Once and only once, while my partner was pregnant with our second child, we went to a prenatal group together.
It was organized by a group of local midwives as an opportunity for clients to socialize with other expecting parents, talk through our fears and expectations, and meet the other midwives who would act as backup for our children’s births. Among the families present, ours stood out: a pregnant trans dad, a non-gestational mom, and our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
Sometimes people ask how my partner and I decided which of us would birth our children. I tell people it was a game of “one, two, three, not it.” I never wanted to be pregnant; my husband very much did. Even after his first pregnancy – during which he flirted with the diagnostic boundaries of hyperemesis and never gained back all the weight he lost in the first trimester – he still wanted to give birth one more time. Our eldest child was born in the hospital, an experience that was disempowering and traumatic for my husband. So he was looking forward to a homebirth the second time around.
Although it’s always a little uncomfortable being the only visible queer people in the room, we were optimistic about the group conversation. There were introductions and snacks. Then the guest speaker for the day stood up. He was a cis man who had been invited to speak about his experience as a birth partner and how to support a birthing parent—except that he didn’t say “birth partner,” of course, he said “dad.”
His talk was about childbirth as a hero’s journey. The “ladies” giving birth would be pushed to their limits and transformed; the “dads” were along to provide encouragement when the going got tough. He made a lot of references to the movie Moana. The longer this went on, the more I squirmed in my seat. Every so often, he’d accidentally catch my eye and trip over his binary language. “So you guys have to remember – or gals, if you’re a gal that’s helping your, uh, your wife, you know, that’s okay too.” It was awkward enough knowing we didn’t fit in; being repeatedly singled out only highlighted the discomfort.
Instead of feeling supported and guided, I felt unwelcome, every sentence a reminder that none of this advice was intended for me.
While my partner tried to get pregnant, and during both his pregnancies, we both experienced disorienting erasure. For him, it was the constant references to “motherhood,” the surprising number of medical practitioners who reflexively called him “Mama” rather than using his name. He was in the center of everything, and yet people kept talking to and about him as though he were someone else. I simply felt invisible. None of the pregnancy books we read so much as mentioned the possibility that people who were pregnant might not be mothers, or that a mother might not give birth. Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner, the gold standard handbook for non-gestational parents, refers almost exclusively to the “father.” There’s an occasional parenthetical mention of “the mother’s lesbian lover,” which does not help.
Pregnancy and birth are heightened, vulnerable times. Physical, emotional and logistical challenges abound. A person’s whole identity shifts and stretches to accommodate their new role as a parent. Being erased and misgendered is painful at the best of times, but during pregnancy and birth, it can be jarring in the extreme. When the people you’ve trusted to guide you through this enormous transition use language that denies the most basic facts of your life, it’s difficult to feel you’re being well cared for.
Maybe it seems excessive to suggest that everyone adopt gender-neutral language when discussing pregnancy and parenthood. After all, most people are straight and cisgender. Is it really worth the trouble of relearning all your habits of speech to accommodate a small subset of families, when so much of the time there aren’t even any queer people in the room? But what seems like an occasional anomaly to a birth worker or session leader is neverending for LGBTQ parents.
We are always entering rooms where we’re not expected; where our absence is the default; where no one is prepared to accommodate us. We’re always calculating whether it will be worth the effort to politely call attention to our existence or ask someone to get our names right. We notice every hasty correction, with its undertone of this would be simpler if you weren’t here.
“We’re going to split into two groups now,” the speaker said. “Moms on this side and dads over there.” Instead of trying to figure out where we were each supposed to be – and justify our presence, no matter which group we ended up in – my husband and I decided to leave early. Whatever support was on offer here, it wasn’t intended for us.
Whether doctors use abusive language, refuse to acknowledge a patient’s chosen pronouns on medical intake forms or ignore the specific needs of LGBTQ+ patients, normative gender/sexual orientations still abound in the healthcare industry, leaving many with a difficult question: Should I even go to the doctor? Four queer women of color discuss barriers to LGBTQ+ women’s health care and share affirming ways to combat systems of oppressions through health education.
Queer women are not statistically “safe” when seeking health care, but there are medical spaces that have been crafted so that they can be treated with the same dignity as any other patient. The documentary film Patient No More explores the barriers LGBTQ+ women navigate across healthcare systems, and how the never-ending hunt for affirming care affects their lives.
The topic of queer women’s struggles with health care “…was near and dear to my heart after so many years straddling the line between health care and storytelling across my own coming-out process. Despite all of the terrible research I found, I must say that I still genuinely believe in the transformative power of the medical community, but most especially what it can be instead of what it currently is.” Discover what motivated the producer of Patient No More to make the film.