Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

The Right to Parenthood

Posted By on August 23, 2010

Dear Ari:

I know that many lesbian and gay people are becoming parents, but what about transgender people… Do you think they should also have the right to have children?
—Smother (some other kind of mother)

Dear Smother:

I often have the experience of people cozying up to me at social events (in and out of the queer community) and, in hushed voices, asking me questions or disclosing information to me about themselves or family members who are cross dressers or transsexuals. Perhaps they have a nephew whose “effeminity” they are concerned about, perhaps their dad has a locked trunk of women’s clothing in the basement, perhaps they like cross dressing for Halloween more than they want to admit. My work (and probably my non-trans identity) becomes a magnet for emotional disclosures and an abundance of questions. Once upon a time gay identity issues also provoked this kind of curiosity, but, even with the religious right on our tail (ooooh,) we’ve made enormous advances.

Gay people have won the right to have sodomy in the privacy of our own homes with the permission of the Supreme Court and 60% of national adoption agencies will “let” lesbians and gay men adopt and foster children (they should be on their knees begging us.) We have secured domestic partnership benefits in many localities and corporations, and, the whopper of all, the “permission” to join the institution of marriage in several states (since the 50% divorce rate wasn’t enough to scare us off.) We have come a very long way since the days of bar raids, and being thrown out of colleges for clandestine homosexual encounters. We’ve come a long way in the past 40 years, light-years in fact, since the days when we would routinely lose custody of our children for any revelation about same-sex sexuality.

The political successes of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community have not yet been granted to transgender and transsexual people. Trans people may retain some civil rights if they are in legal heterosexual marriages, although “sex changes” routinely introduce questions about the validity of “same-sex” marriages — depending, of course, on the direction of your sex-change, and the sex of your partner. If a person in a heterosexual relationship transitions, they may now be perceived of a in a same-sex relationship – hence the marriage may not be legally recognized; if a person in a same-sex relationship transitions, they may now be perceived as heterosexual, and granted legitimacy in the eyes of a judicial system obsessed with heterosexual privilege and the power and significance of genitalia.

When a trans person is a parent, the legal system wields the force of heterosexism and gender normativity, jeopardizing basic parental rights. When a couple relationship does not survive transition and there are children involved, the transgender person may find themselves embroiled in a legal custody battle, where their transgender status becomes a de facto justification for their incompetence as a parent. Woe to the couple or individual who do not yet have children, and seek to begin parenthood following a gender transition.

Trans people, just like LGB people, have always been parents. They may have been closeted, they may have buried their own truths deep down in the souls, pretending to be someone they are not in order to maintain a socially acceptable relationship with their children. They may have left their children, in the care of ex-spouses, grandparents, or friends, disappearing in the night, in order to live their dream. Perhaps their children never knew about them or their new lives, perhaps they were told their parents were dead, or even worse, evil perverse people unworthy of love or respect. The idea that trans people have a right to BE parents, to retain custody of their children and to maintain relationships with their children, is an idea whose time has finally come.

Thirty years ago a woman who stood up in court and admitted to being in a lesbian relationship was unlikely to secure custodial custody of her children; today, in most courts (though not all) in the U.S., this would be a minor issue in the case, not impacting the “best interests of the children.” We need to extend these rights to trans people, so they can also stand up in court rooms, dressed how they like, using the pronouns they chose, regardless of their surgical or legal status as male or female, and be treated with dignity and respect, secure that their gender identity or expression will not impact what is in the best interests of their children.

Trans people are coming of age. Transwomen are storing their semen before transition, hoping to biologically father the children they will someday mother. Transmen are getting pregnant, shaking the foundation of medical system – bearded, balding men, large with pregnancies, birthing the children who will call them Papa. Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver, you have new neighbors with whom little Beaver can play.

Transgender parents will need a great deal of support in the next decade, fighting for health coverage, fighting adoption agencies, fighting custody battles. LGB people must not rest on the laurels of all we have gained; we must use the political clout and social acceptance we have won to assure that the members of the larger LGB and T communities secure the same legal protections. It’s in the best interests of all of our children.