It’s not an unusual occurrence: Child care needs and work commitments have forced single dad Freddy McConnell and me to shuffle our interview appointment a few times. So when we finally connect and I can hear the faint cries of a child in the background, I am surprised and delighted. Is that his son?
No, McConnell laughs, explaining that he’s taking the call from the beach in Deal, England, where he lives. “That’s another random baby. Wants an ice cream, I think.”
Though McConnell spent three years extensively documenting his journey to getting pregnant, and then his entire pregnancy and birth, he has strict boundaries about what he shares of his life with his son now, whom he asked not be named. (Other publications have referred to him with a pseudonym.) The film McConnell made was about wanting to create a family and his journey to having it, not about that family now. His infant son can’t consent.
“I can say that I’m loving being a father, though,” he does divulge. “Definitely.”
It was close to four years ago when McConnell, a writer and multimedia journalist at The Guardian, recruited trusted colleagues at the publication to help him find a filmmaker to tell his story. He’s 32 now, but then was approaching 30. It was time. He wanted to have a baby. More, he was going to carry it himself.
McConnell is trans. He was 25 when he first began taking testosterone, eventually electing to undergo top surgery. He’s fit and toned, with attractive facial hair and the pleasant English speaking voice of a schoolboy you might see in a Hollywood film. Because he knew he might one day consider having children, he never had a hysterectomy.
“I stopped giving a fuck about what anyone else thought, ultimately,” he says. “I’m going to have my own baby because it’s the simplest thing to do. It’s the most pragmatic option.”
Directed by Jeanie Finlay, Seahorse premieres Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival. Named after the only species in which males carry and give birth to their young, the film is a deeply intimate look at something both remarkable and entirely ordinary.
Seahorse follows McConnell as he decides to stop taking testosterone, struggling as his body returns to a more zaftig shape and his vocal register changes again. As he starts to become fertile, he finds himself confronting his past self and the complicated feelings about gender all over again. “I don’t like the idea that I’ve got tampons in my bag,” he says when he starts to have his period again.
But so much of what he goes through in his pregnancy is also so recognizable, for all the extraordinary circumstances—right up to the birthing scene. Suffice it to say, there’s never been a birthing scene quite like this captured on film. McConnell is shown delivering his son in realistic detail. (You could say “graphic,” in so much as any birthing scene may be.)
It’s McConnell’s candor throughout the entire journey that makes the film valuable, but perhaps its greatest power is in that scene.
“Man Gives Birth” is a headline we’ve seen splashed across glossies and featured in newsmagazine shows on a spectrum of tawdriness over the years, ever since Thomas Beatie became “The First Pregnant Man” 10 years ago. But the story becomes less outrageous and the subjects cease becoming media zoo exhibits when you see the birth, not just the photos of the pregnant man or the father and child after the fact.
There’s something both normalizing and also seismic in the impact of witnessing the delivery.
“For me, it was always, how do I tell this story that is not sensationalized in the way that lots of transgender stories have been told in the past?” Finlay says. “How can I make a story that we both feel like we own at the end of this, that feels intimate and real and small and extraordinary?”
As a journalist and as a trans person whose life has been forever changed because others have documented their own stories, McConnell knew that if he was going to go through this process, he would need to film it to share with others.
But his motivation for Seahorse was also to educate.
When he signed his consent forms to begin his testosterone treatment, he remembers being told by doctors that the treatment would leave him infertile. That is a fallacy, made worse because it is repeated to trans men and those considering taking hormones by medical professionals.
“The thing that doctors aren’t clear enough about is that, yes, being on testosterone does make you infertile, but it’s reversible,” McConnell says. “When I was thinking about becoming a dad, I didn’t know the options available to me. No one told me that I could do it this way, safely, and that I could forge a path that was unusual and surprising, perhaps—but totally valid and wonderful.”
McConnell discovered that carrying and giving birth to his own child was an option through online communities and forums he began engaging with during his transition. Specifically on YouTube, he came across vlogs (video blogs) from other trans men who had pregnancies. It was after listening to Trystan Reese, whose trans pregnancy in 2017 was covered by several major media outlets, talk about his experience on the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time that he was galvanized to pursue the journey himself.
“I think people now, especially in the U.S., are super-frustrated about how it’s still being talked about as this unusual, revolutionary thing,” McConnell says. “It’s not if you’re in this world. I just seems that way if you’re not in this world.”
A major throughline of Seahorse is the unwavering support of McConnell’s mother, Esme, who is with him throughout the entire process, including coaching him through the birth. At one point in the film, she grins to the camera. “I loved being pregnant,” she says. “Everybody should experience it. Especially men.”
McConnell conceives that he was “very naive” about how hard pregnancy would be. How does he feel now about his mother’s statement? “I’m not making it up when I say I have memories of her saying stuff like that when I was very small,” he says, laughing. “The fact that she comes from that position of understanding I suppose helps her have a trans child. I assume—I don’t want to speak for her.”
He knew that by participating in the film, he would need to help bring audiences to that position of understanding, something he says was one of the most arduous parts of the experience. Even Finlay concedes that getting her subject to open up to her about not just how his body was changing, but articulate how that feels as a trans man, was difficult, especially as the pregnancy wore on.
“I totally questioned at times why am I putting myself in the situation of doing the thing that trans people dread, which is to try and explain gender dysphoria,” McConnell says. “And not just dysphoria, but dysphoria during pregnancy to someone who, through no fault of their own, is never going to know what it means and what it feels like. It’s something that in general is impossible to explain, the trans experience.”
Filming was a sensitive endeavor, conducted largely in secret with few people knowing what exactly they were working on. No official announcement about the film was made until several months after Baby McConnell was born. Helping matters was the fact that McConnell carried his weight like many women expecting a boy do, low and around the hips. Even in his third trimester, he looked like a man who had gained a bit of a beer belly.
“One of the things we were all scared of was that he would get outed when he was pregnant,” Finlay says. “Now he’s a dad who’s getting his story out there. But ‘a man who’s pregnant’ is like a tabloid scoop.”
As such, the most monumental aspect of the film, and the thing that does the greatest job of separating it from a tabloid story, is the incredible scene of McConnell giving birth. “I was unable to edit it without crying,” Finlay says.
McConnell delivered via a water birth, and Finlay was written into his birth plan, camping out in Deal for two weeks to ensure she’d be there. She filmed much of the delivery as unobtrusively as possible from the corner of the room with a long lens trained on McConnell’s face as his mother coached him through his contractions. (Without his glasses on, McConnell jokes he was completely oblivious to Finlay’s presence.)
She had also set up a camera above the pool to capture an overhead shot of McConnell delivering his son. The footage is jaw-dropping—if you ever watched The Miracle of Birth in a high school health class, you get the idea. As the baby crowns, McConnell sits up in the pool and gives the final push, receiving his son from between his legs as the pool fills with blood. He brings the baby to his chest, cradling him as he utters his first cries.
“I hope it makes it seem real, but also normal,” McConnell says of the scene.
From the project’s inception, he knew the film wouldn’t be impactful without including the birth. Besides, he figured that lots of people’s births are depicted in documentaries and various other pieces of art. Why shouldn’t he be able to do that, too?
“Just because it’s unusual doesn’t mean it’s any less of a wonderful, valid thing to share.”