Once upon a time, two men fell in love. By the next day, they were parenting two toddlers.
OK, it wasn’t the next day. But Trystan Reese, now 38, and his husband Biff Chaplow, now 35, who call themselves “the accidental gay parents,” became dads early in their relationship. The two were still in their 20s when they adopted Chaplow’s niece and nephew, who needed a stable home.
But after five years, when Lucas, now 13, and Hailey, now 10, had settled into their home and Reese and Chaplow had gotten the hang of being parents, they decided to have another child. Biologically.
Reese, who was born female, carried the child. And in 2017, he gave birth to the couple’s baby boy, Leo.
And this, well, blew some people’s minds, for better and for worse. When Reese and Chaplow decided to go public with their story, media outlets clamored to tell the story of the pregnant man.
And now Reese is telling his own story in his memoir “How We Do Family: From Adoption to Trans Pregnancy, What We Learned about Love and LGBTQ Parenthood.” Spoiler alert: this is a love story upon a love story. Seriously. There is so much love in this book.
There is also so much normalcy. While “gay trans man has a baby” is what will draw many people to this book, inside, there is much to learn about how to be a parent, a partner and a member of a supportive community. Reese utterly dismantles the argument that children cannot thrive without a mother and a father at home.
That’s not to say parenting didn’t come with challenges. When Reese and Chaplow were going through the process of adopting Lucas and Hailey, they literally had to prove themselves as worthy, capable caregivers.
“We had lawyers and judges, social workers and investigators. And they’re looking at our credit card statements, they’re interviewing our doctors and bosses and touring our home, looking under our sink and double-checking the fire extinguisher in the kitchen,” he says. “We quite literally had to prove ourselves in very meaningful and obvious ways.”
With Leo, however, they were able to do things on their own terms.
“Going from zero to two kids overnight is very different from going from two to three with lots of lead time,” Reese says. “And also starting with a newborn as opposed to toddlers, because [Hailey and Lucas] were one and three when they first came to stay with us. It was just a huge, huge, huge difference. I won’t say that we knew what we were doing, but at least we knew kids could survive our parenting.” It also didn’t hurt that Leo was, as Reese says, “a super chill baby.”
“We grew so much [as parents] in those five years,” Reese says about the time between the adoption and Leo’s birth. Instead of stressing about every minute of screen time or worrying if one of the kids skipped eating a vegetable, they realized that “what really matters is making awesome memories. Having fun and going on adventures together.”
As parents, Reese and Chaplow knew what their kids needed. “Kids being surrounded by love and support, and really clear boundaries, and really good role models for what it means to be a healthy, loving person who is living a life of meaning: that’s what we know really contributes to kids feeling strong, safe, secure in their lives,” Reese says.
Reese and Chaplow were determined from the beginning to surround themselves with that love and support.
“Biff and I, both being from really conservative small towns, we know in our bodies what it means to not have support because we lived in those worlds, we lived in those communities,” Reese says.
“So the fact that we have a lot of support around us, that’s not accidental — it’s intentional,” he says. “We built that from scratch. We had to. We had to surround ourselves with people who are loving and supportive because we know what it’s like to not have that, and we knew that we were going to need it no matter what, whether we had kids or not.”
“Intentional” is a word Reese uses frequently. From the beginning, he and Biff have had to make conscious choices, often surrounding the question of how to keep themselves and their family safe.
Taking their pregnancy story public, for example, was not a decision made lightly.
“We had to shore up our physical safety in a lot of ways. And then we really talked to the kids too about their emotional safety,” Reese says. “We came to a determination that it was safe for us to tell our story, both physically and emotionally for us and for the kids. And I would say I don’t think that either of them experienced any negative consequences of us telling our story. We shielded them from the worst of it.”
Because, of course, there were negative reactions. Reese was called a “cancer on this planet” and a “disgusting circus freak.” Social media, Reese wrote in his book, became “a disgusting stew of judgment and shame.”
“While we had reached our intended goals of increasing the visibility of transgender men and sparking a larger cultural conversation about transgender people and families,” Reese wrote, “it had also resulted in my life being turned upside down as a toxic slurry of transphobia rolled over me, again and again.”
Thankfully, that supportive community Reese and Chaplow so carefully built helped them get through it. Reese also learned to avoid online comments sections.
Reese has only grown more resilient since that time. For one thing, he’s older and wiser. “I’m old as hell in trans years,” he says. “You know, I’m 38. Sadly, in many ways, I am considered a trans elder, and I’ve been in the trans movement now for 20 years. So, my sense of who I am and my worth in the world is not dependent upon what anti-trans ballot measures, or piece of legislation, or who’s trying to ride the coattails of transphobia.”
Instead, Reese focuses on being a good man, a good father, a good husband and a good transgender activist and advocate. In other words, he lives his life with intention.
Like so much else in his life, even his tattoos are intentional. “On my chest, I have this giant floral piece with my favorite flowers,” he says. “Pansies. Because ‘pansy’ is often used as an insult, but if you know anything about gardening, then you know that pansies are actually the most resilient of all the flowers. Rain, sleet, snow, flooding, drought, a pansy will show up anywhere. They’re virtually indestructible.” Reese’s tattoo art also features lilies, he says, just because he loves them. “They’re so pretty.”
Beyond the floral work, Reese says he has a tattoo of the word rebel “because I am a nerd, and I love the word rebel because it’s both a noun and a verb — you can rebel, or you can be a rebel, and so I find that very inspirational.”
Trystan is an unapologetic rebel in both senses, though he’s definitely not without a cause.