Last week Trevor MacDonald made headlines with the news that La Leche League (LLL), an international breastfeeding support and advocacy group, had denied his application to be an LLL group leader. Trevor is a trans man who, after giving birth to a son last spring, was able to breastfeed him with the support of LLL group members. Despite having had top surgery that removed most of his breast tissue, Trevor says he’s been able to breastfeed using his own milk production along with donated breast milk.
Trevor is just one of many who is breaking ground in what I recently called the “trans baby boom.” As acceptance and visibility of transgender people increases, so do stories of trans people experiencing many things across the life cycle, including pregnancy and parenting. Because resources about transgender pregnancy are so scant, individuals have to be resourceful and figure out ways to adapt existing resources to their own situation. Trevor says he found useful information in resources about breastfeeding for women who’d had breast reductions, but this search for help also led Trevor to meetings of the local La Leche League in his Canadian town. While at first he was hesitant, he found acceptance from his pregnancy and parenting peers. He tells the story on his blog, Milk Junkies:
Near the end of my pregnancy, I went to my first breastfeeding support meeting, facilitated by La Leche League. I was excited at the opportunity to learn, and terribly nervous in a room full of strangers – I was a guy at a women-only peer-to-peer help group. La Leche League is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and educating women who want to breastfeed. When it came to be my turn to speak, I gave my carefully prepared spiel: “My name is Trevor and I am able to be pregnant because I am transgender. This means that I was born female but transitioned to male by taking hormones and having chest surgery. When my partner and I decided to start a family, we got advice from my doctors and I stopped taking my testosterone. My baby is due in April. Because my surgery removed most of my breast tissue, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to breastfeed, but I really want to try.”
With my face bright red and my palms sweating, I looked up to see many of the women in the room nodding their heads and smiling at me. By this point I was quite far along in my pregnancy, so they knew I was the real thing. Over the course of the meeting, people discussed their various nursing challenges and asked each other questions. I mostly remained silent. After it was over, several women came to me to say how impressed they were by my determination to breastfeed and that they hoped it would go well for me. I was ecstatic at their response – I’d been initially unsure of whether I’d even be allowed to attend an LLL meeting as a guy, and I certainly didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms. This was the beginning of what became an incredible support system that I credit with helping me to nurse my baby for his first year of life.
While Trevor wrote about his experiences as a breastfeeding dad on HuffPo back in April, his story made headlines last week after the news that he tried to apply to be an LLL volunteer leader and was denied because of his gender identity. La Leche League has since said they will be revisiting their policies in response to the incident. While we don’t know yet what LLL will decide about Trevor and other parents like him, it highlights some of the challenges brought up by our shifting understanding of gender and identity for the women’s health movement. For LLL, the question becomes whether gender is really the most important identity marker through which to be organizing their particular community. In this scenario, breastfeeding seems like the most important identifier, and regardless of gender, LLL could be a place where breastfeeding parents found support and kinship.
Similar questions have come in other feminist and reproductive health spaces. I’ve heard from trans or gender non-conforming doulas about challenges finding acceptance amongst doula groups. Big organizations, local groups, even all women’s colleges are dealing with the questions of how to adapt their missions, and who they include in their circles, to the changing notions of gender and identity in today’s society.
Whatever LLL decides, this controversy has served one huge purpose: by elevating the experience of one trans parent, resources and a community were created where there hadn’t been before. Trevor’s blog provides useful information on breastfeeding for trans parents, and he’s also started a facebook group that specifically supports trans parents. I learned a lot about the possibilities of breastfeeding post-top surgery from reading about Trevor’s experience. Milk production is possible after surgery, and supplementing with donated breastmilk using an at-breast supplementation system (a tube connected to a bottle that is attached next to the nipple) allows for additional nutrition while continuing to stimulate the parent’s milk supply (as opposed to bottle feeding which does not provide stimulation). It’s likely that what he has learned will help others who come after him, and I hope LLL sees that he and others like him can be a resource to all breastfeeding parents.