Of trans fathers and male mothers – the importance of centering experience

By Ruth Pearce, Sally Hines, Carla Pfeffer, Damien W Riggs, Elisabetta Ruspini and Francis Ray White. Cross-posted from the Trans Pregnancy blog. An article based on this piece has been published in The Conversation.

On Wednesday 25th September the UK’s High Court ruled that Freddy McConnell, a man who gave birth to his child, does not have the right to be registered as a “father” on his child’s birth certificate. The court also ruled out the possibility of registering him simply as the “parent”. McConnell, who is trans, has indicated his intention to appeal.

We feel that this is a disappointing outcome, with concerning consequences for the dignity of trans parents and the safety of their children. The law will continue to require that people who give birth to a child in the UK are always registered as the “mother” – even if they are legally men. For example, McConnell’s legal team noted that, “Freddy is legally a man and his legal papers display the same.”

Most importantly, the verdict wrongs the human rights of the complainant and his child, through failing to provide them with consistent legal documentation and intruding on their privacy. More widely it is wrong in terms of its failure to legally recognise diverse family forms and contemporary practices of intimacy, which question traditional gendered reproductive certainties.

Yet, paradoxically, the ruling brings into being a new legal category of “mother”, which is based on reproductive experience, rather than the traditionally sex/gendered body. From today, a ‘mother’ is not defined through binary sexed characteristics. And so, a man may be a a mother as much as a woman.

Judge Sir Andrew McFarlane is explicit on this point in his ruling. For example, in his concluding comments, he states that, “the term ‘mother’ is free-standing and separate from consideration of legal gender, thus in law there can be male mothers and female fathers” (noteably, there is no distinction between “sex” and “gender” in UK law).

This is why legal cases around gender recognition are so important. Even when they seem to fail the individuals who bring them to court, they very often also radically chip away at normative understandings of gender in unforeseen and unintended ways. Such paradoxes and contradictions are subsequently brought to light, unpacked and, very often, readdressed at appeal stages.

McFarlane’s ruling, then, may be seen as the first step in the legal undoing of binary understandings of reproduction and gender, sex and the body, wherein all families of all genders and all bodies will be recognised.

This is particularly important for the trans and non-binary birth parents we have spoken with for this research project, who seek forms of legal recognition that are consistent with how they experience gender in their everyday life.

Promotional image from the film Seahorse. Photo by Mark Bushnell.

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Seahorse screening and live Q&A in Leeds

Hyde Park Picture House are hosting a screening of the documentary film Seahorse tomorrow evening (Tuesday 27 August), in association with Leeds Queer Film Festival. I will be participating in a live Q&A session afterwards, representing the Trans Pregnancy project.

The film follows the experiences of Freddy as he becomes a father:

Freddy is 30 and yearns to start a family but this poses unique challenges. He is a gay transgender man. Deciding to carry his own baby took years of soul searching, but he was unprepared for the reality of pregnancy, both physically and challenging society’s fundamental understanding of gender and family. To him what feels pragmatic, to others feels confronting; this was not part of his plan.

Against a backdrop of increasing hostility towards trans people the world over, Freddy is forced to confront his own naivety, mine unknown depths of courage and lean on every friend and family member who will stand by him.

For the Q&A, I will be joining Freddy, director Jeanie Finlay, and Yuval Topper-Erez, a member of the Trans Pregnancy project Advisory Board who became famous in Israel following his own experience of giving birth. The discussion will be chaired by BAFTA-nominated producer Mia Bays.

You can reserve a ticket for the event here.

Family Planning workshop at Trans Health Matters (23 October)

In a couple of weeks I will be attending the Trans Health Matters conference, which is held at Resource for London on Tuesday 23 October.

You can read about and book tickets for Trans Health Matters 2018 here.

Co-hosted by holistic sexual health centres cliniQ (London) and Clinic T (Brighton), this event offers an insight into cutting edge practice and research, particularly with regards to sexual and mental health.

I will be speaking at a workshop entitled Trans Family Planning: Contraception, Fertility, Pregnancy and Childbirth, alongside Kate Nambiar, Michael Toze and Francis Ray White.

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Resource for London, Holloway Road

Trans people often find there is a lack of information available on their own fertility, or that they have been misinformed about the reproductive capacity of their own bodies. Similarly, trans people wishing to form families continue to face social, legal and medical barriers to parenthood. The workshop will comprise three short interventions, reflecting on current challenges and opportunities for trans reproductive autonomy, and an opportunity for attendees to reflect on how this might relate to their own work.

Kate Nambiar is a medical doctor and researcher who works at Clinic T. She will be discussing issues around contraception for trans people.

Michael Toze is a Research Fellow in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Lincoln. He will talk about UK medical practice and law with regards to trans fertility, parenthood, and sterilisation procedures.

Francis Ray White is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Westminster, and I am a Research Fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. We will be discussing intial findings from the Trans Pregnancy Project.