I found out about Bear when I facilitated a workshop on challenging racism in birth and breastfeeding for a non-profit anti racism organization I volunteer for just over a week ago. The connection came from a white trans* man who was in the audience, and as soon as I mentioned somewhere in my facilitation that for a while I had been interested in hearing the stories of Black LGBTQ breastfeeders, in order to understand breastfeeding through this particular lens but had come up completely empty-handed, he chimed in — and told me about Bear, who he mentioned was biologically female, but is a transgendered male, even binding his breasts at times and breastfeeds his daughter.
I have to be honest that I was just as excited as I was curious about meeting Bear and his 15-month-old daughter who he calls his ‘Mini Me’. Without objectifying or placing either one of them under an ‘objective’ microscope, I had questions. There were things I wanted to know and my inconceivable excitement came from the fact that I had been looking forward to a moment like this for at least a year and a half, searching high and low for Black breastfeeders anywhere along the LGBTQ spectrum (aside from the few Black lesbian mothers in my own social circle I know). When my initial attempts didn’t produce any fruit, I searched some more and when I came up empty- handed there I searched again — more formally but without avail. There was even no breastfeeding in published scholarship about Black lesbian motherhood (Bear himself mentioned he didn’t even know of any other trans* breastfeeders aside from the ones from a group on facebook). I wanted to see how Black breastfeeding is experienced among those considered ‘non-gender conforming,’ those involved in same-sex and same gender loving relationships: the activist in me wants to see more practical breastfeeding among — all Black people. The social scientist and anthropologist in me wants to understand the form and function in Black breastfeeding — nuances. As I’ve mentioned before around here I don’t mean to imply that ‘you’re nobody unless somebody studies you’ — far from it. But I do believe that to be most effective in reaching a goal that combats the inequity among Black breastfeeding and gaining a better understanding of others’ outlook, it requires being multifaceted and holistic — covering all aspects and viewing this tradition through as many lenses as possible in order to acknowledge, as best as we can, how each is experienced, to most effectively work on supporting these different angels. In addition to challenging systematic oppression — racism, class elitism, white supremacy, and seeing how other areas such as mental illness may have an effect, understanding different angels helps us confront our own biases and the significant role they play in inequity. What part do Black breastfeeding advocates play in hindering Black breastfeeding?
When he and I met at Starbucks and decided to walk around downtown for a few minutes while we tried to determine where to go sit down and chit chat, my first inclination was not necessarily to conduct an interview. Of course there were things I wanted to know — there was a lot I wanted to know — but it wan’t actually until all three of us were seated is when I asked if I could ask some specific questions, record the responses and post them on this blog.
The first thing I asked if it weirded him out when he found out I wanted to meet him so badly — a Black breastfeeding trans* man that he had heard about through his friend that belongs to a weekly transgendered meetup group he started. He responded that he wasn’t weirded out. That he was actually excited about it and thought it was ‘cool’ because of educational purposes — he said because it provided the opportunity to educate people. People don’t understand him, he said, and people are scared to ask questions. On that note I asked Bear (whose name comes from his friends) that myself, as a staunch breastfeeding activist and someone whose work inside and outside of my graduate program concentrates on Black breastfeeding, that although I have searched extensively I had yet to come across one single instance highlighting a Black trans* breastfeeding narrative, and that quite possibly upon publishing this post it may be the internet’s inaugural such write-up, what he would like anyone who came across it to know? His first response was to ‘not let anyone fuck with you!’
I believe that was a discussion on other trans* people. This, we know, comes from sentiments that surround transgendered people these days with outright prejudices that come from not conforming to what we may have been ascribed by society. Anthropologists will tell you that even though there seems to be a ‘quest’ these days to transform gender — some attempting to eradicate it altogether, that gender has always been around. And that even though there is a large critique of the binary, categorizing people as simply male or female, it has always existed. This is perhaps a response to colonial impact which castigated anything outside of the binary and the so-called normative model. But this isn’t to say that there weren’t additional genders in precolonial times because there was. But changing one’s causes contention. And it adds to the layers that Black people already contend with — so this is the case for someone who was born and is still biologically female, who lives as a male.
Bear said that he’s a ‘free spirit’ and a ‘gender bender’ which he says means he makes his own pronouns, but mostly identifies as him or they.
So, this was exciting. Even though he openly breastfed ‘Mini Me’ in public, at times having his breasts fully exposed in the food court, he said that he usually covers, but that he forgot it that day but doesn’t pay anybody any attention — meaning he doesn’t care about the opinions of others when it comes to public nursing. He said he really didn’t care what people thought. Bear didn’t seem comfortable talking about his past at all — his childhood, which I was inclined to ask about as far as how he viewed himself, what life was like as a child — on when he came to understand his gender, and also where his breastfeeding influences came from but it was clear that that was not the most comfortable topic so I didn’t. When I asked him where he got his inspiration to breastfeed, he did mention that he didn’t receive any ‘inspiration’ or ‘encouragement’ from outside sources, but it was just something he knew he wanted to do. He did have a doula at his birth and also took breastfeeding classes. When I asked more about his breastfeeding experience he said that they had some issues in the beginning — sore nipple made breastfeeding hurt at first and then ‘Mini Me’ had trouble latching on but they got through it.
Bear and I didn’t have the chance (I really wanted) to discuss what additional layers are superimposed on his identity — what makes Black trans* breastfeeding Black trans* breastfeeding and the complexities of challenging racism in addition to all other facets — there was a little one who thought it would be better to play and romp around rather than have us talk identity. But we’ll get to that conversation soon enough, I know it.
Bear did said that he is slowly transitioning from female to male, intending to fully transition but said he wants to take his time and that maybe one day he will have another child. He said that he’s on a small amount of ‘T’ (testosterone), and that ‘T’ is safe to take in low doses while breastfeeding since it doesn’t interfere with milk production. For now I asked him if he had any advice for other Black trans* breastfeeders. His was to ‘don’t let them get to you. It’s natural. Tell them to leave you the fuck alone.’ I think that says a lot.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
P.S. at the end of next month I am going to Mississippi, USA to research Black breastfeeding and to connect it to a larger picture on the history of Black people as a whole, in order to find answers and to continue working on eradicating inequity and disparities. I received a small amount of funding from my department for this pilot research but it does not cover all aspects. I created a gofundme account to help with costs not covered by my department. Please consider visiting the link below and helping to support this important work by pitching in what you can.