Every month, Birthing From Within sends a letter to our membership and the public, containing our reflections on happenings in birth, in the world at large, and in our organization. See a collection of our monthly letters on the blog here; sign up to receive our newsletters directly in your inbox.
The United States – and the world – continues to experience unprecedented upheaval and unrest. In the past week, people continued to flood the streets with demands for an end to white supremacist state violence; more legislators than previously imaginable began to publicly acknowledge the need for large-scale police reform; we mourned with George Floyd’s family as they laid him to rest; and worldwide Covid-19 infections skyrocketed, even as many municipalities began to relax quarantine. Amid all of these events, we wish to also acknowledge Pride Month – the struggles that the LGBTQ community have faced in the past, the progress still ahead, and how all of us can work to widen our perspectives to encompass the full spectrum of the human experience.
June is Pride Month! For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and other gender and sexually diverse people, it is a time to celebrate the fight to live openly and freely as their whole selves, without fear of persecution and reprisal – and a time to reflect on civil rights gains made, and challenges still to be met.
While there has been remarkable cultural and legislative progress in the area of LGBTQ rights, this progress has often been uneven. White cisgender gay men have, on the whole, made the most progress towards equal acceptance and rights, while there are many more challenges at the intersection of white supremacy and queerness for Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the LGBTQ world. The National LGBT Health Education Center observes that in addition to suffering from social marginalization and political discrimination, “Black LGBTQ people (particularly Black transgender women) are subjected to violence, brutality, and death at a far greater rate than White LGBTQ people and bear the resulting loss of lives and negative impacts on the quality of life, mental health, and physical health of those who survive violence.”
As birth workers, we also must understand that our particular field – reproductive health and childbearing – is one in which the LGBTQ+ community still faces many obstacles.
One of these obstacles is the cultural expectation of what pregnancy and childbirth look like. From the time that some of us played with dolls, to the embarrassment of high school videos about puberty, to media depictions of birth, most of us were taught that pregnancy and childbirth exist in a strict binary: women and men make babies together, and only women give birth.
And while there is certainly an underlying binary in the sense that an ova and a sperm make an embryo, the truth of where those gametes come from is so much wider than “two.” Understanding this requires paradigm-shifting. Not everyone who is born with a uterus is a woman. Not everyone who is born with a penis is a man. Same-sex couples can have babies. Multi-adult relationships can have babies. Pregnancy and birth don’t fit in small boxes.
For childbirth professionals, making this shift in thinking can be a personal and professional challenge. We are steeped in gendered, binary symbology and language. Our books talk about pregnant women and mothers. Our websites have glowing, feminine figures with round bellies that are cradled by masculine hands. We talk about “birthing mamas” and “proud papas.” In many cases, we’ve been literally trained to use exclusively gendered terminology.
As birth professionals, we may think we’ve never encountered a lesbian couple wanting to take childbirth classes, or a transgender person thinking about their reproductive options, in our communities. But, believe me, you have. It’s just that when those folks do their research, when they start shopping for care providers, childbirth educators, and doulas, they are confronted with the gendered binaries and lack of diversity on our websites and marketing materials – and they look elsewhere.
How then, can a birth professional who wants to become inclusive of the wider possibilities of childbirth take simple steps to open their doors, and their hearts? Here are some places to start…
Use Gender Inclusive Language
Check your website, marketing materials, handouts, and automated emails. Replace gendered terms with gender-neutral ones. Try “birthing family” instead of “couple,” “pregnant person” instead of “pregnant woman,” “birth partner(s)” instead of “father,” and so on. Make this shift in the language you use in person, as well. Note that this DOES NOT MEAN that you can never say “woman,” “mama,” or “man” again. When you are speaking to or of someone whose gender you do know, use the corresponding terms. The gender-neutral terms are for when you are speaking to a group, or speaking to or of people whose gender or sexual identity you do not know for sure. (You can learn more about inclusive language in this blog post.)
Remember Pronouns & Names
The use of pronouns and names is a very basic way to acknowledge someone’s identity. You can normalize sharing pronouns by giving your own pronouns on your website and in your email signature, and when you introduce yourself to a class, client, or group. To learn the pronouns of the people you are working with (and their babies), you can add a “pronouns” entry on your intake forms, have them put their and the baby’s pronouns on their nametags, and make pronouns a standard part of your opening introductions. Get used to singular “they” – it’s actually been in use for hundreds of years! Asking birthing parents, “What will the baby call you?” also opens the door to them sharing what their relationship dynamic is. This is especially important when working with multi-adult relationships and same-sex clients – but remember, it can also be an issue even when clients look to you like a heterosexual couple. Asking the question gives you the framework for calling people by the names and terms they are most comfortable with, gendered or not.
Use Inclusive Imagery
Using imagery on your websites and marketing materials that reflects the wide diversity of human experience helps create a welcoming, inclusive practice, where potential clients looking for professional services know that they will find someone who will respect them, their needs, and their identity. Finding stock photos of non-binary birthing parents can be a challenge, so you may need to reach out to your local birth community and birth photographers, to see if they have any resources.
Seek out professional education opportunities that will strengthen your skills in working with LGBTQ+ families. Birth For Every Body shares webinars and resources, as does Maia Midwifery. There are also several books that are helpful for expanding your understanding of LGBTQ+ parenting:
The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians, Rachel Pepper
Journey to Same Sex Parenthood, Eric Rosswood
Subversive Motherhood, Maria Llopis
Where’s the Mother, Trevor McDonald
Making the shift from a strict binary to a wider view isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Be aware that you will not always “get it right”: you will make mistakes, and you will stumble. The important thing is that you make honest amends when you need to, and keep moving forward.
Remember, no one is alone on this journey; our hope is to be always widening the path, so that we can see and and support everyone who is traveling with us.