A Family in Transition
Posted June 16, 2018 5:40 p.m. EDT
Paetyn, an impish 1-year-old, has two fathers. One of them gave birth to her.
As traditional notions of gender shift and blur, parents and children like these are redefining the concept of family.
Paetyn’s father Tanner, 25, is a trans man: He was born female but began transitioning to male in his teens and takes the male hormone testosterone.
“I was born a man in a female body,” he said.
His partner and Paetyn’s biological father is David, 35, a gay man.
Their daughter, they agree, is the best thing that ever happened to them.
“She’ll grow up in a very diverse home,” David said. “We surround her with people who are different.”
In addition to their day jobs — David works at an insurance exchange, Tanner at an auto-parts store, a cleaning service and a bar — Paetyn’s fathers are both drag performers at a local club near their home in upstate New York. To protect their privacy, only their first names are being used.
Trans men have conceived on purpose, but Tanner isn’t one of them. In his case, it happened by accident after he missed a few doses of testosterone, and he didn’t suspect he was pregnant until the morning sickness hit. It was a shock, but he and David said that from the start, there was no doubt that they wanted the baby.
“We get to have a child that’s biologically ours, which is an opportunity a lot of people in our community don’t have,” David said.
The first time they saw the fetal heartbeat on ultrasound, they wept.
“I can still see it as clear as day in my head,” David said. “It was a life-changing moment.”
Tanner said, “On the first one, she looked like a little peanut. Next time, boom! It was a baby. You could see the spine and everything. It was so cool. I saw her hands, and it was like, ‘You’ll be a drummer or learn sign language.’ It blew my mind.”
Tanner had to stay off testosterone until the birth, but he had no interest in ever identifying as female again or dressing as a woman.
“Yeah, I’m a pregnant man,” he told friends and acquaintances. “What? I’m pregnant. I’m still a man. You have questions? Come talk to me. You have a problem with it? Don’t be in my life.”
Starting in his teens, Tanner’s transition from female to male had been a series of steps over a number of years. As a child, he was a tomboy who preferred boys as friends and played tackle football. “I always felt different,” he said.
Puberty, and the changes that came with it — especially the developing breasts — were torture. Suddenly, he was no longer allowed to play outside without a shirt. His first bra, a happy rite of passage for most girls, brought him to tears.
He began struggling with anxiety and depression connected to “gender dysphoria,” the sense that his body and outward gender did not match his identity.
“It’s a constant battle,” he said. “Being uncomfortable in your own skin makes for a negative life. You’re suffocating in your own body.”
He felt attracted to girls, but had been brought up to believe that being gay was wrong. Still, he came out as bisexual during his freshman year of high school, and then as what he called a butch lesbian.
During his freshman year in college, he saw a drag king performance for the first time — women performing as men — and thought, “I need to do that.”
He tried it — and sensed he’d found his identity at last. To hide his breasts while performing, he would wrap his chest painfully tight in duct tape.
He began to transition socially — to live as a man, asking friends and family to refer to him as he or him. After a year, he began taking testosterone. Gradually, his voice dropped, facial hair grew in, his periods stopped, his neck and jaw thickened, and his body fat shifted, giving him a more masculine build. It felt right.
“When you transition, you’re free,” he said. “It was the best decision of my life.”
He did not expect to fall in love with a man, but that is exactly what happened with David, a longtime friend — who had not quite envisioned himself with a trans man as a partner.
“David came out of left field,” Tanner said.
Tracing his own path — from bisexual to lesbian, drag king, trans man, gay man, pregnant man — Tanner laughed and said, “I’m literally every letter of LGBTQ.”
David and Tanner have a big network of friends and family — straight, gay, trans and every other possible variation — but both have encountered hostility in their hometown often enough to make them wary.
As his belly expanded into its unmistakable shape, Tanner spent more and more time at home, fearful that out on the street, the sight of a pregnant man would invite trouble. And, he said, “I just didn’t want to be judged.” When he did go out, he wore an enormous black hoodie of David’s. “That hid it well,” he said.
He had always hated his breasts, even before transitioning, and as they swelled with pregnancy, he wore a tight sports bra to try to conceal them.
“The chest, that was what really messed with my head,” he said.
As fathers to be, they got some of their most enthusiastic congratulations from the drag world — the regulars at the club where both men perform, dancing and lip-syncing, Tanner as a drag king and David as a sassy, 6-foot-tall drag queen in a tight skirt and size 12-wide high heels.
Tanner, fluent in sign language, signs the lyrics as well — Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson and Pentatonix are among his favorites — and has a big following among deaf drag fans.
Apart from home, his only real comfort zone while pregnant was the bar where he and David performed. At first, Tanner hoped the baby would be a boy.
“I thought it would be easier for me,” he said. “I’m not in tune with being feminine anymore. I’ll have to explain the transition. I don’t want her to feel that being female is a bad thing. ‘Dad used to be a girl. Now he’s not.’ I don’t want her to feel being a girl is wrong and you have to transition to fit in.”
They had one baby shower at a rented cabin and another at the club, with more than 150 guests, who gave so many diapers that Tanner and David didn’t have to buy any for months. They asked for books, as well, and got enough to fill a bookcase.
Being pregnant was difficult. “I didn’t enjoy it,” Tanner said. “I kept to myself.”
In the obstetrician’s waiting room, other patients, especially older women, gave him strange looks.
He spent most of the pregnancy fighting nausea and heartburn and was put on bed rest for the last trimester. Toward the end, he developed pre-eclampsia, a dangerous complication that landed him in the hospital — a man on the maternity floor.
He had pounding headaches and saw spots before his eyes; his blood pressure shot up to 187/111. The only cure for that condition is to deliver the baby.
It was not an easy birth. Doctors began to induce labor on a Friday, and Tanner struggled through labor all weekend. He had an epidural while watching the Super Bowl. It did not work.
On Monday, monitors suddenly showed the baby’s heart rate slowing, and doctors rushed him to the operating room for an emergency cesarean.
“Do you want to cut the cord?” a nurse asked David.
“They gave me scissors, and it felt like cutting a rubber band,” he said. “Then they gave Tanner the baby, and we cried.”
Tanner recalled thinking, ‘This is not real life. It’s some crazy soap opera.’ He felt close to passing out, but struggled to stay conscious. “It was awesome. Happy awesome.”
On the birth certificate, he is identified as Paetyn’s mother, something that he and David hope eventually to have changed so that they are both listed as fathers. Tanner could not bear to nurse Paetyn: Breasts epitomized the gender he had abandoned. A few months later, he underwent “top surgery” to have them removed.
After Paetyn’s birth, he went back on testosterone.
“Once I started taking my T again after the baby came, it was kind of like a relief, because for me taking it makes me feel like I’m at the level where I should be mentally and emotionally,” he said. “It helps chill me out. I still have anxiety and depression, but not as much.”
They’d like another child. David hopes Tanner will become pregnant again. Some days Tanner likes the idea, and other days not — depending on his body dysphoria. Sometimes he thinks they should adopt.
“It’s what gay and trans people do,” Tanner said. “There are kids that have crap lives, and we could help them.” But he has mixed feelings: He knows couples who started the adoption process, only to have the birth mother take the child back.
“My parents and family and friends have had to transition right along with me,” Tanner said.
Tanner, whose father is a drummer, has taught himself piano, guitar, drums, beat box, French horn, tuba and saxophone. He plays by ear. Music is everything to him, and Paetyn seems born to rock.
At the first note, she is grinning, twitching her hips and waving her arms to the beat. She even manages to dance sitting down.
She’s a smiling, curious, easygoing baby. Her fathers dote on her, scrambling eggs or cooking cereal and mixing it with yogurt for her breakfast. She chugs bottles of formula. When David comes home from his day job, he scoops her up and cuddles her. She grins at his kisses.
“She is so awesome,” he said. Their lives match those of most families with young children: an exhausting jumble of work, cooking, diaper-changes, endless piles of laundry and the wrangling of baby sitters.
About 65 people joined them to celebrate Paetyn’s first birthday. Her favorite gift was a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood band set from Tanner’s sister. But a big empty cardboard box was still hard to beat.
What do they imagine for Paetyn?
“I hope she’s independent, has a successful career and an amazing family, and I hope she runs some sort of movement at some point for equality,” David said. “I think she will because of having two gay parents and a dad that had her.”
He also wishes for her to have a better childhood than he had.
And, David said: “I hope she’s a lesbian. Then we won’t have boys coming to the house and we won’t have to worry about her getting pregnant.”
“I hope she’s straight,” Tanner said. “It’s hard, to struggle with coming out, not feeling safe. Anyone in this community, they’re always walking around looking over their shoulder. There are people who will hurt you just because you’re gay or trans. It’s scary. If you’re straight and white in this society, you’re kind of better off. I’m half-black. People would pick on me because of my skin color. I didn’t fit in. I was too dark for the whites and too light to hang out with black kids. So I just made friends with everybody.”
He added, “My hope for her is that she learns to face fears and stare hatred in face and not be intimidated by it. I want her to overcome and not let people bother her. I want her to raise above all of it and prove everyone wrong, and make something of herself.”
“She’ll feel how she feels,” David said.