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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thomas Beatie and the Orange on the Seder Plate

I wasn't going to blog about Thomas Beatie, the pregnant man, even though his story touches on so many aspects of infertility--a wife with endometriosis and a hysterectomy, donor insemination, assisted conception. Even as all of the other bloggers tackled the topic, I sat back thinking: where is the story? Two people want to add to their family and they do so. The end. But the convergence of Pesach cleaning and citrus fruit made me think about how this story is the new orange on the seder plate.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, many Jews place an orange on their seder plate during the Pesach meal.
In the early 1980s, while speaking at Oberlin College Hillel, Susannah Heschel was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (there's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate). Heschel felt that to put bread on the seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like chametz violates Passover. So, at her next seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out--a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism.
It's actually an interesting story--this was the original idea behind the orange on the seder plate, though the retelling of the lecture changed over time like an enormous game of telephone and by now, if you ask a Jew why they place an orange on the seder table, they will most likely answer in solidarity of women. Heschel herself is upset by this fact and says that the retelling and changing erases the point and underlines the problem--that we are so uncomfortable discussing homosexuality (and I'm going to add here for the sake of this discussion, transgenderism) that we just circumvent symbols and change them into something more accessible. Everyone can talk comfortably about female empowerment. Not everyone can talk comfortably about homophobia.

Talking about Thomas Beatie means making a lot of assumptions. Who can say what type of parent a person will be without knowing them? Who can say how children will turn out until they've turned out? We can only comment on what we see and right now, I'm seeing a couple who want a child and used assisted conception to achieve that. Not so different from my own path.

On my own seder plate this year, I'm placing an apple--the original fruit that gave birth to all questions--representing reproductive rights for all people because truthfully, just as the changed story of Heschel's speech has a man shouting about women belonging on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate, empty symbolic gestures do not have a space at my table. It is apples and oranges; I am taking back the fruit. If I believe in reproductive rights for myself--and believe me, I want my reproductive rights well-covered--I need to believe in reproductive rights for all who act out of love or my shouting for myself becomes merely symbolic, self-serving, meaningless.

Mother Jones, in August 2006, ran a survey of fertility clinic directors. Only 59% believed everyone has a right to a child. 48% said they would likely turn away a gay couple seeking a surrogate. 20% would turn away a single woman. 17% would turn away a lesbian couple. If you want reproductive rights for yourself--and I'm fairly certain that no fertility clinic director would wish to be told that they cannot or must have a child--we should be concerned about others. Because I'm not just talking about those experiencing infertility who need to utilize assisted conception when I speak about reproductive rights--every single person on this earth should be in control of whether or not they reproduce or parent. Put an apple on the seder plate for that.

I've been reading the blogger's response to Thomas Beatie's story both in the infertility world and the greater blogosphere. Julia from I Won't Fear Love wrote to the producers at Verdict with Dan Abrams.

I was extremely disappointed with yesterday's segment on the pregnant man. The host declared that he didn't know where to begin with this story. How about "a man and a woman marry and want to start a family. Unfortunately, due to prior medical condition, the woman had a hysterectomy some years ago. Luckily, the man happened to have the necessary biological machinery to conceive and carry their child."?
Or Kymberli at I'm a Smart One's post who cheers on anyone who wishes to mindfully add to their family: "More power to you and your wife. Who am I to criticize how someone chooses to live their lives and build their families? I love it, and I'm glad they had the balls to step up and go public with it. Thomas said, 'Love builds a family.' You're damned right."

Mombian said it best at the end of her coverage of this story: "As I see it? Loving parents are normal. Everything else is variable."

Perhaps, if that was what 59% of the fertility directors were looking for, I wouldn't be so disturbed by the figure. If we were actually looking at love, there would be no discussion concerning Thomas Beatie and his wife. If we wanted everyone else to have what we want for ourselves, we wouldn't need to place so many damn apples on the table this spring.

No one else may understand it this year, but on April 19th, set an apple on your table.

Reproductive rights for every man or woman who acts out of love


Jackie said...

Mel, it's a beautiful post and I couldn't agree more.

apronstringsemily said...

Awesome post. When I first read about the story, I was thinking the same thing. Who has any right to determine how a family is made?

I'll be putting an apple on my table on April 19th.

Oh wait ... does it count that I already have a bag of apples on my table?! :-)

Brooke said...

This is a great post.

I was actually surprised with all of the media surrounding Thomas. Its really not like he is the first trans person to carry a child.
I am friends with a male gay couple (one born male, the other a trans guy) who have a gorgeous little daughter. I guess while at first I went "wow, cool" I kind of took it in my stride, thinking "what great luck for them, not having to use a surrogate".

I do not understand the big deal here. His wife could not carry their baby. He could. End of story. Where is the controversy?

I guess I have a somewhat different view of the world though...

Alyson & Ford said...

I'm writing myself a note.

April 19 - There will be an apple on our family table...

Jen said...

Interesting post. I haven't been following the story much. But I don't see what this is such a fuss.

Piccinigirl said...

beautiful post and I fully intend to have an apple on my table on the 19th, because "love does build" a family. I couldn't agree more.

Tash said...

What a beautiful, beautiful post, Mel. I never understand the people who get so riled up about love -- isn't there hate in the world we need to tackle first? This atheist will be putting an Apple on her table and bowing her head to whatever lies within. Thank you for this.

Kim said...

I totally agree - my re did have some same sex couples - some using surrogates and some with donor sperm! I have a great apple all picked out for April 19th!

megan said...

well said, Mel.
i hate that there are people out there who can decide what "family" means.

Liza said...

Beautiful post, Mel. Just beautiful.

LJ said...

What really bothers me, is that people worry more about the sexual orientation of a parent than how well a person parents. It's one of those things that just gets me very angry if I think too much about it. As Mr. Costello once asked, "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"

Lisa said...

What an interesting idea!! I'm not sure I'll put an apple on my seder table (we have a VERY traditional seder), but, I certainly will be thinking about this post as I'm making and eating my Charoset!

Lori said...

I just want to know. How is it that you went through the line SO MANY FREAKING TIMES when they were handing out wisdom, compassion, eloquence and wit?

I feel cheated.

And I'm not even Jewish (well just a little bit), but I'll be putting an apple on my table on the 19th.

Meghan said...

Fantastic post...and I agree completely. Quite honestly, I don't even see where the big media story is. I'll have an apple on my table...not sure if I'll be able to convince my SIL at her seder though

AnotherDreamer said...

Couldn't have said ti better myself.

Jen said...

Mel, I think I love you.

Thanks also for the clarification on the orange on the Seder plate. I have heard so many versions, each claiming to be the original -- but oddly enough, NEVER with homosexuality at the root. I will be passing this along to the women in my community who organize our commmunity seder and hope this is the version we'll hear this year. (Knowing them, they'll end up asking me to tell it!)

rachel said...

i'm new to your blog... as of yesterday.
what great posts, i will be putting an apple
on our seder plate this year ( i wish i did last year... out of all of our 8 pesach guests at our last seder, my husband and i were the only heteros in the bunch... and thankfully we were not the only ones with children).

i look forward to reading more of your blog...

best regards,
(mom to a bio/non ivf son;
sadly, lost 2 pregnancies... one daughter and one son; almost a mom to a son and daughter through pgd/ivf... implantation didn't 'take', and now, hoping to be an adoptive mom to a daughter soon...)

passingwindows said...

I used to be so smack in the middle of NORMAL that five years ago I would have put an apple on the table and smiled a self-righteous little smile that I was standing up for those I would have perceived to have been "going through a rough time". Now I have a much greater understanding of what it is to step outside the path the majority take and I know how important tolerance, empathy and compassion are. My apple will be on the table. Thank you for a great idea, Mel. I am proud to be part of all of us apple-on-the-tablers and I feel privileged.

loribeth said...

What a great post, & how very true. If you truly believe in freedom of choice, then how do you qualify that (choice is available for some, but not others -- & who gets to decide?)?

Prompted by a recent post from Pamela Jeanne, I'm reading "Everything Conceivable" by Liza Mundy right now, & she talks a lot about what ART has meant for gay & lesbian couples, & what kind of families they are forming. It's fascinating stuff.

Michell said...

This is very well said and I agree. I don't see what the difference is how a child comes into the world.

Kami said...

I have to admit, when I read the article I didn't get passed the thought that HE could get pregnant and I had to use DE. I lumped him amongst all the fertiles I know and just felt envy.

I never even thought that there was a bigger issue at stake. I'm glad you shared your thoughts. You make many good points.

Jbeeky said...

So well written. I jumped over from littlestpea to have a read. So worth it, thank you.

Julia said...

Apple. I love it.
And thanks.

Bea said...

I have to say, I haven't been bothered by the story enough to say much about it. I think my thoughts have extended to, "That would look weird - to see a pregnant guy. And then after the baby's born, it won't look weird any more, so, meh." Because I do think it'd make me do a double-take, but beyond that I'm not too ruffled.

Now, as for "reproductive rights" insofar as the "right to have a child"... that opens up a whole can of worms. But I get what you meant and what your point is, so let's not.


Kymberli said...

I'm not Jewish and the 19th is tomorrow, but I already have an apple on my table.

Lovely post. And thanks for again, teaching me more about the Jewish faith.