Choosing Family offers a glimpse into the lives of three sets of individuals, all of whom are working to forge relationships that defy the same social pressures they face as members and allies of the transgender community. While one couple is left to fill roles abandoned by others, another exercises their right to share love how they please, and a third individual sacrifices part of the present for her future. At some point, each has seen their livelihood threatened by their connection to Brandon — but it is also these ties that have allowed them to find what they are looking for. This is the second of three parts. Part III will run on Tuesday.
"They, like, like us?"
The sentence is half statement, half question, mutated by bewilderment.
"We have a dog and a baby belly, and like, straight white people? They’re interested in us on the street," Corinne Mason laughs, her voice lifting slightly with puzzlement at the thought of appearing sympathetic to Caucasian heterosexual cisgender individuals.
It’s not just the intermittent ignorance of this demographic that makes Mason different. She’s a queer cisgender activist who teaches Brandon University students exactly what that means and, as a feminist, how to respect it.
For the sake of clarity, a cisgender individual is defined as a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with the sex they were born with — essentially the opposite of a transgender individual.
That she and her genderqueer partner, Rune Breckon, were mistaken as part of the world that so often and so easily dismisses their own people was an unfortunate development of their pregnancy. Granted, they may be safer because of the perceived "normalness" their family now displays, but the misrecognition cleaves a hollow between them and others in the LGBTTQ* community. It stings to go unnoticed by other queers on the street.
To each blissfully and ignorantly conventional pair, Mason thinks: "You have no idea what it took to make this baby — and also how this baby’s going to rock your world."
She, Breckon and their child have lived in Manitoba’s capital city, Winnipeg, for just under a year, but the family saw its start in the province’s second-largest centre, Brandon.
With a population of nearly 49,000, the Wheat City pales in size to Winnipeg’s 705,000, but trumps it in prevalence of conservative attitudes.
It is only the family’s history, Mason’s job at Brandon University, a few friends and some uncomfortable memories that keep them connected to the Wheat City.
As activists who worked for safer public spaces in Brandon and had been living together there for less than two years, Breckon and Mason were familiar with the discrimination that existed in the Prairie city — but as a queer couple trying to conceive a child in early 2016, they found themselves the target of it.
Admittedly, many of the professionals the pair came across were kind, but most were unknowledgeable.
Physicians often spent the majority of an appointment quizzing Breckon about their body and transition (despite the decade that has passed since) while Mason, who would become the gestational carrier, went largely unacknowledged. One doctor offered Breckon a hysterectomy, and another referred to the couple as women and lesbians.
In another instance, Mason had called a midwives group to inquire about their experience with queer and trans individuals for reassurance her family would be in safe hands. Lacking exactly this, the group turned to the Sexual Education Resource Centre in Brandon for the LGBT co-ordinator’s help.
Unfortunately, Breckon had been filling the part-time SERC position — Brandon’s "gay-for-pay" job, the couple says — since their move to Brandon in the fall of 2014. The midwives had asked for help from the very person whom they were supposed to service, but didn’t know how.
Soon, their professional lives began to encroach on their personal time. Although Breckon and Mason’s jobs placed the pair as educators in the community, the partners found themselves working beyond required hours. For Breckon, their part-time job at SERC morphed into an overtime week, and there was no time of day others believed it was inappropriate to approach Mason for questions or help.
Fearful of harassment and proposition, the couple began to avoid public spaces. Mason had been in Brandon for less than three years, and Breckon two, when takeout and TV became their date night.
Still, the pressure of holding an entire city accountable to its gender and sexual minority population grew. As they did in their private lives, Breckon and Mason often witnessed acts of discrimination and injustice in Brandon’s public sphere. The only difference between the two realms was that there were more individuals and institutions to be held accountable within the community.
Many times, the couple felt tokenized, as though their place on a board or committee was simply the check mark in a box labelled "diversity." It seemed their usefulness didn’t extend to Breckon’s capacity as SERC’s LGBT co-ordinator, or Mason’s career in women’s and gender studies.
And regardless of formal qualifications, both had become experts in their own experiences.
"Breckon had been living both the triumphs and consequences of identifying as transgender since the day they came out over a decade ago, while Mason, no less a part of the LGBTTQ* community as a queer woman, understood the restraints often placed on gender and sexuality in society."
Each had the education and experience to make valuable contributions to Brandon’s community, yet Breckon says they weren’t taken seriously.
That they were being half-heartedly told to fix a problem — of which they were occasionally victims — was the seed of an idea, sown with the sweat of the couple’s exhaustion and concern for the future.
"Rune and I are really resilient, but our child didn’t have to be."
Pregnant in early 2016 and facing a future that didn’t only include themselves, the couple feared bringing home all of their stress to a child who was otherwise oblivious to the world’s difficulties.
"If I was exhausted after a day of work and I came home to a kid, (I) wouldn’t want my kid to sense or feel any of the bullshit — shall I say — that I experienced while working in and for the community," Breckon says.
But Winnipeg didn’t receive any serious thought until Mason miscarried that spring.
"I couldn’t create a living thing in my body because I was not living in that moment. I was just reacting to everything that was happening around me," she recalls.
Just try again, said caregivers at the hospital. You’re young, you can just try again.
"You can’t say that to queer and trans people because that’s not what’s happening in our world," Mason says.
"To anyone needing assistance," Breckon adds.
"We’re not just having sex … To just tell people to try again?" asks Mason. "I don’t think would feel good to anyone who’s miscarried, but (it) has a particular sting when you’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to get pregnant in the first place and have gone through so much discrimination along the way."
Mason and Breckon had endured the medical blunders and social ignorance at what they thought was their own expense, but the miscarriage proved the pervasiveness of social rejection in rural Manitoba. Though they knew their community would be losing two of its largest defenders, Breckon and Mason left at the realization it wasn’t big enough to support them through this time.
They left Brandon a revitalized, though still hushed, LGBTTQ* community for a well established and welcoming one in the bigger city last July, expecting an addition to their family once again.
The physical move completed, the only indicator of burgeoning change for Breckon and Mason was her expanding stomach. By the fall, it had become ritual for the couple to turn to the Internet each week for an estimate of how their baby was growing. With the web’s help, they could see which fruits and vegetables were of comparable size to their child, or an animation of the two-thirds-formed fetus.
The move to Winnipeg was an attempt to improve their chances of surviving the phobias that had plagued Brandon — and it proved successful at first.
The hunt to find a trans-friendly doctor, which took two years in Brandon, lasted only one month in the capital city. They weren’t denied a rental unit because of their queerness and, shortly after moving, the partners found three midwives who operate with feminist values.
"There’s a rainbow sticker on the door," lauded Mason. "And we didn’t have to give them that rainbow sticker — ’cause, by the way, that’s how people in Brandon have rainbow stickers."
In Winnipeg, Mason and Breckon are two of many facing the same hardships and working toward the same cause. They say the city is no less phobic, but that there’s a larger community with the power to offset negativity. They have no fear of new initiatives being dismissed as too "big-city."
But the move didn’t mean they had escaped it all.
In Week 30 — "cabbage territory" — the couple hosted a baby celebration in the city they had newly started to call home together. Some partygoers were from the capital city, while others, like Ed and Kathy — introduced in Choosing Family Part I — were from Brandon, from which the couple had fled.
The party went smoothly, but was an example of how public outings carried the potential to manifest some of North American society’s greatest gender expectations. Throughout her pregnancy, Mason had been prey to been-there-done-that moms full of advice, while Breckon got a slap on the back and a "Way to go, man. Your job’s over."
Others wanted to place money on whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, but this was an opportunity to learn that the baby wasn’t going to be gendered publicly — and also the difference between gender and genitals.
If a person said to Breckon, "You and Corinne must be really excited to be mom and dad!" Breckon gently reminded them: "Yes, we’re excited to be parents," placing emphasis on the gender-neutral label.
In addition to a dozen other ways, these moments in their pregnancy were a lesson in how to handle future conversations with a child. Their current network in Winnipeg may be bigger and the list of resources longer than it was in Brandon, but the two know it’ll still take effort to counteract societal teachings with their own.
There’s also less concern that their child will grow up the black sheep surrounded by traditional families. Unlike their own raisings, The Kid — Peanut — Nugget — Little Baby — will grow up in a diverse environment that celebrates differences. Their child will be raised with the knowledge, skill sets and experiences of not one or two people, but dozens who are cultured in the power of community.
"Choosing to build queer family, intentionally building these kinds of connections with people who (you) are not necessarily blood or biologically connected to means that our structures are so solid," says Mason. "They have to be. They have to be solid for us to survive."
Their child may face confrontation about the way their world works, but will be better equipped for it by parents who have spent their lives learning the same skills. According to Breckon, each attack or cruel word or daggered gaze inflicted on them or Mason can be seen as an opportunity. Although perhaps painful, each situation is a learning-lesson moment from which the skills used to handle it can be taught to a loved one.
In a previous conversation about how they met online, Mason had turned to Breckon: "How did I find you on the Internet?"
At the end of August, just nine weeks from the due date, the same adoration was present when they spoke about the things they’d do with their child. Breckon’s arm rested on the back of their partner’s chair, and Mason’s hands on her belly.
"There’s not pressure on queer and trans people to have children. In fact, there’s pressure on queer and trans people not to have children," Mason says. "Intentional parenting means that just the same way you choose your partner every single day in world that tells you that choice is not OK — that’s not the right choice or you could be making a different, more easy, more acceptable choice — the same goes for children.
"It is a thing you’ve actively chosen over and over again every single day, even when the world tells you that it’s not an OK choice."
» Special to The Brandon Sun