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Monday, August 27, 2012

Discrimination Against Breastfeeding Men?

An intriguing story on Yahoo concerns Trevor MacDonald, a Canadian transgender dad who received the assistance of international breastfeeding support organization La Leche League to breastfeed his son but then found out that he could not "pay it forward" by serving as a coach for one of LLL's local support groups because such positions were only open to women (see here and here).  MacDonald received LLL's help when he was learning to feed his newborn son through an SNS (Supplemental Nursing System) feeder using his own milk supplemented with lactation donations, which was challenging because he had little breast tissue. He received assistance although LLL's stated purpose is to "help all mothers" with breastfeeding; LLL, however, is sticking firmly by its policies that only women be "leaders" who support others in local chapters of the organization.

There are good arguments on both sides. In the Canadian media, where this has been a hot topic, some women opine that LLL's guidelines are discriminatory because breastfeeding is no longer a woman's or mother's domain, while others support LLL's guidelines to protect women who might feel self-conscious about exposing themselves before a male. (See here for some fascinating commentary).  This story offers another wonderful example of how traditional categories are exploding before our eyes.

Apparently 38% of the transgender community are parents, and so increasing numbers of fathers will find themselves in MacDonald's shoes in the future. The clearest solution seems to be to form support groups for fathers like MacDonald who want to breastfeed. It seems very likely that this group would have very unique concerns, and that members could form important connections in other ways as well. What is wonderfully refreshing is that this has not been a nasty dispute; both MacDonald and LLL have traded compliments and been very civil to each other.

Issues like this always strike me as being very complicated and minefields for traditionalists.  The mainstream assumption most definitely is still that women give birth and breastfeed and men don't. But the transgender community is challenging and expanding these boundaries, with the constructions of family and parenthood, mother and father changing dramatically as a result. Far from being rigid, these formerly inflexible rules and roles are increasingly fluid. What I think is counterproductive is actually trying to continue to argue over alleged discrimination in binary terms of "male" and "female"--such as debating whether MacDonald is actually a "female" who has retained and utilized female reproductive organs to give birth to a son or a "male" who is seeking to do something that men don't do. Gender is no longer an either/or category, and this story illustrates that beautifully.

Posted by Jody Madeira on August 27, 2012 at 10:23 PM | Permalink


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Thanks for posting this--it does raise a host of interesting issues. And I hope that the civility of the discussion of this potentially contentious topic isn't only because this happened in Canada. (Disclaimer--I am Canadian).

Posted by: Cynthia Godsoe | Aug 29, 2012 2:57:25 PM

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