One of the oldest maxims in journalism is that no one wants to read “dog bites man” stories. Dogs bite people all the time. That’s not news. It’s expected. But when a man bites a dog, that’s a story worth reporting.
Most journalists understand this. When the Chicago Cubs don’t make it to the World Series, or when Michael Bay makes another terrible movie, or when more evidence of Bill Clinton’s adventures in skirt-chasing comes out, it’s not news. It’s just what everyone expects. That is why it’s so puzzling that the media can’t seem to tell the difference between “dog bites man” and “man bites dog” stories about sexuality and gender.
The fourth estate has developed a particular fascination with “transgender men” (biological women who choose to dress and live as men, and sometimes alter their bodies accordingly). Transgender men are not men in any scientifically meaningful sense of the word. They are genetically and (usually) physiologically female.
As such, they often do things that other females do, like get pregnant, have babies, and breastfeed. Yet every time a transgender man gets pregnant, has a baby, or breastfeeds, the media breathlessly report this “dog bites man” story as if it’s news.
She’s Not a He, Even With a Beard
In its September issue, Time featured a 4,000-word human interest story on Evan Hempel, a 35-year-old who was born female but now identifies as male. Having “come out” as transgender 16 years ago, Evan has a stocky frame, receding hairline, and full beard—the aftermath of testosterone therapy. This spring, she had a baby. That’s the substance of the story. In the article, Jessi Hempel (Evan’s sister) admits: “I’d have no reason to tell you about this moment in my brother’s life were it not for the fact of his gender.”
Hempel means “gender” here in the modern sense: self-perception that may or may not conform to biological sex. Under this definition, however, it’s not at all clear why her sister’s gender makes the lengthy story worth telling. “He” is a she, and having babies, last time I checked, is something shes do.
Sex, which is an objective and empirically verifiable trait, is the only factor relevant to reproduction. You may think of yourself as a man, a woman, or a toddler in diapers. It doesn’t matter. A healthy female body will not consult its owner’s current gender preference before doing what female bodies do with sperm. A woman who calls herself a man conceiving and giving birth is not a surprise for the same reason a male boxer who calls himself a woman beating the ever-living daylights out of a female opponent is not a surprise.
With suffocating pretense, Hempel continues: “Pregnancies like Evan’s—and the many that are likely to follow—will stretch our cultural perceptions of gender norms even further. Americans are just starting to open up to the idea that you may be born into a female body, but believe that you are really a man. But what if you are born into a female body, know you are a man and still want to participate in the traditionally exclusive rite of womanhood?”
How does a biological woman having a baby “stretch our cultural perceptions of gender norms”? And what is so newsworthy about a biological woman participating “in the traditionally exclusive rite of womanhood”? The story’s entire raison d’être is this woman’s self-identification as a man, which is supposed to make her bearing a child somehow remarkable and worth several pages in America’s best-known news magazine.
This Is Only Shocking If You’re Mental
The whole charade is tiresome. Every article about every “man” who gets pregnant follows the same formula of ritual self-delusion: Step 1: Pretend a biological woman is actually a man. Step 2: Express awe and disbelief when she does what women naturally do. Lather, rinse, repeat.
One of the stories that established this banal pattern was that of Thomas Beatie, a.k.a. the “Pregnant Man,” who back in 2008 appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to tell her story. It’s difficult to ascribe the media’s hype over this former finalist in the Miss Hawaii Teen USA beauty pageant to anything but cynical self-interest. “Pregnant Man” sells magazines, newspapers, and air-time. “Pregnant Woman Who Takes Hormones and Surgically Mutilated Her Breasts”? Well, it may sell some grocery store tabloids.
In 2012, numerous U.K. outlets touted the story of the first “man” across the pond to “give birth to a baby.” This great hook that sounded like a corny Arnold Schwarzenegger movie was, of course, a facade. No man gave birth, because, as Monty Python so gently reminded us in “The Life of Brian,” men cannot have babies, because they haven’t got wombs. Instead, this was a woman who identified as a man but presumably lived with an actual man (creatures that have been known to impregnate women).
Last year, USA Today reported the story of Kayden Coleman with the headline: “A decade into sex-change, a surprise pregnancy.” This woman and her biologically male husband (who says he is gay, for the record), were shocked in 2013 to discover that Kayden’s “bloated tummy” was a baby bump. It’s not immediately obvious why the pregnancy was a surprise, as Coleman chose to leave her uterus intact during her transition, and uteruses—you know—have a purpose. But once again, the story depends on giving readers the impression, at least, that deep down inside, the dog was actually a man.
“Kayden is not the first man to have a child,” The Mirror helpfully explains, referring us back to Beatie. They were right about that. Coleman is not the first man to have a child. That man does not yet exist.
Luckily, There’s an Easy Fix
Earlier this year, The Daily Mail stifled a spark of honesty with the same head-scratchingly misplaced hype: “Transgender man gives birth to baby girl after surprise pregnancy.” This headline, at least, clues readers in right away that the “man” in question is nothing of the sort. Rather, “he” is a petite Icelandic teenage girl, who had evidently done little in the way of “transition” besides changing her clothes and hair style. Nevertheless, her pregnancy is treated as news, worthy of worldwide attention.
The Daily Mail adds her father was “a bit confused,” which, I think we can all agree, is an entirely unreasonable response when your daughter declares herself a gay man, has a baby, and then admits, “I’ve never felt 100 percent male.”
If this is all hurting your brain, never fear! There is a foolproof test you can use to determine whether a story about a “pregnant man” is actually worth your time. Here’s how it works: If it is not immediately obvious that the gestating or lactating individual in question is biologically male, simply replace the word “man,” or “transgender man,” or “trans otherkin” with “woman.” If the headline no longer reads like news, then it almost certainly isn’t.
Having a convenient way of sifting through fake “man bites dog” headlines is helpful. But there is a deeper and much more important reason to cut past the phony pronouns and understand the sad, boring truth behind these non-stories. The correspondence of language with reality—calling things what they really are—is a foundation of communication. If the man did not, in fact, bite the dog, then there is no story. If the “man” who became pregnant and gave birth is, in fact, a woman, then there is also no story.
Making up a story is insulting to women, anyway, who alone are able to conceive and carry the miracle of new human life inside their bodies—even if those bodies have been poisoned by male hormones and modified by misguided medicine. Pretending a man can do what a woman can only cheapens our language and loosens our collective grip on reality.