There’s a bit of a comments storm brewing over at LibCon over the ‘gender neutral baby’ story which came out a few days ago, with Flying Rodent in the ‘won’t the poor kid get bullied?’ corner, and Jennie Kermode of Trans Media Watch entering the fray for the ‘no it won’t, and gender’s just a social construct so we shouldn’t get so hung up about it anyway’ side.
I should put my cards on the table at this point and state that my sympathies lean far more towards Kermode’s arguments than Flying Rodent’s, but I’m not hugely satisfied by the arguments put forward by either of them.
Kermode suggests that bringing up children as boys or girls from birth will lead to “[f]rantically trying to ensure that kids play with the right gendered toys” and that this is “all about imposing adult insecurities on children too young to understand what’s going on”. Sympathetic though I am to the cause of deconstructing the gender binary, I don’t think it’s very helpful to indulge in the armchair psychoanalysis of millions of parents who do raise their infants in a gendered way, as Kermode effectively does by asserting that they’re all riddled with insecurities.
Nor is it particularly helpful to conclude that “[t]he real question is: why are we so obsessed with judging people on the basis of what’s between their legs?” There’s no denying that it’s a good and sensible question to be asking, but is it really helpful in this particular case? There’s nothing in Flying Rodent’s piece to suggest that he’s ignorant of or opposed to the attempts to question traditional gender role; indeed, he quite explicitly writes (albeit in a bit of a backhanded context) that “it’d be nice to live in a world where kids could express themselves however they like without being sadistically tormented”, and I imagine most people who read Kermode’s piece are going to be similarly sympathetic. The question is how best to balance the commendable desire of parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker to help undermine society’s simplistic gender binaries with the likely consequences of their actions for the child in question – most significantly the prospect of said child facing bullying in school.
It’s undeniably true, as both Kermode and Flying Rodent acknowledge, that kids bully other kids for any number of reasons – weight, clothes, accent and so on – but it doesn’t follow that it’s therefore OK to act in a way that significantly raises the likelihood of your child being bullied. It would still be pretty irresponsible to call your kid ‘sweetums’ within earshot of their classmates even if they also had ginger hair and braces. Pointing to adults who act in ways untypical to their gender isn’t very convincing either; as a general rule, kids are a hell of a lot more vicious than adults when it comes to this kind of thing.
But for all the flaws there might be in Kermode’s piece, it’s by far the more convincing. The central argument of Flying Rodent’s article could be applied to parents who are openly gay, particularly given the appalling levels of homophobic bullying in schools. Should gay couples therefore not have children? What about mixed-race couples? And, perhaps even more importantly, what about the argument that the only way attitudes to this kind of thing are ever going to change is if people actually do something to try and challenge them?
Besides which, how likely is it really that little Storm (yes, that’s the kid’s name – and it’s not even like there aren’t any perfectly normal gender-neutral names they could have chosen. What’s wrong with Jo, or Sam? But I digress) is going to have their life at school (and possibly beyond) completely ruined by being allowed to decide their gender for themselves? Even if the kid does end up with a gender-atypical behaviour trait or two (which is possible), and even if the school they end up going to is rife with transphobia (entirely plausible) and the staff are unwilling or unable to do anything to challenge this (also quite believable, sadly), surely most children are bright enough to figure out fairly quickly the more obvious ways they can stop themselves standing out as targets for bullies? It seems far more likely that Storm will learn at a pretty early juncture to keep their more unconventional behaviour out of the classroom and playground than that they’ll be traumatised for life by the whole thing. Not that that’s an ideal outcome either, of course, but suggesting apocalyptically dire consequences for what’s effectively just a novel type of hands-off parenting is frankly unhelpful.
Edit: Lucy Cage points out on Twitter and in the comments that Storm isn’t going to be sent to school, a detail omitted from the BBC story. However, Storm’s parents do presumably intend their child to interact socially with kids of the same age at some point, (hopefully anyway), so I’d argue that the question of whether Storm’s likely to face bullying from them is still worth considering.