Many of you may already know that some very exciting news was announced a couple of days ago by the world’s largest ‘mother-to-mother’ breastfeeding support organisation, La Leche League. They have revised their applicant policy to include men ‘who have breastfed.’ From the LLL International website:
As the cultural understanding of gender has expanded, it is now recognised that some men are able to breastfeed. In the spirit of non discrimination and with this awareness, La Leche League International has refined the eligibility qualifications for its volunteer breastfeeding counsellors to include men who otherwise meet the prerequisites for becoming a volunteer applicant. Prerequisites include organizational experience, personal experience breastfeeding a baby for at least nine months, and a demonstrated commitment to La Leche League philosophy.”
For the full press release read here.
Although LLL announced this rather quietly, the news was received joyously, loudly and proudly by those of us who have been following Trevor MacDonald’s leadership quest via his ‘milkjunkies’ blog.
Trevor’s application request became public knowledge in 2012 when he wrote:
Men cannot become La Leche League Leaders. I was told that LLL is all about mothering through breastfeeding, not simply supporting anyone who wishes to breastfeed.”
Trevor was not put off and set up his own online support group for transmen and cisgender allies (many of whom, including myself, did not initially realise who the term ‘cisgender’ actually referred to) which is how I came to know Trevor and many other transgender men, women and gender non-conforming parents and prospective parents. After some months in the group, and upon experiencing one member’s pregnancy journey and being moved by the announcement of his child’s birth, I wrote to the Board of LLL International in support of Trevor’s application and transgender inclusion with a message including these words:
When this man gave birth, I was touched by the text he typed one handed into his phone from the hospital while cradling his newborn. In that moment his gender disappeared for me – he was writing as a parent, a birth parent in exactly the same way I am.”
Looking back, I could have just written, “We should include trans* folk because there is no valid reason to exclude them.” But I was surprised at first to know that men can and do give birth, and knew little about transgenderism. It would take me quite some time to express my thoughts on inclusion in such simple terms. I realise that it is normal for those who have not encountered fathers who experience pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding (or chestfeeding), to be surprised, to pass through the cognitive dissonance that Cynthia Good Mojab so well explains in her ‘Unpacking the Invisible Diaper Bag of White Privilege.’ Cognitive dissonance happens when we are presented with knowledge that does not ‘match up’ with our old knowledge. Cognitive dissonance, she recounts, causes us to go through an uncomfortable period of not knowing what to do with our new knowledge, or how to act.
Not only are we brought up in a society where whiteness is considered the norm (and also superior), most of us have also been brought up in society where heteronormativity and cisnormativity are the predominant, superior norm, and this is precisely why LLLs new policy is so very important. Heteronormativity and cisnormativity, along with white oppression, are terribly damaging to people who are affected by it (which is actually all of us, whether we are on the side of oppression or the oppressed). Those of us who experience discrimination can survive by putting up filters and barriers to dull the constant stream of messages that we are excluded or invisible but the message is clear – when society presents information, services and entertainment representing only one section of society, that is a constant reminder that we are considered lesser, undeserving of the same right to be here, to form relationships and to create families and this affects our health, mental health and quality of life (as well as that of our children).
The steps that LLL takes over the next weeks, months and years will have a lasting impact on the form that male inclusion, and LGTBIQ inclusion will take not only within the organisation but also more widely. LLL is the largest ‘mother-support’ organisation in the world (and hopefully will now choose a gender neutral form of that description), with Leaders present in approximately 60 different countries, and with a long list of publications on diverse topics within breastfeeding and parenting in many languages. LLL is recognised as an authority on breastfeeding by organisations such as WHO and UNICEF, and is one of the access points to the professional lactation consultant profession (IBCLC). What LLL has done is an important message to the rest of the reproductive health, birth and breastfeeding world.
My concern as an LGTBIQ person and ex-LLL Leader is ‘what next?’ What form will their inclusion take? Will the possibility of male Leadership remain as wording in their policy or will men really be encouraged to participate in the organisation at an active level and supported through the application process?
In order for LGTBIQ people to be really included within an organisation or within society, it has to be safe for us to be ‘out’ (to live our sexual or affection orientation and/or gender identity openly,without fear of repercussion). LGTBIQ people are subject to overt discrimination which many of you may recognise and abhor, but you may not recognise or be aware of covert discrimination. Messages such as ‘I don’t wish to work with LGTBIQ people’, ‘I don’t approve of their ‘lifestyle’’ (note; being LGTBIQ is not a lifestyle) or, ‘My religion thinks they are immoral’ are hurtful and discriminatory, as are unsolicited opinions on conception choices and feeding choices, such as co-nursing or the use of donor milk. These kinds of messages and comments are commonplace on message boards, and within work discussions and personal communications with colleagues in the breastfeeding and birthing fields.
Because of this kind of pervasive discrimination, together with their decision to remove restrictions on who can become a Leader, I hope that LLL will be considering further steps towards active inclusiveness of LGTBIQ applicants and Leaders and families. Active steps might include:
- Addressing the concerns that have been raised by Leaders and parents (for some time) on the gendered and heteronormative nature of their philosophy, literature and the language used within the association in paperwork and policies
- The creation and implementation of an anti-discrimination policy and grievance committee. Discrimination can be covert and pervasive – applicants, Leaders and families would benefit from the possibility of being able to report discrimination in order to bring about improvements and changes
- Provision of Leader training on LGTBIQ issues, heteronormativity, cisnormativity and discrimination and inequities generally
Within the LGTBIQ community there are many of us who are more than willing to contribute our time and knowledge to the creation of such policies and initiatives.
This is an exciting time in history for LGTBIQ people. LLL has taken a historical step forward towards inclusiveness at a moment when LGTBIQ people are being recognised as not having equal rights and discussions of this have moved firmly into the public arena. I hope that LLLs spirit of non-discrimination is far reaching and widely imitated.
Well done Trevor, and well done LLL,
Good Mojab, C., Unpacking the Invisible Diaper Bag of White Privilege: An Overview of Racial Inequities in Breastfeeding Support, GOLD Lactation Online Conference, April 2014