The secret gender that wasn’t

There’s been way too much media coverage and plenty of faux controversy this week about the story of parents in Canada who didn’t include “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” with the announcement of the birth of their child, Storm.

A story in the Toronto Star claims Kathy Witterick and David Stocker “are raising a genderless baby.” Here’s what they actually said:

“‘When the baby comes out, even the people who love you the most and know you so intimately, the first question they ask is, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’” says Witterick, bouncing Storm, dressed in a red-fleece jumper, on her lap at the kitchen table.

“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker.

When Storm was born, the couple sent an email to friends and family: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

Witterick and Stocker aren’t raising a genderless child. They’re just not imposing a gender on Storm without the child’s consent. They’re not actually keeping their child’s gender a secret, because they don’t know Storm’s gender. They know what’s between Storm’s legs, but it’s up to Storm, just like it should be up to all of us, to say what their gender is.

No matter how much trans or gender theory we get, even the most well meaning feminists so easily come back to the notion that someone’s real gender lives in their crotch. Trans folks are the exception – the notion is that our brains hold a different gender than our crotches. But the fact is, everyone’s understanding of gender comes from so many places. A relatively small group of people ever see what’s between your legs. Yet we let a medical professional take one glance at a baby and put them in one gender box – male or female – that they’re supposed to remain in for the rest of their lives, with very few exceptions.

Storm’s parents have simply decided their child should get to figure out their gender themselves. Which, really, is how gender should work. It shouldn’t be that big a deal–kids usually come to an understanding of their gender identity at a fairly young age. Usually, it’s relatively aligned with what’s assigned. But this is something for everyone to figure out on their own. This is why I often feel lucky as a trans woman, because I got to find my own gender, even though an incorrect one was assigned to me and then forced on me despite not fitting. We should all be so lucky, all be able to define ourselves on our own terms, instead of having a gender imposed on us.

That’s all Witterick and Stocker are doing, based on their statements. Quite frankly, I don’t see it as that big a deal, except that we live in a culture that considers fitting into your assigned gender box to be so fucking important. In that context, it is a big deal to break out of the tyranny of assigned gender. But really, kids figure this stuff out anyway, unless there’s way too much pressure on them to conform to what’s assigned. These parents are just trying to keep some of the pressure off.

It’s not actually the end of the world, but as Vanessa pointed out recently, gender is soooo scary!

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19 Comments

  1. Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I still am not sure what my gender is. But I now wonder whether looking at that issue as a “problem” has done me much good at all.

  2. Posted May 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I see stuff like this it freaks me out.

    Hope the parents teach Storm really early to shout “no” when someone decides they’re going to find out what sex s/he is. Because it’s going to happen. People are stupid, entitled monsters and I wouldn’t put it past some busybody to stick their hands down a kid’s pants in order to “put the matter to rest.”

    • Posted May 26, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      Aghhhhh!!!! I didn’t think of that as a possible outcome, but now it’s going to haunt me. I’m enough of a pessimist to believe that just might happen.

  3. Posted May 26, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s pretty great of this family to be so open and hold in such high regard the freedom for an individual (especially their child) to make their own decisions about their gender identity. I don’t quite see the point of the secrecy as it’s being played up in the media. What is wrong with letting your family and friends and whoever else wants to know that your child is physically/ medically male or female while at the same time not subscribing to and enforcing gender rolls? I’m not saying there’s any reason beside social norm for parents to announce or broadcast their child’s sex/gender but I don’t see why they decided to not give information about their child’s actual sex to those who might be interested in their families rather than just announce that the child was “x” sex but they would be raising them without gendered restrictions and any baby gifts should be gender neutral.
    Am I the only one who sees a difference between sex and gender in this case and many cases of ‘ambiguous’ gender? I know that it can be very difficult to handle feeling that your gander and sex don’t match up but by seemingly pretending that their child’s sex doesn’t even matter this story is being played as more controversial than it really is.

    • Posted May 26, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s the parent’s fault this story became so controversial. And I don’t think it would have gotten them very far to just ask nicely that people not gender their child after telling them Storm’s sex — and I think they know that, which is why they approached it the way they did. No, you’re not the only one who sees a difference between sex and gender here; what the parents are seeing is that the overwhelming majority of people just can’t separate those two. In fact, most people believe so strongly that they’re entitled to gender an infant based on their sex that some of them are actually angry about being denied their ability to make that association. This kind of gendered policing runs very deep and sometimes the only way you can shift it at all is to completely change the rules.

    • Posted May 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      OMG THANK YOU!

      *deletes her own long-ass rant*

  4. Posted May 26, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this! I live in Toronto and have been following the articles here, but so far haven’t seen anything as well written as this.

  5. Posted May 26, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Storm’s story is very near to the fictional piece on gender “Baby X – A Child’s Story Without Gender”. A great piece to read if you have an interest in this family’s decision.

  6. Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    The Star has quite the moral panic worked up here. There have been multiple followup articles, even a poll asking readers whether they think Storm is a boy or girl. One columnist wrote a screed talking about how parents have to “set boundaries” and noting that *her* children don’t know what the word gender means.

    This is supposed to be the “liberal” paper in town, though perhaps “Liberal”, as in the centrist party up here, may be more accurate.

    I’m plenty disgusted with the Star’s efforts to continue milking their self-generated controversy. The other papers we have in town tend to be even worse.

  7. Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I have something to say, but first I want to quickly address the comments above me: oppression happens, whether you raise your child neutrally or not. People are sexually assaulted all. the. time. But that does not make us stop assigning our “female” children “female.” No parent would raise their child male simply to lower their risk of being assaulted. And there are different ways that people interact with boys and girls-it is socialized into us from a young age. That is why not revealing the sex would be so important (to me, at least). People would mispronoun and shame them for being girly (as can be seen in their other children, who clearly have shame around being “girly boys” imposed on them by society).

    I think my biggest problem with it though is the fact that not once did this article mention a queer theorist. I found discussing trans identity with two people who seemed to have never heard of any concept outside of the gender binary kind of offensive to queer people. And Diane Ehransaft (sp?) assigning words to genderqueer people like “smoothie” is just plain offensive. The theorizing has been done. People legitimately identify with words that don’t belittle their identities, like genderqueer, omnigendered, two spirit, etc. This article totally erases trans voices (which are the font of gender theory) from the discourse around being trans/gender theory.

  8. Posted May 26, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I think it is great of the parents to be so open about their child’s identity, yet I wonder if this will cause anxiety for the child later on. Although teasing is endured by all children, and, to an extent, can make them stronger individuals, I think the questions and harassment about gender could be too much for a small child.

    My baby brother, (who, by the way, is an awesome nailpolish-wearing, doll-playing, dress-wearing, dancing, baseball-playing, football-playing, car-racing, toygun-toting, confident nine year old–can you tell how proud I am of him and his ability to tell off idiotic gender-bullies and defy what his classmates expect from a boy?) can be occasionally put to tears by the questions about his speech peculiarities. I can’t imagine the upset he would endure if he had to be constantly explaining that his parents don’t refer to him as ‘he’ or ‘she.’

    Perhaps it is better to use medical sex as a starting point and make it clear to one’s child that gender experimentation is normal and that you will support whatever identity they take on. That way, if the child does turn out to be transgendered, they can decide for themselves how and when to talk to their classmates about their identity. That could ultimately be more empowering. Just a thought.

    • Posted May 27, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I would tend to agree. While it’s true that gender-based socialization can become very polarizing, I can’t help but feel as if this child may wind up resenting being used as a social test case – if only because it will make gender an issue whenever gendered language is used, which is all the time. This is, of course, something that I can’t know.

      On the other hand, I was raised by a mother who ALWAYS qualified her discussions of my future romantic interests by emphasizing that I could be interested in anyone I wanted, of any gender. It got to the point where I told her I was pretty much straight and she could stop wasting her breath. I knew that I could change my mind if I wanted.

      Perhaps Storm could simply be brought up to understand that the language that is being used to identify him or her (presumably) is based on sex, and that he or she is welcome to make a gender choice at any time, or reverse that choice whenever Storm sees fit.

      I will however, stop well short of saying that the parents in this case are doing anything wrong.

    • Posted May 27, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      I get the very strong feeling that whatever we do to our children is bound to leave some consequences which will at times be negative and, short of abusing them outright, we will not be entirely responsible for what they go through.

      As a for-instance: if we push them to succeed, we either set them up for greatness or for lifelong misery. If we encourage them to express their individuality: we are potentially not preparing them to conform in a very conformist society and, therefore, setting them up to fail. If we encourage discipline: we may regret turning them into the sort of unthinking robots who created the Third Reich. What is anyone to do?

      Therefore, I think these parents are brave, and above all, I hope they are loving enough to support and nurture their child through all reactions and consequences, as this is what will be truly needed.

  9. Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    My sister had a baby yesterday, and I was gritting my teeth each time I say or heard something drawing attention to the fact he was a “boy.” I mean, I kind of understand that between his ears that he is probably also a boy (or at least probably not “a girl”), and there is some convenience in just going with the apparent sex and some practicality in documenting it, but having “boy” superfluously splattered everywhere and putting him in a generic sports-related baby outfit is a bit much (even something team-specific is less gendered in my experience).

    Even going into the pregnancy, I knew I needed to show off all my the girly stuff for him, at least so he knows what’s like to see a man in a dress (and the like) before he learns that there is supposed to be something wrong with it. At least I know my sister is on board…

  10. Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Jos, you are conflating sex and gender. You’re not the first to do so, and I’m sure you won’t be the last. The parents are not letting anyone know the sex of the baby — anatomical sex, meaning female or male. When an obstetrician looks between a newborn’s legs, it’s the sex marker that’s assigned. Some use “gender” as a euphemism for sex, but that just makes thing more difficult to figure out.

    Kids sort themselves out anyway, despite some people’s best efforts to impose neutrality, and as you note, the gender (behaviour) of most kids ends up corresponding to their anatomical sex. But that is what should not be imposed. Storm is either female or male (most likely, unless the child has ambiguous genitalia or some other intersex condition). But Storm might play with trucks, play with dolls, or do something else entirely. And that’s as it should be.

    One thing Storm will probably not be, however, is gender-neutral. The sex (not gender) of Storm’s brain (which might or might not match up with the anatomical sex) will heavily influence how Storm sees themselves and how they behave.

  11. Posted May 28, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I have been following this story since a friend posted the yahoo news story on my Facebook page. The problem that I have consistently seen, in both the article itself and in subsequent commentary, is a conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’ As an academic follower of Judith Butler, I am frequently frustrated by the general desire of people to assume they are one and the same. I read this article eagerly, but found the same problem again here.

    It begins extremely well, with ‘They know what’s between Storm’s legs, but it’s up to Storm, just like it should be up to all of us, to say what their gender is.’ This implies that sex (what is between a person’s legs), is not gender (what we are socialized to be). Then it falls apart with ‘No matter how much trans or gender theory we get, even the most well meaning feminists so easily come back to the notion that someone’s real gender lives in their crotch. Trans folks are the exception – the notion is that our brains hold a different gender than our crotches.’ One’s sex lies in one’s crotch, while gender is a socialized performance. I agree that a lot of feminists make the mistake of conflating the two terms, and I have had many an argument over just this problem. This kind of ‘gender essentialism’ (the belief that gender is something innate rather than something learned) is something that is difficult to get certain people to think about critically.

    It seems like this article goes back and forth between ‘gender is essential’ and ‘gender is learned.’ The issue as I see it is, these parents are not gender essentialists, and they realize that the sex of their child does not determine their child’s behaviors, but rather that society will try and teach the child ‘gender appropriate’ behaviors, something they wish to avoid. This naturally frustrates anyone who has never questioned whether or not ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are the same thing. I for one, do not accept biological determinism, and, like Judith Butler, believe that gender is merely performative.

  12. Posted May 28, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it funny that we give gender neutral dolls to children and let them decide whether to “raise” them as a boy or a girl.

  13. Posted May 30, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I found this article http://www.ottawacitizen.com/search/Choice+Baby+Storm+simple/4847012/story.html in the Ottawa Citizen, really annoyed me. Though it tried to clarify the difference between sex and gender, it implied that the parents were performing a social experiment on defenseless children. Also, elsewhere in the paper, they specifically referred to Storm as a girl, totally disrespecting the parents’ choice to let Storm determine the matter. This is their second child, and the first was raised the same way. Were I a parent, I would want to avoid the strongly gender-specific clothing and toys, but I wouldn’t feel the need to hide a child’s sex so he or she could determine his or her gender. However, I understand why these parents are doing this, and don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. What is with all the gender policing anyway?

    • Posted May 30, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Here’s a better article, by the mother:
      http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html

      (correction to what I wrote: Storm is the 3rd child. They did not decline to reveal sex previously, but let the older two choose clothing and hairstyles regardless of whether it matches societal norms for their sex)

      It’s interesting to read what the mother has to say about the reaction to their parenting decisions, including: “the idea that the whole world must know our baby’s sex strikes me as unhealthy, unsafe and voyeuristic.”

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