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There Are No Rules for a Pregnant Trans Body
On learning to be a pregnant man in public.
The Menstruant by Finn Schubert is a weekly personal essay on the subject: What does it mean to be a gay man who loves having a uterus? (Right now: Pregnancy edition.)
There are no specific rules for a pregnant trans body, at least none that I’ve been able to discern.
There do appear to be rules for pregnant cis bodies—my targeted ads on social media have slowly filled with thin white women cradling smooth, stretch mark-free bumps, generally wearing loungewear or high-end maternity clothes that accentuate the swell of their bellies and breasts, the thinness of the rest of their bodies.
I always assumed I’d hide my pregnant belly, and I gave a lot of thought to this in the time, nearly five years ago now, that I was actively trying to conceive, that time when every month felt like it would be—but ultimately wasn’t—a plunge into an unknown world.
This pregnancy, years later and somewhat unexpected, felt more like when someone yells, “Think fast!” and lobs a ball at your face. Who am I now? I am not the same person who carefully planned and anticipated a pregnancy. I’m less prepared, but also less afraid.
So, I don’t remember why I used to think it was important that I hide my pregnant belly. Did I think I would be safer that way, as a pregnant man? Did I think I’d find it more gender-aligned to do my best to not look pregnant, even though I am pregnant? Trans folks, of course, aren’t the only ones who might want to hide a pregnancy. Lots of people do so for various reasons — safety, privacy, employment, to name a few. And lots of people delight in showing off their bump. Which am I?
I’ve been scrutinizing men’s bodies in public lately, and not, as I did early in my transition, out of envy for their seemingly effortless cis maleness. Nor out of sexual desire. I’m interested in the shape of their bellies, and, particularly, what their bellies tell me about my options for presenting my body in public.
Although I thought I might want to hide my belly for reasons of personal safety, I haven’t observed any potbellied men to appear to feel in imminent danger related to their potbelly. I have never heard of a cis man with a belly trying to hide it out of the specific fear that he might be mistaken for a pregnant transgender person. (This is, of course, separate from those who might want to hide a belly that “looks pregnant” out of a desire to not “look fat”—cultural fatphobia is absolutely in play when considering the public appearance of bellies in general.) But might I want to lean into this new option for my public-facing appearance—that of a cisgender man with a potbelly?
Yesterday, I wore maternity pants for the first time. Unlike the most loose-fitting of my regular pants, which is what I’ve been wearing to date, these parts are cut narrowly in the legs, more like a skinny jean, intended to highlight the contrast of a growing belly. I paired these with a soft t-shirt I used to love, one I haven’t been wearing lately because its easy drape reveals my breasts and belly in ways that boxier shirts do not.
In this outfit, my body looked different. I was undeniably a man with breasts and a growing belly, and I don’t know who gathered what from that in public, but it felt nice to know I could go out without trying to make my body look a different way than how it looks right now. I assume people thought I was a cis man who was putting on some weight and carrying it in a way that looks unusually pregnant. I caught one man giving my bump the twice-over, though I didn’t say anything about it.
Because the fact is that I already don’t look like what I am. I am a trans man who is generally mistaken for a cis man. Conventional narratives of transness refer to this as “passing” and suggest that this situation is the ideal, that I should want my trans body to look as much like a cis body as possible.
I reject these narratives. The fact that I am a trans man who looks to others like a cis man reflects, in my view, a lack of imagination on the part of those who observe me. Except for immediate threats to my physical safety, I’ve decided that this lack of imagination is simply not going to be my problem.
And of course, before this I was a trans man who looked to others like a cis woman, and a gay man who looked to others like a butch queer woman. These were deeply uncomfortable times in my life, and yet, perhaps I can draw lessons from them regarding being a pregnant trans man who looks to others like a cis man who has gained weight in a way that happens to look pregnant.
As a slim, cis-passing white trans man, my embodied appearance has been delightfully without public scrutiny for many years now, and I suspect that this is about to change. When I caught the man staring at my belly this week, it reminded me of before my transition when men stared and commented on my body all the time.
Once, when I was a teenager, a man sat down next to me on the bus and announced, “You ugly. You really ugly. You a real dog.” He then got up and moved to another seat further back on the bus. The same year, another man on the subway wanted to discuss why I wasn’t smiling. “Is it because you think you’re not pretty? You’re a very pretty girl,” he said, reaching to take my hand.
I remember that early in my transition, perhaps a year into taking testosterone, a lesbian friend asked me, “What’s it like having male pattern baldness?” I explained that my experience was that men’s appearance was not scrutinized in public the way that women’s was, and she nodded soberly. (In nearly a decade of experiencing some degree of male-pattern baldness, I would like to note that no stranger on public transit has ever commented, “You balding. You a real cue ball,” or asked if I was not smiling because of my receding hairline.)
And here, perhaps, it is I who have bought into a linear narrative—thinking that my past several years of embodiment in a normative, cis-passing body was an arrival, a destination. Few of our bodies, even white cis male ones, remain wholly normative throughout an entire lifespan, particularly since we live in a culture that so aggressively pathologizes aging and disability. Perhaps it is unsurprising to find myself spiraling back to a different embodied experience, one in which my body is not normative, one in which my body is seen, again, as fodder for public comment.
I remember that when I was a young woman, around nineteen, I walked around NYC topless a few times, because I could. It was legal. People were oddly terrified. They looked away. They covered their children’s eyes. They yelled out, “That’s illegal!” I don’t recall any men commenting on how small my breasts were. Surprising, because many men felt perfectly entitled to do this when I was fully clothed. It seemed that they feared me because they could see I didn’t fear them.
So for years after my transition, I felt like I was getting away with something every time I put on swim trunks and shuffled my way through the gym to the pool. I never surgically altered my chest, so I did this knowing it was the exact same flesh that once brought blocks of New York City pedestrians to a screeching halt. In some ways, perhaps, it isn’t—my chest does get a bit smaller on T, though it’s hardly the flat chest and tiny nipples of a cis man. And of course, in the intervening years, there’s the chest hair that’s grown in.
So I wonder: What are bodies outside of the context we give them? To what extent does it—or does it not—serve me for others to have the “right” context for my body? (Is there a right context in this case? Is it not true both that I am a pregnant trans man and that I am a man with a growing potbelly?)
These days, I often ask my partner in the morning after dressing, “Do I look pregnant?” I’m not sure what I want the answer to be.
Do I want to be perceived as what I truly know myself to be (that is, pregnant)? This, after all, is the dominant transition narrative—that one wants transition care in order to look the way one feels oneself to be, though for many of us, the reality is much more complicated.
Or do I find that it serves my interests not to be perceived as pregnant? To hide my belly as much as possible, or to lean into this new presentation for me—that of a cisgender man who is gaining weight?
I’m tired of narratives that state that trans bodies are something to be concealed, tidied up, made as similar to cis bodies as possible. (I experience this, too, as someone with a menstruating body—extreme cultural pressure to pretend my body isn’t menstruating when it is.)
I used to like to attend naked parties for gay men, and once I was telling a man about these parties during a clothed gay happy hour. He nodded along until suddenly a thought struck him and his brow furrowed. “But wouldn’t they notice you’re trans?” he asked.
I explained that this was sort of the point—this way I could flirt with men without having to verbally tell them. Besides, I am trans. Outside of direct threats to personal safety, why would I mind if someone noticed?
I am tired of my body’s transness being constructed as in need of remediation and concealment. As always only an approximation of a cis body.
Once, at one of these naked parties, a cis man I’d been chatting with told me he had something important to tell me and leaned in to say it in my ear. “Don’t be ashamed of your chest,” he said, “It looks just like ours.”
Startled, I realized I’d had my arm crossed over my chest, as though I were hiding my breasts. I’d actually been absentmindedly scratching an itch on my shoulder. But what a strange thing to say, even if well-intentioned. If my chest really did look like theirs, why say anything at all? And why assume I was ashamed of my chest if I’d chosen to spend my Friday night standing around naked looking at everyone else’s cis male chest and dangly penis?
What I’m practicing now, today and every day, is no longer getting invited into stories that don’t serve me.
I don’t know why I thought, without question, that I would need to hide my bump as much as possible. I don’t know why I thought of having a normative cis-passing body as having arrived, rather than as a waypoint on a broader arc of embodied life.
There are no rules for pregnant trans bodies, at least none that I can discern. I will make my own rules, and I will change them as my body changes, as my needs change. For today I have decided: My body needs concealment only if I find it serves me to conceal it.