Exploring language among gender nonconforming individuals and nontraditional partners

 June is notoriously known as Pride Month, but October features other observances that bring awareness to a variety of health issues and topics that impact LGBTQIA youth. October 11 was National Coming Out Day, October 20 was International Pronouns Day and last week, individuals and organizations recognized Intersex Awareness Day

In Breastfeeding Priorities: Safe Sleep, Bias, Gender Equitable Norms, and Paid Leave— Q&A with Internationally and Nationally Recognized Breastfeeding Expert, Lori Feldman Winter, MD, MPH, NICHQ poses the questions: How can we acknowledge the need to be inclusive of all types of parents and caregivers?  How do we promote gender-equitable social norms to better support breastfeeding?”

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Feldman Winter offers, “… We need to ask, ‘how do we better support breastfeeding among gender nonconforming individuals and nontraditional partners?’ so we don’t alienate anyone when it comes to breastfeeding. It starts with being more inclusive and acknowledging that the benefits of breastfeeding aren’t all tied to the concept of the ‘breast’ itself. Breastfeeding is a complex compilation of systems including biological benefits from skin-to-skin touching and nurturing; nutrients from human milk that can be breast- or bottle-fed; and benefits that come directly from the flora on a lactating/nursing breast.

There are multiple ways to look at breastfeeding and understand its benefits, Feldman Winter continues. 

For instance “a chest that may not be able to produce milk can still nurture babies through the benefits of skin-to-skin contact,” she’s quoted in the NICHQ piece. “People who don’t produce breastmilk can still provide human milk through donor milk and bottle feeding. Transgender men and gender nonconforming parents and caregivers may still breastfeed safely if they choose to, and may prefer the term chestfeeding over breastfeeding because it respects their identity. All kinds of arrangements can be made to truly provide an equitable support system. As clinicians and scientists, we need to keep an open mind as we look at breastfeeding and explore how to optimize the health and well-being of all babies and families.” 

The authors of Effective Communication About Pregnancy, Birth, Lactation, Breastfeeding and Newborn Care: The Importance of Sexed Language present their thoughts about the risks of using desexed language in perinatal care.

Photo credit: PNW Production

The authors acknowledge that “Desexing the language of female reproduction has been done with a view to being sensitive to individual needs and as beneficial, kind, and inclusive.” 

They go on, “Yet, this kindness has delivered unintended consequences that have serious implications for women and children. These include: decreasing overall inclusivity; dehumanizing; including people who should be excluded; being imprecise, inaccurate or misleading; and disembodying and undermining breastfeeding. In addition, avoidance of the term ‘mother’ in its sexed sense, risks reducing recognition and the right to protection of the mother-infant dyad.”  

As part of this discussion, NICHQ has released statements in regard to the use of its language.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

Heidi Brooks, Chief Operating Officer at NICHQ writes,  “NICHQ is not abandoning the traditional use of the terms ‘mother’ and ‘maternal.’ We are embracing the inclusive language of ‘birthing person/people’ across our work. A move toward inclusive language does not force us to stop using language that so many people identify with; at its core, inclusion is about creating more space for one another. We are taking care to expand the use of these terms in our communications, on our website, in our resources, and eventually, in all our projects. This evolution is another aspect of NICHQ’s commitment to equity in all forms, including race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability.” 

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) put out its Clinical Protocol #33: Lactation Care for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Plus Patients in May 2020 to help guide lactation care providers through items like language, creating a respectful health care environment, through the effects of transition-related health care on pregnancy and breast/chestfeeding, fertility options, induced lactation and colactation and milk sharing, as well as put out a call out for future research to better inform practice.

Photo courtesy of Glenis Decuir

Check out past Our Milky Way coverage on LGBTQIA health

Uplifting transgender and non binary parents 

On becoming transliterate 

Working to close the gaps in LGBTQ care 

Blurring the binary 

Skin to skin image goes viral 

Wives co-breastfeed son for two-and-a-half years

Explore youth.gov’s page for other past and upcoming events celebrating Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Expression, and Well-Being.