TECHSPLOITATION Thomas Beattie is actually not the first man to get pregnant. Almost a decade ago, a San Francisco transgendered man named Matt Rice got pregnant and had a cute son. Several years after that, I met another pregnant transman in San Francisco. He was telling his story, with his wife, at a feminist open mic. So why is Beattie getting all the credit, and why now?
Beattie is the first pregnant man most people will ever meet. He’s the guy in People magazine right now looking preggers and hunky, and the guy who was on The Oprah Winfrey Show last week. And it makes sense that he’s the first wonder of tranny obstetrics medical science to hit the spotlight. He’s a nice, small-town Oregon boy, married for five years to a nice, small-town lady, and his full beard and muscles make it quite obvious that he’s a dude. In other words: he’s not a freak from a freaky city like San Francisco. He is, as they say in the mainstream media, relatable.
And he’s playing his poster boy role perfectly. On Oprah, you could tell he was a friendly, shy person (albeit with a black belt in karate). Visibly nervous, obviously proud as hell of his wife and soon-to-be-born daughter, he didn’t try to make a political statement or lecture anybody about gender binaries being stupid. He had a hard time explaining why he had become a man, too. Often when Oprah asked pointed questions he would shrug and say, "It’s hard to explain." Exactly like a dude to be sort of inarticulate about his own dudeness. So another part of his appeal to the mainstream media is that he fits gender stereotypes.
Plus, he’s the guy every woman wants to marry. Not only is he cute and happy to build things around the house, he’s willing to have your baby for you too. As Beattie’s wife said to Oprah with a grin, "What woman wouldn’t want her husband to get pregnant?"
So we know the answers to the "Why Beattie?" part. Every new minority needs a friendly, relatable poster child: lesbians have Ellen, and I suppose you could say mixed-race people have Barack Obama. The real question is: why now? Or even: can it happen now?
In some ways, those are the same questions people are asking about a possible Obama presidency. Can the majority of people in the United States accept a mixed-race guy in a role previously reserved for white dudes? To return to the issue of Beattie, can the majority accept a man taking on a role (pregnant dad) they’d never contemplated before, except when watching a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi comedy called Junior?
I think they can, but not for the same reasons they might accept Obama. Beattie is not a political creation like Obama he’s the creation of medical technology, pure and simple. Hormones and surgery made him male. Artificial insemination made him pregnant. There would have been no way to accept Beattie 10 years ago because he literally could not have existed. But contemporary medical technology has given us a chance.
Considering Beattie in that context as the release version of a new kind of biotech-enabled man makes it clear why this is happening now.
Of course, social changes have a lot to do with his emergence into the public spotlight. Gender roles are shifting, and it’s often hard to say what it means anymore to be a "real man" or a "real woman." The vast majority of people may have a common-sense definition of masculine and feminine, but even those definitions have changed a lot over the past 50 years.
So maybe medical technology is just now catching up with cultural shifts, or maybe cultural shifts are pushing us to use technologies we’ve had for a while in new gender-blurring ways. All I know is that biotechnology is making theories of gender fluidity concrete, making ideas into flesh. And we’re seeing a pattern that always emerges when we’re right on the edge of accepting a big social change. First, the ideas turn into something real that people can touch or, in the case of Beattie, talk to. And then comes the next phase. Whatever that may be.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who has been a trannychaser since the second grade.