A.J. Kearns has been through many changes. Christened Vicky Anne Kearns by his Pentacostal parents, the Australian grew up as a tomboy in a household that prayed “about everything” and routinely went to church twice on Sundays.
The man born as Vicky presented as female, identified as a lesbian—he recognized his attraction to women in his early teen years—and moved out of the family home shortly after coming out to his parents. “My mum was quite distressed and upset at the time over what she considered a lifestyle choice,” Kearns told ABC’s Australian Story in a recent interview. Once he’d left home, escapist drugs and partying gave the teen “quite a few scares where I thought, ‘Oh God, this is going to kill me if I don’t change this.’”
Kearns returned to the church and began conversion therapy, a treatment that aimed to change his sexual orientation. He was asked to pray, not act on urges, and “basically attempt to, you know, be attracted to … a heterosexual lifestyle,” he said to ABC. The psychiatrist he subsequently turned to, gender specialist Dr. Fintan Harte, calls the conversion therapy “clearly nonsense” and has said the treatment can be profoundly damaging. Art, and not therapy “really saved me,” Kearns recalled.
Kearns quit drugs and earned a master’s degree, becoming a curator. In 2005, while still physically presenting as female, he met Zu White and was immediately smitten. “[I] wanted to just spend every waking second with her,” he said. The two held a civil partnership ceremony three years later. Shortly after that, Kearns told White that he considered himself to be a man.
“When A.J. told me that he felt he was male, I don’t think I was shocked,” White explained to ABC. “For me it’s about the person that you love, so that was how I was able to accept it.” The pair remained deeply in love.
Amid the intense, emotional changes occurring in Kearns’ life, he and White moved forward with plans to start a family. White gave birth to their first child, Jasper, but experienced complications during the pregnancy. Kearns, who already “mentally identified” as male, did not want White to risk a second pregnancy. He decided to hold off on his plan to physically transition so he could get pregnant instead. The same sperm donor was used for both pregnancies.
“I loved being a dad and the thought that I could, you know, create this beautiful sibling for my eldest child,” Kearns said in his interview.
“I don’t see pregnancy and birth as a female-exclusive thing,” Kearns told Australian radio show JOY 94.9. “Obviously the vast majority of the time, that’s exactly where it sits… However, there is a small portion of us that [are] male-identified that have the physical capabilities of giving birth and I was one of those.”
A chance to create life also presented an opportunity to create art, and he enlisted photographer Alison Bennett to document the process. Starting at the inception of A.J.’s pregnancy, the pair met once a month for about two years. Bennett snapped topless photos of Kearns to mark the changes that occurred in his body.
“Seeing a pregnant female body, it becomes almost impossible for people to understand you are actually a man,” Kearns told ABC. “Regardless of what clothes you wear or anything else, they start seeing this quintessential female form.”
The result of the meetings was a photo project dubbed “Inverto.” About eight months after baby Lucca’s birth, Kearns began hormone replacement therapy, a process that he had waited for “selflessly,” according to White.
“What I saw was an alignment between the inner personality and the body of my subject and collaborator,” Bennett told Women in the World. “AJ was uncomfortable but determined, presenting himself in the exaggerated female form of a pregnant body, and celebrated the onset of acne that reflected the changes that male hormones triggered… I saw somebody coming into their body, coming into the world, aligning their inner self with their physical embodiment.”
“I was over-the-moon excited when I had my first testosterone injection,” Kearns recalled on Australian Story. He was finally becoming comfortable in his own skin, but his parents refused to accept the transition and considered it “just a phase.” He described their reaction as a grieving process that he understands, one in which his parents feel as if they have lost the child—“their little girl”—they raised.
He and White, from whom he is now separated, both believe Kearns’ parents will eventually accept his transition.
“Zu and I broke up when I was transitioning, but we didn’t break up because of it. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Kearns told ABC. He and his former partner “support each other 100 percent,” and they have been with honest with their children about Kearns’ transition.
“They don’t really consider that there’s any difference. There’s Mummy and there’s Daddy and one came from Daddy’s tummy and one came from Mummy’s tummy,” White said.
“Inverto,” Alison Bennett’s photo series that documents the journey of A.J. Kearns’ pregnancy, lives online.