My twin brother, Eli, is jealous of sea horses.
They are the only animal species in which the male gives birth to the offspring. Male sea horses have brood pouches where the female deposits her eggs. The eggs then hatch in the father's pouch, where the young continue to live until they are expelled into the ocean after strenuous labor.
Eli is a transgender man, and lived the first 20 years of our lives as my fraternal twin sister. I have plenty of memories of my twin as a little girl, as Emma, not Eli.
When we were 5, mother made our favorite breakfast of buckwheat pancakes on weekends, shaping batter into K's and E's, for Kate and Emma.
One morning, Emma, pretending she was a chicken, took two eggs from the counter and placed them next to each other on the carpet. I remember it was a pair of eggs, because even at our young age we knew what it meant to be twins, and whenever we played house, babies came in twos.
Emma jammed her thumbs under her armpits and pumped her arms in excited flutters before crouching gently above the eggs, as if to incubate them. Then it was over. The mother hen accidentally sat on her eggs.
Emma stood up, crying, as egg whites ran down the backs of her legs. As a 5-year-old girl, she couldn't have known how her relationship with eggs would again be tinged with tragedy when she was an adult.
Facing tough choices
Growing up a twin, I thought everything that happened to my counterpart would happen to me. But our shared experience diverged at age 20, when Emma realized, after several years of grappling with gender, that she wasn't meant to be female.
He was male, and he chose Eli as his new name.
Soon hormone replacement therapy would begin to change Eli's female body to match his male sense of self.
Even as this process raised new questions for our family, the more clearly Eli articulated his identity, the closer I felt to him. Our mother's support was more tempered by concern about the inevitable struggles to come: How would Eli be viewed in society? How would he raise a family?
Eli's gender transition has occurred in many stages. And while some aspects of his metamorphosis (the deepening voice, the chest surgery) are permanent, other changes, such as Eli's new musculature and the redistribution of body fat away from his hips, would reverse if he were to stop hormone therapy.
But when it comes to the effects of testosterone on the female reproductive system, the impact is profound. Reproductive options for transgender men become more limited the longer they take testosterone.
Eli has confided in me his reservations about sacrificing this element of female experience. He now must reconcile the reality of his physical transition with his desire to have biological children.
Researchers continue to explore reproductive technologies, yet even with possible breakthroughs, my brother's chance of successfully bearing his own child depends on society's willingness to embrace a new understanding of pregnancy as an experience no longer reserved for women – an understanding, in fact, that not all people with a uterus are women.
Sometimes the realization that Eli might not be able to bear children of his own suffocates me, and I ache for answers. We talk often about his worries, and they have become my own, as with everything we share.
Eggs with a genetic link
What 23-year-old should have to face such choices? Eli is full of life, yet soon to be rendered infertile by the very treatment that has made possible his visions of himself as father. And so we wait for the day when science might make a sea horse of him.
I found myself staring at an ad for a fertility clinic appealing for “exceptional egg donors.” I tensed with the recognition of a truth I had known (if never spoken) since the day Eli called to announce his transition: If he ever needs eggs that have a genetic link to his own, I will give him mine.
They could be implanted in a female partner or surrogate, or, in the event we do become like sea horses, in him. There's something reassuring in the possibility, however remote.
Bidding on eBay
As my brother's transition threaten his tranquillity, my family has turned to the sea horse to give us perspective.
My mother? She has started bidding on sea horse paraphernalia on eBay. With a potential grandmother's curiosity, she daydreams about Eli's children but approaches the situation with a mother's patience.
For just over two years, Eli's body has carried the testosterone that is responsible for the biggest – he sometimes says only – sacrifice of his transition: the loss of his fertility.
While we no longer call ourselves sisters, our identity as twins is unchanged, and we remain connected: by friendship, by ink and by our shared conviction that, like the male sea horse, Eli will be an excellent father.