Some thoughts on non-gendered babies

This post was written by Owen on May 30, 2011
Posted Under: Gender Politics,Society

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.

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Reader Comments

This is a much more thoughtful piece than the original one at LibCon, but I think that you, like Flying Rodent, are mainly criticising the parents’ strategy based on the fact that their child might get bullied at school. But they aren’t sending their kids to school. They have left that choice up to the children.
Many kids who get bullied at school (for all kinds of trivial reasons) don’t get to make this choice. They suffer day after miserable day and some of them kill themselves (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10302550).
There are many boys who would dress in purple given the chance. There are many kids who would spend their days looking at butterflies rather than sitting at a desk (http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/babiespregnancy/babies/article/995112–parents-keep-child-s-gender-secret) given the chance. I’d say these parents were doing something brave and generous with their kids by allowing them the choice to do such things and supporting their expressions of identity, however unconventional. The kids are growing up with loving, supportive and attentive parents: if they decide at twelve to cut off their long hair and wear jeans and hoodies, that will be fine too.

(And really, you know, five-year-old boys who have long hair and wear pink shoes are not even that unconventional these days: they’re out and about in the world, playing with other children, making friends and getting on with doing their thing.)

“None of my children are gender-free or genderless (and neither am I).” Kathy Witterick (http://www.leaderpost.com/mobile/iphone/story.html?id=4857577)

#1 
Written By Lucy Cage on May 30th, 2011 @ 11:08 pm
Connie

Since anyone who’s thought about this since, at least, when Judith Butler laid down the gendered gauntlet in 1989 with Gender Trouble, to even state that gender and by extension thanks to the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, sexuality are constructs, states the obvious. Unfortunately, evn after 40 plus years of feminist theory, it seems that most of the media pundits are wedded to the belief of the two not only indivisible but unseparable. It also confirms in a bizarre fashion (and gender is a form of fashioning as well as a self-fashioning, althogh I would state that with a caveat as to how much leeway we can do any degree of gendered self-fashioning, apart from certain contructs of drag (queen and king)) that gender is a performative in a very perfunctory sense because we are simply told there are certain rules to each gender we must perform to be considered “normal.” Whilst certainly having a vagina or a penis has certain biological makers that the potential to perform certain functions, it is also apparent these sexual markers are imbued with characteristics that have little, if any, to do with the gendered perfomative. Whatever Ms Witterick and Mr Stioker’s reasons are behind leaving the question of gender to their children, it is certainly throwing down the challenge that evolutionary biology does not take into account the construction of how societies operate as a result gendered performatives, and the considerable damage they do when attempting to make them deterministic.

#2 
Written By Connie on May 31st, 2011 @ 12:09 am

This is all a bit like the man who goes up to the mountain to purify himself from the ills of society.

#3 
Written By Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on May 31st, 2011 @ 12:33 am
Hugh

We need to remember that the parents are not offering these choices to an individual with a formed identity, genderless, gendered, or in fact formed in any other way: they are proposing to allow their child a ‘choice’ from birth. Why this does not make sense can be illustrated in response to a couple of Lucy’s comments:

“they aren’t sending their kids to school. They have left that choice up the the children.” Why would you leave a child to decide whether it wants to go to school or not? Do we not send children to school (and are not many of the aspects of school designed) in order to help them form the kind of identity that would make them be comfortable going to school? That is, working according to other peoples’ hours, obeying authority figures, resolving disputes with peers successfully, paying attention, etc. These are all aspects of identity which home-schooled children have been shown to be lacking.

“these parents were doing something brave and generous by…supporting their expressions of identity, however unconventional.” This support would make sense if we were discussing a teenage child that has formed an identity to express. But we aren’t. Human beings don’t have homonculus, determinate essential identities waiting in their foetal bodies to suddenly be expressed in later years, if only nasty society would let it. We *raise children* to have the kinds of identities which we want them to have as adults and tolerate a range of idiosyncracies according to what kinds of actions and words we believe are morally neutral.

David Stocker: “parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious.” – No, it’s parenting. Children have to navigate society one day just as they have to navigate the kitchen tomorrow, and so it is up to parents to help them “form identities” which will allow them to do so without getting burnt. Only “social constructs” differentiate between burning one’s hand on the stove and voting for a bad political party, and so the role of parenting in building the framework through which a child makes choices extends into both of those scenarios (and in the first begins with not giving the child a choice), and into choices about sexuality and gender identity.

#4 
Written By Hugh on May 31st, 2011 @ 1:40 am
Flyingrodent

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?

With respect, I suggest that there’s a substantial difference between “Being gay”, “Being mixed-race” and “Making a conscious decision to encourage your children to explore their gender identity because of your personal beliefs”. Neither ethnicity nor sexuality are voluntary, whereas imparting your beliefs to your children most definitely is. Given that, I fail to see how the latter resembles the other two.

On our responsibilty to help change, ten-four, message received. I wonder though whether the best way to achieve significant change is via experiments with small children, and I’m dubious about whether those advocating this type of thing have really thought this through. Perhaps everyone else who has commented on this went to nice schools where all the children were well behaved, but I certainly didn’t. I could tell you some horror stories about the things even little kids do to each other on the flimsiest pretexts.

#5 
Written By Flyingrodent on May 31st, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

Flying Rodent: “Perhaps everyone else who has commented on this went to nice schools where all the children were well behaved”

I did actually go to school with the OP – and can tell you that our school certainly wasn’t like this. You’re right, kids can be vindictive, intolerant little shits. This makes me inherently suspicious of people who say that schooldays were the best days of their life…

FlyingRodent: “I wonder though whether the best way to achieve significant change is via experiments with small children, and I’m dubious about whether those advocating this type of thing have really thought this through.”

Here I think you are right, and this really is the crux of the matter. People are, understandably, willing to go through shit for the sake of building a better society. But with this action, the parents have chosen to impose potentially very high personal cost on their child for the sake of doing which is purely self referential. In a sense I think this is symptomatic of the current impact, wherein the lines between altering ones lifestyle, and engaging in political action aimed at changing the world have become dangerously blurred.

#6 
Written By Reuben on May 31st, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

FR: First, thanks for a considered response. It’s always gratifying to criticise people and not have them respond by starting a flame war. To address the points you make: the analogy between gay or mixed-race parents and the parents in this case isn’t perfect, but my point was in both cases the argument essentially amounts to ‘if the parents didn’t do X the kid wouldn’t get bullied’. Being gay isn’t a choice, but there are voluntary steps gay parents could take to reduce the prospect of their child facing homophobic bullying: make sure only one parent ever picks the kid up from school, tell them never to mention to their friends that they have two Dads/Mums, that kind of thing. Would that be right? I’m not saying it would be wrong in all circumstances, but it certainly doesn’t seem obviously right either. The whole ‘imposing a cost on your children for the sake of your beliefs’ thing (and this relates to Reuben’s comment as well) is a very tricky ethical area (even if in this case the kid isn’t going to school, so the prospects for bullying are lessened somewhat). Apart from anything else, this *isn’t* just lifestylism. Without people doing stuff like this, attitudes won’t change. Someone, somewhere has to be first. There had to be people who married outside of their ethnic group, had sex before getting married, were openly gay or started families with their same-sex partners before those behaviours became socially acceptable or even legal. And often when people did that they’d get criticised by others who didn’t have a problem with these behaviours in themselves, but worried about the effects on other people – telling gay people to hide their sexuality so as not to make their parents look bad, for example. I’m not saying this shouldn’t ever be given any consideration, but if it was always what we gave most priority to, the simple fact is that social attitudes would never change for the better.

#7 
Written By Owen on May 31st, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

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