What Transgendered Parents Can Teach Us About Motherhood and Fatherhood

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Let me share with you a real-life story involving a transgendered parent. A few years after Michael B. married his wife Barbara in the 1970s, he told her that he preferred wearing women’s clothing and that he felt more comfortable thinking of himself as a woman.

The marriage was a rocky one, but it lasted for almost twenty more years. In 1998, the couple divorced and a year later Michael had gender reassignment surgery and changed her name to Monica. After that, Barbara went to court in their home state of Kentucky and successfully got an order prohibiting Monica from contacting any of their four children because she was now living as a woman.

But things soon got even worse for Monica. Barbara eventually remarried and she and her new husband petitioned the court to terminate all of Monica’s parental rights so that the new husband could adopt the one child out of the four who was still then a minor.

The Kentucky trial court granted the petition after concluding that Monica becoming a woman meant that she had neglected her child and caused her grave emotional harm, necessitating the termination of her parental rights. That ruling was upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 2007.

Monica B.’s case is an example of the kind of pervasive discrimination faced by transgendered parents. It also tells us something important about what it means to be a parent in our society.

For many years now, gay and lesbian parents have had to contend with the argument that depriving a child of a mother (in the case of gay male parents) or of a father (in the case of lesbian parents) harms children. This argument is at its core grounded in the notion that there is something special or unique about the supposed different nurturing styles of fathers and mothers. In response, advocates for gay and lesbian parents have argued that gender in parenting is largely irrelevant because what should matter is not a parent’s gender but instead whether and how the parent loves and cares for the child.

But to some extent, the “gender in parenting” argument in the context of gay and lesbian parents takes place at an abstract level. As a result, in lesbian and gay parenting cases, we tend to ask questions such as whether mothers in general care for children in ways that are different, if not necessarily better, than fathers in general do.

The “gender in parenting” issue in Monica B.’s case was significantly less abstract because what changed in that case was not the parent. Instead, what changed was the parent’s gender.

It is one thing to say that a lesbian mother can also be a “father” to her children and that a gay father can also be a “mother” to his children, and many of us believe that. In fact, I am a gay dad, and I like to think that I am as good of a “mother” to my children as any female parent is to hers. But I am not a woman, so there is a built-in limitation, at least from society’s perspective, when I argue that I too can be a mother, and a darned good one.

But if we can get past the prejudice against transgendered parents, we may allow ourselves to see how they undermine the traditional notion that gender is an essential component of a particular kind of parenting, that is, of “fatherhood” as understood as being significantly different from “motherhood” (and vice versa).

This is because the parental attributes of individuals like Monica B. do not change simply because they have their sexual organs surgically altered.

The argument made in court by the lawyer who wanted Monica’s parental rights terminated was that she could no longer be a father because she was no longer a man. And she could not be a mother because, first, she was not a real woman, and second, the child already had a mother. But why should sexual organs, and whether one identifies oneself as a man or a woman, be relevant to the question of whether one is entitled to retain parental rights?

At the end of the day, the case of the transsexual parent tells us, perhaps even more clearly than that of the gay or lesbian parent, that we have to as a legal and policy matter pay considerably less attention to the gender of parents. Indeed, the goal, it seems to me, should be to make the status of being a mother or a father legally irrelevant. We need, in other words, to think of “mother” and “father” as verbs rather than as nouns. We should focus on what it means to mother and to father a child, rather than on the sex of the parent who happens to be doing the mothering or fathering.

Rendering the concepts of “mother” and “father” legally and socially irrelevant is, of course, a tall order given the immense cultural weight that is attached to each of them. Many view the types of arguments that I am making here as attacks on “motherhood” and “fatherhood.” And to some degree these critics are right, at least to the extent that being a mother and being a man, for example, are viewed as mutually exclusive categories.

But we should remember that there are millions of parents out there, including heterosexual single parents, who are both “mothering” and “fathering” their children and no one proposes to terminate their parental rights because of it. We should not treat transgendered parents any differently.

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  • norah

    1)  Please use “transgender” rather than “transgendered.”  Someone isn’t “transgendered” just as they aren’t “gayed.”


    2)  I understand the point you were trying to make when you brought up “sexual organs,” but there are several problems with this.  First, the preoccupation with trans people’s bodies (trans women, especially) is incredibly pervasive, and by using it as a tool to make a point (even with good intentions) plays into that problematic dialogue.  Second, not all trans people have “surgically altered sexual organs,” and not all trans people want any surgical modifications.  This is a deeply personal choice for each individual, and blanket statements like this only serve to further contribute to the marginalization of trans people.


    3) When talking about a trans person’s past (especially before coming out), it is crucial to get that person’s express permission to both write about them AND, if you really need to use it, get permission to use their gender assigned at birth.  Outing a trans person (even in terms of first names) can cause a lot of devastation.  I’m assuming you got Monica’s permission before posting this anecdote, but it’s just something for everyone to keep in mind (this is, I suppose, intended for other readers more than the author).


    That said, I think this article makes some very valid points about parenting, especially regarding “gendered” rights, or the lack/removal thereof.  Thanks for posting this, and I hope my points were clear.

  • viviblue


    I agree with points two and three, but personally, I very much prefer to be referred to as “transgendered”. This is a relatively new word that hasn’t settled in one usage form yet, so it’s a bit silly to argue those semantics; I just wanted to present that even the trans community hasn’t settled on that one yet. =P



    Great article! This kind of thing is exactly what comes to mind when people ask why the T goes with the LGB… If nothing else, each group can and does help logically break down prejudices towards the other, simply by existing.

  • crowepps

    Ran across another article that reminded me of the issues around gender in this one – prenatally this time:

    The early prenatal use of dexamethasone, or dex, has been shown to prevent some of the symptoms of CAH in girls, namely ambiguous genitalia. Because the condition causes overproduction of male hormones in the womb, girls who are affected tend to have genitals that look more male than female, though internal sex organs are normal. (In boys, in contrast, the condition leads to early signs of puberty, such as deep voice, body hair and enlarged penis by age 2 or 3.) But while the prenatal treatment may address girls’ physical symptoms, it does not prevent the underlying, medical condition, which in some severe cases can be life-threatening, nor does it preclude the need for medication throughout life.


    … Research has also suggested that affected women who were treated with dex in the womb show more typical gender behavior than other women with CAH; the latter group tends to behave more tomboyishly and express little interest in having children. New told the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that the treatment further spares parents the “terrifying prospect” of not knowing whether their newborn is a boy or a girl. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1996453,00.html

    Terrifying prospect? I’ve gotta to say — I can remember being terrified that my child would have some serious health problem, which these kids do indeed have, but MY “not knowing whether [my] newborn [was] a boy or a girl” wasn’t ever one of them.


    It sounds to me like the ‘terror’ inherent in that prospect may be a problem for Dr. New more than anyone else. Certainly starting immediate treatment with a powerful drug, off label, in 8 pregnancies when 7 of the fetuses are statistically unlikely to need it at all in order to prevent the eighth from the disaster of “acting like a boy” and “express little interest in having babies” seems pretty risky.


    Particularly when that person who isn’t interested in having babies is expressing a heritable genetic disease that causes huge health issues that require life-long treatment with steriods.


    In an average day, most of the interactions we have with people around us are totally unaffected by their gender, their expression of ‘masculinity’ or ‘feminity’ or what their sex organs look like. I just do not get the obsession with having sharp and clearcut division between only two genders, because so far as the interactions of people in general goes, it’s just really NOT important.