Leave the Pregnant Man Alone!

After a nine year marriage, Thomas Beatie, who became famous in 2008 for giving birth to a little girl, and his wife Nancy are calling it quits. Beatie was born a woman but began transitioning to male in 2002, taking testosterone and having his breasts removed, but kept his female reproductive organs so that he could have children-- three, to be precise. Despite his pregnancy, Beatie told Barbara Walters that "I felt like Nancy's husband, and I felt like the father of my child."

I'll admit that that in 2008, 15-year old me was "weirded out" by the pictures of Beatie, flat-chested and mustached, embracing his bulging belly. Like Demi Moore on her famous Vanity Fair cover, Beatie stood proudly, almost seductively, in all his pregnant glory, as if to say, "So what? I look great." His candor almost offended me. Who was this person to stand there like that, a walking contradiction, as if he could defy nature? It seemed arrogant.

After the media storm quieted down, Thomas and Nancy faded out of the limelight and went on to have two more children. I had almost forgotten about the pregnant man until yesterday, when I read about his separation from his wife. My first thoughts, of course, were sad-- no one likes hearing about divorce. From Heidi and Seal to Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, even celebrity splits induce feelings of sympathy from the general public. But no such compassion was in store for Nancy and Thomas. The current 1,783 comments on HuffPo range from irrelevant to the story ("'He' is really a 'she,' you guys!) to outright vitriolic.

I have little patience for some of the meaner reactions-- calling Thomas a "freak" is just malicious-- but I think what the general public doesn't understand is that sex and gender aren't the same thing. As scientists and gender theorists learn more about sexual identity, it is becoming increasingly clear that "sex" refers to a person's biological, physical characteristics, whereas gender is the behavior and social identity attributed to biological sex. According to that understanding of gender identity, it is in fact perfectly possible for Beatie to be born a female and even retain certain female biological traits and still identify as a man. His "sex" may be partially female, but his "gender" is male.

Biologist and sexologist Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University has written extensively about this issue. In "The Five Sexes" (1993) and "The Five Sexes, Revisited" (2000), she discusses how "the two-sex system embedded in our society is not adequate to encompass the full range of human sexuality" (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Fausto-Sterling predicts that about 1.7% of all children born (I'm assuming in the United States, but she doesn't specify) are born "intersex," or with mixed hormones and genitalia. In "How to Build a Man" (1995) she talks about how baby boys born with penises 0.6 inches in length, and sometimes even 0.9 inches in length, have traditionally been "turned into females" (i.e. their penises have been cut and turned into clitori) by doctors. Many of these children grow up to be deeply unhappy and uncomfortable in their bodies, feeling female rather than male, or like neither gender at all.

Fausto-Sterling's work calls into question the use of genitalia as determinants of gender identity. The Female=Woman=Feminine/ Male=Man=Masculine paradigm that we have been taught to accept may not be entirely accurate. Gender may not be a fixed thing we "have," but rather, a fluid, changing role that we "perform" throughout our lives. Conceptualizing gender as a verb rather than a noun takes into account the varying ways in which it has been constructed throughout time and space. Many Native American societies, for example, recognized the existence of "two-spirited" individuals who posessed a simultaneous male and female identity (Judy Aulette, Judith Warner, and Kristin Blakely, "How Many Genders Are There? Evidence from Other Cultures," 2009).

Gender theory aside, the hullaballoo surrounding Thomas Beatie really comes down to this: How willing are we to put aside our notions of gender and "normalcy" for the sake of respecting someone's identity? Does the "abnormality" of Thomas Beatie's situation really matter-- is he hurting anybody? Is he hurting us? I implore anyone who finds him or herself "grossed out" by Beatie to take a step back and scrutinize her understanding of sexual diversity; to ask herself, "are we really defined by our genitals? Am I a woman because I have a vagina?" or, "Is it my penis that makes me a man?" We don't necessarily have to be able to relate to Beatie and other transgendered people; we don't have to "get" them. I certainly don't. But the least we can do is try.

College student, future history teacher, and feminist. 


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