Abstract: Gendered Pregnancy Norms: The Experiences of Butch Lesbians, Genderqueer, and Nonbinary People (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Gendered Pregnancy Norms: The Experiences of Butch Lesbians, Genderqueer, and Nonbinary People

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Liberty Ballroom I, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jama Shelton, PhD, Assistant Professor, Hunter College, New York, NY
Sarah-Jane Dodd, PhD, Associate Professor and Director, Silberman Center for Sexuality and Gender, Hunter College, New York, NY
Background and Purpose: Few studies examine pregnancy as it relates to gender identity and expression among butch-identified lesbians, genderqueer, or nonbinary individuals (Ryan, 2013; Epstein, 2002). By the very nature of their existence, butch-identified lesbians and genderqueer people challenge gendered societal norms. Butch-identified lesbians and genderqueer people are impacted by hegemonic scripts about gender (non)conformity, pregnancy, and “female” bodies. Unlike lesbians who may pass as heterosexual, butch-identified lesbians and genderqueer people are routinely held accountable for their presumed lesbianism and their gender transgressions (Ryan, 2013). Excluded from both the dominant heterosexual scripts of pregnancy as well as the subcultural norms about what butch-identified lesbians and genderqueer people are supposed to do and be (Epstein, 2002), they are multiply marginalized. Despite these challenges, butch-identified lesbians and genderqueer people do become pregnant, navigating a cis-sexist and heterosexist system to attain parenthood. This pilot study documents the internalized experience of gender identity/expression during pregnancy for butch-identified lesbians and genderqueer individuals.

Methods: A purposive sample of lesbian, genderqueer, and nonbinary people who had experienced pregnancy were recruited from LGBTQ organizations. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, in which participants were asked to describe their experiences related to both gender identity and  pregnancy. NVivo9 was utilized for data management and storage. The heuristic process of phenomenological inquiry guided analysis. The final sample included 6 individuals who had experienced pregnancy. Participants identified their gender as: nonbinary (2), butch (3), or bigender (1). Five of the participants identified as white, one identified as Black. Their ages ranged from 25-43.

Results: Key findings from this pilot study include their purposeful choice to be pregnant, usually with an awareness of the transgression of social norms. All but one participant chose to get pregnant, knowing it was something they wanted to do. Further, some participants expressed pride in achieving their goal, in having “made it happen” despite social and psychological obstacles to pregnancy. Interestingly, this notion of “making it happen” felt in alignment with their butch identity. Participants expressed it this way “we just do what needs to be done to make things happen.”

Although participants chose to be pregnant and experienced pride in achieving their goal, several kept their pregnancy hidden and did not seek supports specifically for queer pregnant people. They expressed a sense of waiting it out related to their experience of discordance between their outward appearance and their inner identity. This discordance between the physical self and psychological, social, and emotional self was expressed in different ways by different participants. One noted that their physical body did “not match their mind.” Additionally, they described experiences of gender policing that increased as their pregnancy progressed.

Conclusions and Implications: Butch-identified lesbians and nonbinary individuals are opting to get pregnant despite heteronormative and cisnormative scripts to the contrary. Developing an understanding of their lived experience can inform affirming service provision for often multiply marginalized individuals.