Empowering rainbow whānau, one baby at a time

By College staff writer

10 February 2022

Category: Clinical


For midwife Arlene Oram, every birth is unique and beautiful. And becoming a trusted supporter to the rainbow community as they grow their families has made her job even more special.

GP Pulse heard about Arlene’s work through our colleagues at the Health Quality and Safety Commission (HQSC). We asked a writer to interview Arlene for our Pride Month coverage because so we could share her knowledge with our membership.

Arlene runs EMPWR, an Auckland-based practice dedicated to providing quality and compassionate care to LGBTTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, takatāpui, queer, intersex, asexual and others) parents and whānau. 

After arriving in New Zealand from the UK in 2019, she was working at the Auckland Hospital labour and birthing suite when a local media story gave Arlene the push she needed to set off on her own. 

“At the time, there were several articles about a trans man who had given birth in Auckland,” she says. “The homophobic rhetoric in the news was just horrendous. It made me realise that there was very little support available for the rainbow community.”

When it comes to providing the best care for her clients, Arlene says stepping outside the usual heteronormative narrative is vital. This includes changing the language of pregnancy and birth from gendered to neutral terms, providing welcoming spaces and non-gendered bathrooms, and she’s also created her own set of rainbow-friendly resources that she gives to both LGBTTQIA+ and heterosexual families. 

“Language is such a big part of it,” she says. “I always use ‘parent’, ‘pregnant person’ or ‘birthing person’, rather than ‘mother’. In written text I refer to partner(s) to ensure the polyamorous community feel included. 

“For my resources I use neutral images with lots of variation, including non-binary people, a range of cultures, and non-normative couples, because I want everyone to feel represented. I give these same resources to straight couples and I’ve never had any pushback. It’s important to remember that not being referred to as ‘mother’ doesn’t take away from being a mother.”

Since opening EMPWR in May last year, Arlene’s had a busy caseload of clients. But despite being quick to spot the unmet need for more inclusiveness in New Zealand birthing care, she was initially hesitant to get started.

“I went back and forth with the idea for a while, thinking, ‘am I the best person to do this?’ As a cis woman [a person whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth], I didn’t want to look like I was taking up space in the rainbow community, or virtue signalling. I also did a lot of internal work to really unpack any unconscious bias.”

She recommends the BBC podcast series, ‘Pride & Joy’, the film Seahorse by documentary maker Freddy McConnell, and resources from Gender Minorities Aotearoa as a good place to start for anyone wanting to increase their understanding of LGBTTQIA+ issues. 

And for the rainbow community, a little understanding goes a very long way. 

“After doing a lot of my own research, I’ve found that one of the most common concerns among people in the rainbow community was that feeling of having to be the teacher,” Arlene says.  

“They shouldn’t have to constantly explain things to their doctor or lead maternity carer, we need to do the work to remove our own internalised homophobia. I wanted people to feel safe and enjoy the experience of being pregnant, rather than being nervous about having to teach me things.”

For Arlene, who is in the process of creating a book on conception and birth stories from rainbow whānau, starting EMPWR has been a journey with incredible rewards. 

“One of the things I didn’t anticipate before I started this is that I feel really valid and represented now too,” she says. “I’m seeing all of these beautiful rainbow families, and it’s so lovely and heart-warming.”