Jessica Kirchner, Flynn G., Kit Eginton, Bilal Zenab Ahmed, Joni Alizah Cohen

Fruitful


ISSUE 93 | WITH(OUT) CHILD | DEC 2018

Image description: A clear plastic cassette tape with TDK Head Cleaner written on it. Polarization effects have created ripples of rainbow colors throughout the cassette, especially fuchsia and aqua.

Image by Colin, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The following are four linked conversations with trans people about having and raising children. I, the interlocutor in bold, am Kit Eginton, a trans woman whose pronouns are she/her/hers. The other four participants are Bilal Zenab Ahmed, Flynn G., Joni Alizah Cohen, and Jessica Kirchner. All highly educated, they span a variety of genders and birth assignments, and two continents, but, perhaps as an artifact of when these interviews were conducted, are all either of Jewish or Muslim background.

The most exciting intellectual moments of my life have taken place not in essays and papers but in conversations. I see these projects (see previous) both as a way to document and construct common language and as a way of writing together, dialogically, combining extemporaneity with revision, targeting not a finished product but the demonstration of a facility with subject matter and language – the difference between a poet giving a reading and a stand-up performing a joke. You can see these also as an outgrowth of the epistolary tradition in which Pushkin and his friends would pass drafts of their letters back and forth – these are Messenger conversations with rounds of revision. Ultimately, I hope to capture a kind of intellectual co-creation that is often submerged beneath the all-consuming flow of a monologic essay. But, I mean, they’re just interviews, so maybe that’s all a bunch of wank. Up to you.

Jump: Bilal Zenab Ahmed | Flynn | Joni Alizah Cohen | Jessica Kirchner

Bilal Zenab Ahmed

she/her/hers

Hi Zenab! I’ll give the first two questions in one go.

So first of all, how old are you, and how would you describe your gender?

Secondly, how do you feel about children – having them, or being around them? What has been your relationship to that possibility?

I am 27 years old, and I would describe myself as a gender fluid lesbian.

I never myself wanted children, actually, but this became a more complicated question for me when I transitioned, because I had to decide very quickly if I wanted biological children. I don’t know if I’ll one day regret not freezing my gametes.

I do know that I like being around children, and would definitely enjoy being part of children’s lives in some capacity. That much is consistent with how I’ve always felt, because I do enjoy children’s company. I’m not religious anymore, but my positive relationship to being around kids, and helping in their development in a non-parent capacity, is inspired by a hadith where the Prophet Muhammad visits the home of one of his followers to see their child, and speaks to him like he’s an equal. That sort of dynamic made sense to me, since I really hated being condescended to as a child.

What led you to the decision not to freeze your gametes?

It wasn’t actually a clear decision for me because I simply could not afford to freeze gametes, and did not have the resources to see a doctor to begin that process. Ultimately, money and resources made my decision for me. It was out of my control.

Do you think about finding other ways to involve yourself in children’s lives? What possibilities do you see there?

I’ve enjoyed things like mentoring, and spending time with my friends’ children and my partners’ younger siblings, and I treasure it because I feel like my experiences have value and inspiration to another person. However, if I were to live in Britain, I know that I would have to scale back my involvement with other people’s children, because it will be misread by a transphobic public, that is very ‘anti-touch,’ as something that is sinister and untrustworthy. This is particularly the case because there’s a huge prejudice against Pakistani men my age interacting with children, because of tabloid work that has been done on ‘grooming gangs’ and the like. Whether or not my views on this change, I know that my ability to interact with children will be limited based on social forces.

Yeah. Even without the racial component, I went into the children’s section of the library to pick up a memoir someone had recommended and while the librarian was friendly, the looks I got from the parents in there were… not fun. I still feel a little rattled from the implicit accusation. Where are you living now?

I’m doing my PhD project in London but my family lives elsewhere and I make time to see them.

And yes, there is a widely disseminated culture of suspicion about ‘adults’ interacting with children that are not ‘theirs,’ and I find it very oppressive, also because it limits children’s lives and abilities to see and understand the world to a smaller group of people. As I noted, with me it is highly sexualised based on racist and transphobic ideas, which means that my desire to be around children can often be an opportunity for hostile people to introduce their own extremely right-wing ideas about my identities, by projecting them on the children in question. It’s tough.

(To be clear I’m an AMAB woman who was wearing a skirt, blouse, and flats when I went into the library, so it also had that dimension.)

(Oh sure! Not to dismiss anything about you!)

How do your family feel about you reproducing? and your partners?

Like most aspects of my transition, my family members and I have never actually discussed the prospect of me reproducing. There was a point when it was quietly given up on, along with the prospect of me getting married, but this has never been vocalised. My partners have not wanted children, which has simplified matters greatly, though they have diverse ideas about having children in their lives.

I also think that among women my age, and my partners, there is also a recognition that the financial cost is too much for us, and that we lack the material stability to make child-rearing work.

Especially as a lesbian pursuing an academic career! (Or in my case, an artistic one!)

Some mostly-trans lesbian friends of mine, in a polycule, hope to pursue child-rearing based in part on the fact that one of them is a doctor. But there are complicated issues that come into play when you don’t have scripts for exactly whose children they are or who has an obligation to support whom.

Yes, and herein lies part of the problem, from my view, which is also manifest in what I said earlier about how I must bear in mind that there are social constraints (racism, transphobia) preventing me from interacting with children. A lot of people still have very old-school ideas about children.

Socialist movements have not actually been able to produce an alternative framework of children being raised as ‘little adults,’ with autonomy and dignity from a young age, in a system of communal production and living. The closest experiments that I’ve heard of tend towards the ‘hippy’ side of things. Often, it’s not socialists, but my own experiences with intergenerational and interfamilial Pakistani households, that inspire my outlook on new alternatives. Obviously, that model has its own setbacks, based on the strength of family patriarchs, the distribution of labour within the non-nuclear unit, and how hierarchy and social expectation is still drilled into children from a young age. But I do think when it comes to stuff like that, it’s actually my highly conservative and reactionary Pakistani family members that can do it better than many of my LGBT and Queer friends, socialist or not.

Can you say more about what elements you see the possibility of adapting from the kind of household you grew up in?

Yes, of course. Well, I didn’t grow up fully in this type of environment, since we were an isolated family of Pakistanis on the Canadian Prairies who were not always near our relatives (although that did change at some point before I became a teenager, so I do have direct experience of it), but I have observed it elsewhere, particularly among my cousins in England and Norway in addition to Pakistan.

Sure.

I think that some particularly useful things are the notion that kids belong to everyone in the extended family, basically, and everyone either tries to take care of them, or seeks to assist them when they need it. For example, I once missed a RyanAir flight from Oslo to London, and my mother’s cousin was upset about it, but he purchased me a new ticket for the next day. That costs less than a transatlantic flight, obviously, but I think I’d be hard pressed to find a similar situation of helpfulness and care involving white people and their relationship to cousins.

That doesn’t extend to everything, obviously, and uncles and cousins don’t have the same ‘rights’ to a child as their parents, but there is much more flexibility of nurturing and attachment among my Pakistani family than anyone I know who is LGBT and queer. I basically just have to tell my mom’s cousin in Norway that I’m coming, and as long as it’s for less than a month and he can pick me up from the airport on his taxi route, we’re fine. If I had that ability to rely on a wide group of people when I was younger, rather than just my parents, I would have really benefited. Though in my case, the wider network would have provided a new opportunity for enforcing patriarchal norms, and other conservative cultural and political ideas about Islam, armed movements, market capitalism, and the like. It’s not the ideal model.

It also opens a lot of possibility for more frequent intergenerational relationships.

Do you think that kind of family structure offers different advantages in responding or being resilient to abuse? I can see that going both ways.

Well it definitely can because the adults can potentially enable each other, and there are still notions of possession over ‘children,’ some pretty conservative ideas about kids needing to be ‘disciplined’ and ‘guided’ into certain ways of being, and a pretty inadequate level of discussion about different ways of spinning the intergenerational, collective model. There were lots of oppressive expectations, and a great deal of gossipping, especially, in those households.

Personally, I grew up in an extremely violent setting – the earliest dream that I remember is from when I was 5 or 6, and I was driving a car that was hit by bullet fire from afar, and I tried to escape the car and was torn apart by bullets on the sidewalk, and bled to death.

Ha! I was trying to get away from a tiger in one of my earliest ones, and it started to pull the car door open and if I remember correctly it ate me. Yours is a more plausible fear, though.

I definitely think that my ability to recognise violence for what it is was stymied by the fact that a large network of adults were all doing it in their own ways, though not necessarily to me. There were a lot of different types of intergenerational violence (and not just towards us children), and I’m sure that I internalised it as more normal than I would have otherwise. It was violence in a ‘community’ much more so than violence in a ‘household,’ in terms of how I perceived it. I do not think it has to be that way, but I’m going to be honest in saying that’s how it was. Most of my childhood memories that I can readily recall involve me being around someone being violent to someone else. Ultimately, transferring childcare to a community can be fraught, because that community can have its own damaging dynamics. Leftists sometimes fetishise ‘community’ while forgetting this fact.

Yeah, I feel like larger and non-nuclear communities/families can have a dampening effect on violent feedback loops at first, because there are more people to escape to, but as violence becomes more pervasive it actually ends up becoming a harder-to-stop feedback loop because there are so many sub-loops reinforcing it. So maybe all else being equal larger families are more resistant but also their failure modes are more catastrophic?

That’s exactly what it was, and particularly so with the misogynistic violence. My aunt could run from her husband when he first started hitting her, for example, and other people could discuss the bullying and other forms of violent abuse and tension, which was good. I remember my family having collective discussions about how to deal with the situation. But after a while, my aunt was pressured to return, and be essentially fine with the prior violence, by the same networks that initially provided her with some respite from it.

I think that when you talk about non-nuclear families and community settings, a lot of questions become more complex due to the number of people and dynamics that are involved. They require their own forms of mini ‘movements’ to confront this stuff and push local familial dynamics away from violence and conservatism. And I’m sure that LGBT and queer readers, particularly the women, can appreciate that it can actually be harder to change a family structure than other societal institutions. There’s also an intimacy to the violence that is not necessarily present with other governing bodies, hence the potential for harm.

I come from a national background that also explicitly unloaded many state welfare, distributive, and administrative functions on non-nuclear families starting in the 1970s, and did it before that too, so that’s partly why the stakes always felt higher and why the social pressure was more pervasive. The non-nuclear family means a lot of resources in Pakistan that you cannot easily get elsewhere. That’s by design.

That’s a really interesting narrative about the relationship of social welfare to familial heteronormativity (my phone’s keyboard, incidentally, apparently doesn’t know the word heteronormativity, which like – what? I’m a fraud??), and one I can see paralleled most clearly here in the way that US anti-contraception and anti-abortion initiatives serve to deter women – and other people who can get pregnant – from gaining educations, to keep them from being sexually expressive, and to put them in het marriages early. But I wonder whether there are more direct parallels I’m not seeing.

I think that partly one needs to remember the country that you and I are talking about. Pakistan was created as a sliver of British India that had concentrated Muslim populations in the Northeast and Northwest. It lost out on a number of resources after partition in 1948, including dependable bureaucracy, factory industry, and so on. The most powerful institutions in Pakistan after independence were the armed forces (owing to how heavily the British Indian Army had recruited in Northwest India), feudal institutions of agricultural hierarchy and patronage between powerful men, and a rigid family structure that was informed by strict standards of ‘respect’ and discipline. It was this initial ‘lack’ of political and economic institutions, that were organised by the bourgeois class on a mass scale, that led to the family structure, mixed with authoritarian martial standards and a hierarchical sensibility, having much more importance in regulating production, in addition to public life. Especially due to the three military dictatorships.

Was the loss of what social welfare there had been linked to the Bangladeshi War?

I would say that parallels do exist with what you’re discussing in the United States, and they are most apparent in settings where the material dysfunctions of the capitalist system (ones that are unique to the US as the foremost capitalist power) lead to families taking on more importance to ‘fill the gap’ when it comes to the shortcoming of other existing institutions.

The treatment of women in the United States, as well as the Americas more broadly, is an excellent way to look at this question. Women often have to stay in abusive marriage and family situations, as well as severely limiting themselves in a lot of ways from jobs to sexual expression, in order to deal with situations where their resources are limited. There are many places where there is little prospect for assistance external to patriarchal men in their family structure, and that is also true in Britain. I think it’s useful to combine that with how employment has changed in many areas (particularly with the closure of factories in many parts of the US), the local prominence of the US military in some areas, and the massive growth in certain kinds of drug use, especially after the late 1970s. Pakistan has a fun role to play in that last one.

As for the loss of social welfare and the Bangladeshi War, that’s a good point – many Pakistani leftist thinkers claim that it was the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq starting in the late 1970s that led to the end of what social welfare was there (I stress that Pakistan had its economic cards stacked against it, and that the governments were not as left-wing as their supporters will today claim, so the amount of welfare should not be over-emphasised) in addition to radical politics.

The way that happened was through a new, rabidly anti-communist notion of Islamic brotherhood and community that saw the pious, conservative Sunni Muslim Pakistani male (especially from Punjab) as the ideal kind of citizen both in public life and the marketplace. Once again, as in the late 1940s, reactionary values reflected overgrown institutions of the military, hierarchy in agricultural production (for example, the caste system), and the conservative family structure. It was a way to control people, and stymie collective consciousness with a politically ‘neutralised’ alternative that unloaded welfare functions on a patriarchal family. (Remember the era, because Afghanistan went Communist in 1978 too, and there was active socialist and loosely ‘anarchist’ organising all over the country.)

Yeah, I can see that also with what I know about Islam as an ideology (I’m thinking about, idk, the legacy of Allama Iqbal) framing itself as a counterpoint to imperialism, which was certainly one way Soviet power was seen.

Iqbal actually liked Lenin, it turns out, and viewed the initial Soviet experiment positively in romanticist and metaphysical terms, and you can see this in his poetry, but your point is still valid. ‘Islam’ was constructed as an alternative social system to American-style consumer capitalism and the Soviet-style socialist approach that emphasised bureaucracy.

So one thing that’s been running through my mind throughout this conversation is the novelistic trope of the inter-generational curse, or stain – childhood trauma that replicates itself in how you treat your own children, almost a secular bourgeois version of original sin. For myself, I’ve certainly wondered whether it’s my own family’s multi-generational pain that leads me to be reluctant to raise kids of my own. That this is a way of thinking is so fatalistic and so focused on the family and the individual makes me suspicious of it as, perhaps, an ideological red herring, but it does feel like it resonates with a lot of people, that it’s a pretty deep fear. Do you think the violence you grew up around has affected your own interest, or lack thereof, in having kids?

Oh I’m sure that it has made me reluctant in some ways, but not in a way that was distinct from my general fear that I would be unable to build and maintain intimate relationships.

A fear that, you think, does stem from those experiences?

I think that my fears about raising children based on extreme violence that I experienced was about inherited stuff, when I was a bit younger, and it was related to my hesitation that I could ever really have intimate relationships with anyone, but I really don’t think about it in those terms anymore.

There is so much about me that is so different from anyone else in my bloodline, whether as a queer lesbian woman, or as someone who doesn’t regard Islam to be important, or as someone who goes to university in the first place (my father was the first person in our entire family network to get a degree), or as someone who breaks with traditional notions of love and marriage and sexual intimacy. For me, it’s been my difference, although it marks me for pain and trouble sometimes, that offers me the opportunity not to play into that same violence. Ultimately, this stuff isn’t pre-determined, and it is our own decisions that produce the people we become, the way we treat others, and from there, the families that we potentially build.

"Man hands on misery to man," but if you opt out of being a man… 😛

Or opt out of thinking that way! By the way, I want to be careful in saying this stuff, because I don’t want to be heard as saying that you need to be queer to avoid violence. Accepting myself as a lesbian helped do it for me, but that’s really not a general rule, and a lot of fairly ‘Islamophobic Muslims’ (they’re a thing!) who aren’t straight will act like straight Muslim guys are all violent. It’s pretty irresponsible in this day and age. I will give an example told to me by one of my colleagues, who works on Yemen. She told me about this fairly religious guy she met, who was very ‘status quo,’ and caused some controversy because he publicly refused to hit his children. Though he was otherwise ‘traditional,’ he refused to do it, and it was because of a lot of stated respect and tenderness towards his kids.

I know that a lot of people in my community feel like things are just conservative, in some vague, overpowering, unchallengeable way, but the fact is that people do make choices about this stuff. It is wholly within our power to choose to not indulge in violence, even if it is normalised, and to pursue other ways of doing things.

That’s a fabulous place to end, but I have one more loose end I’d like to pursue. You mentioned a couple times in this conversation how it’s important to you that children have some level of autonomy and that they be treated as people. Do you have thoughts about what this could look like, and what the parameters of children’s autonomy might be?

I think that bourgeois subjectivity requires a very particular notion of childhood that is predicated on selective vulnerability and needing to be ‘protected from danger’ both physically and otherwise.

I say ‘selective’ because this doesn’t entirely apply to the working classes, whose children need to be violated much more to condition them for heavier labour exploitation, and certain minority groups.

I think that leftists should more eagerly explore the abolition of hierarchies in child-rearing, and allowing children to choose far more about their lives (such as their scholastic interests, hobbies, even their names) in order to disrupt the notion of ‘childhood’ as a time when the bourgeois subject simultaneously must internalise values of discipline, restraint, and ‘proper’ behaviour, as well as absorbing social violence for any perceived deviation. Being a kid really sucks, generally, and under capitalism…

I think that letting kids transition, and expressing their genders the way they want, is actually a really interesting way to explore this process in concrete terms. Children might end up enforcing dynamics like gender on each other, which makes things very complicated, but the first step would be to make room for kids that want to express themselves and pursue their lives in ways that subvert the norm, be it in terms of gender and sexuality, or whatever else.

Yeah. I can see that way of thinking in a way as proceeding from what I see as a characteristically leftist decoupling, or at least a rethought coupling, of rights and responsibilities. I think one discourse that is used to justify children’s lack of choice about their own self-expression is that, lacking responsibilities, children do not have rights. I think a “rethought coupling” might actually be more accurate, on reflection, because children do have responsibilities, just as wage workers do – responsibilities to grow and learn in ways that adults are emphatically not required to do.

Yes, precisely, children have a responsibility to internalise bourgeois dictates, in order to adapt ways of thinking about themselves and expressing themselves that are amenable to being managed in a modern state, and the need of the capitalist system to be profitable. They are treated violently for behaving in ways that aren’t ideal for these systems. Childhood can be an extremely difficult period of life for that reason, especially for those that are different in some way.

Obviously, that also goes for non-identity questions, too, such as the work ethic they have to adopt at school (an ideal student is a training role for being an ideal worker), and the way that grades essentially teach them to value profitability and productivity statistics over themselves. I mention these concrete examples, because a lot of this stuff can get very post-Marxist and abstract, which risks missing the point.

"The Marxist Montessori Handbook."

Hah!

I think that’s a really insightful response, actually, though, because while I had noticed that the discourse of rights and responsibilities is used to disenfranchise children, in part by not acknowledging some of the labor children are expected to perform, I hadn’t connected that with the way the responsibilities children have that are selectively acknowledged (with concomitant, contingent rights) are themselves used as a disciplinary force.

Anyway do you have any last thoughts, or messages for the folks at home?

Our society puts children under so much pressure; and I certainly remember that. I hope that people will think about how their own attitudes and expectations of children, child-rearing, and childhood, reflect the needs of modern states and capitalism. Part of the reason that this question about kids is so sinister is because it involves what we learn, and teach, vulnerable people in a dependant situation, who must learn things like their expected roles within the larger system. It is an urgent question for those who seek to replace capitalism with another, better form of society.

Thanks, Zenab!

It was great to chat with you, Kit.

Flynn

they/them or he/him

So first of all, how old are you, and how would you describe your gender?

I am 23 and I’d describe myself as an AFAB nonbinary person.

How do you feel about children – having them, or being around them? What has been your relationship to that possibility?

I love kids, and I very very badly want to be a parent. One of my earliest memories is pretending to be a parent in preschool – I would’ve been about 3. I think about it all the time.

But I also would be completely horrified to be pregnant. I had a hysterectomy this year, and with it came this huge relief – I no longer have this terrible anxiety about getting pregnant and having to deal with the ramifications of that.

I like the idea of being genetically related to my kids, and I kept my ovaries in case a surrogate would be a possibility for me and my future partner, but I also wish I could provide the sperm rather than the egg?

Out of a desire to have kids with a partner with a uterus, or because you think it would be gender affirming, or?

Definitely the latter- I’m bi, but swing more toward men generally. I feel like I was supposed to be born with the other set of reproductive organs, is basically the gist of it. It doesn’t make me dysphoric to think of myself with what I have now, but I definitely wish I had the other set.

Honestly, I wish I could handle being pregnant, too.

But that’s less a gender thing and more of a “it’s gonna be pretty complicated & expensive for me to have biological kids now” thing.

It sounds like the biological aspect of having children is pretty important to you?

Mmmm… Emotionally, yeah. Intellectually I understand there’s not much of a difference, but there’s a little caveman part of me that really wants a kid with my hair.

I think, also, that until a few years ago I took for granted the idea that I would marry and have kids in a pretty conventional way. I never thought about pregnancy at all – I think I was avoiding it.

Is it about seeing someone who’s a blend of you and your partner?

Yes, exactly. Which is almost embarrassing to me – I also think that it would be a better decision for me to adopt. So this little part of me insisting I pass my genes on feels… weird.

Huh. Currently I don’t have any interest in passing on my genes, even though I’m ambivalent about the idea of parenting, and it occurs to me this may be a self-esteem issue. But I also don’t think I’ve ever met anyone and thought “I want to make little copies of you.” I understand the drive to parent but there’s something about the specifically re-productive (producing yourself and your partner again) impulse that I don’t seem to currently have.

Oh, hm! I can definitely get that. I don’t know your family situation, but I think part of the importance of reproduction for me ties into part of my family dynamic?

How so?

My mom and I do genealogy research together, is one thing. We’ve traced our family back to the 1300s or 1400s, and if I adopt, my child won’t have that blood tie. (Though they’ll still have it heritage-wise.) And, like, I find a lot of comfort in seeing pictures of relatives I’ve never met, or pictures of my parents and grandparents when they were younger, and seeing the similarities in our faces. I think that’s an experience I’m also seeking with my kid.

Hmm. For a long time in my life I actually couldn’t see family resemblance. I kind of thought it was a myth.

Same for a long time! After I got on T it became waaaaay more obvious to me how much I look like my dad’s side.

Could you not see it in other people, either? Or just in your family?

I mean, racially, and in broad characteristics, sure. Usually not in anyone more specifically though. It actually has gotten easier for me to see myself in my mom as I’ve started to grow my hair out and present feminine more regularly. I wonder if lack of identification with my assigned gender led to disidentification with the family in general. (I don’t have a dad, so I can’t compare notes on that aspect.)

Makes a lot of sense to me, tbh.

Did realizing you couldn’t handle pregnancy happen simultaneously with your gender debut? Do you think that that body discomfort is fully a gender thing?

It happened a while later, actually! I think I just blocked the idea of pregnancy out for a really long time. I found out an old acquaintance had a kid, and it occurred to me that we were the same age, and it was possible for me to also get pregnant and I immediately threw up.

Like, reflexively. It was horrifying.

The idea of my belly distorting in pregnancy, more than anything else, freaks me out very badly. I think there’s a lot tied into that, not just gender – I have a history of eating disorders, and I’m working on having a less dysmorphic view of myself. But also, I think I couldn’t handle the hormonal surges. I genuinely think I would not survive a pregnancy. That’s probably the biggest reason I had the hysterectomy, honestly.

You wouldn’t survive because of how much better T has made you feel?

Yes, but more that, like, estrogen makes me feel terrible. I tried hormonal birth control as a teenager and had a bad enough breakdown during the placebo week that I was admitted to the mental hospital. And when I’m not on a dose of T high enough to disrupt my menstrual cycle, I’m depressed for the week before my period, the week of, and the days surrounding ovulation. Any flux in my estrogen seems to be very bad for me. (And/or progesterone or other hormones – I don’t know the details very well.)

But I think I would’ve killed myself during a pregnancy. And I know that I, personally, wouldn’t be able to get an abortion.

Why not?

So, I’m fully pro-choice, I don’t believe that a fetus is inherently a person. But I think as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I would adore my future kid.

I don’t think I’d be able to go through with an abortion because it would feel like murdering that possibility. But I also think I could get depressed enough to forget that I wouldn’t wanna kill myself because it would harm my kid.

When you were trying to get a hysterectomy, did you get a lot of pushback?

Some.

I initially got on testosterone because Kaiser refused to give me a hysterectomy without oophorectomy unless I was on HRT for a year. Which is absurd – keeping my ovaries renders the necessity for HRT moot – but whatever. My family also had a pretty hard time adjusting to it. But I think, generally, I had an easier time getting a hysterectomy than many people do.

Do you feel like you get pressure from queer and trans communities to adopt (no pun) certain stances about children and reproduction?

Ohhhhh yes.

There’s this derisive discourse about “breeders,” as if being able to reproduce is wrong. The larger culture has an emphasis on having kids and on stereotypical parenting roles, but I think the inverse isn’t healthy, either.

Is there anything you’d like to add for the folks at home?

I want other people to understand that it’s okay for trans people to care about more than just their transness and take more than that into account when they’re making transition decisions. It’s totally reasonable to get surgery for more than one reason. It’s okay to decide that you wanna keep certain reproductive organs and not others, for example. Your reasons don’t have to make sense to everyone else. Your relationship to your body isn’t purely predicated on gender, and that’s as it should be.

I hope that makes sense contextually – that was a big thing for me with surgery – I wasn’t just getting it for gender reasons, and that’s okay.

I think that’s so important, and it goes beyond reproduction! It’s important that we not recreate basically religious rules about self determination with a teensy exception carved out for 100% above-board grade-A certified pure gender dysphoria. So not only reproduction, but also sexuality, and other dimensions of mental health, and maybe even (gasp) attractiveness/self-image might be legitimate bases for these decisions.

Yes – exactly, exactly, exactly. Life decisions never exist in a vacuum. And this, like, orthodoxy of “real” transgender experience is so harmful.

On a related note – I got in an argument with transmedicalists recently. And they were insisting that because I don’t believe one needs dysphoria to be trans, I must not have dysphoria. As if it’s impossible to share their experience without coming to the same conclusions. And that’s what it is, really. Self-determination requires you to come to your own conclusions. And it’s scary, and it’d honestly be nice if there were a panacea for any suffering that trans people experience, but there isn’t. If the queer & trans communities (& our allies) can recognize that, we’ll all be better off.

Thanks Flynn!!

You’re welcome!

Joni Alizah Cohen

she/her/hers

Hi! So first of all, how old are you, and how would you describe your gender? Second – how do you feel about children – having them, or being around them? What has been your relationship to that possibility?

Heya. So I am 25. I’m a woman. A trans woman.

I used to be very against the idea of having children. My whole life prior to transition I didn’t want to have kids, although I do like kids and have worked with kids for much of my life.

Since transitioning I have actually become more amenable to the idea of having kids, although I decided not to pay to have sperm frozen in order to have biological children prior to going on HRT. This was a long and difficult decision, which involved lots of thinking about the way that the administration of trans people often means that we do not get to reproduce, and that this constitutes a kind of eugenics. Which with my Jewish identity is also difficult to swallow.

But in the end I decided that I was not invested in the idea of biological reproduction of myself, and that my reactions to this were largely misplaced. I concluded that the idea that I should want to reproduce biologically played more into a logic of racial eugenics than it did to just accept my condition in some way.

I have a long term committed partner, and we have talked about one day adopting, but in general feel that we would prefer to collectively raise children in a small queer community. We have also discussed artificial insemination, as my partner has a uterus.

I believe that child raising is an incredibly important activity for the trans and queer community to engage in. It’s an important element in the reproduction of our communities and ways of living, And I like the idea of a world where fewer children have to be raised in heterosexual families. I dislike the idea of having a nuclear family however, and if I do decide to raise a child I would want to do it in a shared living situation with no dual monopoly of parent status over the child. I also think that if I raise a child I will attempt to avoid gendering them until they express a certain preference.

Ultimately I feel that the precarious conditions of trans life, our housing, employment, healthcare etc. mean that the majority of us are not in a stable enough position to raise children and not really struggle financially. I think a lot has to change for trans people before we will start having a culture of raising kids – and have the confidence to, I guess. But I also think we would do a much better job than a lot of people too. And that we shouldn’t leave breeding to the breeders.

Why do you think it was that before transition you were opposed to the idea of children? Do you think it was because of transition that you changed your mind?

I think I got happier after transitioning and dropped my nihilism and misanthropic tendencies. Also I guess just growing older.

You said that, basically, you were concerned that wanting to pass on your genetic lineage came from a place of eugenic sentiment. Do you think that was the main reason you would have wanted to reproduce biologically? Do you understand the impulse to, I don’t know, want a kid with your hair or your eyes?

Yeah of course. I understand the impulse. But to want a kid that is biologically related to me, just because I was concerned about my genetics being wiped out, felt like conceding the point to eugenics. It’s not about genetics after all. I would like a kid that had some of my features, but I can’t afford it and it’s too late now. And to go so far as to break my bank just to allow that possibility seemed gratuitous.

I guess I ask in part because I don’t really have or intuitively understand that impulse. Something that has come up in these conversations is the difference between the drive to reproduce either yourself or an other (meeting someone, I guess, thinking I want to make little copies of you), and wanting to be part of raising a child. I’m not sure whether there’s a bright line between the two though.

I understand the impulse. I don’t like it when I see it in myself. I like to think that my interest in raising kids is not to continue myself but to care for a small part of another generation.

So you talked about raising kids in a non-nuclear queer community. I’m curious where you first encounter descriptions or depictions of this happening? I think for me it was probably science fiction, though I’m having trouble putting my finger on the origin point. Are there particular models of childrearing that you find particular inspiring or thoughtful?

I don’t think I really got it from anywhere in particular. Just from talking with friends and thinking about it. Although since then I’ve looked at Ursula Le Guin and Alexandra Kollontai.

Ursula Le Guin is definitely one of the origins for me, but I don’t know the second one.

Alexandra Kollontai was a Bolshevik feminist and wrote a lot about abolishing the family and instituting collective living and child raising whilst collectivising all other domestic labour.

Are there particular challenges to raising kids as a trans person or part of a non nuclear family that you are concerned about.

Oh – I remember a concern I had about having a biological child.

Uh huh?

I thought that since my partner is a cis woman, if the child was visibly both of ours biologically then I would always be considered the father. By others. And that would destroy me.

Of course there is difficulty with the state maybe wanting to intervene and not being able to compute collective child rearing as they only accept parents or limited legal guardians. Schooling would be another problem. The child would face a lot of shit if other kids knew about their family. I would probably want to home school the children in a collective.

Yeah. Jesus. (To the thing about being seen as the father.)

Yeah, and homeschooling can take a lot of labor, especially with the salaries often available to women, and trans women in particular.

Absolutely. But I am disabled and can barely work anyhow, so I would probably have more time. Plus in a collective we could pool resources to be able to afford one kid.

That’s true.

It would take more than two trans women to raise one kid in the UK and for them not to be in poverty – given that 70% of employers in the UK admit they wouldn’t employ a trans person, or something like that. It’s often necessary for trans women to pass or conceal their transness in order get and stay in formal employment. Trans men have an easier time.

I feel like I already do a lot of care work for trans people, often housing them for periods, and a lot of work keeping friends together and alive and sorting out healthcare. So I feel like in a way I already have kids; they are just my age, and I’m one too. The Ball House system in the black gay and trans community in New York, depicted in Paris is Burning and recently in Pose, really inspired me. The trans and queer family structures in Pose particularly are beautiful and heartwarming.

That kind of care work is really important, but it sounds really daunting to me.

We’re running out of time-- is there anything else you want to add, or messages for the folks at home?

Hahaha. Erm, I think that the conversations arising at the moment about reproductive justice that have been informed by trans people’s lives are really important and are signalling a kind of paradigm shift from previous generations of queer and trans people.

How so?

The struggle to survive is still very real, but I’m glad that we are starting to be able to think about reproduction and not falling into the trap of say Edelman-style antinatalism. People are starting to value the idea of intergenerational queer and trans reproduction rather than just survival, and getting over the wholesale rejection of reproduction as a fundamentally heteronormative practice. To me that brings me a lot of hope, even though in my particular case I doubt that I will ever be able to raise children.

It sounds like you see some component of an ethical duty in raising the next generation, or that least that it comes from an ethically motivated place.

Yeah I don’t think there is a universal duty by any means, but I think we need to get good at reproducing generationally if trans people are gonna survive the coming tide of fascism.

Whether that means biologically, I don’t know. But we need to be setting up familial structures that allow young trans people to be taken into new families after they are rejected by their biofams. Instead of dying on the streets or forming single generation communities of the equally precarious and lost. I think it’s particularly hard to think of intergenerational care in the trans community because so many of us died in the AIDS epidemic, and a whole generation, who would be our mothers and fathers and NB parents, never made it to that stage. So we’ve had to raise ourselves. Hopefully the next generation won’t have to.

Ugh, I feel slightly emotional now.

Me too.

It’s a tough topic.

Yeah. I really appreciate you talking to me about it, and I will definitely think over what you’ve said!

No problem. Thanks for doing this project. Can’t wait to read it.

Jessica Kirchner

she/her/hers

So, to kick off: 1. How old are you and how would you describe your gender? 2. How do you feel about children – having them, or being around them? What has been your relationship to that possibility?

1. I’m 36 and my gender is female.

In the context of this interview it’s probably also good for me to say explicitly that I’m a trans woman. That’s an important part of my biography and history but it doesn’t feel like a core part of my gender identity any more than a lot of other facets of me - like being a white woman, a Jewish woman, a petite woman, etc. etc.

2. Having children is something I’ve been thinking a lot about! For years, I guess, but quite a lot in the last year or so.

I felt ambivalent about having kids for a long time. I liked the idea but never felt like I was ready, like I was stable enough, like my life was in the right situation, and a lot of vague reluctance I didn’t really understand. My romantic partners were never very interested in having kids, which made it easy to just not push the issue.

I started to transition just a couple years ago - which feels very late compared to most trans people I know - and I feel like that’s helped me understand my feelings about parenting a lot better. It turns out a big part of why I would get uneasy about the idea was because I didn’t want to be a dad! I also really didn’t want to be a husband. When I realized I didn’t have to do that, the idea felt way more appealing in an uncomplicated way.

But of course in some other ways it’s a lot more complicated to have kids as a trans person, so now I feel like I’m trying to figure out what it would take to have a family in that way, who I need to have involved with me in what way, and to do it before I get to the point where I feel too old to start.

Yeah, figuring out how to phrase that question about gender has been difficult because I don’t like to make assumptions about what people’s birth assignment means for their ability to reproduce or their experiences growing up, especially in the case of intersex people.

That totally makes sense.

But I also feel kind of weird putting “trans” in my gender – I’m a woman, with a bit of genderfluid left in my tank.

Right I totally hear that! And of course there’s also my gender in the sense of how I experience myself vs. how I’m read and treated in society, etc. …

Yeah – I’m not sure whether this is what you mean, but I’ve definitely had like, the experience of my own gender – feeling myself to be gendered correctly – as distinct from how anyone else is treating me in any one moment. And then there are other times when I CAN’T imagine myself as the ‘right’ gender and those are a problem. Sometimes I think the discourse focuses a lot on how others treat us and what our internal identity is, without looking at how we treat and imagine ourselves from moment to moment. But I digress.

Yeah absolutely! I was just discussing this with a friend yesterday – how I feel like I am definitely a “binary” woman because that’s 100% how I want society to see me. But I still don’t have a coherent internal gendered sense of myself or even know what that would feel like. And that feels tough to articulate sometimes. But yeah that’s a whole interesting topic of its own 🙂

How do you feel about children and reproduction more generally?

I’ve never had kids in my life the way I think a lot of people do, if they grow up in really big families and things like that. My family is actually fairly big in terms of aunts and cousins and stuff but my brother and I were the youngest ones, so we didn’t ever see a lot of people younger than us when we were growing up.

That’s something I’ve been able to start experiencing more in my own life in the last I’d say five years or so as some of my friends have started to have kids of their own.

I’d add maybe that I also feel like I’m in a very small minority among trans people – just speaking of the ones that I know – in wanting to have a biological family. I feel like most trans people that I know are strongly against the idea of having kids of their own. I remember one of my exes described herself as a biological period, not a comma. Which seems kind of sad to me but she felt very happy with that!

And then there are some other folks I know who had kids before coming out and transitioning (which seems super hard and scary).

Yes, one of my profs did that, though we were never close enough for her to talk about the experience. Do you have a sense of why your desire to have biological kids is so strong?

I’ve definitely thought about that, because of course you have to consider adoption/fostering too as possible ways to build a family. Both because of some of the logistical issues of having kids while trans, but also because there are a lot of kids that already need a good family home.

But at the end of the day I really do still feel a pull to have biological kids specifically, if I can. I think part of it for me is because of my Jewish identity. We’re a people who suffered from a fairly successful genocide within living memory, and just keeping our community alive feels like an important kind of resistance against that.

Raising kids also seems like such an important and unique part of human life that so many people go through - I’d be a little sad to be forever on the outside of it.

And of course as I say it those reasons both sound a little silly. They probably are! But then again it seems like such an act of hubris to ever have kids: when we are rapidly destroying the planet they’ll inherit; when you really have no idea who they will grow up to be; when there are so many variables that are outside of our control. So I feel a little comforted by the thought that actually no one has really valid reasons to have their own kids, but most people still do it anyways.

Was it always a part of human life you wanted to have the opportunity to experience? or did you have a ‘biological clock’-style moment?

It’s something I always thought was interesting and wanted to be part of – but in kind of a muted way for a long time. Looking back, I see that’s part of the bigger pattern in my life of repressing and learning to ignore a lot of things that, if I explored them, would have forced me to unravel all of my gender stuff earlier than I was ready or able to do that. So that was always there for me but it became a lot sharper and more clear after I figured that stuff out and transitioned.

Do you feel like you’ve experienced pressure to pursue a more “queer” or non-nuclear or non-traditional family structure or path to having kids? E.g. from other trans people.

I don’t know if I’ve felt pressured, exactly, but I totally do know what you’re talking about.

I think LGBT folks all know the value of chosen family and it has a really deep meaning for us. Which is great! And I totally share that. I have people that I think of as my sisters or closer than my close friends because of experiences we’ve shared related to being trans or gay and I feel extremely lucky to have those connections in my life.

And at the same time as all of that there is a strange little bit of tension between chosen families that we have, and biological families that we want to build. I don’t know if it has to be that way but it feels like it is, for a lot of us. For me, I do have a lot of friends with families of their own and I feel like there is a community of parents and kids that I can step into if I want – but there is not much overlap between that community, and my LGBT or chosen family community. So sometimes it does feel like you almost have to choose.

That’s hard.

It is! I mean, maybe I shouldn’t complain - “I have too many loving communities to choose from!” But I do long for a world where those don’t feel in tension.

Yeah well it’s, I mean, it’s to some extent asking you to align yourself, as though the lifestyles or ways of thinking or whatever of each of the two groups implicitly carried a charge of hostility to the other. And it also can be difficult because making that choice also can have consequences in terms of financial support, childcare support, emotional support… you have to make a kind of calculation.

Yeah, absolutely. (And I should say there is some overlap and I know some wonderful LGBT parents and families, which is great! But just not most of them, at least in my own circles.)

Yep yep that’s all very real. Of course like any self-respecting LGBT person I talk (joke?) with my friends all the time about setting up a commune together, moving out somewhere more affordable than the Bay Area and pitching our lives in together. It’s a wonderful vision and I’d very sincerely like it to happen. But if you are a person who wants a family - there’s another tension that emerges there, between our intent to do that and build something stable and beautiful together; and the reality of how precarious a lot of our lives are, and trying to figure out what’s really doable and what’s the minimum requirements that absolutely have to be in place to feel like you have a reliable and healthy place to bring some kids into the world.

Do you think your investment or belief or seriousness about a vision like that has changed as you’ve gotten older?

Hmm. It feels further away now than it used to for me, maybe just because the longer you live somewhere the more rooted you become and there’s more you would be giving up with a radical change like that. But it’s also waxed and waned depending on who was in my life and people I’ve been dating at different times. So I think it could still happen, even though at this moment it’s more like a pipe dream for me.

You said that since your transition you’ve been taking the idea of parenthood more seriously, and thinking through some of the requirements. What are some of the complications and requirements that are on your horizon?

There are some things that feel specifically tied in to being trans, and some that just feel like questions every potential parent must have.

Specifically trans stuff:

  • Basic logistics - The traditional easy way to have kids that cis straight couples can just fall into isn’t an option for me. If I want to have biological kids, I’m probably looking at surrogacy. So, figuring out how to do that, how to pay for it, etc.

  • I’d really love to breastfeed so I’d need to do some research and talk with doctors. I know a lot of trans women are able to do that but it often takes some adjustment to their hormone regimen (and I don’t know all the details)

  • Figuring out if there are any big events in transition (e.g. surgery) that I anticipate, because things like that could interfere with the amount of time and focus I think you need to give to parenting especially in the first years.

More general stuff:

  • What kind of support and community do I need in place? I think a lot of women and a lot of couples go crazy because they try to raise kids alone and it turns out to be too much. That destroys a lot of relationships and of course it’s bad for kids too.

    So I think I need a relatively solid plan of who’s in my life who can put in time or be there and in what capacities, to help make that happen without driving me insane. Some mix of romantic partners, biological family, chosen family, friends, other help. (And also thinking what I can give back to them or what commitments I’m taking on to honor by sharing community with them in the way I’d be doing by asking for that)

I feel like I have a hard time imagining asking a friend to be there for me as I raise a child. I feel like I don’t have a script for being explicit about those relationships in the way I do know how to talk about it with romantic partners.

I hear that! I guess that’s why I said that about wanting to recognize that as a relationship which puts responsibility on me too. There are straightforward examples like that – sharing childcare and stuff like that. But beyond that I think the bigger stakes for me feel like trying to imagine and figure out how to live a kind of family that breaks out of the monogamous atomized nuclear family that’s the model we take for granted in this society. I think that’s a failure and even if I had the option to have a family like that, I don’t think I’d take it.

(And also I should say like I don’t think that’s such a revolutionary idea. Most of the world probably still raises kids in some kind of communal arrangements that are more like what I’m talking about than they are like the nuclear family. But in this society it does feel like pushing upstream to try to create that.)

And that’s also not to say that I have the script figured out for how to have those conversations! But it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so hopefully sometime in the next year I will actually get that figured out.

It’s on your to-do list.

It is, haha! I’m trying to be intentional about figuring things out without overwhelming myself and feeling like I need to solve everything at once. So I’m giving myself as much of 2019 as I need to really come up with a plan.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about before we wrap up – or do you have any messages for the folks at home?

Not sure I have a message, I’m obviously still figuring all of my own stuff out!

I will say that for our trans community/communities, things are changing so fast right now. There are so many more of us; I think overall our community is becoming more resilient; and the ways society understands us are changing (in both good and bad ways.) Also so many of us are young (way younger than me!) and maybe feel far away from having to figure out whether or not they want to have a family with younger generations. Obviously that will change.

So I don’t know what our community and our lives will look like in five or ten years, but I’m sure it will be really different. I am looking forward to learning from those experiences and being part of the conversation in my own small way.

Everything that’s scary about all of this is also an opportunity to try new stuff and replace parts of existing social life that don’t suit us with ones that work better. I’m excited about that, whatever form it takes for me and for all of us!

Also, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation! This has been super fun and it’s giving me a lot more to think about.

Thank you for having it with me :)) I learned a lot.

Awesome, I’m glad!

Thanks to Jules Gleeson for her invaluable help putting this series together.


Read more:

Previous: ghazal: a version of "Insomnia. Homer"

Next: Estranged Children of Storybook Houses

Back to issue: WITH(OUT) CHILD


The Hypocrite Reader publishes hard hitting navel gazing, qt shit, deductions, inductions, and abductions. Get us in your inbox once a month.