Special Reports

Chapter 1: The man in the maternity ward

“Parts of my body haven’t always represented who I really am and how I see myself,” says Liam Johns.
Follow the intimate journey, from pregnancy to fatherhood, in this five-part series about a transgender man in Charlotte challenging one of society’s most-ingrained assumptions: that only women give birth.

Liam Johns steps inside the ultrasound clinic and looks around.

He’s relieved the waiting room is empty. Maybe no one will notice me, he thinks.

Liam is 5-foot-6, with a beard and a baby bump.

As he takes a seat, the door to the ultrasound room swings open and he hears a conversation down the hall. The voices get louder. Liam’s mind races as a pregnant woman and her family head his way:

Will they see me, he wonders. What will they think?

As the group turns the corner toward him, Liam inches lower and lower in his chair. Head down, he stares at the clipboard on his lap until they exit.

Then he watches the clinic manager searching for her next patient.

“I saw the look on her face,” Liam says.

He tells her: “It’s okay. I’m a trans man — and I’m pregnant.”

“Oh,” the woman smiles and says, “You’re my first one!”

Liam Johns and husband Duane Danielson challenge one of society’s most ingrained assumptions — that only women give birth. The Charlotte Observer followed the year-long journey of Liam’s pregnancy to fatherhood.

‘Who I really am’

Liam, for as far back as he can remember, has longed to have children. But it was only recently, in his late 20s, he imagined himself pregnant.

He’s not the first transgender man to have a baby. While there’s no official data or record-keeping on trans men giving birth, the recognition of “first” is typically given to Thomas Beatie. Beatie appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008, when he was about six months pregnant. Although headlines announced Beatie as “the world’s first pregnant man,” trans health experts say it’s likely hundreds came before him.

Liam remembers watching Beatie’s interview with Oprah. Back then, Liam was 19 years old and just beginning his own transition from female to male. He says he’d never felt like the “girl” other people said he was.

“I didn’t hate my body,” he remembers. “But parts of my body haven’t always represented who I really am and how I see myself.”

The road to becoming Liam started with small steps in high school, when he shaved his head, wore men’s clothing and confided in a few close friends he was transgender. Later, with the help of hormone injections, Liam grew a beard and soon after, legally changed his name and gender. Then, at 27, he had cosmetic surgery to remove his breasts and reconstruct his chest.

After 10 years of physical transformation, Liam says, he finally felt comfortable in his own body. The confidence — he hoped — would be enough to challenge one of society’s most-ingrained assumptions: that only women give birth to babies.

His journey to fatherhood, though, almost didn’t happen.

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Liam Johns, 30, tried for a year to get pregnant before meeting his husband. Matt Walsh

‘Daddy Liam’

“Do you want kids?”

Duane Danielson remembers a mutual friend of his and Liam’s asking him that question in the summer of 2017. It seemed odd and abrupt considering he and Liam hadn’t even been introduced yet. Still, Duane answered “Yeah, I guess.” He agreed the matchmaker could introduce him to Liam at a dinner planned for the solar eclipse.

Liam, fresh off a broken engagement, had already been off testosterone injections and was trying to start a family for almost a year.

He’d dated both men and women but his relationships always seemed to fizzle when he’d bring up wanting kids. None of the women wanted to be pregnant. None of the men were interested in adoption or surrogacy.

“I was turned off to finding love,” Liam said. “I wanted to make myself happy and have a child.”

If he was going to have a baby, he decided at age 28, he’d have to get pregnant himself. He imagined being a single father and told his friends they could call him “Daddy Liam.”

“It would just be me and my child against the world,” he said.

So, despite their chemistry when he and Duane first met, Liam told Duane what he really needed was a sperm donor — not a boyfriend. If things worked out, they agreed, Duane would be the baby’s “cool Uncle Duane.”

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Liam and Duane, shown here at Charlotte’s Pride Festival, were introduced in 2017 by a mutual friend and felt a connection right away. Diedra Laird

‘He wanted a family, too’

Their first few dates started as dinner and drinks, but Liam and Duane remember how they’d find themselves talking for hours, late into the night.

Duane listened intently as Liam opened up about his life.

The earliest memories were the happiest: long summer days spent outside, climbing trees and roaming the woods with his brothers. At night, surrounded by baby dolls, Liam would sit quietly on a bedroom floor. His mother says he’d pick them up, one-by-one, carefully cradling each doll.

Then, Liam told Duane about middle school.

Around age 12, Liam looked angrily at a female figure in the mirror. In hindsight, he says, this is when he knew his body was headed in a direction he didn’t want to go. His hips had grown wider and now that the girls in class were suddenly much taller than the boys, it seemed everything felt awkward.

His mother told him it was about time to start wearing a bra.

“It was hell,” Liam says.

Even though Duane’s childhood was different, he still saw pieces of himself in Liam’s story.

He remembers feeling pressure to “act more like a boy” and follow gender expectations. And later, when he came out as gay, Duane’s mother was supportive. But many other family members stopped talking to him altogether.

These past struggles bonded them quickly after they met.

“We got closer and closer,” Liam says.

In September 2017, after two months of dating, Duane moved into the house Liam shares with his father.

“I always knew that I wanted children,” Liam says. “I started to see that he wanted a family, too.”

A week later, they got married.

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Liam says he’s always wanted a family but he feels self-conscious about how others will perceive him, like at this ultrasound at My Sunshine Baby in Charlotte, N.C. Diedra Laird

The pregnancy test

Liam took the last pregnancy test into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. A few moments later, he joined Duane on the couch and laid it on the coffee table in front of them.

He closed his eyes as Duane set a timer on his phone.

The instructions said to wait five minutes — an eternity.

It was January 7, 2018. He and Duane had been trying to get pregnant for four months.

Every time, Liam says, felt like a failure.

But this time, Duane gently nudged him.

“Look,” he said.

Liam opened his eyes.

He saw a plus sign and three letters: YES.

“Oh my God,” he screamed. “I’m pregnant!”

Read “He/Him/His,” Chapter 2 of #TeamPregnantDad.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

#TeamPregnantDad

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.

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Anna Douglas is an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Previously, she worked as a local news reporter for The (Rock Hill) Herald and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., for McClatchy. Anna is a past recipient of the South Carolina Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and the Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Journalism Award. She’s a South Carolina native, a graduate of Winthrop University, and a past fellow of the Dori Maynard Diversity Leadership Program, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Anna has lived in Charlotte since May 2017.
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