At this point, most of you have probably heard of Thomas Beatie -- the Oregon screen printer currently better known as "the pregnant man." Since his touching personal essay ran in "The Advocate" two weeks ago, Beatie's story has appeared in Newsday, the Guardian, the New York Post, the Daily Mail and countless other media outlets. The hubbub culminated last week when Beatie appeared on "Oprah" to talk about his experiences. Beatie and his wife, Nancy, came across as a cheerful, happy and sane -- the kind of parents most of us would dream of having.
But following Beatie's "Oprah" appearance, MSNBC's "Morning Joe" featured a profoundly appalling exchange. As part of a segment about "weird news items," host Willi Geist brought up Beatie to laughter and groaning from co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Scarborough and Brzezinski then shouted comments like: "I'm going to be sick"; "Disgusting"; "This kind of news makes our business terrible." It's a breathtakingly xenophobic display -- shocking in its flippancy and hatefulness:
In some ways, the media coverage of Beatie's story has functioned as a barometer for the progress made by the transgender rights movement over the past decade, and, luckily, MSNBC's reaction by far has been the most extreme. Although some of the coverage has been juvenile (with tabloid headlines like "Case of Bearded Mummy" and this video on Gawker), most has been fairly tame and intelligent. Even the New York Post has treated Beatie's story with measured respect.
So why, exactly, has the story been getting so much interest? Historically, most transgender news stories have focused on male-to-female transsexuals, and part of it may be the perceived novelty of Beatie's identity. Furthermore, the idea of a male pregnancy carries considerable symbolic weight. Pregnancy remains one of the few human experiences still limited to biological women and even if Beatie remains, in part, a biological woman, the term "pregnant man" sure does create a resonating frisson. Virgil Pierce, a performance artist, has capitalized on this idea's shock value by creating a Web site about an imaginary male pregnancy. (The accompanying multimedia installation is currently on display at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.)
But the real reason why the story has stayed in the news is because of Beatie himself. He may not be the world's first pregnant transgender man, but he's certainly the most media savvy. His decision to appear on "Oprah," and to participate in a People magazine photo shoot, was, as he put it, so that he and his wife could "tell [their] own story instead of other people telling the story for [them]." It's a wise strategy -- given Beatie's charms and good looks -- and it has drawn attention to his story while minimizing sensationalist coverage. In doing so, he's put a human face on a disastrously under- and misrepresented segment of the American population.
It's also worth remembering that his initial essay was about the prejudice he faced from the community around him, and in the end, the real subject of the story isn't him, it's us. Why do we live in a culture in which a doctor feels comfortable rejecting a patient because of his or her gender identity? Why do people think it's OK to call an intelligent and successful man "disgusting"? One hopes that, as a result of Beatie's story, it's a question that many people, including MSNBC's on-air team, will be forced to ask themselves.