News coverage about trans fathers tends to be sensationalist. In Argentina, a group of trans dads founded a network to fight the stigma and raise awareness of their struggles.
BUENOS AIRES — Santiago Merlo was putting his daughter Lola to bed on a recent Tuesday night. “There were so many times I thought no one would love me. That trans people were not worthy of love," said the 46-year-old from the Argentine city of Córdoba. "And look at me now, building a wonderful family.”
Yes, today, Santiago is a proud trans dad.
There are more trans men parenting across Argentina than you might think, and each has managed to do it in different ways. A group of them last year formed the Paternidades Trans Argentina (Network of Trans Dads), to share their stories, which they hope will open the possibility for others like them to pursue the dream of being parents.
Pregnant fathers, fathers who gave birth before transitioning, fathers through adoption systems, parenting fathers in non-blood related families, and fathers through ROPA methods (Reception of Ovules or Oocytes from the Couple). All of these people still have difficulties with society respecting their gender identity.
"Many fellow trans dads who were parents at another time, having been read by the system as mothers or women who gave birth, are prevented from rectifying the birth certificates of their children," says Santiago Merlo, co-founder of the Network. This is just one of the ways the health system rejects trans parents. “Another issue is access to fertilization treatments when you are not married. It's stressful going through that whole process. If you are not married, all the rights are held by the person who gestates. That is very difficult for those of us who are on the verge of initiating lawsuits for the adoption of our own children.”
For now, there are around 20 trans dads on the network. The internet and social media were key to its creation. Many of them do not know each other in person yet, because they live in different parts of Argentina.
“We are generators of desire. Every achievement that trans people have, such as getting a job, getting a degree, having a child, motivates others to start having that desire that they thought they could not achieve," explains Máximo Toledo from Buenos Aires. He is another of the member of the Network.
The network effect
The first thing they considered was how to make their existence visible. Although there are already organizations for diverse families, there was no space in the country exclusively for trans dads. Last year, for Father's Day, they held their first virtual event in which 250 people participated. The purpose was establishing an educational objective for those who are not part of the group, spreading the desire to parent, and informing people in the community about the methods.
“Those of us who founded the Network are beginning to achieve our reproductive desires. Only now are we making ourselves visible. There are many people who transitioned and had children before. When they are adults, they don't know how to explain to their daughter that they are her dads, and they also have to change the birth certificate to say that they are no longer their mother,” explains Máximo.
Let's put something together for Father's Day.
In 2019, Máximo became a father and began to make visible the possibility of having children through the ROPA Method as a trans man. He knew another trans man from Córdoba who had managed to get pregnant, and later they met Santiago Merlo. He saw a video of Benjamín Génova, who was already a father and was trying to change his daughter's birth certificate. Then they began to contact each other to get to know each other, talking by calls by WhatsApp.
“And there it was: 'Well let's put something together because we all have different problems'. In 2020, we started doing conferences, and last year we thought of putting together something in the form of a network. We said: 'Let's put it together for Father's Day',” says Máximo.
On Saturday, June 18, prior to Father's Day in Argentina, the Paternar Campaign carried out a series of activities in front of the National Congress to raise the need for the expansion and extension of parental leave regimes in the country. “From the Network of Trans Dads, we joined the campaign making our stories and realities visible. We are trans and non-binary men who gestate, adopt and accompany ... We demand licenses with a gender perspective and effective compliance with the Trans Labor Quota Law.”
Network of Trans Dads's first meeting
In a pool, in the middle of a rehabilitation exercise, Lola said Pa-pá. In two syllables. At that time, her vocabulary was seven words. She was incorporating one more by naming Santiago as her dad.
“By naming me, she was placing me in context. She put me in the position of parenting her, taking care of her, and accompanying her. She showed me how, she taught me to take care of her. The moment she called me dad was the most beautiful word I've ever heard in my life,” says Santiago, moved by remembering the moment.
Lola has cerebral palsy. At the age of five, they were able to adopt her. Being a father changed Santiago's life. It broke any romantic idea of fatherhood. At some point, he wondered if he was going to be able to do it. Love, he says, was stronger. “And thanks to Lola, Vicente is here today. For me, fatherhood will be a choice. She set the bar very high for me and made me realize that I really could do it.”
Vicente came into his life through IVF (In Vitro Fertilization). The pregnant person was his partner, Victoria. The pride of being a father is clear in his voice. Although he is waiting for Lola to enter a medical appointment and has Vicente in his arms, he wants to tell his story — how hard it was to have that baby, how much he wanted it.
He always wanted to be a father. As a child, he play-acted being a dad. His reference was his own father: "The first feminist I met," he says. He was in charge of care tasks while his mother worked as a teacher. “I dreamed of being the man that I am,” says Santiago, excited. This week he managed to register his son. On the registration form, he appears as his father.
Change of culture
Máximo and Santiago were among the first in the country to make their trans parenthood visible, and also among the first to be able to do so. They met through social media. Each one achieved it in different ways.
Three years ago, when he began the search, Máximo did not know any trans man who could have had children with the ROPA method. The method was first used on lesbian women, so that the child could have genetic material from both mothers.
There is always this claim that we are a fraud.
“When we thought about using the ROPA method, I had already started my transition. In the medical system, they always talked to me in terms of us being two women, and I wasn't a woman. When you go to provide eggs, they treat you as if that made you female,” says Máximo.
His child is called Kai and is already two years old. Máximo lives in San Miguel, a province of Buenos Aires. He is a social worker part of a health clinic for LGBTQ+ people in the municipality of Moreno.
“There has to be a cultural change ... We are not the exception to the rule, we are part of everyday life.”
“The premise of cissexism is that trans people are less valuable, less important, and less real than cis people. There is always this claim that we are a fraud.”
This is how the media approaches him to reproduce the idea that he is not really a man, Andrés Mendieta explains. He wrote a master’s thesis on representations of pregnant transgender men in the Argentine digital press.
The study begins in 2008, when the "case of the first pregnant man," Thomas Beatie, became popular in the media. “That's in quotation marks because he is not the first. Pat Kalifa had already written about the difficulties to be able to get pregnant,” says Andrés.
Although news coverage has changed and there are now the voices of trans men in the media, Andrés points out that the tabloid sensationalist approach has never stopped.
Trans men have been parenting for years, although the health system does not support them. Thomas Beatie was the best-known example. His column "Work of love" was reproduced in many countries, along with his pregnant photo.
From his home in Oregon, United States, Thomas says: “I am transgender, legally male and legally married to Nancy. Unlike those in same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships, or civil unions, Nancy and I have more than 1,100 federal marriage rights. Sterilization is not a requirement for sex reassignment, so I decided to have chest reconstruction and testosterone therapy but kept my reproductive rights. Wanting to have a biological child is not a male or female desire, but a human desire.”
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