Tuesday, October 16, 2012

He's my mother: motherhood across gender boundaries

By Jennifer Power, La Trobe University

This piece was originally published on The Conversation website.

In the 2005 film Transamerica, Felicity Huffman’s character, Bree, is set to begin gender reassignment surgery when she receives a phone call from a teenage boy looking for his father, Stanley, the man Bree used to be. Bree’s psychiatrist refuses to sign off on her surgery until she resolves her feelings about her unexpected “fatherhood”.

This scenario is primarily a set up for a quirky road trip as Bree sets off to meet her son. But it also reveals a lot about the starkly gendered terms around which parenthood is constructed: How will Bree feel about being both a woman and a father? Is there not an inherent contradiction in these two identities?

Parents who are transgender tend to confront people’s ideas about the possibilities of parenthood. In 2008, American transgender man Thomas Beatie went public about being the first legally recognised man to give birth to a child. The media was aghast with the idea of a pregnant man.

They debated whether he should be seen as male or female, the concept of a transgendered man seemingly difficult to accept. Commentary implied that Thomas Beatie gave away his right to claim a masculine identity when he chose to use his uterus.

As many authors have pointed out, gender tends to be understood in binary terms. You are either a man or a woman, a mother or a father – nothing in between. Transgender people are often understood as people who have “swapped” their gender – a man becomes a woman or vice versa. There can be pressure on transgender people to occupy hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine character roles to “prove” themselves as the opposite gender.

But in reality, transgender identity is often more about not fitting conventional gender patterns. Some people embrace the identity of “gender-queer” to reflect that it is about queering gender, not swapping gender. In this sense, a transgender man who has a child is not always going to see himself as a “mother” who has decided to become a “father”. He may be a mother who does not identify as a woman.

But gender binaries play out strongly in public dialogue around parenthood. Recently, Senator Ron Boswell lamented in the Australian Parliament that the problem with gay marriage was that there is no-one to take a male child fishing, or to the football, in lesbian-parented families. While most people now roll their eyes at such ludicrous gender stereotypes (and women have been known to go fishing), our culture still tends to be highly sensitive to gender norms when it comes to babies.

Women are often vehemently chastised for transgressions in pregnancy or early motherhood: returning to work soon after childbirth, prioritising work over childrearing or choosing not to breastfeed. It is on this level that a transgender man having a baby challenges deeply felt notions about the “naturalness” of motherhood.

Trevor MacDonald is a transgender man in same-sex relationship. By conventional standards Trevor McDonald is a “mother” — both biologically and socially. He gave birth to his baby, he stays at home as primary carer and he breastfeeds. But Trevor is a man and a father.

As a breastfeeding advocate, Trevor has publicly shared touching stories of support from strangers, such as the women who congratulate him for giving breastfeeding a go. But he also speaks about the criticism he has copped when feeding in public. On an airplane a woman felt compelled to publicly shame him, telling him his child needs a “real” breast. A real breast is presumably one attached to a female body, not Trevor’s body, irrespective of whether or not that breast produces milk.

The vitriol is hard to comprehend. Does it matter if Trevor is a man or a woman? He is caring for his child. But people get confused about how to comprehend a parent who might be both (or neither) mother or father — or whose gender status they can’t pinpoint.

As Trevor McDonald has experienced, often when people get confused they get angry. In the same way that so many women face criticism for their choices about motherhood, the “best interests of the child” can become a permission slip to attack an individual for their identity or decisions rather than to engage in any meaningful reflection on why traversing gender boundaries is so threatening.

This is the second part of our short series on motherhood. Click on the links below for other articles in the series:
Part one: A womb of her own: risking uterus transplant for pregnancy

Jennifer Power receives funding from the Australian Research Council, VicHealth, Relationships Australia and ACON and in kind support from Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria and the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities.
The Conversation
This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Guidelines anyone?

As part of the Work, Love, Play study, we have developed a set of Practice Guidelines for health and welfare professionals who might be working with same-sex attracted parents and their families.

I am always a bit cynical about Guidelines. Do they really change much? We all know most end up collecting dust.

But the central aim of these Guidelines was to get people to think about their own practice and whether what they currently do is inclusive or inadvertently exclusive of LGBT couples and families. So, hopefully, even if someone only browses these Guidelines once before putting them on the shelf that will be enough to spark some sort of reflection.

In the development of these Guidelines we spoke to same-sex attracted parents and to service providers (some of whom worked a lot with same-sex couples and some of whom had very little experience). The service providers all expressed an interest in resources that could help them feel more comfortable and confident working with same-sex couples—many said they felt ‘naive’ when it came to same-sex parented families. They were interested in ways in which same-sex couples created their families and family life, but were worried that they would ask the wrong questions or use the wrong words. So our Guidelines are partly educative (what are some myths about same-sex attracted parents? what do same-sex couples value when using services?) and partly instructive (what are some ‘door opening questions’ that will invite people to tell you about their family?).

These Guidelines are free and I am happy to send copies out to parents or to organisations. Just email or call me on 03 9385 5131 (Australian number) for more information or to place an order.

The Bouverie Centre also conducts training for health and welfare services on working with same-sex parented families. If you are interested in more information about this just email or call.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Grim Reaper died in the 80s

The following is a piece I have running today on The Conversation website (republished with their permission).  It is a comment on the Queensland Government's plans to re-introduce a Grim Reaper style HIV prevention campaign. While not directly related to parenting, I wanted to rerun this here because the Queensland Government has (in their wisdom) done all they can to wind back laws supporting LGBT rights – they have proposed changes to civil union legislation which would make existing unions invalid for same-sex couples and introduced laws to prevent same-sex couples accessing surrogacy. Alongside this, they have defunded the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC), an organisation dedicated to LGBT health. Homophobia has no place in public health. The core of Australia’s success in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS has been the commitment of governments to supporting and funding LGBT led organisations to do what they have to do to get HIV prevention messages out. Defunding QAHC is part of a raft of changes from a conservative government that will have a negative impact on  all LGBT folk in Queensland, especially parents or prospective parents.

The Grim Reaper died in the 80s – time for a new approach to HIV prevention

By Jennifer Power, La Trobe University

The Grim Reaper television commercial is infamous in Australia. Reminiscent of B-grade gothic horror flicks, the cloaked reaper stands in a foggy bowling alley poised to strike down a group of deadpan, but “ordinary” looking, people. As the people are bowled down, a voice booms, “at first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS, but now we know every one of us could be devastated by it”.

The Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television in April 1987. It was a phenomenal marketing success. Some 25 years on, just about everyone who saw it remembers it. In my mind, the Grim Reaper was part of pre-bedtime viewing throughout my childhood. In reality, the ad ran for less than three weeks. I probably watched it only a handful of times.

The Grim Reaper has come to symbolise HIV/AIDS in Australia. It captured the fear and uncertainty of a time when people were not sure what would happen with this virus. It wasn’t clear how large the epidemic might grow in Australia; there was certainly no sign of a cure and available treatments at the time were not particularly effective.

The Grim Reaper campaign was not without controversy. In some communities, gay men came to be associated with the Grim Reaper and were seen as a threat to the community, rather than being victims of the disease.

The campaign was immensely effective at drawing attention to HIV/AIDS. Politically this was important. The Commonwealth government had directed a lot of funds toward HIV prevention and, although the Grim Reaper was not devised as a political tool, the response to it justified this spending.

The Queensland government has decided to resurrect the Grim Reaper imagery in a soon-to-be-screened television campaign designed to inform Queenslanders that HIV infection rates are again on the rise. The ad features an actor dressed as the Grim Reaper costume while the voice-over laments, “we shouldn’t be having this conversation”.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adventures in the sperm trade

Image of JoEllen Marsh and Jeffrey Harrison
courtesy of Redbird Media and Met Film
 ABC (Australia) recently screened a documentary called Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade. Interestingly this screened on their Compass (Faith and Religion) program, although the connection to religion was allowed to be implicit.

Donor Unknown begins with the story of JoEllen Marsh, a 20 year old from Pennsylvania who was raised by two mothers. JoEllen was conceived in the 1980s via donor sperm from the Californian Cryobank.

Having always been curious about her donor, she signs up to an online registry that connects donor-conceived children using the code she has for her donor, Donor 150. After some time, a half sister from New York, Danielle Pagano, makes contact with JoEllen and they begin communication and arrange to meet. At some point (it is not explained how) the New York Times picks up on this meeting and, in 2005, publishes a front page piece about donor siblings featuring the meeting of JoEllen and Danielle: Hello, I am your sister. Our father is donor 150.

The film then cuts to a man living a quiet, hippy-ish existence with his four dogs and a pigeon in a broken-down trailer at the shores of Venice Beach, California. Meet Donor 150. Jeffrey Harrison relates the story of having come across the New York Times article and being stunned to realise he was the donor for these girls. The chances that this man had several donor children out there were high: he had been a near professional sperm donor for several years in the 1980s, donating up to three or four times a week. Every week!