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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- To my knowledge; I only am sure, from the reports, of the (non)adoption status of Storm. ↩
- Or at least, singular-bodied. ↩
- But insist that we’re the ones who make such a big deal out of gender by “obscuring” or subverting it. Sure. ↩
- And note that because “gender neutral” is a spectrum, these are overlapping categories. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩