Today I am Disappointed in LLL

As I write, I have just finished reading about Trevor MacDonald, a transgender breastfeeding father. He corresponded with La Leche League (LLL) here in Canada about becoming a leader. I read an article on the CBC website. From there, I visited Trevor’s blog, Milk Junkies, and found a copy of his letter to LLL and their response. I also read a comment from Fiona Audy, chair of the La Leche League Canada Board and a past guest on my podcast. I have to say, I am very disappointed in LLL at this moment.

My summary of the situation is this: Trevor, who was born a biological woman, now identifies as a man. However, he still has a female reproductive system, and he became pregnant. He first attended a LLL meeting when he was expecting. Having had most of his breast tissue removed, he was concerned about breastfeeding. He credits the information and support he received through LLL with helping him to breastfeed his child, who is now a toddler. Like many other parents who have found help through LLL, he wants to pay that forward by becoming a volunteer leader. However, the organization has said that’s not possible. Here is an excerpt from their letter, as posted on Trevor’s website:

Our policies do preclude men from becoming Leaders. LLLC Policy states:

4.14 MEN AS LEADERS

Since an LLLC Leader is a mother who has breastfed a baby, a man cannot become an LLLC Leader. (March 1994)

Like Trevor, I love La Leche League, and the work they do. When I stumbled into my first meeting when my daughter Hannah was just a couple of months old, it felt as if I had come home. I credit the information and support I received there with being able to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship. But more than that, I found many friends at LLL. For more than seven years, I attended meetings at least once a month. The group has played a significant role in my personal parenting journey.

breastfeeding

I credit LLL with helping me reach this point in breastfeeding Hannah

As I understand it, LLL’s objections stem from the fact that the organization’s philosophies are based around mothering through breastfeeding. Leaders are expected to live in a way that represents those philosophies. As well, leaders must have breastfed their babies themselves. However, it seems clear to me that these philosophies and policies were written at a time when no one would have believed that a man could become pregnant or breastfeed. Transgender issues simply weren’t on anyone’s radar. Modifying the language to be gender inclusive, while retaining the requirement that a leader be a parent who has breastfed a baby, would be in the spirit of the policies in my mind.

One of the issues that LLL raised in their response letter, as posted on Trevor’s website, is that some women may be uncomfortable receiving breastfeeding support from a man. They say that a leader must be able to help all women with breastfeeding. This seems patently unfair to me, because it places the onus on a potential leader to be non-offensive. Would we respond in the same way if, for instance, a woman of one race was uncomfortable receiving help from a woman of another race? What about if a potential leader had a lot of tattoos? Those make some people uncomfortable. What if she had a disability? While a mother certainly has the right to seek support from someone she can communicate effectively with, it’s discriminatory to exclude someone from a volunteer role simply because someone else may be uncomfortable.

This is the crux of things for me. I understand that Trevor’s application is pushing the boundaries, so to speak. I understand that some people hold strongly-held beliefs around gender and sexual orientation, and may struggle to receive support from Trevor. If that’s the case, I would hope that they would contact another leader. But this doesn’t change the fact that a secular group that seeks to be welcoming to all breastfeeding parents must be prepared to adapt. If you believe breastfeeding is important, then it’s important for all babies, not just for babies with parents you approve of. You simply cannot say that you’re supporting LGBT parents, while excluding them from certain roles. That’s not a supportive action.

As I said, I love LLL. I value the work that the organization does to provide free, research-based breastfeeding support and information. But I know that one negative experience with an organization can taint someone’s opinion forever. When I’ve written about LLL in the past, I’ve heard many stories about leaders who said or did the wrong thing at a time when a mother was feeling particularly vulnerable. I’ve heard about leaders who weren’t welcoming, or who didn’t provide the information a parent was looking for. It’s terribly unfortunate when that happens, and I fear this decision may have the same effect. Many people may read it and wrongly believe that if they call their local leader they will be met with closed-mindedness or judgment. And so, today I am disappointed with the stance that LLL has taken. I dearly hope that they will reconsider it.

UPDATED: Both La Leche League Canada and La Leche League International are now reviewing their policies with an eye to Trevor’s situation. While this is hardly a solution, I’m choosing to view this as a positive step, and I’m hoping that something good comes out of it. You can read the official statements online.

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    Comments

    1. As you know, I have been disappointed with LLL right from the beginning, however I know a great deal of people who have had a good experience. The thing is, times are changing. Canada recently welcomed our first male midwife (http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/05/23/meet-canadas-first-male-midwife/) and the role men play in childbirth and childrearing is changing, too. I believe LLL has made a grave error in judgement about Trevor MacDonald and this only solidifies my opinion of the League even further.
      Jen’s last post … Picture TuesdayMy Profile

      • This is what I mean. It just makes the organization look even more out-of-touch and inflexible. This means someone is less likely to seek breastfeeding support that could make the difference for them. NOT HELPFUL.

        • Whereas before, I would have recommended the league to someone who asked me for breastfeeding advice, operating under the “well my experience isn’t everyone’s experience” type of platform, I don’t think I will anymore. Nail in the coffin, I guess.
          Jen’s last post … Picture TuesdayMy Profile

    2. I agree Amber. It’s sad.
      Heather’s last post … Wordless Wednesday – LoveMy Profile

    3. I think it does come down to the “comfortable with” argument, but as you say, we’d consider it unacceptable to say that because people might be ‘uncomfortable’ with getting advice from a black woman, or a lesbian, or whatever, that woman couldn’t be a leader. I am also in favour of the abolishing of the “Womyn-born women” policy at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, I’m in favour of unisex changerooms, and I think the existence of women-only “safe spaces” is abhorrent, because of the implication that men are inherently violent and abusive. I grant you that I’m a little more of a gender radical than some.

      But as you and the policy points out, it’s not specifically about gender so much as comfort – about gender, yes, but comfort at its heart. So, first time I’m going on record with this one – I left my LLL group because I was uncomfortable with the group and its leaders. One week I came to the group and half a dozen kids had spots from the chicken pox outbreak that had gone through the group the previous weeks, and I realized just how many of them don’t vaccinate. I loved that group, and stayed in it long long after I was making any use of the advice and information. But I left because I didn’t feel that I or my children were safe there anymore.

      My point is that people might be uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons, but ultimately we are not owed comfort by society at large.

      I think Trevor would make a solid leader. Without a doubt, he has shown a commitment to breastfeeding that thousands of mothers with far lesser social and biological obstacles have shown. I think he would be a compassionate and helpful leader, and his group would be lucky to have him – or he could start his own group, and attract many parents that might otherwise feel out of place in his original group. You just never know – and as such, we should lead towards yes rather than no.

    4. I agree with you, Amber. I think Trevor would make a great leader. Further, I think that the number of people who would be uncomfortable with him is much smaller than LLL apparently seems to think. I hope they change their policy. Also, Kirsten – well said.

    5. I read the comments on your Facebook about this and can’t say that I agree with your friend’s assessment of gender, sex and whether the LLL was right about this. To me it seems obvious that the policy was written before anyone thought a man would ever be able to nurse a child, but I also think they are currently operating under a prejudice now as well. The truth is I probably share that prejudice and would be reluctant myself to receive breastfeeding help from a man, but I’m willing to admit that I’m not in the right for having this hang up. Ethically, I think they should allow him to be a leader even if I would likely never feel comfortable to go to him as a leader myself.
      Marilyn’s last post … Homemade Cream Soda and Ginger AleMy Profile

      • The truth, Marilyn, is that there are many women who are leaders that I would rather not receive help from. As I said, if that’s the case, then by all means find someone else. Your feelings do matter – but as you say they don’t trump someone else’s rights. That’s what it comes down to for me.

    6. Amber, thanks. I agree with what you’ve written and so much of what has been said in the comments.

    7. this is truly disappointing.
      i second all of the comments and your blog post Amber but i’d like to add:

      what about other parents like Trevor, transgendered parents who would also like to breastfeed? Trevor would be representing them as well.

      also- i would argue that the term “mothering” is outdated in any case. just like we no longer use “motherese” but instead “parentese” to refer to how caregivers alter there language and tone to speak with children, so shouldn’t we use terms of dichotomous gender to delegate parenting “roles”.
      EcoYogini’s last post … Going CurlyMy Profile

    8. This is a sad state of things in LLL. And frustrating that it is even a necessary discussion, as you note, for a secular, presumably inclusive group. It’s all already been said above, including the ability of LLL to adapt and the need for support for anyone wishing to go the breastfeeding route – whether they identify as male or female and whether they are comfortable with support from a male or female leader. Thanks for having this conversation.
      Jenn’s last post … September RestartMy Profile

    9. The thing is that he wanted to be a “special” LLL leader for a “queer chapter.” And that just isn’t how LLL works. The only leaders are regional; you go the chapter in your town. You don’t have a choice about that.

      I can see both sides, but when I come down on it, I don’t really see a problem with this. No one has a “right” to be a leader; they choose who they want. They had no problem with him attending meetings, even though it is supposed to be a mothers’ group.

      Am I the only person who is proud to be a woman and wants to receive counsel from other women about special women’s things … like birth and breastfeeding? Fine, this person wants to be a man. Fine, he chose to keep his reproductive system intact, give birth, and breastfeed. But at some point don’t you have to come out and say that he can’t have it both ways — that if he doesn’t want to be a woman, he gives up the right to be treated like a woman and accepted in a women’s group?

      It isn’t about feeling “unsafe” around men. Obviously he isn’t going to be raping or molesting anyone. There are lesbian leaders, as I understand. But I DO interact differently with men than with women. I love those times that I can just be with the girls, with other mothers. I would HATE to have a male midwife, it wouldn’t be the same. Of course people can choose not to be seen by a male midwife. But no one can choose not to have a male LLL leader; you get the one you get. Isn’t it fair enough to have him seek out or start another group so that he can counsel the specific people he’d be able to help?

      I’m the first person to call out bigotry when I see it. But I don’t see this as bigotry. He just doesn’t fit what LLL looks for in their leaders.
      Sheila’s last post … The actually-eat-lunch challengeMy Profile

      • Actually, it’s not true that LLL doesn’t have “special” meetings. Toddler meetings, couples’ meetings and meetings for teen moms are just a few examples of special meetings that I have witnessed. I know that they said there are no special meetings in their response letter, but they were clearly overlooking a lot of what happens already.

        As well, as I said, I agree that everyone has the right to seek support from someone they’re comfortable with. It’s why I prefer to see a female doctor for my pap smears. But that doesn’t mean male doctors shouldn’t offer that service. In the same way, the fact that someone may feel uncomfortable with Trevor doesn’t automatically make him a bad leadership candidate. The truth is that most of us resonate more with one person than another, and that’s fine. But there are probably people who would feel more comfortable with Trevor than with someone else, and we need to honour their feelings as well.

        It’s clear that you would be unlikely to call Trevor for support, or attend his meetings. That’s fine. But that doesn’t make him a bad leader – it just makes him a bad leader for you.

        • Special meetings such as toddler meetings are IN ADDITION to the regular monthly meetings, not in place of.

          • I know that toddler meetings are usually in addition, but not all special meetings are in addition to regular meetings.. There are dedicated groups that serve teen moms exclusively, and there are groups that are always welcoming to fathers. An example of the former would be a group led at a school by Fiona Audy herself: http://www.lllc.ca/board-members

            My point is that there is more flexibility in practice than was indicated in that letter. In addition, I feel that if you discarded a potential volunteer just because they were confused about a policy or procedure at the outset, you would have literally no volunteers. This is why most organizations, including LLL, put their volunteers through a training process. So that particular part of the letter didn’t hold a lot of water, in my opinion.

    10. Trevor has to decide…..does he want to be a He or a She……….
      as of now he seems to have chosen to be a He and wants to identify as a male…….
      so ..he is a He….LLL preclude men from becoming leaders and Trevor is a man :)

    11. Cindy, thanks for cutting through all the apparent subtlety and human complexity of the question with with your straightforward, black-and-white thinking. We all must have missed the incredibly simplistic solution that you propose, and I for one feel ashamed that I was seeing the issue as one that required a great deal of knowledge, understanding, respect and compassion to deal with. I guess it doesn’t. That’ll save time. Maybe you can also solve the labour dispute between the province of BC and the teachers, or weigh in on the question of euthanasia. If you haven’t already done so, I will alert Judith Butler that she can stop publishing, because the question of gender is actually totally simple, and Cindy Hansen has the answer.

      (Should I put a smiley at the end of this? It seems a bit disingenuous, but precedent tells me that a smiley at the end is supposed to make you seem all friendly-like, even when not a single preceding word conveys that.)

      • I understand what you’re saying here, but please don’t engage in any personal attacks. I don’t want to have to use the delete key. It’s very important to me that people feel safe to express their opinions in this space, whatever those opinions are.

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