“I literally went to sleep and woke up infamous.” In May 2017, Trystan Reese was seven months pregnant and fresh off an appearance on New York Public Radio’s much-lauded parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. “We take parenting very seriously,” remarks Reese, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his partner Biff and their three children.
All this would seem unexceptional, except Reese is transgender, and gay. Over the course of a single spring night in 2017, his story had spread like wildfire across the globe, eventually attracting glowing coverage from CNN, Vice, Cosmopolitan and more—all whilst being spun into sensationalist fodder by tabloids like Britain’s Daily Mail and The Sun. And as the story’s audience continued to grow, so did the comments section of each article, bursting with loving messages of support and awe interleaved with anger, bigotry and transphobia from the darkest, most hateful corners of the internet.
“I was completely shocked to learn that the entire world was going to turn its head to look at our family and that we would become both a beacon of light and hope for people all over the world, but that we would also become the targets for transphobia and sexism and male insecurity across the globe,” Reese says. “It was the highest highs and the lowest lows.”
Today, Reese has transformed this viral tale of a pregnant man into a powerful platform with a poignant goal: the end of transphobia. And as a pioneer for transgender rights, he has already paved the way for generations of marginalized people to step forward and tell their own stories. Sand caught up with Reese to discuss parenting, self-care and his experience of trans storytelling in the digital age.
“I’m a 37-year-old transgender man, and for me, that means that I was assigned female at birth. I lived the first twenty years of my life being seen and treated as a woman by everyone around me. I transitioned in 2002, and I’ve been living as a gay transgender man ever since.”
“In 2010, I met the man that I would later marry and go on to have children with, and about a year into our relationship, we learned that his sister wasn’t able to take care of her kids, and so they came to live with us, and they never left. Then, two and a half years ago, I gave birth to our biological son Leo, who is the joy of the whole family’s life. He’s the light for all of us. We decided to tell our story publicly because we wanted more people to understand that families come in all shapes and sizes, and when people are really dedicated and love each other very much and want to build a family, pretty much anything is possible.”
Part of Trystan and Biff’s decision to go public was driven by a desire to counter the all-too-often negative portrayals of transgender people in the media spotlight: “if you Google transgender people, you might hear about the insanely high rates of murder against transgender women of color (for example). We are consistently portrayed as victims or aggressors. That’s the dichotomy in which you’re seen by the public eye in the media.”
Reese hoped instead to replace this with a message of family, love, and possibility. “We hoped that parents of transgender youth would be heartened to hear that their kids could have a family one day. I wanted other transgender people who had been told that they couldn’t have children to know that that’s not true. I wanted researchers to be inspired to learn more about trans-bodies and trans-health and trans-fertility.”
The ensuing backlash came as a shock: “I truly had no idea that the story of a transgender man having a baby was going to hit so many hot button issues all over the globe.” Throughout our conversation, and across numerous publications and appearances online, Reese is quick to point out that he was far from the first transgender man to give birth: “I live in a world where I know hundreds of transgender men who have given birth to babies. Hundreds, all over the world.” Part of the outsized reaction, Reese suggests, is down to the fact that transgender pregnancies rarely reach the general public: “the vast majority of transgender men who give birth themselves do so very privately”, he says, for fear of ridicule or attacks.
Nonetheless, the global reaction to Reese’s story did come as a surprise: “I had truly no idea how surprising and shocking this was going to be for people…I didn’t realize how little exposure people had to people like me and families like ours.” In fact, according to a recent GLAAD/Harris Interactive poll, just 16% of Americans claim to know someone who is transgender (compare this to the almost 87% of Americans who say they know someone who is gay or lesbian).
Reese quickly identified his new platform as an opportunity to educate the public and own his story, recycling negative comments as a means to improve the clarity of his narrative: “I was able to take some of the backlash that was more rooted in curiosity and confusion and openness, as opposed to just bigotry, and adapt my message,” he says. And, working with trans messaging experts, he crafted talking points and leveraged the media’s interest in his story to make demands on the journalists covering him: “I will give you this interview, and there are three things you absolutely have to include in this article.”
Reese documented each stage of his pregnancy on social media, and today continues to spread his message of family, love and acceptance through these digital channels. When asked about the best way to navigate these digital spaces, he offers two core self-care strategies. Firstly, a focus on self-protection: “it is so critical that we build up ways to prevent ourselves from being exposed to the absolute worst of the worst, because it’s not going to do us any good, and in fact it’s going to make it harder for us to engage in positive, constructive ways with other people, if we’re being traumatized.” And second, a focus on resilience and healing: “what I have found is that it has been incredibly useful for me to look at the places where I am tender, and to treat that as a learning experience. Why do some things hurt but some things don’t? It’s because there’s a wound there. And there’s an opportunity for me to say: what are the things that hurt, and why? And how do I get strong there?”
Threaded delicately through Reese’s musings is a powerful narrative of renewal. “That’s how we take this garbage that the world throws at us and turn it into compost for our garden. It can be the richest, most fertile ground for our best learning if we can treat it that way. We do that by protecting ourselves as much as possible, and then whatever gets through, doing what we can to treat that as a learning opportunity.”
Reese rarely touches on the negative backlash brought on by his own public visibility—late last year, he stopped reading comments left on his social media profiles altogether—but when he does, it’s framed as a tool for further spreading his message of positivity: “it was and still is extremely painful for me to talk and share stories of the worst things I ever heard. And again I do it as a part of a strategy because it is a very effective tactic for shocking and inspiring people into action.”
Almost endlessly beaming, Reese’s optimism is infectious, perhaps unsurprising for someone once called “supernaturally positive” (a sentiment he wholeheartedly agrees with). “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. When we’ve been able to really heal, those are places where we can be extremely resilient and powerful.”
That said, he notes how difficult it can be to navigate these spaces in healthy ways, pointing to the brutal online bullying faced by many, and the extremely high rates of suicide amongst transgender young people: a recent study by British equality charity Metro reports that more than one in four trans young people have attempted suicide, whilst nine in ten have considered it.
Certainly, across America, trans rights are increasingly under threat. Earlier this month, a bill in Arizona that would ban transgender youth from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity recently cleared the state’s House of Representatives, while in January lawmakers in Florida filed a barrage of transphobic bills banning gender-affirming healthcare for children, removing protections for LGBTQ+ workers and even legalizing so-called gay conversion therapy. “In terms of main threats, it sounds very grim, but it’s that people don’t want us to exist,” says Reese. “There are attacks on all fronts right now, and we are exhausted.”
So, where to go from here? When asked about his future and the impact he has had on younger generations of transgender people, Reese is markedly humble: “My goal for my legacy would be that nobody remembers my name, nobody remembers my story, but that there has been a pronounced shift in possibility for trans people who want to build their own tiny empires of love, which is what a family is.”