a performance stage with the words "pregnant man?!" in tabloid font above it
Health

A Brief History of the ‘Pregnant Man!’

The perfect example of the sensational story—one which erases minority experience while also giving it massively exaggerated significance—is that of the “pregnant man!”
February 22, 2021, 12:00pm
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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.

Everyone’s experience of fertility treatment is different but long waits are a common theme. Whether it’s extensive testing, sperm quarantining, wait lists at busy clinics or—as is my current reality—patience while your body resets after a loss just when you’ve finished waiting several months to try to conceive, you’ll likely have to wait a few more. You just can’t rush it.

As if January wasn’t the longest month of the year already, it also happened to be the start of my eight-ish weeks of downtime before trying another embryo transfer. Received wisdom says that people with ovaries are most fertile after giving birth and after miscarrying. If you’re using assisted reproductive technology to get pregnant, though, you don’t get a chance to test this out. The powerlessness in this is rough; the inability to casually start trying again at home and just see what happens. If I had time to dwell on it, I’m sure it would start to piss me off profoundly.

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Luckily, I don’t have time! For one, I have a three-year-old. His twos were far from terrible but he is showing signs of becoming a three-nager. Second, my mind’s been elsewhere. I’ve been reflecting a lot on how birthing trans people are reported on by the mainstream media and, by extension, how we are seen in the popular imagination. I’m sure my conclusion will come as no surprise to most Dad Bod readers, but the story that is usually told perfectly encapsulates itself, in that tabloid-ready phrase: “pregnant man!” (punctuation mandatory).

I say I thought about how we are “reported on,” yet very little real reporting—with a focus on new information, accuracy and the common good—has ever occurred. From a trans perspective, reporters write repetitive, dehumanizing headlines, feverishly exaggerate and misrepresent, and betray their subjects’ trust. It is where the pristine genetic link from 19th century freak show to 21st century journalism is laid bare.

This vampiric process is not confined to journalism that drains and then discards trans people. But if there is an example nonpareil of the sensational, click-bait story—one which erases minority experience while also giving it massively exaggerated significance—surely it is that of the “pregnant man!”

The first time I saw a story like this, it was about Thomas Beatie. He was the original “first pregnant man.” (Side note, there’s now a stock opening line for seminars on trans pregnancy: “Have there been five or six first pregnant men now??”) 

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Beatie grew up in Hawaii and came out as trans in the 90s. In 2006, he paused his medical transition to start a family with his wife. Of course, he would not have been the first trans man to give birth; rather, his story was the first we all heard about. It was told sensationally enough for it to go massively viral in a pre-social media world.

Back then, I was at university and I remember seeing the gossip magazine covers in the supermarket. What strikes me is how fundamentally different the context was. “Pregnant man...!” is still a fruitful headline, but today the average reader will know why this man is pregnant, i.e. because he is transgender. Back then, in the U.K. at least, the word “transgender” barely existed, let alone widespread understanding of it.

Indeed, this was a couple of years before I first heard the word myself. And it was only in doing so that I realized it applied to me and to the dysphoria I’d felt my whole life. So, when I saw Beatie and his baby bump on that glossy cover, I did not understand on any level who or what I was looking at. If you’d told me this guy was a premonition of my future, I’d have done a double-take at the mortifying words around his photos. Then, I’d have laughed in your face and died a little inside for reasons I could not articulate.

I think that was the deliberate goal: to scandalize. Average-reader-me was left with the vague impression of this a science fiction story. There was mention of Beatie’s cis wife not being able to conceive and inference of bizarre medical intervention that enabled him to do the job instead. I took “pregnant man!” at face value and was duly shocked: tabloid journalism accomplished.  

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Later, when I discovered the words and community I’d needed to start connecting the dots of my own identity, I did not remember Beatie. Years after that, when I paused transition to start my own family, I still didn’t think of him. It was like my brain had filed the exploitation of him in some deep-storage vault, labelled: “Tabloid weirdness: nothing to see here.” 

By 2020, I was a father myself. I’d long since heard Trystan Reese’s pregnancy story on a podcast. Trystan and his cis partner Biff live in Portland and shared the story of becoming adoptive dads before going on to conceive their third child, Leo, carried by Trystan. The way he told his story made me feel proud of my own fertility for the first time, as opposed to ashamed or fearful (although I want to acknowledge that Trystan himself went on to endure relentless and devastating social media harassment). I’d also read just about everything published on trans fertility and I was part of an extensive online community. All of that—none of it mainstream media—enabled me to mentally and emotionally recategorize Beatie’s story. And then, we actually met, at the world’s first (a real one this time) academic conference on trans pregnancy. 

We were on a panel together in 2020, and I was shocked all over again to learn two things. First, Beatie did not choose to share his story. Rather, somehow word got out and he and his wife were doorstepped by reporters. He tried to implement damage control by talking first to LGBTQ+ outlet, The Advocate, but from there, things spiraled. 

Thomas Beatie and the author together

Beatie and myself last year. Image via the author

Second, Beatie shared with me that this event was the first time he’d ever met other dads who’d given birth. He’d travelled all the way from the U.S. to England with his family for the opportunity to do so. When his story first broke, he said, the backlash was overwhelming, and not just from mainstream society. The LGBTQ+ community turned on him too, branding him a traitor and attention seeker. He put this down to his naivety and lack of agency over his narrative. Realizing this, and knowing he had no hope of out-gunning the tabloids, for his family’s sake and his own wellbeing, he stepped back from the limelight. 

I felt shame at knowing he’d even been criticized for that act of self-preservation. Before meeting Beatie, I’d come across the idea that he had “abandoned” or “sold out” fellow trans parents. “What ever happened to him?” was a common refrain, posed more out of curiosity than concern. It was a painful reminder of the danger of mass media coverage (mixed blessing is too polite): it has the likely potential not only to turn the world against us but to turn us against each other. 

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Like I said, nowadays, few people see a “pregnant man!” tabloid or magazine cover without parsing it as a trans story. And, very occasionally, under the clichéd headline, the reporting itself will be accurate and humane. But most media sources still have a long way to go. 

In 2017, there was a sudden rash of tabloid articles about “first” pregnant men in the U.K. The chap who got the most attention was Hayden Cross. We have never met, so I cannot say how much of the reporting was accurate, or how he felt about it. But what struck me was his age: he was just 20 when The Sun, the most widely-read and notorious of the British tabloids, splashed him on their front page, under the headline: British man will be the first to give BIRTH thanks to sperm donor he found on Facebook. All together now, this time with feeling: he was not the first!

A follow-up piece ran with the alarming headline: First man to give birth in U.K warns others not to try it because it’s ‘really hard’. I don’t want to tell fellow journalists how to do their job, but they spectacularly missed the real stories. It’s a cliché in itself to say, but the fact a trans man had a baby is not news. It can, however, be a compelling and important story.

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Take Cross’s age, for example. He’s far younger than the average first-time parent in the U.K.—13 years younger, to be precise. A journalist with more insight might know that, actually, many young trans masc people experience relatively early parenthood. They might point to societal norms that disadvantage trans youth or societal progress that has left them behind. With no access to appropriate sex ed or family planning advice, young trans people often mistakenly believe that testosterone is an effective contraceptive. They are also, still, routinely misinformed about their future reproductive choices. They are told by doctors that transition equals infertility. This is not true. Why is it still happening?

A journalist who is curious in the way we are meant to be might draw a link between searching for sperm donors on Facebook and LGBTQ+ people’s struggle for equal access to regulated fertility treatment. Lastly, they might ask why Cross found pregnancy so hard, rather than just using the remark in a clickable headline. Is he warning other trans men off or is he highlighting a lack of inclusive perinatal care? Is this not, perhaps, a multi-faceted public health and human rights story?

I know tabloids don’t exist for that kind of journalism. I’m not being naive. I’m just imagining a realistic alternative. I’m trying to believe that no one will ever again experience what Beatie went through. I’m trying to imagine that we can tell stories of people like Hayden Cross for the right reasons, and that progress will come from doing so. 

This is in all our interests. We need to rewrite the headlines because, trans or cis, we are all bored of them. And we need to reframe the stories, because without a commitment to news, accuracy and the common good, the media all too quickly becomes indistinguishable from a freak show.

Follow Freddy on Twitter.