05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Transgendered Parents Can Teach Us About Motherhood and Fatherhood

Let me share with you a real-life story involving a transgendered parent. A few years after Michael B. married his wife Barbara in the 1970s, he told her that he preferred wearing women's clothing and that he felt more comfortable thinking of himself as a woman.

The marriage was a rocky one, but it lasted for almost twenty more years. In 1998, the couple divorced and a year later Michael had gender reassignment surgery and changed her name to Monica. After that, Barbara went to court in their home state of Kentucky and successfully got an order prohibiting Monica from contacting any of their four children because she was now living as a woman.

But things soon got even worse for Monica. Barbara eventually remarried and she and her new husband petitioned the court to terminate all of Monica's parental rights so that the new husband could adopt the one child out of the four who was still then a minor.

The Kentucky trial court granted the petition after concluding that Monica becoming a woman meant that she had neglected her child and caused her grave emotional harm, necessitating the termination of her parental rights. That ruling was upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 2007.

Monica B.'s case is an example of the kind of pervasive discrimination faced by transgendered parents. It also tells us something important about what it means to be a parent in our society.

For many years now, gay and lesbian parents have had to contend with the argument that depriving a child of a mother (in the case of gay male parents) or of a father (in the case of lesbian parents) harms children. This argument is at its core grounded in the notion that there is something special or unique about the supposed different nurturing styles of fathers and mothers. In response, advocates for gay and lesbian parents have argued that gender in parenting is largely irrelevant because what should matter is not a parent's gender but instead whether and how the parent loves and cares for the child.

But to some extent, the "gender in parenting" argument in the context of gay and lesbian parents takes place at an abstract level. As a result, in lesbian and gay parenting cases, we tend to ask questions such as whether mothers in general care for children in ways that are different, if not necessarily better, than fathers in general do.

The "gender in parenting" issue in Monica B.'s case was significantly less abstract because what changed in that case was not the parent. Instead, what changed was the parent's gender.

It is one thing to say that a lesbian mother can also be a "father" to her children and that a gay father can also be a "mother" to his children, and many of us believe that. In fact, I am a gay dad, and I like to think that I am as good of a "mother" to my children as any female parent is to hers. But I am not a woman, so there is a built-in limitation, at least from society's perspective, when I argue that I too can be a mother, and a darned good one.

But if we can get past the prejudice against transgendered parents, we may allow ourselves to see how they undermine the traditional notion that gender is an essential component of a particular kind of parenting, that is, of "fatherhood" as understood as being significantly different from "motherhood" (and vice versa).

This is because the parental attributes of individuals like Monica B. do not change simply because they have their sexual organs surgically altered.

The argument made in court by the lawyer who wanted Monica's parental rights terminated was that she could no longer be a father because she was no longer a man. And she could not be a mother because, first, she was not a real woman, and second, the child already had a mother. But why should sexual organs, and whether one identifies oneself as a man or a woman, be relevant to the question of whether one is entitled to retain parental rights?

At the end of the day, the case of the transsexual parent tells us, perhaps even more clearly than that of the gay or lesbian parent, that we have to as a legal and policy matter pay considerably less attention to the gender of parents. Indeed, the goal, it seems to me, should be to make the status of being a mother or a father legally irrelevant. We need, in other words, to think of "mother" and "father" as verbs rather than as nouns. We should focus on what it means to mother and to father a child, rather than on the sex of the parent who happens to be doing the mothering or fathering.

Rendering the concepts of "mother" and "father" legally and socially irrelevant is, of course, a tall order given the immense cultural weight that is attached to each of them. Many view the types of arguments that I am making here as attacks on "motherhood" and "fatherhood." And to some degree these critics are right, at least to the extent that being a mother and being a man, for example, are viewed as mutually exclusive categories.

But we should remember that there are millions of parents out there, including heterosexual single parents, who are both "mothering" and "fathering" their children and no one proposes to terminate their parental rights because of it. We should not treat transgendered parents any differently.