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Finally, despite odds, a family is born in South Dakota

Posted July 15

— On a windy Thursday afternoon in early April, a family of three was at home, still in the honeymoon phase of welcoming its newest member, baby Elea.

Elea — pronounced "Elly," her name is a diminutive of the more formal Eleanore — was passed intermittently between her parents, the Aberdeen News (http://bit.ly/2tK9Rjs ) reported. She slept quietly in crooked arms. Her hair showed a tinge of ginger, like her father's, Bret Bremmon's, her smile a mix of his and her other father, Chad Bremmon's.

The men looked weary and glowing with soft smiles and glassy eyes. Their garden-level Aberdeen apartment had hushed tones and dim lights — the telltale signs of parents managing the schedule of a newborn child. It was a cozy, quiet afternoon as the family took those first few days just getting to know each other.

Those first steps came on the heels of a long, complicated journey of self-discovery, and two generations of challenges in the LGBTQ community.

Chad and Bret, on their own, had both wanted to be parents. But that seemed like a dream for other people, not them.

"I always wanted my own kid, but as a gay man never thought it was a possibility," Chad said.

"For me, it was always dependent on who it would be with (whether to have a child)," Bret said. "I never thought I would personally have a child."

But on March 25, at Sanford Aberdeen Clinic, Bret — a gay man — gave birth to Elea, in the most birds-and-bees sense of "giving birth."

Bret has a naturally reddish beard and strawberry-blonde hair. He wears trendy, dark-rimmed glasses. In warmer weather, you can usually find the 24-year-old donning athletic shorts and a T-shirt, and when it cools off, a flannel and jeans.

To anyone who meets him — and in his heart, and mind — he is a young man. His body is masculine; so are his thoughts and instincts.

But Bret was born biologically female, and still has female reproductive organs. He found himself transgendered, identifying as a man, which manifests in masculine mannerisms, behavior, emotions and thought.

"Transgender (people) truly feel like they have been born in the wrong body. They want their outer appearance to reflect" what they feel inside, said Fran Sippel. She is the Bremmons' counselor and a psychologist with Northern Plains Psychological Associates.

Growing up with an outward appearance that didn't match what Bret felt internally — mentally and emotionally — caused him a lot of grief and anxiety in his early years. He internalized his struggle. It affected his grades, his relationships and his family.

As many as 40 percent of folks who come out as transgender to their family experience neutral or no support and nearly half experience rejection from at least one family member, according to the largest survey of the transgender community in the United States, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

According to a June 2016 study by the Williams Institute out of the UCLA School of Law, just 0.34 percent of South Dakota's population is transgender, or identifies with a gender other than the one assigned at birth. It's ranked the 46th state as far as the number of transgender residents.

Save for any solid data on the number of transgender people who have given birth, the Bremmons know their situation is rare, but not unheard of.

This is why they are talking, even though doing so could garner negative feedback and unwanted attention.

"The big purpose (for doing the story) is for other trans people; really so they don't feel lost and alone," Chad said.

Bret knows what those feelings are like.

Trying to follow the usual female roles caused Bret pain and anguish in his earliest years. Wearing what he perceived as feminine clothing never sat right with him growing up. He remembers one of his earliest instances of knowing he wanted to be a boy.

"I was very little. One instance, I told my dad, we were dressing, he gave me a Pooh bear sweatshirt. I said, 'I can't wear that sweatshirt because people won't think I'm a boy,'" Bret said.

"In my head it was, 'I'm going to grow up to be a boy.' Then puberty hit," Bret said.

"I never knew the word 'trans'; in eighth grade there was a documentary and I said, 'Wow, that's what I'm going to do,'" Bret said.

He couldn't remember the specific documentary, only that it seemed to shed light on what he'd been struggling with internally.

"It happened to be on TLC or something — it was basically me understanding that how I was feeling was real," Bret said. "I'm not the only one that feels this way."

It took a number of years for Bret to really work out and embrace what he was feeling. As Bret and Chad tell it, Bret's parents beared a number of discussions with him during these years as he came to terms with his gender identity and sexual orientation.

Bret admits his struggles sometimes led to self-harm: "My dad said, 'You don't need to be doing that.'"

"They've been through a lot," Bret said. "I first came out as a lesbian because that's what I thought fit. Then I came out as trans. Then I came out as gay. When I was younger, I was attracted to both men and women. My parents basically went through me coming out three times. At first, they didn't know how to handle all that. Now it's completely open."

Bret never mentions his previous name. He shed the female moniker. At best, it had been an ill-fitting uniform he donned for a person he would never be.

Though a father giving birth to his own child may seem extraordinary, the day of the birth was unremarkable, all things considered.

The hospital's chart used male pronouns rather than female. Bret was offered a blue gown, rather than the typical pink maternity gown. Their room was abuzz with well-wishers and gifts.

To the Bremmons, everything came together for the perfect ending to this part of their story.

"It wasn't just that it was a good experience as normal. It's that (the hospital) freakin' jumped through hoops," an exuberant Chad said at the family's Aberdeen apartment a few weeks after Elea's birth. "It's not that some of the nurses were good, it's that they were all awesome nurses."

A parade of visitors came to see the new family in the hospital. A doctor joked that the Bremmons would need to rent a moving trailer for all the gifts that were filling the hospital room.

Sanford representatives declined any specific comment on the rarity of the Bremmons' conception, birth and delivery, but offered their appreciation for the Bremmons' glowing review, as did their primary OB/GYN, Dr. Breanne Mueller.

"Pregnancy is such a special time for any family. My goal is to make every patient feel understood and supported. Every patient I see deserves the best possible care, and that is what we all strive to deliver at Sanford Aberdeen. My staff and I were delighted to care for the Bremmon family," Mueller said by email.

"We're happy to hear the Bremmon family enjoyed their delivery experience at Sanford Aberdeen," Ashley Erickson, Sanford Aberdeen executive director, wrote in an email. "We treat our patients based on medical needs and preferences. In this case, like any other at Sanford, our goal is to give the patient the best possible experience and outcome."

Elea's birth was met with a lot of support from parents, friends and extended family despite the unusual circumstances.

"Everybody was so excited about the baby they didn't care" how it happened, Chad said.

Chad and Bret met at a bonfire in September 2015. Both had recently gotten out of relationships that didn't fit.

This one did.

By December, Bret and Chad were in love, and they knew early on they wanted to start a family.

Bret stopped his testosterone therapy that he'd been on for five years now.

After careful oversight from their doctors, Bret was able to conceive naturally, but it ended in a miscarriage in May of 2016.

"Fran said, of all the s--- (Bret's) been through, this is the saddest she'd seen him," Chad said, correcting that their family psychologist did not use those exact words.

On July 24, 2016, the couple was married by Ginny Adams, pastor at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Aberdeen. The wedding was in Chad's hometown, Britton, at his uncle's shop.

"We're like those normal straight people who get married in the church because it's what you're supposed to do," Chad said.

After weathering the miscarriage and the happiness of a new wedding, the men were blessed with more good news two days after the ceremony — Bret was pregnant.

Few people noticed Bret's changing physique even though they'd heard the men were becoming fathers. They just didn't know how.

"A couple of my knitting ladies were asking where, how we were coming up with this baby," Chad said. "Then when (Bret) went to the knitting group — they were all looking at Bret's belly . at the belly."

Bret's changing body was hidden fairly well under baggy clothes. But as the pregnancy progressed, Bret grew more and more self-conscious, a feeling exacerbated by having gone off the testosterone.

His old anxieties from feeling uncomfortable in his own skin increased as the 40 weeks of pregnancy ticked off and his body readied for delivering a baby. But he handled it with counseling, being open with Chad and knowing that there would be a sweet ending.

"I didn't love any body attention. It was a happy time internally but especially toward the end I really hated being in public," Bret said in an interview in mid-May. "I'm glad I did it, but I'm not going to do it again."

Chad didn't exactly share the latter sentiment, piping up with, "We'll see."

Coming of age in Aberdeen, Bret struggled in school and, although he pushes the notion of bullying aside, it's clearly there in his recollections.

"Growing up, I never really had much bullying toward me. It's funny. There was this girl I dated from a different town; we were both in track. She told me that the other girls didn't like me (as a girl) because they thought I was on steroids and so manly," Bret said. "I didn't have very many friends, pretty much a loner."

He attended his freshman year at Aberdeen Central, his hometown high school, but the big crowds — about 1,200 students wander the halls — caused him anxiety. His parents transferred him to Warner, where his 2010 class would have 18 graduates. That number was almost 17 because he'd contemplated dropping out. He found some solace in band, but was kicked out of the group because of his grades.

Slipping grades, a withdrawn temperament and a new level of distance that had come over Bret in his senior year at Warner tipped off one of his teachers that something serious was going on.

"When I first talked about it, I was sitting in my English class. The teacher said, 'Are you OK?' I said, 'I'm fine.' That night I emailed her and said everything. She's the one I have to thank for everything."

Chelsey Liebl, of Aberdeen, was Bret's high school English teacher at Warner. She feels she made a small gesture as a listener. It was clear something had been bothering him. But her simple inquiry gave Bret the opportunity to break down some of his self-imposed walls and share what he was feeling.

"I try to make a point to reach out to the students that don't need a friend, but just need someone to listen," she said by phone May 24. "It's hard in a small school in Warner to be so unique transitioning like that. There wasn't a lot of that in a small school."

By Liebl's recollection, they had several conversations about Bret's identity and how that would ultimately affect his relationships with his family.

"He would start to tell me that he feels like he was born to be a boy; what would that be like for his family," she said. "I just tried to encourage — you're a good person, your parents may have a difficult time, but they'll come around. Their vision for your life might not be exactly what they thought it would be, but they'll accept it. I just knew they would come around.

"He was lost, searching for his place. Trying to make himself happy and just knew he wasn't going to be as a girl," she said.

Liebl asked Bret to see the school counselor at Warner, Jeff Gunn. Gunn then got Bret professional assistance outside of school with psychologist Sippel.

Sippel was able to get Bret help for his anxiety through therapy and medication. After high school graduation, she also found him an endocrinologist based in Sioux Falls, Keith Hansen. He was the one to set Bret up with hormone therapy — testosterone — in 2011.

"When I first went on testosterone, you just feel normal. Your body starts matching your mind and it feels more normal. I had anger issues and it calmed me down. I was just more comfortable," Bret said.

Bret's next and final step was his top reassignment surgery. Reassignment surgery for transgender people is not a one-size-fits-all plan and varies greatly no matter if the transition is male to female or female to male.

Bret had a bilateral mastectomy in 2013 and decided that is as far as he wanted to go in his reassignment journey.

He finally felt like himself.

"My mom asked me, 'Is it all worth it?' I said 'Mom, I wouldn't be here if I hadn't done that,'" Bret said.

"For me, right now, I'm where I want to be."

Chad Bremmon, 47, came of age as a gay man in an earlier generation than his husband.

"I think trans is the 2000 version of being gay in the '80s. Same situation," Chad said.

"I was gay in the '80s, so there was no coming out for me," Chad said during a mid-March visit. "I went to the Air Force Academy and everything was hidden then. I graduated college and then parents were divorced. I wanted to get them together in the same room, but then I wound up telling my dad. He said, 'Well I didn't fall off my chair.' I was still not out-out-out at work."

Chad went on to work for the Pentagon, continuing his own version of don't ask, don't tell.

Eventually, Chad became more open as his career changed and ground was gained on LGBTQ acceptance and rights. Finding a partner in Bret, though more than two decades his junior, was happenstance.

It's May 17 and Bret has been back on his hormone therapy for two weeks. The change in his persona is apparent.

In previous interviews, he'd been reserved, nervous, quiet and seemed to let Chad lead every conversation. But on this day, Bret is calm, a bit gregarious and very talkative.

"I'm so much more confident and comfortable," Bret said. "I don't really care about stuff so much. When we used to go to Walmart, Chad acted goofy and would embarrass me; now I laugh or play along with it."

Everyone who gives physical birth goes through a rollercoaster of hormones before, during and well after, even without additional medical intervention. With the surge of female hormones waning and being back on testosterone, Bret was back to feeling like himself.

The family was settling into their new routines. Bret was back to work at Dairy Queen and making plans with his sister to be workout buddies. Chad was commenting that it was time to get Elea christened.

And several weeks after her birth, Elea's doting extended family have eased up only a little.

"You should go through his dad's litany of stuff he's gotten Elea," Chad said about Bret's father. "Scooter, booster seat, two fishing poles ."

"My dad goes to The Salvation Army every day and fixes things and stuff, and then brings them to Elea," Bret said with a smile.

The couple, when preparing for the arrival of their child, took the usual steps of proactive expectant parents, like signing up for birth and parenting classes.

"That's why we took the parenting course through Lutheran Social Services. We do come from two different parenting generations. Now we have something to talk about that's common," Chad said.

"We learned a lot from that class," Bret said.

Chad said that where he's goofy, a bit of a traditionalist and can sometimes be growly, Bret can be a bit neurotic, sensitive and a bit of a softy. It balances them out with a parenting dynamic many can relate to despite gender roles.

When he looks ahead at Elea's future, Chad said he doesn't have any predictions. He just wants Elea to know how special this time in their lives was for them.

"We're going to do a one-year gift of letters and cards so she can open it on her 18th birthday; a time capsule," Chad said.

At a brief meeting in June, the family sits in the shade, Elea in a half-doze. They're getting ready for another outing and run through a brief division of the next 5 minutes of labor — picking up, packing and readying the car.

It's here, in these mundane acts, that you can truly see how far these two men have come for wont of a dream — a family.

"When you observe two parents, loving and paying attention to their child, disciplining their child, teaching the child right from wrong, then that child is a lucky child," Sippel said about the Bremmons. "This kid is pretty much going to grow up — even though it sounds weird — in a pretty traditional home."

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