by Laura Heston
Recently, the Internet has been abuzz with two academic studies in particular that tell us that “sexual minority” women and transmen want to become parents (though not always through giving birth) and that this has implications for the questions we ask in surveys as well as the medical services we provide. As someone who studies queer parenting, I was less than surprised by these findings. I understand why we need to say these things. In the piece by Julia McQuillan and colleagues, the authors are letting fertility and family researchers know that it might be important to structure surveys that address non-hetero identities and practices explicitly when asking questions about family formation. Different questions, as we know, give us different results, and rather than reading into things (as in creative interpretations of Census data: When he said husband did he really mean husband?) it is certainly important to ask participants directly about their sexual and gender identities. In the case of the Obstetrics and Gynecology piece on gestational fatherhood (the preferred phrasing), the piece importantly informs health professionals that some men have the ability to give birth, and the medical community would be well-served by taking steps to learn how this might impact care (e.g. using preferred pronouns, asking only relevant questions, etc.). Transmen, and other gender-nonconforming people with uteruses for that matter, have and will continue to get pregnant and give birth, and it is time for health professionals to start learning how to talk to them. These studies are incredibly important steps in the right direction, of course.
But, as a queer person who looks forward to someday parenting, I am peeved. I don’t know where this anger comes from or to whom it is directed. Am I mad at the audience for not already knowing things I find obvious: that not all cis lesbians want to give birth, but some transmen do? Do I feel that the privilege of not having to know or care is an expression of a heteronormative, homophobic culture (that loves gay people until they act gay)? Am I mad at the researchers for catering to the concerns of service providers and survey developers rather than queer people themselves? From my interview study with 50 LGBTQ parents across the country, I can tell you that for queer people who are already parenting or anxious about beginning the (often) long road toward becoming parents— it is different and it is harder, but luckily that isn’t stopping them. They worry about being denied coverage for their fertility treatments because their insurance company requires documented (hetero-)fertility trouble before agreeing to cover costs; they worry no Christian birth parents are going to pick them from the adoption catalog; they are worried their egg- or sperm-donor contracts won’t hold up in court if their donor’s parents demand visitation with their “grandchild”; and they’re worried that lacking legal or biological ties to their children, or simply being trans, will mean that one day they will lose them.
I found that people get crafty with systems not made with them in mind. They use donors they know, get pregnant at home, and continue to report realities in the face of blind bureaucracies (e.g.: “I am my baby’s father,” or “I exist and you will figure out how to enter this in your computer”). Other queer people choose to take on parenting responsibilities for their friends’ kids, or younger relatives in expanded networks of care. Others still, choose to foster or adopt and don’t see their kids as “second- best” to biological ones. Rather than thinking of ways to include queer people in existing modes of understanding families and parenting, we would be better served by learning from what queer parents are already doing.
I am not saying we are all family revolutionaries; see the highly public outrage of the lesbian couple accidentally given sperm from a man of color for a contrary example. But, queer people have been managing to parent outside legal and biological kinship systems for decades (here and here). As much as I am happy that there is increased recognition: legal protections, improved services, national surveys that account for their existence, I worry about the consequences of folding queer people into existing institutions and paradigms of family formation. For a very long time, researchers have reported that gay and lesbian parents were no different than straight ones (with one big exception I will not even dignify by naming here) with the assumption that “no news is good news.” But, this perspective hides the innovative and revolutionary work of queer parents: the gestational fathers, the sperm donors turned uncles, the family friends who feel more like parents than many biological parents, the separate couples who become family because their children share a birth mother, and the chosen families that expand through the addition of children instead of breaking into nuclear households. We should strive to not only become more sensitive to queer and trans* parents in doctors’ offices and random-dialing surveys, but become more open to forms of parenting we haven’t even considered by starting with queer people’s lived experiences. Because, if we are to learn anything new at all about queer parenting, that’s how we’ll do it.
Laura Heston is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and managing editor for Gender & Society.