Though I knew I was queer with certainty in my final years of high school, it wasn’t until I began to acknowledge my sapphic desire and move through the world without shame that I began to call myself a “gayby,” a term me and my friends use to describe folks in the incipient stages of their queerness. Now that I’ve completed the first level of my doula training, after years of voraciously consuming mommy blogs, pregnancy articles, and postpartum stories, I wonder what analogous term I might use to describe the baby doula I consider myself to be. I entered into birth work with the specific desire to carry the various facets of my identity – my experience as a child of African immigrants, a low-income student, a queer womxn, and a scholar of ethnic and queer studies – into this space so that I might empower and amplify voices like mine. My identity is deeply rooted in Black womxnhood, but my gender is by no means fixed – some days I’d rather be seen as handsome than pretty, and I’m still learning and exploring what that fluidity means for me on a personal level. On a professional level, this knowledge manifests as an imperative to prioritize queer, trans, and gender non-conforming birthers.
So much of the birth work in which I am interested is defined by recentering – moving away from overmedicalization, away from presumed whiteness, away from trauma, and away from fear – to honor our bodies and our experiences. A lot of the language surrounding this move centers “women,” speaks explicitly of “feminine” energy and reclaiming the agency the masculinized industrialized medical system has taken from us. I see and deeply understand the intent behind this language – it is true that women have been silenced, that knowledge of ourselves has been hidden and locked behind inaccessible doors, rendering our bodies the sites of constant siege and upheaval. There is power in reclaiming our woman-ness, in locating agency in the very identity that patriarchy would rather use to destabilize us. And yet – and yet, and yet, and yet. As we create new visions of a reproductive future, as we make and hold space for marginalized populations that are further discriminated against in the reproductive sphere, we must take incredible care to not replicate these structures ourselves.
In centering women and women only in narratives of reproductive empowerment, we effectively exclude trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary birthing people who are already disproportionately underserviced and discriminated against by the medical industry (this discrimination is, of course, exacerbated when such folks are also people of color, low-income, or disabled). How can we truly say that our work is meant to empower those most marginalized when we perpetuate such systems by describing our vital work through terms and ideas that are heteronormative, cisnormative, and bio-essentialist**? As the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) writes in their Position Statement on Gender Inclusive Language, “…we don’t win the fight for women by erasing others who also lack a place/name/voice.”
It is integral that, even as we center and uplift women, we create space for birthing people of all genders to feel seen, heard, and supported. Gender-inclusive language is a perfect place to start. Replacing terms like “mother” and “pregnant women” with terms like “birthing person,” “gestational parent,” or “pregnant people” holds space for gender variation and fluidity. Move away from presumption: do not assume all pregnant people have “husbands” that will be new “fathers,” or are partnered at all – more expansive words like “partner,” “support person,” and even simply “family” account for the myriad ways that families can manifest. Even simpler, trade “women” for the term “womxn,” which explicitly includes non-cisgender women and femme-aligned nonbinary folk. These are terms to keep close at hand when designing our websites and conducting consultations – when we describe our services through presumptuous, unexpansive, and heteronormative language (i.e. “helping new mommies and daddies”) we contribute to the erasure of pregnant trans and nonbinary folk who are likely searching for a doula to help navigate a medical system that systemically overlooks and silences them. We are not in the business of silencing.
We are in the business of uplifting, of empowering and creating space. We must do the work to make sure our empowering does not begin and end with women, but expands to empower womxn, transmasc birthers, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folk and all other identities that may align with being a pregnant and birthing person. And when I say do the work, I mean so literally – as birth workers we must constantly read and reeducate ourselves on the issues faced by the communities we have promised to serve. We must be knowledgeable and equipped to support our clients irrespective of gender and sexuality variance. (Otherwise, we look like those makeup artists who don’t carry dark foundation, or fashion hairstylists who don’t know how to handle natural hair.)
I am proud to be a part of this community, to have found this little corner of the doula-sphere that values intersectionality and recognizes that the birth process is particularly fraught when one is Black or brown, or low-income, or disabled, or part of any number of marginalized groups. I will be ever prouder once we collectively afford birthing people of all genders that same grace, and understand that their inclusion not only aligns with our vision but is paramount to the achievement of a brighter reproductive future.
All that to say, if your “inclusive” doula work does not actively include, affirm, and support all birthing people, I don’t want it.
**A quick glossary.
Heteronormativity: the structure that presumes heterosexuality, predicated on a gender binary, as the normal and default sexual orientation.
Cisnormativity: a different but related structure that presumes all humans are cisgender, i.e. have gender identities that “match” or align with their biological sex, according to societal standards.
Bio-essentialism: the reduction of sex and/or gender to body parts and physiological happenings. (If this particular concept is hard to understand, consider the existence of some intersex people who identify with one gender despite not having certain organs, or cisgender women who do not menstruate/cannot bear children. Their genders remain valid despite not aligning with these falsely “essential” features of their sex/gender.)
Skylar-Bree Takyi is a queer Black femme from Newark, New Jersey, and a recent graduate of Harvard University (like, two weeks ago recent!). She is the daughter of Nigerian and Ghanaian immigrants, and passionate about African diasporic studies, queer theory, and all work that radically prioritizes the most marginalized. These knowledges inform her storytelling as an aspiring screenwriter and her birth work as a doula trainee (shoutout Mama Glow May 2020!). She is an avid TV watcher – think Tuca and Bertie, Killing Eve, and Succession – and a lover of fashion.