Gender neutral parenting, gender stereotyping, and the “genderless baby”

Odds are, you’ve already heard about the Toronto couple who are “hiding” their youngest child’s “gender” — I know I’ve seen stories about it show up in my various social media feeds dozens of times in the past couple days, and had no fewer than half a dozen people send me links or ask my opinion directly. I was even contacted for comment for an article about the family.

To be honest, I think I gave a particularly enthusiastic quote mostly because I’m very tired of this family — and any family who steps outside the mainstream in attempts to avoid or counter the bigotry therein — being so put down and criticized. That said, I don’t think it’s as simple as “everyone should do this!!!”

To start with, let’s get it clear that what Witterick and Stocker are doing isn’t “hiding Storm’s gender” or “keeping the baby’s gender a secret”: someone’s gender, like their sexuality, is something which only that person can reveal for themselves. What it seems, from the stories I’ve read (and that’s a big caveat, given how distorted a person’s life can become through the filters of media), that this family is doing is declining to assign their third child a gender of “boy” or “girl”. And while others are free, should they see Storm’s diaper being changed while out and about, to peer at the baby’s genitals and make their own assignment based on Storm’s apparent sex, they’re not revealing the baby’s phenotypical sex1, either, because in this culture, in which vagina = girl and penis = boy, to do so would be to assign the child a typical binary gender.

(Still with me? Good.)

Next: is it a good thing that they’re doing?

Aw hell, I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’ve heard some transgender people say they wish their parents had done this for them, or that all parents should, or that maybe this will help raise people’s awareness that there aren’t just two genders2. I know that as “damaging” as some people think Witticker and Stocker’s choice is, every day kids (both transgender and cisgender) are being damaged by the assigned genders and gender roles they’re forced into by a culture that cannot abide not “knowing what it is” and the parents who go along with that culture’s dictates.

I know that this is a path made easier by the fact that in most other respects, Storm accords with hir culture’s idea of the “default person” and hir family with the “default family”: apparently white, not visibly disabled, apparently middle class, the parents married and apparently cisgender, the children not adopted3. While sexism and cissexism are hardly only middle class white people’s concerns, having privilege in these areas means this family are not being questioned about race and class and sexuality and dis/ability the way a more marginalized family would likely be, which frees up time and mental energy to approach gender and sexism, and to attempt to protect their child(ren) from the worst effects thereof, in this particular, culturally disapproved, way.

I know that logistically, in the English language at least (and many, but not all, others), it’s ridiculously difficult to avoid gendered pronouns, unless we are to call a child “it”. While I very much hope, and work toward the day, that pronouns such as “ze” (or “zie”) and “ou” and a singular4 “they” are universally known and understood, the truth is that right now, they simply aren’t, and playing the pronoun-avoidance game gets wearying. All this on top of dealing every day with people who obsess over gender if it doesn’t accord with their expectations5, much less if you try to introduce a third category to their binary-believing minds, means I completely understand why it’s such a rare choice — one The Man and I don’t make, for instance.

Ultimately, I know that whatever gender (or supposed lack thereof) we assign to our children, the best things we can do for them are:

1) realize that such assignments are, by necessity, provisional, and that we cannot really know our child’s gender until they tell us,

2) turn down (and to the best of our ability turn off) the coding that says gender determines activities, desires, and personalities, and

3) let them be who they are — whether or not that accords with the gender or gender role(s) we’ve assigned them. This means both supporting our assigned-boy children’s enthusiasm for pink and dresses (and supporting our assigned-girl children if they like the same!), and understanding that while gender-neutrality is an excellent place to start kids off from, it should never be our goal for them in the long run.

There are ways one can be any level of “gender neutral”, including taking a path such as Stocker and Witticker are taking, and fail at all three of these, and there are ways one can take the easier path of going along with gender-typing-based-on-genitals6 and follow them well. And while I certainly think that gender-neutral, or better yet, gender-diverse parenting is inherently a good thing, I have no desire, much less the time or energy, to sit in judgment of whether people are doing it “right” — especially a family I don’t personally know and have never talked with directly.

(There’s a lot I want to say about the inflammatory, and often explicitly bigoted and hateful, ways this story is getting reported and commented on7, but I’d be here for another week, and y’all would probably stop reading. But I will say this: 10,000 Dresses is not a story about a boy, it’s a story about a girl whose family thinks she’s a boy, and the fact that even the less overtly biased reporters get that wrong speaks volumes.)

A friend of mine said, “I may not agree with how they are trying to send counter signals [to society's gender stereotyping messages] but I respect that they are.” To me, that is what it comes down to. From what I’ve read, this family has chosen one, albeit unconventional, way to attempt to counter the ridiculously and horrifically stereotyping gender messages and gender roles society puts on children — starting well before birth, now, thanks to ultrasound8 — and regardless of whether I think it’s a (or the) “right” or “best” way, I’m entirely pleased that they are at least trying.

  1. Phenotype: a category based — for our purposes — on appearance, and is not necessarily the same as one’s genotype. That is, a child can have entirely “normal” appearing penis and testicles, and not necessarily have an entirely XY genotype; ditto vulva and vagina and XX.
  2. A hope perhaps proven false by reports that call the baby “genderless”, as though if not “boy” or “girl” one doesn’t have, and could not possibly have, a gender at all.
  3. To my knowledge; I only am sure, from the reports, of the (non)adoption status of Storm.
  4. Or at least, singular-bodied.
  5. But insist that we’re the ones who make such a big deal out of gender by “obscuring” or subverting it. Sure.
  6. And note that because “gender neutral” is a spectrum, these are overlapping categories.
  7. In fact, I had a troll here earlier who called me a “mental case” and a “fucking insane cunt” because I spoke positively about it and about gender neutral/gender diverse parenting in general.
  8. A factoid I find fascinating: I am asked nearly daily if I know “what (I’m) having”, and when I reply “a probably-singular baby”, the other person is more likely than not to admit that they, too, declined to find out the “gender” (read: genital sex) of their child(ren). Ultrasound sex determination (read: guessing, if educatedly) is so ubiquitous that even those of us who decline it nevertheless assume everyone else is doing it.
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24 Responses to Gender neutral parenting, gender stereotyping, and the “genderless baby”

  1. Quazydellasue

    Yes!! I agree so much with this. I assume my daughter is a girl, and my son a boy, because the pronoun thing is exhausting. But I don’t know. I’m not going to push a gender on them either by promoting certain things or denying others. (and I’m sure I fail at this unknowingly – I just do the best I can).

    All of my newborn clothing for my kids is neutral. Both wore the same articles. And when I’m out with my (I presume) son, the main question I’m asked is: is it a girl or boy? And I want to ask, what the hell does that matter? It’s not really either, right now. No one kn

  2. Quazydellasue

    No one knows yet. We assume, for the sake of convenience. And then that assumption becomes crushing for some. If only we could be happy to abandon the assumption the moment the child speaks against it!

  3. I have been attempting to comment for quite some time now … each time erasing what i have said so I will keep it simple and say (type).. I think what Storm’s parents are doing has been a positive thing if only for the discussions that people are having surrounding sex and gender and society. Thank you for writing about this I enjoyed your insight.

  4. Hit enter a bit too soon. I want to add that I don’t correct people when they call my (presumed) daughter a boy as she is only 10 months old and hasn’t been able to tell me what her gender is yet. I do admit its quite hard to get away from cute pink dresses but I do try to buy clothes and toys from the “boy” and “girl” targeted sections. After having these discussions this week I am more determined to be gender diverse with my clothing purchases for ze babe. Thanks again !!

  5. I’m always amazed at how *important* this is to people. For goodness’ sake, they’re infants. What does it matter?

    We’ve been pretty gendered around here (mainly because we didn’t know any better when my daughter was a baby, and because of the flak we’d get from family if we weren’t). Recently I put my baby son in one of my daughter’s pink sleeping bags. I was kind of expecting him to look “like a girl”, but honestly, he just looked like a baby. Because he’s one year old, for goodness’ sake!

  6. My reaction when I read the article the other day : I looked at the picture of Storm and said, “That is one adorable baby”. Boy..girl..who cares? Baby.

  7. As a “free to be…you & me” kid of the ’70s, I was stunned that gender neutral clothing was so hard to find when my first child was born in 2000. When my second arrived in 2005, the gender coding was even worse! Programming kids this early helps absolutely no one (except possibly the Disney company). These parents have my respect and admiration.

  8. I’m in the granny age group and I so appreciate that people are having these discussions about gender / sexual identity and its importance and non-importance.

    I would say this: Please don’t take questions about gender personally or to indicate closed mindedness on the part of the questioner. Perhaps there are better questions we could be asking, but we tend to find some that have worked — like (for adults) “What do you do?” — as a way for us to begin to get to know each other. As the author suggested, creative answers can re-direct the conversation, if you want.

    Yes, labels can be a constricting box, but they don’t have to be because you are not letting them be. And how wonderful that the box itself is being questioned and expanded. I am so excited to see today’s parents acting in such courageous and life-affirming ways for their kids.

  9. Thank you for being the first person I’ve seen acknowledge the privilege aspect of their parenting. I’ve tried explaining to person after person “no, not everyone can raise their child this way, especially if they’re financially dependent on others to help raise the child, others who have different ideas about parenting”. But the reaction is always the same “don’t you realize the damage caused by raising children with a gender!” as if classism doesn’t come into this at all. I even had one woman tell me, in response to me pointing out that not everyone can afford to have a stay-at-home parent, “that’s what welfare is for, so you can stay at home”. It’s disgusting, and I’ve been on the verge of crying all morning from some of the responses from the transgender community. I don’t need the guilt people try to lay on me about how I’m such a bad parent for binary gendering my child even though I’m genderqueer myself.

    • this is something that’s concerned me for a while now.

      while it would be awesome if i could provide for my future children in a gender neutral fashion while they’re young, and accepting their identities as they grow, especially seeing as i identify as trans and nonbinary, i also know the difficulties that can pose when you’re poor and your children grow up in that environment.

      i grew up on thrift and surplus stores. the selection isn’t exactly spectacular, although dependent on one’s area, and everything you find there is hit or miss. it’s even worse when trying to find infant clothing. from what i’ve noticed any sort of gender neutral clothing available for infants is notably expensive because it’s seen as a ‘special interest’ – as according to the market, most people are interested in assuming genders for their children. and when relying on family members for financial support, it’s one thing if they’re accepting and willing to work with you. it’s another thing if they assume their perception of the world is right, and try to enforce that on your children – whether you want them to or not. and in such a situation, not exactly something you can readily turn down.

      i love the story of this family, as i do arwynn and boychick’s, but like you i also can’t help but realize that a lot of it is dependent on levels of financial privilege that many won’t have access to. even if we wish we did, so that we could provide such an environment of growth for our children.

      and your experiences with the trans community’s response to the story is exactly why i haven’t been following it in depth. because i know those responses will be out there, just as much as bigoted ones are, and those ones can feel even worse.

  10. NAK

    I assume that my female-sexed children are girls unless they tell me otherwise. I try to choose gender-neutral or both boy’s and girl’s clothing not only because I object to the intensity of the pink/blue thing (don’t get me started on Disney, or, Gods help me, princesses), but also for utility – I’m not done having kids, and who knows what kind of plumbing the next kid will have? Besides, why can’t even girly girls like blue and trucks and rockets? (side note: interesting that I’m more comfortable with a “tomboy” than a femme boy). I don’t think that I’d make the same choice the family in question made, but I admire them for doing so, and envy their familial support.

    It is interesting that we assume people will peek at their unborn children’s plumbing via U/S, even if we ourselves choose not to. Definitely speaks to the ubiquity of our insistence on a boy/girl dichotomy.

    Have to get going, but thank you for staying up late to write yet another thoughtful post!

  11. 1) realize that . . . we cannot really know our child’s gender until they tell us

    I want to add that a person’s understanding of their own gender can change over time. So, your child might be happy living as a girl/woman for three years, or eight, or sixteen, or thirty years – and then want to live as a boy/man (for a week, a year, or forever). As a parent, it costs you very little to accept and respect your child’s self-proclaimed gender on any given day, but it can mean the world to your child.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. As others have said, I’m really pleased to see issues of privilege discussed here.

  12. When it comes to asking about unborn babies, we’ve had the biggest go-around this time.

    After all, our first was “definitely” a girl, per 3 ultrassounds, and a week after he was born, genetic testing was done because we were all confused, and a few days later, a normal XY male was the result. We had to re-do the birth certificate, for Pete’s sake.

    This time, my spouse’s response to this question was always: we think it’s probably human. We asked, mind you – but the ultrasound techs all said it appeared to be a girl, and my husband was not taking anyone’s word until we had baby in hand. It’s a little more complicated becaause she turned into a preemie, but the doctor checked to be sure before he turned her over to the NICU staff, and I checked today while helping to change her diaper…..just to be sure.

  13. If footnote four is acknowledging multiplicity like it looks like it is, thank you.

  14. I had my MIL read this post today thank you for helping us discover common ground for once :D

  15. Seconding the thanks for mentioning the role privilege plays. My initial reaction to the story was to think how wonderful it would be if I could do that … and to realise that if I did, I ran a severe risk of losing my child due to social services interference. I appreciate privileged families doing things like this, since it’s a step towards normalising gender neutrality, but I still feel very bitter that they have the option when I am being scrutinised inside-out for failing to gender my child firmly enough.

  16. I’m glad we’re having conversations about gender and sex, and more importantly that the two words are not synonyms. And that this site aims to be a safe place to talk about all sorts of things including but not limited to class, ableism, and race as well. There are lots of ways that our children will be stereotyped or pigeon-holed if not by us but by society around them, and I think something that parents regardless of differences in race, class, sexual-orientation and so on can learn is just because we are rich or poor, interracial families or not, our children are not us. Our children may have different sexual identities than we do. They may choose to live their lives very differently than us. Either by choice or just because of who they are. We can all listen to them and let them grow. We can all love our children for who they are and let them tell us who they are when they can. We can all aim to do that. Some of us will have harder times than others because of time or resources or our backgrounds, but we can all love our children for who they are not who we want them to be or think they should be.

  17. Thank you!!!

    This is the most reasonable treatment of the whole “OMG, you’re ruining your baby by not gendering hir!” thing I’ve read to date.

    It’s refreshing to read an analysis that isn’t hateful or spiteful, but also avoids vapid cheerleading à la “they’re resisting the Man, so they must be perfect!”

  18. Hi Arwyn. I live in Toronto and you would not believe the stupid things that people are saying–even cashiers and bus drivers and people on the street want to ask ME (a mother with 4 children under the age of 7) if I know about the ‘genderless baby’ and do I know the sex of all my children. GOOD GRIEF!

    I have tremendous respect for the family in the article and I hope that they will now move to Prince Edward Island and assume new identities because I am totally embarrassed by the reaction of the average Torontonians.

    Your post is SO ENLIGHTENED! I’m so glad I found your blog and I will put it in my blogroll.

  19. I have to admit that I do ask “is it a boy or a girl?” when I see a baby, but it’s mainly due to the whole pronoun thing. Not having a gender neutral pronoun makes conversations very awkward: “How old is your baby?” is ok, but followed up with “Your baby is very cute. Your baby is also very alert/active/curious/etc. I love your baby’s hair.” and so on is tedious. I’d be quite happy to have a gender neutral alternative, but on the few occasions when I’ve tried to use “zie” I’ve either gotten blank looks OR I’ve gotten the “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people” looks.

    As for the “genderless baby”, I asked my very gender-conscious 4 and a half year old how she’d respond if she had a kid in her class and no one knew if it was a boy or a girl. She thought for a minute and said “I’d ask the kid’s name to find out if it was a boy or girl name.” I said “The kid’s name is Storm” and she said, without hesitation, “Boy.” The idea that a person didn’t have to be either a boy or a girl really confused her. That’s my biggest concern for Storm in this situation. As much as I think this is a great idea, I wonder if this child will be harmed more in the long run from the questions and negative comments and potential ostracism than zie would be by growing up with an assumed gender, especially if zie has parents who are already open to the idea of gender being fluid and thus wouldn’t have to deal with being shunned upon “coming out” one day.

  20. Sheri: What’s wrong with singular they? “Oh they’re just precious.”

  21. I agree with you. And I don’t think that anyone else’s parenting decisions are really any of my business, anyway, as long as everyone’s basically safe. But what was interesting to me was how I felt when I asked myself how I would feel if my it were, say, my sister’s child. The truth is, I would want to know about the baby’s apparent gender if I had a close family connection.

    I’m not entirely comfortable with that reaction, but there it is. It seems like a fundamental thing to know about a person. And having one apparent girl and one apparent boy, I can admit that I had a different automatic reaction to them. Perhaps it’s just an example of my cultural programming, and I’m not sure it’s good, but it’s the truth.

  22. Pingback: Raising kids who might be trans, that is to say, every kid | Dinosaurs in tutus:

  23. Pingback: 10 Myths About Gender Neutral Parenting | Raising My Boychick

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