Published on October 26th, 2016 | by Charlie King-MIller1
A WOMB OF THEIR OWN: Filmmaker Cyn Lubow Talks with Charlie King-Miller
As a genderqueer butch, I found pregnancy to be very isolating. My doctors misgendered me, my clothing stopped looking right on me, and the world seemed suddenly unable to parse my combination of gender cues. I got the side-eye when shopping for baby clothes from people who just saw me as a chubby butch; strangers who figured out that I was pregnant called me “mama” despite my presentation. Though I knew that transmen and non-binary people gave birth all the time, I didn’t know anyone else who fit that description.
Three months after my daughter was born, my midwife suggested I attend the screening of a new documentary. Though the idea of packing up the baby and trekking out to somewhere I had never been seemed daunting, I knew that I had to go. Cyn Lubow’s film, A Womb of Their Own, explores the experience of pregnancy for subjects all over the trans-masculine spectrum. Here was the film that I was missing throughout my pregnancy. I saw myself reflected in the articulate, thoughtful subjects of the film. Though none of their experiences were precisely analogous to mine, the diversity and depth of their narratives holds space for me, and others like me. This film is a much-needed counter to the compulsory femininity often heaped on expecting parents of all genders.
Recently, I shared a wonderful conversation with Cyn about the film. It was great to connect after several months, and to hear about the terrific reception the film has received. – Charlie King-Miller
MUTHA: What inspired you to make this film?
CYN LUBOW: I was inspired to make this particular film as a way to try to make peace with my own mixed gender and to understand more about gender beyond the binary and FTM—to make room for infinite variations of gender experience and expression. I wanted to call into question any assumptions people made about gender and reflect the experience of those who found themselves excluded from culturally-endorsed gender expectations.
MUTHA: How did you find the folks you featured?
CYN LUBOW: I found the people I featured in many different ways, and along the way ran into hundreds of dead-ends. I did a great deal of searching online, using relevant keywords. I found A.K. Summers that way, because she had written a graphic novel/memoir called Pregnant Butch. I found Lorenzo Ramirez by going to the Gender Odyssey conference and attending a parenting workshop, where he talked about being a single transgender dad. I also talked to everyone I met about what I was doing, and one of those people told me she’d been to dinner with friends the night before who mentioned that there was a teacher at their daughter’s high school who had a beard and appeared to be pregnant. I was able to track down Rae Goodman-Lucker that way. Darcy was a friend of a trans filmmaker colleague, and Morgan I think came through Rae. I found Arlene Ishtar Lev online, a therapist/professor/author who specializes in queer and transgender people and families and she referred me to a subject in Albany, NY whose interview I ended up not using. I think Rae Darrow found me from my networking through social media, and I ended up using only the still pictures from that interview.
MUTHA: One of the things I love about this film is that I feel represented in it. So often, the trans or gender non-conforming narrative around pregnancy is elided to one story—Thomas Beatie—which leaves out people like me. Was diversity a stated goal of the project, or was it a byproduct of the participants you found? How did your subjects shape the film?
CYN LUBOW: Diversity was a central goal in finding subjects. My point was that any rules people think apply to gender exclude lots of people, and there has to be room for people to be whatever gender they are, without rules. So I saw that people were beginning to break through the belief that one is whatever gender they were assigned at birth, and I wanted to take the conversation a step further—to let people know a person could be not female or male, or both female and male, or fluid, or male and pregnant, or female and have a beard, or any mix of gendered elements, and be just as comfortable and celebratory as anyone else regarding their gender. I didn’t think I could make that point with one or two similar people. I also wanted as many people as possible to be reflected in my cast of subjects, because those of us who don’t fit the binary rarely get reflected in the media and need to see people more like ourselves on screens, like white heterosexual cisgendered people do all the time. I had considerable challenges getting as much racial diversity as I wanted, and spent two years trying. I couldn’t afford to get as much geographical diversity as I wanted, but got some. I got a mix of ages, point in the parenting process, socioeconomic culture, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and other factors.
I think the subjects shaped the film by being so articulate and charismatic, but perhaps most importantly by being so comfortable with themselves and celebratory about their genders. I think most films about gender diversity focus on the pain and struggle. The radical act of being joyful and comfortable with themselves came from the people I interviewed.
MUTHA: When I attended the screening in Denver, most of the audience was straight and cis. You spent a lot of time during the Q&A educating them on the basics, such as terminology. Have you had to do a lot of that while promoting your film? How has that changed your perspective on this subject?
CYN LUBOW: I made the film with two audiences in mind—one who didn’t identify with the subjects, but were interested to learn about gender diversity; and the other, and core one, people who did identify with the subjects and would be soothed by seeing a story like theirs in a film. I chose not to define terms in the film so that it was not a “trans 101” film, which we have already. I was hoping people who didn’t know the terms would get the point anyway, and expand their assumptions to become more gender inclusive. Given that, I expected questions about terms and concepts that weren’t explained in the film. I actually got much less of that than I expected. I think the Denver screening might have had the most.
I welcome being asked any questions, because it can only help my purpose of making room for more gender diversity through educating people. Understand that when I say that, I’m including queer people’s own internalized restrictions and ignorance, as well as restrictions imposed by cis/hetero people on queer people and also restrictions imposed by LGBT people on queer people who don’t fit people’s idea of what LGB or T means. For example, I have always felt like a failed woman and certainly a failed man, because I don’t meet the expectations of either (can’t/don’t look like a woman, walk or act like a woman, by cultural expectations, but also don’t have enough of the markers of a man to meet anyone’s expectations of that). Now that transgender is so much a part of our culture’s reality, I could be a failed trans-person too, since I don’t pass as a man; don’t take T, etc. So I’m not just trying to expand the assumptions and expectations of the cis/hetero world, but of the LGBT world and also our internal worlds. As long as we have to fit into neat categories, lots of us are going to fail to fit into any of them, and that’s not a good way to understand oneself.
For me, making the film has caused some concrete changes in how I relate to my gender. For example, I dropped the name “Cynthia” because I couldn’t stand it anymore; I stopped plucking my eyebrows and I couldn’t bear to wear a bra anymore. Though I spent my childhood wearing boys clothes, fake mustaches, ties and a blazer, once I became an adult and a professional, I thought I had to pass as female. Now I realize it’s wonderful to be the ever-evolving, mix of feminine and masculine that I am and I don’t have to fit into a category of male, female or even trans—ever, if they don’t fit for me.
MUTHA: The film talks about your experience as a parent. How do you think parenting has changed for trans and gender non-conforming people since your children were small?
CYN LUBOW: I think parenting as a trans/genderqueer person now is enormously different than when my children were little, just because there’s more awareness of gender diversity. I remember a “maybe baby” group we went to where lesbians were considering the implications of starting a family, and the issue of not having a dad came up. I said I felt like I could and wanted to fulfill those needs. Another member said “I can butch it out with the best of them, but I still feel like they need a real male role model.” I suspect this conversation is still happening (you tell me—you’re much more in it than I am), but I hope there are at least pockets of people who know that female, genderqueer and transpeople can raise perfectly healthy, happy children without the binary parental set-up. Of course growth in this awareness is new and rapid, so it’s hard to assess where we are or where we’re headed. When I was raising my children without gendered references to them and without assuming anything about them based on their genitalia, I think that was all pretty radical, and I felt alone in my convictions. I hope it’s at least a little less radical now. For me it was one of many radical parenting decisions I made—along with their health care, education, relationship to technology and food…. I’m used to being an outlaw in many arenas.
MUTHA: One of the assumptions you often hear as a trans or gender non-conforming person seeking pregnancy is that birthing a child will make you feel feminine, even if you are male or masculine identified. How did the subjects in the film push back against that narrative? Is that something you dealt with?
CYN LUBOW: Changes in gender identity brought on by pregnancy and chestfeeding were my central interest in interviewing the subjects. I got a diversity of answers, ranging from “I did feel more feminine for awhile at least” to “I didn’t feel any different in my gender—I felt as masculine as always throughout.” When I was pregnant, I wasn’t thinking about gender as much as I am now, but my memory of it was that it felt like another very challenging project I was doing competently, like organizing conferences, holding and repairing people’s trauma and depression as a psychotherapist, getting licensed, writing books, building a house, etc. Being pregnant and chestfeeding are very unique experiences—different than anything else I’ve experienced and absolutely glorious and miraculous and not something cis-men can do. I felt like myself doing them, not someone else who might be more feminine. Then again, in my slow process, I was significantly less male-identified 24 years ago. My gender is mixed, complicated and evolving. I think, like with pronouns and bathrooms, lots of us could relax if we didn’t have to identify everything (even compulsively announce and label everything) as male or female or masculine or feminine—I just don’t see why we need to do that.
MUTHA: What are you hoping your audience will take away from watching this film?
CYN LUBOW: Centrally, a solid disruption of any assumptions or rules they had about gender for themselves or anyone else, and an opening to gender constructs including whatever each individual experiences it as. Along the way, I hope they laugh at the frequent funny parts of the film and feel the sense of celebration, openness and playfulness that can come with exploring all aspects of one’s gender freely. I hope people will no longer participate in alienating acts toward non-binary gendered people, including themselves.
MUTHA: Were you nervous about how audiences might respond to this film? What has your reception been like?
CYN LUBOW: I’ve had fairly extreme responses to the film. I like to say that I think it offends every group—not just any hetero cis gendered people who see no need to open up their binary construct, but LGBT people as well. On the other hand, I’ve been contacted by film festivals, queer people and birth professionals from all over the world, wanting the film badly for their community. Some 25,000 people in 125 countries watched my trailer when I posted it on Facebook. I’ve had numerous people come up to me after screenings—some in tears—to tell me they are grateful I’ve done this film, because it’s the first time they’ve ever seen themselves on screen and/or the first time they’ve really understood that it’s ok to be themselves just as they are. It’s radical, unique and maybe even ahead of it’s time and so very controversial.
MUTHA: What’s next for you?
CYN LUBOW: For now, I’m traveling with the film all over the world—wherever I’m invited, and that’s taking all my time and energy. As the filmmaker of a sensitive subject and a psychotherapist, being there after the screenings gives me a chance to add education and understanding person-to-person, which I think is important and powerful. When I’ve done what I can with that, I have a story I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, and I’d like to get to it when I have some space. I want to tell the story of the private world of a psychotherapist whose unusual, isolating work involves hearing endless emotionally overwhelming secrets, being responsible for helping others cope with them, and telling no one.
Upcoming International Screenings:
Fringe Film Festival
November 19, 3:30
November 19 1:00
In 2017, Cyn Lubow will be available to bring the film to screenings at Universities, Queer community groups, Doulas and other birth professional trainings, including Q&A after the film. Reach out directly at CynFilms@gmail.com to arrange a screening near you!