The Amazing Genderless Baby!
I’m just going to come right out and say it. Just because YOU can’t tell what someone’s gender is doesn’t mean they don’t have one.
Today’s topic arises from a somewhat dated news story, but it’s still extremely relevant. Last May, a Toronto couple were demonized as irresponsible, negligent parents after a story ran in the Toronto Star about their new baby, Storm, whose sex they are keeping to themselves. According to parentcentral.ca, “while there’s nothing ambiguous about Storm’s genitalia, they aren’t telling anyone whether their third child is a boy or a girl.” To be clear: baby Storm was not born intersex — ze has un-ambiguous genitalia — nor have Storm’s parents performed some sort of magical spell that zaps away hir gender. They have just decided not to tell anyone what is between Storm’s legs.
Well, talk about a (pardon the pun) shitstorm of controversy! Not only does the parentcentral article refer to Storm as “genderless”, but countless other newspapers and columnists picked up the story and parrotted the same phrase. Barbara Kay, columnist for the National Post and champion of conservatives everwhere, claimed Storm’s parents were teaching all three of their children to be ashamed of their own sex. The comments sections of these new stories abound with people claiming that “you can’t fight biology!” and “the parents can’t hide Storm’s gender from him/her forever.” According to Judith Timson over at The Globe & Mail, “by not identifying the baby as a boy or girl, the parents have given him/her no starting place from which to build a secure sexual and gender identity.” Then she starts talking about how it’s pretty much accepted that sexual orientation is something you’re “born with.”
Woah! Slow down a minute!
Sex! Gender! Orientation! Biology! People get so uptight so fast that they don’t even realize they have NO IDEA WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT. I agree with Judith Timson on that one point; I’m pretty sure sexual orientation is pre-determined (not that that matters at all), but that has nothing to do with Storm. Storm’s parents aren’t trying to determine if ze will be gay or straight. Neither are they “fighting biology”, as so many
bigots people like to claim when it comes to discussions of gender roles, norms, and stereotypes. As stated in the news stories, they know Storm’s sex, as do Storm’s siblings and a few other close friends. Storm will also be aware of hir sex once ze is old enough to, you know, comprehend language. Finally — and this is the part that bothers me most — they are NOT trying to create a “genderless” child! They are simply trying to allow Storm as much time as possible to figure out what hir gender is without tons of external forces weighing in. How on Earth people go from “I don’t know the sex” to “so that baby will have no gender!” is beyond me.
What Storm’s parents are trying to avoid is the inevitably differential treatment Storm will receive from adults once they decide whether ze is male or female. Studies have shown that gender role socialization begins the minute a baby is born and the announcement of “It’s a boy/girl!” happens. People hold and interact with babies differently, depending on what they perceive to be the baby’s sex, and therefore, gender. You see, in this binary world of ours, sex is overwhelmingly understood as being concretely and naturally male or female. Nevermind that upwards of one in every 1500 babies born are intersex and one ever 100 babies are born with bodies that differ from the standard male or female. Medical intervention into sex is rarely discussed and we are led to believe that all children are born distinctly male or female.
Once we know the sex of a baby, pretty much all children are automatically assumed to be cis-gendered — that is, that their gender identity will “align” with their assigned birth sex. It’s exptected that male children will identify as boys and female children will identify as girls. And, despite the fact that some people will tell you there’s no longer a need for feminism, we all know that gender roles and steretypes are still alive and well. Heck, they’re even marketable! These understandings of sex and gender shape and limit our choices as we are groomed to embody ‘appropriate’ gendered behaviour. Kids are perceptive and they pick up on gender norms from a very young age. Keeping this in mind, is it even surprising that Storm’s parents wish to prolong the amount of time ze remains un-sexed to the outside world? Even keeping their “secret” for as long as possible, despite their best intentions, it is almost certain that Storm’s parents, knowing hir sex as they do, will still succumb to some behavioural shifts based on preconceived notions of gender.
The fact that this decision caused such outrage amongst the Canadian news-reading public reveals much about the socially constructed nature of gender. We don’t know how to treat someone until we can identify them as male or female. Why is that? People seem to experience a sort of cognitive dissonance when faced with a person they can’t place on one side of the gender binary, thus, you get people talking about being forced to refer to someone as “it.” (Don’t do that, by the way.) Without a clear indication of sex and gender, people practically cease to be seen as human. Ironically, human is exactly how Storm’s parents would wish for their children to be treated. Not ‘female human’ or ‘male human’, just human.
From their comments, Storm’s parents seem to be open to whatever gender expression their children exhibit. They are not telling their kids to be ashamed of their sex, but rather, that a specifically masculine or feminine gender identity doesn’t necessarily follow from having certain genitalia. I think this is a brave and difficult decision, one that is already plagued by judgement, fear, and hatred. Regardless of how long they keep Storm’s sex to themselves, the motivations behind their decision are admirable and they’ve forced us to reconsider the very nature of gender and identity.