Sunday, March 24, 2013
Being an Ally, Step One: Shut Up and Listen
A number of months ago, I became aware of Trevor MacDonald, a trans* man and father who is now best known for his rejected application to become a La Leche League leader following the tremendous support he received from his local LLL chapter. His blog Milk Junkies covers more than the struggle with LLL Canada, chronicling his experiences being pregnant with and giving birth to his son, chestfeeding, and his family life in general. He started a Facebook group (closed for the sake of privacy, but welcoming to all queer parents and allies) that has become a beacon for queer and gender non-conforming parents of all stripes to gather, exchange information, support one another, vent, etc.
Trevor's situation has driven a depressing wedge in the feminist birth worker blogosphere. Navelgazing Midwife, whose blog I used to frequent, laments, "can’t there be a place where mothers are permitted to just be mothers?" (Sound familiar?) Other "feminist" bloggers have come out in support of LLLC's decision, echoing the same tired arguments we hear in regards to trans* women "invading" woman-only spaces, and of course, adding insult to injury by proposing a "separate" space for trans* and gender non-conforming parents.
Granted there are countless feminist birth workers (and birth workers in general, feminists in general, etc) who have taken this opportunity to look sharply at their own perceptions of gender and parenthood; they have joined in the cry for LLLI to reconsider their moms-only policy. The leaders of Trevor's local LLL group, for example, were the ones who encouraged him to pursue leadership in the first place.
But I digress.
I contacted Trevor right after I learned about his situation, offering my support and echoing his many praises of Dr. Jack Newman (breastfeeding guru who has been instrumental in Trevor's ability to produce milk for his baby). I introduced myself as newly certified IBCLC, and he responded asking if I might join his Facebook group to provide expert advice on clinical lactation issues.
You must understand that when I say newly certified, I mean newly certified. That a well-known figure in queer parenting circles would want my expert advice on anything was far beyond flattering. So I accepted, immediately perusing the board to see where my "expert advice" might be best tossed around.
Six months later, my credential has yet to provide me with any knowledge that would best be offered by someone with, say, actual experience being a chestfeeding parent.
Sure, I've offered some advice from a run-of-the-mill lactation consultant's perspective, digging into my arsenal of research on galactagogues and other ways to overcome suppressed supply for a variety of reasons. But I think it's safe to say that I've done far more learning than teaching in this group. When a trans* woman messaged me privately to ask if she would be able to produce milk for the baby her partner was about to give birth to, I found myself only able to offer information on initiated lactation in general, the same information I pass along to DFAB mamas hoping to provide milk for an adopted baby. After encouraging her to post her inquiry on Trevor's board, she received some amazing information and support from another mama who had been in her exact situation. Not an IBCLC, not a health care provider, just someone who had been there and knew what was up.
It's hard for me to keep my mouth shut, especially on topics like birth, lactation, and other things I'm passionate about. But to be an ally to trans* and gender non-conforming parents, a topic with which I have no personal experience whatsoever, what can I do but listen? Sure, it's nice being the best-trained person in the room, the person that holds an expert credential recognized the world over. But compared to these parents who have been through these unique challenges themselves, I might as well know nothing. Especially given that my extensive training offered no information on trans* health issues in the first place.
Such is the reality of being an ally. Too many people toss around this term, believing it to be a label you obtain by simply proclaiming yourself a supporter. But without a constant re-examining of your internalized biases, a willingness to admit you don't know everything, and a humble attitude about your intersecting privileges, being an ally doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. In other words, being an ally is less of a label and more of an ongoing process.
I'm hardly trying to paint myself as the "more-badass-ally-than-thou" here, as I struggle with being told I don't know everything as much as the next "expert." But that's really the first step, one that even us uber-passionate loudmouths need to focus on. Shut up. Resist that urge to interject something you read in a book once. Wait. Listen. Validate. Then answer, probably with another question. Also: don't do it to garner thank yous and praise (because you probably won't get much). Do it because it's the right thing to do.