Cyn Lubow opens their latest documentary, A Womb Of Their Own, with a close up shot of a cheese grater and some charcoal. “I’d never really felt like a woman, I’d always wanted to have a moustache and wear men’s clothes,” they begin, before steadily applying the shaved charcoal to their upper lip. (Lubow uses they/them pronouns.) “I also wanted to give birth to children, and I did it twice. Now what does that make me?”
Lubow is, in their own words, a “unique blend of masculine and feminine,” and has spent their life exploring their own gender identity. As signified by the cropped hair, charcoal moustache, and oversized slacks in the film's opening, Lubow presents in a masculine way—and it is what marked the director out from other parents when they embarked on their pregnancies two decades ago.
“I was pregnant 25 and 22 years ago, when the world was different,” Lubow tells Broadly over email. “I had trouble finding masculine enough clothes to wear, but I was lucky enough at least to be surrounded with lesbian feminists who didn't expect me to be feminine even though I was pregnant. Mostly, I got to be myself and felt celebrated in being masculine and pregnant.”
Lubow addresses these experiences in detail in A Womb Of Their Own, a lovingly made lo-fi documentary that has popped up on various LGBTQ film festival lineups over the last year, including Los Angeles’ Outfest, Hong Kong’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and New York’s NewFest. It tells the story of six masculine-identifying people from across the US as they experience both the physical and emotional tolls of pregnancy. Over its 80-minute runtime, each subject talks candidly about their bodies, hormones, sexuality and relationships, as well as their expectations of parenthood.
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San Francisco-based Lubow, who also works as a psychotherapist, began making the film in 2013 mainly as a way to unite those who had been through a similar experience.
“I was really interested in exploring gender that doesn't fit the binary, since mine seemed to defy all expectations, even from the LGBT communities,” they explain. “Finding people who identified in various ways as more masculine who were also pregnant seemed like a way to visually startle people into questioning whatever they thought they knew about gender. It also seemed like an important service to reflect the experience of non-binary people.”
After trawling the internet for a couple of years, Lubow found their subjects in 2015. There’s Rae, a genderfluid high school teacher; Morgan, a genderqueer researcher; and AK, a self-identifying “butch bottom” lesbian. All three fall outside of the gender binary, but define themselves as more masculine than feminine.
A Womb Of Their Own also follows the journeys of two transgender men—Washington-based trans guy Lorenzo, who experienced pregnancy before transitioning, and Darcy, a trans student who was pregnant at the time of filming.
While all of their experiences of pregnancy were different, the documentary reveals several unifying factors among its subjects. Firstly, the connection between pregnancy and femininity tended to be an obstacle—both for practical reasons (masculine or unisex clothes rarely come in maternity sizes, for example) and psychological ones. Thanks to the inbuilt stereotypes surrounding pregnancy, their gender identity was also questioned by others. Darcy recalls being misgendered constantly as a woman, while genderqueer Morgan was chastised by other members of the LGBT community for not identifying as a woman.
Those in the documentary also noted a definite lack of information around pregnancy tailored towards them—sometimes compounded by confusion from doctors. “The feelings that have come up for me so far have mainly been about the lack of resources available, and how they’re all really gendered,” explains Morgan in one scene. “Everything that exists is very heteronormative and very focused on ‘Mommy’ and ‘goddess’ and ‘women.’”
“That makes it more difficult, just because I don’t feel like there’s anything that reflects my experience," Morgan adds. "So that’s been really tough.”
A Womb Of Their Own’s release coincides with increased media coverage of transgender men's pregnancy stories. In 2017, US tabloids leapt on the stories of Portland’s Trystan Reese and Missouri’s Kaci Sullivan, while in the UK, Scott Parker and Hayden Cross become the first reported trans men to become pregnant. Outside of sensationalist or even transphobic media coverage, there is a notable lack of scientific research and information about pregnancy for genderqueer and trans people, leaving many struggling to find clear solutions or medical support.
One of the few research papers to be published on the subject details some of these problems. In the 2016 article from the medical journal Obstetric Medicine, authors Juno Obedin-Maliver and Harvey J Makadon highlight the psychological challenges of being pregnant while genderqueer. Specifically, they point to the "significant and persistent loneliness" typified by the conflict between one’s masculine identity and the “social norms that define a pregnant person as woman and a gestational parent as mother"—a struggle discussed at length by the subjects in A Womb Of Their Own.
“Trans men who become pregnant and give birth are not a new phenomenon at all. However, evidence suggests that more trans men are considering this,” says Sally Hines, a professor of sociology and gender identities at the University of Leeds. “As practices that were once considered marginal become more visible, there is a normalizing effect, which, in turn, leads more people to consider a broader range of options in terms of how they live their intimate lives.”
So why is there so little support and information available to trans, genderqueer, and masculine-identifying people looking to embark on pregnancy? And, aside from Lubow’s film, what is currently being done to raise awareness?
Hines herself is about to embark on a three-year research project—the first of its kind—focused on the social implications of transgender pregnancy. It promises to be the largest study on the topic to date, with Hines conducting interviews across the UK, Poland, Italy, the US, and Australia. The aim is to gain an in-depth understanding of the growing number of trans men who wish to get pregnant.
“Support and self-help organizations report that young trans men are increasingly requesting advice around hormone use for these reasons, and point to the need for future health care practice and policy to take account of the specific requirements of trans men who become pregnant and give birth at global levels,” Hines says.
“There has, however, been minimal qualitative research on male pregnancy," she adds. "Our project, therefore, fills a large gap in asking about the experiences of trans men who become pregnant and give birth.” It’s a promising start, and one that will hopefully educate both medical professionals and prospective parents who fall outside of the gender binary.
As for Lubow, their main priority now is to make a success of A Womb Of Their Own and bring the stories of the people in it to wider audiences. “As far as I can tell, all the couples have mostly had the same challenges as anyone else—finding the resources to parent young children, plus work, housing, and relationship challenges,” they explain.
And what about Lubow's own experience of pregnancy and raising children? “I raised my kids as gender-neutral as I could,” they say. “I think, and hope, they have a cellular sense of the non-binary nature of gender, and have compassion for all types of people.”