By Ellen Goodman
One of the expressions my grandmother uttered with feeling and frequency was that “one man should have one baby.” I never knew if this was a wish or a curse, but I’m pretty sure she never imagined Thomas Beatie.
For those of you who do not watch Oprah or read tabloids, Beatie is “The World’s First Pregnant Man.” While the title of “first” is in dispute, Beatie is certainly the most public transgender poster parent to have a baby bump plastered across the media.
Pictures of him in such gender-bending poses as shaving while his elbow rests on his bump and outside mowing shirtless have appeared from here to Australia. And now—pass the cigars—he has delivered the baby.
Unlike Oprah, I will spare you many of the medical details. Let us just say that Thomas was born Tracy and socialized enough into a traditional female role to be a finalist in the Miss Hawaii Teen USA contest. Then, a decade ago she had what we used to call a sex change operation but what we now call sexual realignment surgery. She had her body realigned to fit her self-image.
At this point, she changed pronouns and so will I. Sometime after the surgery, Thomas married Nancy in Oregon, a state that would have banned Tracy from wedding Nancy, but never mind. Nancy, who had two grown children, no longer had a uterus but wanted to be a mother again. Thomas, who had retained a uterus and ovaries, wanted to be a father.
Here is where the story becomes less of a freak show—Bearded Man Gives Birth!—and more like an inevitable next step of medicine on the march, or on the makeover if you prefer.
It is only recently that we began to look at the human body as a template to be altered as we please. I’m not comparing sexual reassignment surgery to liposuction, but if Thomas removed his breasts to fit the male model, how many women enlarge them to fit the female model? For that matter, it’s only recently that we could reach into the pillbox and pull out male and female hormones.
Add to that the expanding gamut of reproductive technologies. Over Beatie’s 34-year life we have subdivided the word mother into its many parts. We now have genetic mothers, gestational mothers and birth mothers, as well as the mothers who actually raise children. We have egg donors and surrogates. Grandmothers have carried their own grandchildren. Sisters have delivered their own nieces.
Indeed, on the list of reproductive technologies, the Beatie baby-making project was as basic as a turkey baster. The sperm came from an anonymous donor. They used artificial insemination and natural childbirth. But from a social point of view, Thomas and Nancy are going to have an awful lot more ‘splaining to do to their child than will Nicole Kidman, who named her baby “Sunday” even though she was born on Monday.
“In a technical sense, I see myself as my own surrogate,” said Beatie. But in a technical sense, he is not a surrogate. He’s the genetic mother and the gestational mother. He told Oprah that he has “a right to a biological child.” But what he actually has is a uterus and ovaries.
So, in the same technical sense, this baby has two mommies, the birth mother and the social mother. The baby also has two daddies, the sperm donor and the social dad. In a technical sense, Thomas is both birth mother and social father.
There’s no way to opt out of the medical march even if we wanted to. But what made Beatie tabloid fodder is that in a he/she world of opposite pronouns and sexes, he represents the trans in gender, the mind-spinning possibility that gender is not either/or but both/and.
In the end, the most bizarre part of the story may be the Beaties’ retro insistence on their titles. “He will be the father and I will be the mother,” said Nancy. Having twisted all the biological roles, having bent all our biological images of what it means to be a father or mother, they seem to have asserted old social roles. Let us hope he changes diapers.
Call Thomas a man with a uterus or a woman with a—never mind. But Sigmund Freud notwithstanding, this is another way in which anatomy is no longer destiny.
As for the baby? It’s A Girl! At least for the moment.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group