Trans/Masculine and Non-Binary People Negotiating Conception
Creating new possibilities and resisting entrenched social norms.
Posted January 10, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
This blog post was written by Damien W. Riggs, Carla A. Pfeffer, Ruth Pearce, Sally Hines, Francis Ray White, and Elisabetta Ruspini.
Our ESRC-funded project, Trans Pregnancy, shows that across the world, growing numbers of people who are not women are undertaking pregnancies. The interviews we undertook with 51 trans/masculine and non-binary people highlight the complex negotiations that this diverse group of people undertakes in order to become pregnant. In many ways, our participants' narratives are different from the widely reported experiences of Thomas Beatie who, with his wife, negotiated donor conception through a fertility clinic. By contrast, our participants reported a diversity of pathways to conception.
A number of our participants sought out friends or acquaintances who were willing to donate sperm. Some found that negotiating donor sperm through informal arrangements was a straightforward process. For these participants, donors were often seen as extended family members: as fathers to children, or as uncles (with one participant referring to the donor as a "spunkle"). Participants often spoke about informal donor conception using humorous language, depicting friendly and caring negotiations about a complex and potentially sensitive topic.
Other participants also accessed donor sperm through informal channels, though with third parties previously unknown to them. For these participants, the negotiations were somewhat more challenging. Some learned that donors wanted to help them conceive via intercourse, which was not appealing to our participants. Others were concerned about "putting themselves out there" on websites designed to match donors with recipients, and were concerned about how potential donors might view them.
Yet other participants conceived via intercourse with an intimate partner. For these participants conception was arguably the most straightforward, however not without its challenges. Challenges included the timing of conception, the views of intimate partners about becoming a parent, and for a small number of participants, the experience of conception as a result of non-consensual intercourse within a relationship.
Finally, some participants negotiated the receipt of donor sperm through a fertility clinic. For many of these participants, there were challenges associated with the cost of treatment, the attitudes and knowledge of clinic staff, and the clinical nature of fertility services. The experiences of this group of participants very much mirror those of Thomas Beatie, as he has shared in his autobiography.
Despite this diversity of experiences of conception, several factors unified our participants. First, they often sought to resist entrenched social norms in regards to conception. Some participants, for example, resisted the idea that a donor should be chosen who "matches" the characteristics of the recipient (and their partner, where relevant). Others resisted the idea that conception only occurs via heterosexual intercourse. And finally, some participants resisted the assumption that conception is inherently difficult for trans/masculine and non-binary people.
In addition to resistance, our participants also spoke about making pragmatic decisions when negotiating with entrenched social norms. For some participants, this involved side-stepping clinic bureaucracy when trying to find a known donor. Others framed conception for trans/masculine and non-binary people as unexceptional. Finally, some participants reported undertaking cost-benefit analyses when seeking to access donor sperm through clinics.
Our findings suggest that fertility clinics have an important role to play in the normalization of conception for trans/masculine and non-binary people, but that this requires education for clinic staff. However, it should not be the task of trans/masculine and non-binary people to educate clinic staff. Rather, education (including ongoing professional development) is the duty of fertility specialists, and this education should include training in regards to best practices for supporting trans/masculine and non-binary people.
Our findings also suggest the importance of legal mechanisms to protect trans/masculine and non-binary gestational parents. As the recent case of Freddy McConnell in the United Kingdom highlighted, legal determinations about trans/masculine and non-binary gestational parents can significantly undermine their reproductive rights by failing to acknowledge their status as parents (for McConnell, the Court determined that in law he should be recognised as a mother, not a father). This highlights the importance of education to ensure that Courts recognise the dignity of trans/masculine and non-binary people and their right to self-determination.
In sum, as there is growing public awareness of the reproductive experiences of trans/masculine and non-binary people, so comes with this the need for accurate information about potential reproductive pathways. Rather than perpetuating hyperbole about "pregnant men," what is needed are careful conversations that recognise the reproductive rights of trans/masculine and non-binary people, and which create spaces in which the reproductive needs of this diverse group of people can be recognized and addressed.