Summers, A.K. Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag, a Graphic Memoir. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2014.
In 2005, two years after the birth of her son, A.K. Summers began working on a biographical comic about her experience being a pregnant butch lesbian. Initially envisioned as a short comic zine, Summers soon realized that she wanted to say a lot more and developed it for eight years. Pregnant Butch was serialized on webcomic site ACT-I-VATE from 2012 to 2013 and published as a graphic novel the following year.
This timeframe is important to point out: although the publication date is 2014, the story took place in 2003 and Summers’ observations and experiences harken from that time period. A lot has changed in the queer milieu, both legally and socially, so this comic functions as a sort of time capsule of early-2000’s New York lesbian culture.
There are a lot of funny, thoughtful, and poignant moments in Pregnant Butch. Summers humorously describes her aversion to traditional feminized reproductive terms—“Is there a term we can use other than ‘pregnancy’? It’s always made me squeamish”—and comes up with her own: “fetal corpulence” and “uterine glut.” She also does a hilarious send-up of Ina May Gaskin’s counterculture birthing narratives.
In addition, Summers muses about gendered embodiment during her pregnancy: on the one hand, her growing belly unexpectedly allowed her to pass as a stout man; on the other hand, she had to endure relentless heteronormativity during birth classes and elsewhere. Many people assumed that a lesbian couple would adopt, or the femme would carry the baby. And some people changed their treatment of her, calling her “mommy” and interfering with her butch role.
There was one strip that unsettled me with its ignorance of and insensitivity toward trans identities. The caption reads, “This is the age of the transman. It’s an anxious time to be a butch.” A buff trans man says, “I don’t go by ‘butch’ anymore. Call me ‘Todd.’” Summers has a thought bubble that says, “Just call me ‘Clarence.’” The strip seems to be conflating trans male identity with female masculinity; Summers goes on to worry about being an “endangered species” on the next page. It’s hard to know how to read this strip. Certainly, I can empathize with a lesbian expressing anxiety about formerly lesbian-identifying friends coming out as men; change can be very difficult when an idea is new. But it’s difficult to know if she’s trans-anxious or transphobic, which makes it complicated for me to enjoy the book as a whole.
Overall, Pregnant Butch is an interesting and insightful glimpse into a rarely-represented pregnancy experience. The art style switches between realistic and cartoony, which seems fluid and engaging most of the time, but a little clunky at times, especially when it switches rapidly in the same strip. Summers enjoys drawing herself as Tintin and does a wonderful job paying homage to Hergé in several panels. Because it was compiled from a series, the timeline jumps around a little and some topics are not delved into as deeply as I would have liked. Still, it’s an important addition to the canon of pregnancy memoir as well as butch-femme culture representation. Also, as a librarian, I LOVED that Summers included a Works Cited section with further resources on queer culture, history, comic inspirations, and popular culture and literary references.