdated family law. But statistically speaking, cishet parents and their children will always make up the majority of non-traditional, non-nuclear families. 

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LGBTQ+ family rights, and the discussions they prompt about definitions, were never about special treatment—they are about equality with other families. We need—and need to campaign in a broad coalition—for new systems, starting from the principle of what children, not their parents, need. This includes complete information about their origins and equal recognition of their parentage. Only by moving past our current legal and social focus on parental rights—or worse, some archaic, ideological notion of “real” family—can we hope to achieve true equality for all families. 

How, for example, does legal “motherhood” and “fatherhood” work for the growing numbers of families, LGBTQ+ or not, created with the help of donor gametes—that is, with donated sperm or eggs? 

Most of us are still very new to frank, informed conversations about using donor gametes to create family, even if we’ve actually done it. A few years ago, before conceiving my first child with the help of an open-ID sperm donor, I could be overheard saying, “It’s just like using donated blood or a kidney, right?” Today, having exposed myself to the perspectives of many donor-conceived adults, innumerable donor-assisted families, and the staggering dysfunction of our birth registration system, I understand that all origin information is a person’s fundamental birthright. And I believe LGBTQ+ family equality campaigners and campaigners for the rights of donor-conceived people could all benefit from closer alliance, despite being, in some ways, philosophically and linguistically at odds.

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In donor-conceived online spaces, I’ve noticed an almost fundamentalist approach to language. If it’s a coping strategy—to allay donor-conceived adults’ completely righteous anger and sense of betrayal—it makes sense. I cannot imagine many things more destabilizing than realizing you’ve been lied to in such a profound way by the people you trust more than anyone else, your parents. The urge to reclaim control and define things strictly according to historically-powerful systems of meaning, e.g., who is one’s “real” or “biological father/mother,” seems reasonable on the face of it. 

Enter the queers. Take my own situation: I am a trans man who became a dad with the help of donated sperm (literally donated, since it’s illegal to receive payment for gametes in the UK). With this sperm, I became pregnant and gave birth. I have always spoken openly to my kid about being donor-conceived, even before he was born. We have all the books. I will fully support my kid if he wants to contact the donor or his donor siblings in the future, or if he doesn’t. I’ve already looked into ways of making this possible sooner than him turning 18, which is when he’ll be able to access the contact details the UK regulator holds. Will I make mistakes? Of course. Am I my child’s “biological mother”? No.

Every parent, as an integral part of becoming one, takes on a responsibility to be proactively honest with their kids about how they were created, from day zero. Also, humans are complicated and flawed, and, given it’s not their origins but those of their children in question, parents should not be the holders or gatekeepers of this information. A child’s genetic origins, how they were conceived and birthed, and who their legal parents are can all be clearly and safely recorded for future reference by them.

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But a progressive theory of identity, inclusive definitions of “mother,” “father,” “parent,” and my own queerness force me to stop short of referring to the person who donated the sperm that I used as my kid’s “biological father.” Yet this hesitation essentially breaks the rules of donor-conceived community etiquette, as I understand it. In short, it necessarily makes me as a parent selfish and in denial about my choices around family creation. It is seen as taking agency away, yet again, from previously deceived donor-conceived adults.

I hope those who take this position will at least hear me out. It’s not the “biological” that gives me pause so much as the “father.” In every meaningful, modern sense, I am my child’s father. I have this role in his life, it is legally true according to UK gender recognition law, and this is how I understand myself as a transgender man, as trans male. To me, any person who has a parental role and uses the word “father” for themselves is also a father—no more, no less. Biology has nothing to do with it.

The “yes, but biologically…” line of argument immediately veers toward the same biological essentialism used to oppress queer people, and trans people in particular, for the whole of human history. If you would not insist that trans men are “biological women,” and vice versa for trans women—if you recognize these as regressive, exclusionary, and dangerous opinions, as opposed to “facts (not feelings!)”—the same must be true when we talk about family roles and relationships. 

I want to clarify that I’m not talking about people who meet and develop relationships with their donors. I fully accept that words like mother/father/mum/dad/parent come into play when actual human relationships form. I would never be threatened by the idea of my kid one day having two dads, or a mum and a dad if our donor is a trans woman. That’s exactly the meaning of these words that I see as, well, meaningful. 

The conversation around donor siblings is a little different, largely because the idea of “sibling” carries infinitesimal social power relative to “parent.” I have seen donor-conceived adults object to the portmanteau “dibling” (donor sibling) as euphemistic, and yet to me, this is exactly the kind of pragmatic approach that keeps the language of family inclusive, progressive, and, ultimately, as useful as possible. One’s personal relationship to siblings resulting from donor connection is different, broadly speaking, from one's relationship to siblings who grew up as a family. Richer language helps us be clearer and more honest about that. It also de-essentializes and broadens how we understand “family” more generally.

My hope is that we hold firmly and compassionately to the social and political meanings of mother/father/parent and ditch the biologically essentialist ones completely. As we have begun to do with “woman” and “man,” we can let go of our need for strict categories and allow for a complexity that says: Language does not create us, we create it, and this, specifically, is no longer helpful. We no longer need both definitions, “biological parent” and “social parent.” It’s too easy to subconsciously read that “and” as a “versus,” or for the question to follow: “Which is more real… more important?” One automatically sounds like it carries more weight, right?

Is a woman less of a mother for not giving birth, or for using a donor egg? If the answer is “no,” and I believe wholeheartedly it is, then the best way to make this clear is to dispense with the dichotomous idea of “biological mother” altogether—along with “to mother” meaning “to give birth to.” Likewise, do we think nonbinary parents are really the “biological mother” or “father” if their gametes are involved? If not, then let’s not use those terms. If we continue using them for cishet parents, we’re still implying them for everyone. Or worse, we are drifting yet again towards a hierarchy of “realness.”

The social and political meanings of these words are the ones that actually matter. So let’s use different words when we mean different things, and have zero tolerance for the archaic systems of oppressive power that caused us to settle for just one word, used in rank order, in the first place.

Follow Freddy McConnell on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

adoption, TRANS RIGHTS, parenting, fatherhood, families, motherhood, Birth, Dad Bod, donor-conceived

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