Adoption Stories

Published on January 6th, 2017 | by Meg Lemke

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RADIO SWEETHEARTS — Trystan Angel Reese of the “Accidental Gay Parents” on Making a (Growing) Family!

Along with thousands of listeners to the Longest Shortest Time podcast, I fell in love with Trystan, Biff, and their family in the “Accidental Gay Parents” series. The elevator pitch from that popular show: “This is this story of a couple of twenty-somethings going to court against family to become the legal guardians of two children in desperate need of a safe home. This is also a super romantic love story.” But what makes this radio storytelling more complicated and real and radical is that it’s opening up the lives and challenges of gay parents, one of whom, Trystan, is also trans. As the story of adoption became a story of a growing family, these parents shared with profound honesty (and bravely direct to a pretty mainstream listening audience), the details of being trans and #TTC.

I got Trystan over Skype this summer, in his home in Portland, Oregon, for an update on how he was doing after the last episode, which shared the news of a pregnancy and then a pregnancy loss. He is a joy, and witty and frank and unafraid to share unpopular opinions; and I want to thank him for challenging me, too. The best interviews leave you thinking for a long time after.

So, right, it’s January now. Imagine this call in the hum of summer, and that feels so dreamy since we’ve had a pretty stark winter since. It’s bitter cold in New York and the country is seething with hatred and humiliation. But the national tragedy of the election makes me even more committed to bringing stories like Trystan and Biff’s to shine on this site, with beauty and hope and the truth of the protest chant my daughter loves to sing now, that love is love is love is love. With apologies for the delay, dig in now and it’s worth it. (Running MUTHA, I think sometimes that’s the theme of it—that it takes more time than you would ever think, time you find somewhere, time that’s a circle, to balance creativity and parenthood; but when you share the art, it is worth it). And… stick around to the end of this longish read, there’s some exciting news the couple just shared! – Meg Lemke

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Trystan (l) and Biff (r), THE CHAPLOW FAMILY

MUTHA: There was an overwhelming response to the “Accidental Gay Parents” episodes on the Longest Shortest Time podcast. You and your family were an audience favorite. 

While I appreciate that on the whole, the LST listeners are an open-minded group—as Hillary also told MUTHA in an interview, they don’t just cater to the stereotypical NPR liberal east-coast/west-coast ears, they reach many middle-of-the-country parents, churchgoing folks…. And as I say out loud, it I want to acknowledge that description also includes many transgender and gay people…

What I’m really trying to ask is: how was your story able to resonate with such a broad spectrum of listeners?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Our story seems so specific to our experience and yet, it seems to have an oddly universal appeal. What I learned early on as a parent is that parenting seems to be a huge equalizer. So, people who never would have spoken to me, or Biff and I when we were out together, all of a sudden are giving us sunblock at the park because we forgot some, or are giving us a tip on the particular kind of diapers that Hailey was wearing. Suddenly kinship was formed between us and other families across lines of race, across lines of class. We had something that connected us, mostly to women and moms, which we saw no matter where we traveled.

I saw that kinship as an opening or an opportunity to tell our story and to continue to break down perceived barriers between us and other people. Our hope is that solidarity will continue to expand their idea of what family means, and what love means, and who are gay, queer, and transgender people.

MUTHA: The truism is often repeated that getting to know someone who is “different than you” personally can change biased minds. Podcast storytelling at its best creates that experience of meeting and knowing a person, even though you’re not physically meeting them.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Hillary and her team did such an artful job of making us sound grounded and fun, and provocative in a good way. She managed to edit out the parts where I seemed in any way self-righteous. You know what I mean? And, I appreciated that. I did work ahead of time, to be honest, to pull back the curtain, to consider what are universal struggles that parents have that I can share in my story to helps listeners see the bond and kinship between us. Because, like you said, I know people are more likely to allow the right ideas to be challenged if they’re in that nice, open-space psychologically. I chose to tell stories like when Hailey’s diaper exploded all over me and I was covered in poop. Every parent has that story, so when they’re laughing like, “I remember that too,” then they’re able to follow me to the next part, where I talk about what it’s like to experience homophobia and transphobia as a human being and as a parent and how incredibly painful that’s been for us.

MUTHA: There’s an argument also for being self-righteous though, of course. I wondered while listening if editing was used to get to that more “palatable” or more… [clearly not liking that word choice…]

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Accessible?

MUTHA: Accessible, thank you, it’s a better word. I wondered about the editing that went into creating an accessible presentation of your experience. What I’m hearing is that you feel like you’ve censored some of your stronger political positions in your choices in the interviews on LST. Did you use it then as an opening for you to share those positions in other ways like the new blog you’ve started with your husband?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: This is a struggle that Biff and I have often. I’ve done so much political organizing, and I’ve talked to so many people who are really grappling with homophobia and transphobia, that I never think about it as censorship. I think about my approach as accepting that becoming a great gay ally or trans ally means accepting that allyship is developmental. There are stages that people have to go through. It’s the same thing when I do anti-racism work with white people, recognizing there are stages a white person goes through to become anti-racist.

It’s cliché but meeting people where they are, walking side by side with them thinking about where might they be, and what things can they hear from me, I believe that’s going to move them forward. I never think about it as censoring, but I do think about it as being strategic. So I may not share my most radical ideas with a mainstream audience because it’s not strategic, it may drive them away from us instead of towards us.

And there are lots of times when people are already with us that they need to be pushed forward. For example, when doing anti-racism work with queer people. They’re there, they’re like, yes, racism is bad, and they’re ready to be challenged. Biff does experience this more as censorship in some cases. He’s very much more of the position that “No, we show up, we’re ourselves, period. If they’re ready, great. If they’re not, screw them.” We balance each other out.

MUTHA: I hear you! And it must be said—the two of you as a couple are extra charming. While I’m sure there’s some work Hillary’s team did, it’s also just your voices, your personality, your sense of humor. That isn’t something that she can create in the studio. You’re authentically fun to listen to, you connect.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Oh, thanks!

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MUTHA: So, this is the question I’m not sure if you wanted to chat about in front of the kids…

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Yeah, they’re going inside the house right now.

MUTHA: You and Biff have two children by adoption. The story of how your family came together is told in the first podcast episodes. Then later you spoke about your own efforts to conceive and your pregnancy loss. And I wanted to just say I’m very sorry for that loss….

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Hailey, stop that. Stop it. Put it—sorry, you totally cut out there…

MUTHA: That’s OK! Are you having a lot of trouble with the software we could restart this on a cellphone? Do you want to pause and reconnect?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: No, I’m here

MUTHA: Perfect. Basically what I was saying is: a lot of listeners are thinking of you after the last episode. Is there a spoiler-free way to check in on you, while I don’t try to scoop Hillary from her next episode? Just for you to let us know emotionally where you are in your parenting journey?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: There’s no spoilers to be had. We’ve been trying and we haven’t conceived since the miscarriage. Emotionally, it’s been interesting because I just wanted a baby so goddamn bad. And, I feel like now I’m in a more peaceful place, like look if that happens, awesome, and we’ll be excited about that, and if not, it’s not like the world has come to an end. Every month it doesn’t happen, I do feel a little frustrated. Why did it happen once, without even trying, and now that we’re trying it’s not happening? Is it ever going to happen? Maybe that was my one shot, you know, and now it’s gone?

MUTHA: It’s hard. I’m sorry. But you know, it can take a long time….

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: I mean that’s what they say.

MUTHA: I understand that emotional piece. I’ve been longing for a second child, which felt like a sickness coursing through me, the desire was so incredible it was completely illogical. Now, I’ve come to a more stable place.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: It is so weird—it was just penetrating for months. Now that Biff is open to try to conceive again, I don’t know how I feel. At times the kids are like screaming and fighting with each other and the house is a mess and I’m like, oh my god why would I ever want to bring a baby into this situation?

MUTHA: My daughter asks often about having another child. She’s still small and I know I give her confusing messages about it, too. I have a funny story—well, I think it’s funny. Once when I was really feeling it, she said to me, “Mama, when are we going to have another baby?” I started crying, and she was scared, “Why are you crying?” So, I choke out, “Oh, I’m just thinking about how happy I am that I have our family the way it is now… I’m just feeling overwhelmed by how happy I am that there’s you and Daddy in my life!”

Then a couple days later, I think she stubbed her toe, but we hear her start crying and we say, “Honey, what’s wrong?” And she said, “Nothing! I’m happy! Mama cries when she’s happy too!’

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Nailed it.

There was a time when Hailey asked me why I was putting on bug spray. I tried awkwardly, I guess, to explain the Zika virus to her. Then one day I couldn’t find the bottle, and I found it under her bed in her room. She explained “I’ve been spraying myself before bedtime each night so that I don’t get pregnant with a baby that is going to get sick!”

MUTHA: Sometimes these concepts are too difficult for them to understand until they get older, and you’re just attempting to lay some groundwork, and only end up seeding some inaccurate image.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Which you then have to undo in the coming years.

MUTHA: Right. They’ll tell us what they thought we were saying in like ten years.

Speaking of how we explain complicated concepts to kids: How have your experiences informed your parenting, in how you talk to your kids about gender and roles?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: That’s a tough one, and it continues to evolve all the time. There are boys and girls sections in most toy and clothing stores, and my daughter wants to wear mostly “girls’ clothes” and my son wants to wear mostly “boys’ clothes,” so it’s hard to acknowledge the reality of the world while also trying to encourage your kids not to buy into it completely. Where we are now with talking about gender is that I’ve successfully gotten them away from talking about “boys’ things and girls’ things,” and we actually talk about things as being feminine and masculine. Which I know is also totally limited and has its own problems. But it’s started to remove choices from feeling connected directly with sex or gender.

I think if you had asked me before I had kids, I would have said, no, no gendered clothes, no girls toys versus boys toys. But now here I am trying to raise kids who actually can navigate the world as it is now, and see what it could be in the future.

And so now Riley will say something like, you know, I would like to find a shirt that’s a little more masculine. “More masculine, that’s my style,” he’ll say. Hailey will say, “I’m having a more feminine day” or “I’m having a more masculine day.” It’s not perfect, but it’s one tiny way that I’ve found that we’re able to navigate. Hailey wants to play with ponies and Riley wants to play soccer; I can’t pretend that that’s not a reality for them and a reality in the world.

MUTHA: Regarding the question of roles, in the podcast piece, Biff spoke about how some of his anxiety around having a baby together had to do with him feeling that he had taken on more of the stay-at-home-parent role with your first two kids together. Where are you in that conversation?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: We haven’t gone back to that discussion much since, only because I get anxious when we go too far down the road of discussing our future when we have a baby. I’m superstitious. But also, I’ve transitioned to consulting work from home for the past several months, so I’ve been able to step up in the parenting role. Right now, Biff is at work and I’m watching both kids.

Without having had the conversation, I’m guessing, but I think he’d agree that there are as many options as we can imagine. Such as, me continuing to do consulting and being a stay-at-home-parent half the time, and him doing the other half. We were limited by what we had done thus far—and I didn’t think I could do it. I thought I was just a nights-and-weekends parent, but now that I’m actually doing it, I love being with the kids more. And, I think that I am doing a better job of it than I ever have before.

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MUTHA: You also spoke very candidly about, not just your experiences getting pregnant, but also about the loss. Again, I just want to express how sorry I am for that loss. What did it mean for you to speak about it publicly—and have you had a particular response from the trans community about what you shared?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: First, I’d like to speak to people saying, as they often say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” While it was a difficult experience, I don’t necessarily feel that it was a loss. I don’t frame it that way and when other people frame it that way, it creates a negative dynamic. Because it takes away from me the fact that I just see it as a part of the journey. You know what I mean? It’s not like I had a baby that I had in my arms that I fell in love with, which had a spirit. I truly don’t believe that it was a loss. It was a physical process that happened to me. Maybe I lost a potential future baby, but it’s just part of the journey, and it’s just part of the process. It has been tough to have people put onto me what they assume is my approach to the experience. “What a tragedy, that’s so horrible, how will you ever make it through?”

And I’m like, “You know, I’m fine.” I had a lot of support, I had friends come out of the woodwork and share that they, too, had miscarriages, which they usually choose not to share. Having a miscarriage is already a tough cultural conversation, and being trans there are so many explanations required—it’s kind of a conversation killer. But I feel that actually that is the strength that I have, an ability to be open and honest about my vulnerabilities and my emotional life.

For me, it was liberating to be able to talk about it. I don’t hear people talking about miscarriage, especially if you are attempting a pregnancy outside of traditional norms.

I did talk to the trans messaging expert at GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and he was like “Please God do not talk about the miscarriage. Please.”

MUTHA: Because of the concern that it would make your pregnancy seem dangerous?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Because transphobic entities could take my story and twist it and say, “See? God does not want transgender people to be parents. God does not want transgender people to have babies. If they attempt it, God will kill the baby.” He said, “You’ll lose control of your story when you start to bring in these more controversial aspects of it.”

And I chose to go ahead, because I felt that I could withstand whatever negative response we got. And that not everyone would be able to speak out, so if I can take some of that heat, then the next person, they’ll hopefully have a more positive experience. Longest Shortest Time maintains a tightly facilitated online presence, and so I was protected from any negative comments that could have come along. In fact, what we saw was overwhelmingly positive.

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MUTHA: Let’s get back to people putting the notion of grief onto you—that’s important for me to hear. My repetition of “I’m sorry for your loss” is informed by the movement led by women and other people who felt silenced in their grief, like Dr. Jessica Zucker, because of the taboo around miscarriage. At this meta level, here I am overstepping and silencing you, I hear you’re saying, because I’m trying to acknowledge activism in response to silencing…

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: This is the best response I got: We go to a radical Christian church here in Portland, and the pastor one day asked if she could take me to coffee. She ended up asking me why we first came to join a service. I said, “To be honest, I had a miscarriage, and I felt like I needed a space where I could really explore what that meant for me and for my family.” And, she answered, “Oh, you had a miscarriage? What was that like for you?” Totally value neutral. That was the first time that I realized I didn’t like it when people presume grief. It is much more inviting and open to ask “What was that like?” before stating it must have been difficult. It allowed me the space to have the full range of emotions that comes with that kind of experience. And I was able to say, “You know, it actually brought my partner and I much closer together than we’d ever been, and it actually gave me my first spiritual experience of my life.” When I was at church, I felt the spirit of that potential future baby come to me and let me go and I was able to let her go. It was powerful. I was able to share with her the full gamut of particular experience, and the realization: Holy shit my body is amazing.

MUTHA: Right.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: I was able to come to peace with a process that tore my body apart. But, I also want to say, it makes total sense that I would not understand if there’s been a silencing around grief with miscarriage–because I haven’t been a woman for the past fifteen years. I would hope that the next evolution of that recognition, instead of silencing people, or going to the very other extreme, will be that we find the middle place where we say: “What was that like?” Then we let people tell us. If they say: “It was horrible, it was the worst experience of my life,” then we can say “I’m so sorry.” If they can say, “You know, I’m fine and here’s what I learned from it…” we can celebrate whatever it was they were able to glean from the experience. Does that make sense?

MUTHA: Yes, absolutely. In all these discussions, what’s also been rising in the literature is the term a “pregnant person” rather than the pregnant “woman.” For example, I believe Penny Simkin has adopted this use.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Yeah, Hillary and I talked about this and she edited that whole part out.

MUTHA: Oh, really?

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: This is a point when my particularly controversial ideas are not as palatable OR accessible as they could be. For me, degendering all pregnancy language is not at all a high priority.

MUTHA: Terminology can become the dominant discourse on, say, Twitter.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: What I care more about is: Are you going to be a dick to me when I come in for healthcare or not? I don’t give a shit if your brochure or your webpage has “pregnant trans people” on it.

By wanting to get pregnant as a trans man, I’m crashing the women’s party that I stormed out of years ago. This is YOUR party that I’m showing up to, do you know what I mean? You don’t show up at somebody else’s party and be like, where’s the booze and why isn’t there vegan food? You show up and you’re like, hey I brought wine and crackers. You bring something, you don’t take. I feel like I’m a guest in this movement, and I’ve invited myself here. And whatever language or terminology is in place for women to talk about all of the aspects of pregnancy, I feel that it’s my responsibility to allow that to happen and not expect this entire movement that was not created for or by me, to serve me. Do you know what I mean?

MUTHA: That is a controversial position…

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: In the LST interview, I mentioned taking maternity leave and Hillary was like, “Oh, you’d call it maternity leave?” And I was like, “Who cares what I call it? Who gives a shit?” I’m not at all insecure about my gender, I don’t expect the whole world to bend to my very unique experience… like, 99.9999% of people who get pregnant are women. Why would I expect the whole movement to change all of its language for me?

MUTHA: I’ve seen advice articles on sites like Bitch that don’t use the term get completely dragged though the comments online, though.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Well people commenting are acting out of trauma. I’ve had a high amount of privilege in my life, having parents who eventually became supportive of me being trans, having access to a community that told me I should not date mean people, so when I did I left them. Having found Biff who is the best person that I have ever met, and he’s a gay dude with whom I’ve never had to do one iota of education on trans issues.

I just have so much damn privilege that I think I am able to feel much more peaceful about letting go some of the semantics that really bring out a lot of issues for other people.

But, I also come with this experience: I worked at Immigration Equality with LGBT asylum seekers, most of whom were survivors of torture, at the hands of their home countries. Going to visit a transgender Russian who had had her toenails pulled out, one by one, by a gang in an alley, like… I don’t give a shit about “maternity” versus “paternity” leave. There are much bigger issues that the trans community is facing globally, and domestically, that I cannot get upset about whether or not someone uses “breastfeeding” or “chestfeeding” on their webpage. It doesn’t make it into the top, even fifty things that I can care about.

MUTHA: You know, because I got that vibe from you already on the podcast, I wasn’t going to ask the “sooo… what are you going to have the baby call you?” questions. Though, frankly, it’s a popular topic — one of our most popular pieces on the site is Andrea Lawlor’s (fabulous) “Why Hart Doesn’t Have Two Mommies” about using “Baba.”

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: Baba or Aba are pretty popular here in Portland.

MUTHA: Then, I read Biff’s thoughtful piece about how he “feels like a mom,” (in “Man and Mother…”) and thought about how he wrote that piece while you’re trying to physically get pregnant. It’s an example of how complex and personal these relationships are in your family. The world is not so easy to categorize and divide and that’s part of what people I think find so difficult to understand, about diversity of perspectives within the trans movement in particular. People want to have an easy narrative.

TRYSTAN ANGEL REESE: That’s why I felt called to share our story. Our story is easy in a lot of ways. “Oh, they saved those little babies!” But then, me wanting to carry a child is provocative enough that it’s interesting and it moves the conversation forward. It starts to challenge some of those more common narratives, that to be transgender means you hate your body and you wish that it was the body of the opposite sex. Okay, that was a way in, to start understanding our stories. And then what comes next? Not all of us actually do hate our bodies, that’s not actually what it means to be transgender, and some of us think that our bodies are awesome. This is how we keep moving the story forward so we’re not stuck with some rudimentary idea of what it means to be trans or genderqueer or gender non-conforming, we start to build in some of those nuances.

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THIS FAMILY IS SO F’ING CUTE, RIGHT?

UPDATE: Trystan and Biff have NEW exciting news…. Check out their announcement! You have maybe guessed it, but the video is adorable. 

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About the Author

Meg Lemke

Meg Lemke is the Editor-in-Chief of MUTHA. She also programs the comics and graphic novels at the Brooklyn Book Festival, acts as a guest editor at Illustrated PEN, and takes on miscellaneous freelance projects in-between. She has worked as a book editor at Teachers College Press at Columbia University, Seven Stories Press and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her writing has appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Seattle Review, The Atlanta Review, The Good Mother Myth blog, and Seleni, among other publications. She lives with her family in the dense mother-zone of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Find her @meglemke and meglemke.tumblr.com or read up on her formative years at Lady Collective.



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