Freddy McConnell takes out his phone and shows me a film of his baby snoring contentedly. Jack is gorgeous, with blond hair, blue eyes and heavy eyelids, and McConnell is the classic doting dad – albeit more hands-on than most. It’s a year since he gave birth to Jack, an experience he describes as life-changing. He has also made an intimate and moving film about that experience, from the decision to have a baby, through pregnancy and the delivery. Everything is documented in close-up, including Jack’s arrival in a hospital birthing pool.
You might expect McConnell to be an extrovert; an exhibitionist, even. In fact, the Guardian multimedia journalist is reserved and private in a rather old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip English way. So why on earth would he want to expose himself like this?
McConnell admits the whole thing is counterintuitive – that he, too, cannot think of a person less likely to put his private life on screen. But, he says, he also felt a responsibility to tell his story. He talks about how sensationalised film and TV documentaries about trans people have tended to be, and how the subjects have invariably felt betrayed. “Production companies will say, ‘It’s going to be called something sensitive’ and it ends up being called something like Trapped Bodies Get Sliced Up!” So McConnell decided to assemble his own team, and then hand over creative control to the director Jeanie Finlay. The result is Seahorse (so called because the male carries the young), a tender – and rather wonderful – documentary about love, family, breakups, fallouts, raging hormones and the complexities of identity.
McConnell lives in the seaside town of Deal, Kent, close to where he grew up. He says he felt safer here when he was pregnant than he would have in London. “People looked out for me. It’s small. I’d never have felt comfortable being pregnant at work.”
He’s right: the town is small. Within two minutes of walking into the centre we chance upon McConnell’s father, a local shop owner. Like his son, he is well-spoken with a military bearing. His father doesn’t appear in the film; their relationship was one of the fallouts from the pregnancy. Initially, he couldn’t comprehend why Freddy had fought so hard to become a man, and was now doing the very thing that appeared to define womanhood – having a baby.
Today, it’s very different. The exchange between the two is warm and loving. His father asks how Jack is, they hug and make babysitting plans. Of course things are different now, McConnell says: his father is no longer struggling with a philosophical concept – he simply has a grandson to love. What makes the film so human is that McConnell struggles himself with what he is doing, and asks himself the same question, about why he wants to carry his baby. The answer isn’t simple. Nor is the process he goes through to make it happen.
McConnell, 32, started taking testosterone at 25 and had “top surgery” to remove breast tissue a year later. He considered a hysterectomy, but never went through with it – partly because he had not ruled out the possibility of having children. In the film, we see how discombobulated McConnell becomes when he stops taking testosterone as he tries to conceive, using a sperm donor, and his body, in effect, goes into reverse. He starts having periods again (“I don’t like the idea that I’ve got tampons in my bag,” he winces); his facial hair gets wispier, his hips broaden, his tummy softens and he starts to speak less from his chest and more from his throat. “Every time I think about it, I think, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’” he says. At one point, a tearful McConnell sobs into the camera in the middle of the night: “I feel like a fucking alien.”
Throughout, he is encouraged by his mother, Esme, who tells him: “I loved being pregnant. Everybody should experience it – especially men.” McConnell tells me she used to say this to him when he was a child, long before she had any idea that her son was trans. On screen, his mother supports him with a mixture of tender loving care and the odd no-nonsense kick up the arse. Occasionally, when he’s feeling sorry for himself, she loses patience: “Why are you making such a fuss? It’s what you wanted.” Then she relents. “But, actually, it’s not as simple as that. It’s such a brave and amazing thing to do. I’m in awe of him, basically.”
It’s a ferociously windy day in Deal, and we head towards the cafe on the pier overlooking the North Sea and the Channel. McConnell orders pancakes and bacon with maple syrup, and tells me the thing he most wants the film to do is normalise trans people. “It sounds wishy-washy, but I thought it could be a good opportunity to spread empathy. I think empathy is key in convincing people that trans people are actually quite normal, and live lives that are not sensational or scary.”
Is there much convincing that needs to be done? “Yes, definitely. Particularly at the moment, with the rise in transphobia. It just so happened that the time I was trying to conceive and carry coincided with the rise of anti-trans rhetoric around reform of the Gender Recognition Act.” The UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004 allowed people to legally change gender with a gender recognition certificate. Last year, the government opened a public consultation on proposed changes to the act that would allow trans people to self-identify (bringing the UK into line with countries such as Denmark and Ireland). This would mean that a person no longer has to undergo an arduous and expensive process of presenting evidence to an anonymous gender recognition panel; they would simply sign a statutory declaration, akin to an oath. Some opponents of the proposed changes have argued this would increase the chances of men pretending to transition in order to access “women-only” spaces, such as prisons or refuges. Conversely, trans equality campaigners point to the fact that, while emotive, there is little evidence for this risk; service providers have argued that longstanding safeguarding measures are in place to keep all vulnerable women safe. The consultation period ended in October, and the government has yet to make an announcement on what happens next.
In the same month, the government published figures showing that, over the past 12 months, anti-trans hate crimes had risen by almost a third (from 1,248 in 2017, to 1,651 in 2018). McConnell believes much of the antipathy has been fuelled by unlikely bedfellows – the “alt-right” and some feminists, who argue that biology is destiny and therefore trans women are not really women and trans men are not really men. “Many of these people haven’t met a trans person, and the monstering and caricaturing is not based on reality,” McConnell says. “Not everyone gets a chance to meet a trans person – but that is often what changes everything for someone who can’t get their head around it. So I thought this film could be in lieu of meeting somebody – you could spend an hour and a half with me.”
What drove him to put himself through so much, physically and emotionally? “I’ve always loved kids. Before I transitioned, I considered becoming pregnant – because I’d been told transitioning would make me infertile.” But he decided it was irresponsible to have a baby then; if he was unhappy and confused, how could he give a baby the love it needed? “I thought, ‘I need to transition for my own mental health, so to become a parent now would not be a good idea.’ I needed to figure out exactly who I was before I had a kid.”
He recalls signing the consent form to start testosterone and being told it would leave him infertile. “It was like saying, ‘Yes, I accept I will never have my own children’ which seems really unfair now I know the truth. Trans men are still not being given the right information about their options, including how to carry their own children safely. We’re told we can’t, and it’s assumed we don’t want to.” Before transitioning, McConnell was told if he wanted children he should consider freezing his eggs and surrogacy. But such a route is expensive, complicated and the chances of success are small.
McConnell discovered there were trans men in America who were having babies, and spoke to his doctor about becoming pregnant. Even then, he was still battling with the idea. He worried that he might be ridiculed or attacked; that people would think he was transitioning into a woman; that as a man carrying a baby he was having his cake and eating it.
“I went back and forth for ages. But for me, having that genetic link is something I felt I needed to have. It took me so long to feel OK about wanting kids, because there’s a stigma attached to it,” he says. “It took me a long time to separate identity from biology. I’m just using my hardware to do a thing. It’s pragmatic.”
There are no definitive figures when it comes to how many transgender men have given birth worldwide, or in Britain. While it is still rare, it is not quite as rare as is sometimes claimed. In 2017, the Sun hailed Hayden Cross as “Britain’s first pregnant man”. When Scott Parker got in touch to say that he had given birth a few months earlier, the paper awarded him the honour and relegated Cross to second place. In an interview with the Guardian last year, Jason Barker, who gave birth to a son eight years ago, quipped that in Britain alone “there have been about six ‘first pregnant men’”. According to figures compiled by Medicare for Australia, one of the few national surveys, 75 people who identified as male gave birth naturally or via C-section there in 2016, and 40 in 2017.
I ask McConnell why it was so important for him to carry his own child and he replies with a question of his own: why does anybody want a child? “Straight people don’t get asked, ‘Why didn’t you adopt? Why was it so important to be genetic parents?’ So why do gay and trans people get asked that?” He says it has taken him a long time to separate being trans from what his body looks like. “It is not something that I can choose, or leave behind, or change. It’s not something predicated on my physical state. It’s a thing, it’s part of me. So if I’m pregnant, it doesn’t change me being trans.”
In the film, we see McConnell and his mother reminiscing over photographs of him as a child – tomboyish, blunt-fringed, energetic. “When I look back at stuff like that, I see a little boy,” McConnell says now. The pictures brought back unhappy memories, he says, particularly the photographs taken during puberty and his teenage years. “All I can see is somebody who is so uncomfortable in their skin.”
He was a bright child. In another scene, he looks through an old school report that reads, “McConnell is a very able pupil. She is clearly highly opinionated” and says: “It’s really weird being confronted by my old name.” But we never discover what the name was. Is that deliberate? “Yes, definitely, because it’s such a trope of trans storytelling. This is my story of starting a family – so what on earth has my old name got to do with it?” At moments like these, McConnell is a funny mix of old-fashioned courtesy, diffident restraint and pugnacious certainty.
Was he ever happy as a child? He looks surprised at the question. Yes, of course, he says – he was lucky to have an understanding family, and has many good memories. “I would play make-believe with my friends at primary school. We had really intense imaginary worlds that we would disappear into.” He describes how he and a friend created a fictional male crime-fighting duo. “His dad made us business cards with our names on.” What were those names? He blushes. “I don’t think I could deal with having the exact details in print for ever! But they were very happy memories.”
Throughout his childhood, McConnell experienced gender dysphoria – though he couldn’t put a name to it back then. Can he describe how it felt? “I once heard it described as a cosmic toothache, which is quite apt. And I’d felt it ever since the age of three or four. I was a very anxious child, maybe partly because of the trans-ness, maybe something else.”
Did he speak to people about feeling he was in the wrong body? “I talked about it very rarely, but quickly realised as a young child it wasn’t an OK thing to talk about.” Why? “Because people don’t like it when little kids use terms like ‘sex change’, and they tell you to shut up.” Who? “Kids at school. I’m not sure I ever spoke to my parents about it. But I would speak to friends. I was bullied and teased for being too boyish. My mum knew I struggled with being seen as a girl, and she just told me it would be OK eventually – that I’d grow out of it, and I believed her.”
But McConnell never did, and the older he became, the more intense the dysphoria. He became obsessed with the 70s and gender-fluid rock stars such as David Bowie and Brian Eno, convincing himself he had been born in the wrong era. McConnell smiles. “But I was obviously looking in the wrong place.”
One day he decided he’d had enough of being picked on and fought back. “This guy was 14, 15, and he was calling me names, and we walked past a minibus that had a back door open. I slammed the door and it smacked him in the head.” McConnell was shocked at his reaction then, and he still sounds shocked today. “I instantly regretted it, because it fed into this narrative of me being this weird, manly…” He trails off.
He went on to study Arabic at Edinburgh University, and then fancied toughing it out as a war correspondent. But he meandered and moped through his early 20s – almost joining the prestigious Sandhurst military school (he had been in the cadets at school and was a good shot), travelling in the US, Yemen and Afghanistan, where he combined teaching with skateboarding, rock climbing and journalism. He was followed everywhere by that cosmic toothache. “I hated my early 20s. I just didn’t know what was going on. I don’t think it’s possible to explain what gender dysphoria is like to somebody who doesn’t feel it. All I know is testosterone and my transition changed everything and made life not just livable, but enjoyable. The self-questioning, second-guessing quietened down. It didn’t go totally, because that’s just part of who I am. But the gender dysphoria disappeared.”
More than anything, Seahorse is a love story – or a series of love stories. There is McConnell and his son, McConnell and his mother, and McConnell and CJ. At the beginning of the film, CJ and McConnell are living together as best friends and partners. CJ is non-binary and uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. “My partner and I both have ovaries,” McConnell explains to the camera. We see the two of them sitting on the sofa with their laptops, looking at sperm donor sites. “This is like our version of having sex,” laughs McConnell. “Talking about having a child together, and the ideal donor.”
“It’s very satisfying,” CJ says.
“Then we have a cigarette afterwards.” They laugh.
But halfway through the film, CJ decides not to parent a child with McConnell. “CJ’s told me they’re not involved any more,” a devastated McConnell tells his mother. The idea of being a solo parent is a different prospect, and initially he is full of doubt: what is he doing to his body, is it safe, is he capable of bringing up a child alone? Meanwhile, the withdrawal of testosterone is playing havoc with his hormones. In a moment of glorious bathos, McConnell tells the camera, Garbo-like, that he wants to be left alone. He laughs when I remind him of this now, all the tears and drama. “I felt so bad for my mum. She had to put up with me.”
We walk from the beach to fetch Jack from nursery. McConnell cuddles his son, checks that everything has gone well this morning (he has only recently returned to part-time work), and hooks the baby into his carrier. We walk to their home – a leaky, 200-year-old, two-bed Georgian terrace McConnell bought from his great-aunt.
On the way there, he tells me how content he is. “I’m more settled, confident, happier than I’ve ever been. Some of that has to do with transition, and some has to do with getting older and understanding myself better.”
He talks about how lucky he was throughout his pregnancy, the support he received from family, friends and NHS staff. Did he get any abuse from strangers? “No, because I carried quite small the whole way through. It was a huge relief.” Rather than looking like a pregnant man, he says, he just looked like a fat one. “My mum noticed that men’s bellies sit very similarly to the way pregnant bellies sit. So nobody’s going to think you’re pregnant. People read gender in less than a second – so if I had a beard, it would not matter what the rest of my body looked like, they would read me as male.”
After the horrors of the pregnancy, McConnell says, the actual labour was wondrous. “All through the pregnancy I thought, ‘Please don’t ever allow me to do this again.’ But my birth experience was extremely positive. It was just incredibly…” His emotions get the better of him, and he starts again. “There is a strong case to be made for it being the peak human experience, if it goes well. I cannot imagine ever experiencing anything as incredible or as transcendent as that.”
Yes, he says, of course he worried about the birth being filmed, but that soon faded. “It was a big room and it was dark, so I was able to ignore the camera people, and they respected my boundaries. But now I’m so glad it’s captured.” Not least for Jack. “I look forward to sharing everything with him. I’m going to be totally open at every stage – whatever is age-appropriate.”
Does he want more children? McConnell smiles. “I would love to have more children, but I’d also love to not have to carry them, necessarily. Though I haven’t ruled it out.” So he has ruled out lower surgery for the time being? “Erm, yeah. Yeah.” He squirms at the question. Too personal? “Ruled out seems strong.”
His living room is dominated by a huge play area for Jack. Nautical paintings by McConnell’s great-grandfather Charles McConnell, one of two brothers who started a successful tobacco company, hang on the wall. Next to the door is a large photo of a gorgeous, blond, blue-eyed baby, a carbon copy of Jack. “That’s me,” McConnell says. “Look, you can see the same heavy eyelids!”
He is anxious about how Seahorse will be received, but glad to have made the film. He feels he has done his duty. “I kept saying, ‘Why don’t we hear more from trans men?’ And then I thought, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.” What does he want people to get from the film? “I’d like people to feel they can relate to whatever bit of the story echoes with their own experience. Hopefully people will come away thinking they’ve seen something relatable, a universal story about love and family and wanting to have kids.”
As for McConnell, a part of him would like to put the film out, retreat to the margins and live the rest of his life in peaceful obscurity. But a bigger part of him feels his mission has only just begun.
• Seahorse, made in association with the Guardian, debuts at the Tribeca film festival on 27 April. It will screen on the BBC Storyville strand later this year.
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