When Liam came out 10 years ago, his mother didn’t know anyone else who was transgender.
With time, though, she only occasionally slipped up and used the wrong name or pronoun. It bothered Liam but he chalked the mistakes up to “muscle memory.”
Through the years, Liam’s father, Leon, never really got the hang of it and it strained their relationship. But shortly after Liam, at age 27, had chest surgery, Leon suffered a stroke and Liam had his dad move in with him so he could help care for him.
The stroke left Leon with impaired speech and memory problems. While still hurtful to hear his dad say “she” instead of “he,” it became easier to forgive when Liam realized Leon couldn’t help it.
Recently Liam and Duane drove Leon to visit family in Virginia and his dad bragged about his soon-to-be grandchild. But he repeatedly referred to Liam as “my daughter.”
“He doesn’t really get it right,” Liam said. “All he knows is he’s happy he’s getting a grandchild.”
For his mother, Liam’s pregnancy resurrected old ways of thinking.
Rosalyn has always kept, on the top shelf of the closet in her bedroom, a framed picture of Liam as a child.
“I go look at it every now and then,” Rosalyn said. “She was my little girl.”
Still, Rosalyn said she accepts, loves and embraces Liam and feels her child, her son, is the same person she sees in that old photo.
Her son’s pregnancy, though, has challenged Rosalyn’s understanding of the differences between a person’s sex and gender.
Rosalyn said she was trying to pay Liam a compliment when she told him: “You’ll be a good mother.” But Liam corrected her: “... a good father.”
Rosalyn later explained that it’s difficult to “look at a person who’s giving birth and call him a ‘he.’”
“He’s don’t have babies,” she said.
To Liam, “It’s like they’ve gone backward.”
“It sucks,” he said. “They’ll catch themselves and my mom and grandma will say, ‘Well, you know what I mean.’ But it still makes me uncomfortable.”
Even now, as Liam enters his fifth month of pregnancy, Rosalyn wonders how Liam and Duane will respond when their child is old enough to ask, “Who’s my mommy?” (Duane says they plan to use “age-appropriate honesty” and Liam says they’ll explain: “You have two daddies. Both daddies made you and one carried you and gave birth to you.”)
Some friends — even the ones who regularly use the right pronouns — see his physical appearance with pregnancy and “want to call me ‘Mama,’ ” Liam says.
The further along he gets in pregnancy and in time without testosterone injections, it seems even his own body has betrayed him.
“I’m frustrated all the time,” Liam says, his voice cracking between the words. “I’ve gotten my hips back. And my ass — it came back with a vengeance.
“I love my baby bump. I look at it in the mirror all the time … But I still see myself as male.”
Lean back and relax, the ultrasound sonographer tells Liam as he heaves himself onto the examination table and tugs his shorts down just past his hips. At this June 27 appointment — Liam’s 28-week check-up — his OB/GYN notices troubling symptoms.
Dr. Ginger Dickerson worries Liam is developing preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that can threaten the life of both the person carrying a child and the fetus. Hospitals in the past 20 years have documented a rise in preeclampsia and estimate at least 5 percent of all pregnant people will experience it.
Liam has classic preeclampsia signs — high blood pressure and rapid weight gain — and Dickerson warns that preeclampsia can restrict the flow of blood to Liam’s placenta, hurting the supply of blood and oxygen to his baby. It also puts Liam at higher risk of an emergency c-section to deliver before his September 18 due date.
And if the birth is too early, the baby could have its own health challenges. This prognosis adds to an already stressful week for Liam and Duane.
“It’s raining and pouring right now,” Liam says, explaining Duane couldn’t come to the ultrasound appointment because he’s in the hospital recovering from kidney stones.
Because Duane has missed several days of work, he and Liam struggle to pay their rent and bills on time. Liam, too, has been sick and unable to work extra shifts. It all fuels Liam’s anxiety, which already leaves him frequently unable to leave the couch.
Inside the ultrasound room, Liam watches the sonographer squeeze a glob of clear jelly on his abdomen and rub it below his navel. A grainy black and white image comes up on the monitor — Liam calls this his “duderus” (dude+uterus).
Eyes fixed on the screen, Liam tucks his arms behind his head like a pillow. Back and forth, back and forth, the ultrasound wand searches for the baby’s heartbeat.
Liam smiles when he hears it: A static-filled 145 beats per minute playing through the ultrasound machine.
Despite Liam’s health issues, Dickerson says, the baby looks and sounds healthy. And the ultrasound answers the question everyone’s been asking — “Is it a boy or girl?”
‘The theme is rainbows and unicorns’
More than 100 invitations go out to Liam’s and Duane’s friends for an August 4 baby shower. It’s a drop-in event at a bar in Charlotte where Liam used to work and the special instructions for guests say:
“Please, no pinks or blues. The theme is rainbows and unicorns.”
Liam and Duane know the sex of the baby and they had a name picked out even before Liam got pregnant. But they haven’t told their friends, so some people are frustrated, Liam says.
When a few people ask whether they’ll have a “gender reveal” party, Liam is annoyed, upset that even some of his own friends use the words “gender” and “sex” interchangeably.
“Sex and gender are two different things,” Liam says. “You have your sex organs and then you have your gender identity. And you have gender expression: how you may express a gender you identify with.”
For years, Liam says, he’s been trying to teach those people closest to him about the differences. But lately he doesn’t have the energy, so Duane handles the questions.
One friend writes on Facebook: “How am I supposed to know what to send the little one without knowing the gender?” Duane suggests he buy gender-neutral clothes.
Another person replies: “Just send it whatever. Girls can wear dinosaurs and boys can wear pink.”
‘Am I safe?’
Liam and Duane have a list of things they need for their baby and they want to go shopping for their gift registry, but getting to the store has been hard.
“I’m having panic attacks just thinking about leaving the house or communicating with the outside world,” Liam says.
He waits for Duane to have a day off work so they can go together. As they pull into the parking lot of the Buy Buy Baby store in south Charlotte, Liam finds an open spot near the front.
The driver’s side door opens slowly. Liam’s exasperated when he reads a sign just a few inches from the hood of his car:
“Parking for expectant mothers and parents with newborns.”
He’s still shaking his head as he and Duane walk toward the store and its automatic doors slide open. Inside, they see a group of employees huddled near a row of cash registers.
All at once, the workers turn to face them.
Liam freezes, his face flush.
The last time they went shopping for baby items, a man and woman gawked at them while they looked for organic baby formula at Target, Liam says. Even though the other couple didn’t say anything, Duane remembers, it was awkward.
Liam says he’s come to expect the worst. But inside Buy Buy Baby, he notices one of the employees waving at them.
“Hi, y’all,” she says. “Are you starting a registry?”
Her smile disarms him.
Walking toward her, Liam rubs the palms of his hands in small circles over his belly. She gives them a welcome bag with free samples and coupons. Then Liam and Duane head off, armed with a registry scanner to shop for pacifiers and bottles.
On almost every aisle, though, Liam glances over his shoulder to see if anyone’s staring.
A few feet from them, there’s a woman shopping for breastfeeding supplies. And behind them, there’s a man walking with a pregnant woman toward the furniture department.
Liam’s struck with a jolt of fear.
“There’s inner anxiety about how I’m being perceived,” he says later. “I feel like I have to hide it.”
He says he’d rather people come up and ask him how far along he is or ask him other questions instead of staring silently. The double-takes in public leave Liam feeling judged and unwelcome.
It’s an experience of isolation and fear common among trans people. The National Center for Transgender Equality advocacy group’s annual surveys show that more than 1 of 4 trans men and women report having been physically assaulted or attacked at some point in their life because of their gender identity. And FBI crime statistics, along with other sources, show hate crimes and murders of trans people have been on the rise in recent years, with the violence disproportionately victimizing trans people who are African-American, Latino or another racial minority.
For years, Liam says, he was on high alert when out in public, but once testosterone transformed his appearance, he felt safer because few people would know he’s trans unless he told them.
Now, though, his beard and pregnant body make it abundantly clear Liam is a transgender man. He’s again overwhelmed with fear of how other people will treat him each time he leaves the house.
“It brings up awareness of ‘Am I safe or am I not safe?’ … And at the end of the day, I think we all want to feel safe in whatever environment we are in.”
The power of testosterone
By the midpoint of his pregnancy, Liam doesn’t leave home very often. It’s partly because people stare and he feels unsafe and partly because he doesn’t feel like himself without testosterone.
“My whole life has been a hormonal roller coaster,” Liam says. “I feel like I’m being poisoned with estrogen … People underestimate the power of hormones — they’ll make or break you.”
Duane tries to comfort him and, when Liam can’t bear to be seen in public, Duane goes out for groceries or to pick up take-out for dinner. Most nights, after Duane gets home from a late-night shift at the hospital, he sits with Liam on their couch and rubs his feet until they drift off in front of Grey’s Anatomy.
It helps, Liam says. But by July, he is inconsolable.
On the worst days, emotions boil over. Sometimes Liam screams or cries. Sometimes, both.
“I don’t mean to be mean,” he says.
“I know you don’t,” Duane answers.
They knew there would be sacrifices to have a family but Liam says it was hard to predict exactly how pregnancy would affect him.
“We’re getting the family we always wanted. But what I have put my body through … If anybody wanted family as much as we did,” he says, “I think they would do it.”
Their due date still two months away, Liam says he’ll feel better when he restarts testosterone six to eight weeks after the baby is born.
“It will be beneficial to both of us,” he says. Then he looks to Duane and adds: “And you can have your husband back.”
Taking his hand, Duane says, “You never left.”
In the middle of the night, Liam wakes up in pain. His face throbs with an excruciating headache and he thinks he’s having pre-labor contractions.
He looks over at Duane, who is sleeping after a long shift at the hospital. When the pain doesn’t pass, he wakes Duane up.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Liam says.
It’s 5 a.m. on July 21. Now, for the fifth time in Liam’s pregnancy, he and Duane return to the emergency room, where nurses find Liam’s blood pressure is dangerously high. He’s admitted and put on pain meds while being constantly monitored with a fetal heart rate belt strapped across his stomach.
Throughout the day, the hospital staff try to lower Liam’s blood pressure with medication. But by that evening, he and Duane are told it appears the medication isn’t working.
The next morning, the doctors say Liam could need a cesarean section. It’s a last resort, but Liam’s illness could force him to deliver his baby early at just under 32 weeks.
Doctors tell him and Duane they believe the baby will survive an early delivery — but the chances are high that their child could be born unable to breathe. And respiratory distress is just one of the many health issues premature infants face, the doctors say.
Liam and Duane are told to prepare: Their baby could spend a few weeks — or months — away from them, inside a critical care unit in the hospital.
Read “2 pounds, 15 ounces,” Chapter 4 of #TeamPregnantDad.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Reporter Anna Douglas and videographer Diedra Laird spent more than a year chronicling the lives of Liam Johns and husband Duane Danielson through Liam’s pregnancy and the birth of their child.
Almost all of the conversations and details in #TeamPregnantDad were personally witnessed by Douglas or Laird. In story scenes containing flashbacks or details the journalists did not witness, the Observer has reconstructed that information following extensive interviews with Liam, Duane, their healthcare providers, friends and family.
Liam had previously been featured in 2016 in an Observer profile called “Becoming Liam,” which was published around the time North Carolina lawmakers passed HB2. The law (which was later repealed) restricted access to public restrooms for transgender people who had transitioned but had not changed the sex listed on their birth certificate.