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May 30 / Great Apes

About That Genderless Baby

If you’re not familiar with this story yet, the Toronto Star has a series of three articles(1, 2, 3) that are well worth reading. It reminded me of this story from a couple of years ago. One of the reasons this story is so interesting is that the parents of the child are given ample time to explain both what they are doing and why they are doing it. I think they come across as articulate, thoughtful, and intelligent. And for the record, I’m going to be writing here under the assumption that we all agree (at least roughly) on the difference between sex (which is biological) and gender (which is a social construct which intersects with, but is not always directly related to, sex). If not, well, that’s a whole other discussion, though I’ll be touching on it a bit in what follows.

The real question, I’d say, isn’t whether they’re nice people or whether their idea sounds neat, but whether or not this is actually a good thing to do. And I guess my answer is that I’m not entirely sure. I thoroughly support what they are doing in principle – gender stereotypes are harmful in very real and meaningful ways, and as a society and a culture we should be working to eliminate them. The fear I have is that Storm could be the recipient of significant ridicule and harassment; however, while most people who share this fear think that Storm will be ridiculed because of other children, I think Storm will be ridiculed by other children’s parents.

See, I don’t think young children actually have any idea about sex or gender. If they live in a nuclear family they may have some idea that dad is a man and has a deep voice and that mom is a woman and has a softer voice, or similar kinds of things along those lines, but I don’t think young children really have any grasp of the idea that “boys like sports and war” and “girls like dresses and dolls”. I’m going to talk about my own experiences as a child to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I was raised to be a fairly masculine boy. My dad taught me about motorcycles and my uncle taught me about professional wrestling and I wore blue clothes, etc. But I had no idea that those were “boy” things, I just thought they were “things”. When I got to kindergarten, I made friends with girls as easily as I made friends with other boys. And while that was obviously a long time ago, from what I can recall that was the case for other children too.

I just didn’t see girls as being different. I remember one day when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I think it was a birthday party, and it was one of the first times I’d had my new school friends over to my house. At one point, I had to use the washroom. At that age, I never closed the door when I went to the washroom, for who knows what reason. My mom walked by, and gasped about how I had to close the door because there were “girls” in the house now. Well, at the time I had no idea what that meant, or why I should care. Weren’t the girls just friends from school? If I could do it when Mike was in the next room, why not Gabriella? It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when we’d all been socialised to understand that “boys” and “girls” were “different” that we started splitting into more gender-segregated peer groups (though even this, I would suggest, didn’t really happen to a large degree until adolescence, when we first started thinking about things like dating).

So I don’t think it will be other children who will torment Storm, at least not of their own volition (more on that in a second). They may ask a few questions (“Why do you have [opposite gendered] hair?” and suc)h, but I’d be willing to bet that a simple, confident answer would cause most children to simply drop the issue and ignore it. No, I think it will be adults who subject Storm to ridicule. Maybe a hair-dresser will refuse to give an opposite gendered hair cut, or a retailer will refuse to sell opposite gendered clothes. Maybe a teacher try to force Storm to play “gender appropriate” games at recess or during gym class. More than anything, parents of other children will likely tell their children that there is something wrong with Storm and that they are forbidden to play with Storm. And that will cause other children to be mean to Storm, not because it is somehow in children’s nature to divide themselves into gendered groups, but because their parents will subject them to strict gendered ideas.

This is why I’m not entirely sure if I think it’s a good idea or not. On the one hand, I feel like it’s kind of a cop-out to just say “Well, lots of people are assholes, so I guess we’d better just play nice with them.” But on the other hand, what good does it do to stand up for something on principle when the real results of that principle are to cause a child to suffer needlessly? So it’s tough. I think in the end I would lean toward it being a good idea, because I don’t think the child will really have to deal with anything much worse than many other children will have to deal with. For example, I was mocked as a “fag” growing up because I wasn’t “masculine” enough, which mostly meant that I wasn’t sexist enough towards women, which in retrospect is even stranger because I actually was pretty sexist in a lot of ways through my teen years. So if children are going to be ridiculed, doesn’t it make more sense to be focussing our attention on the other children and the parents who insist on belittling others, rather than on the parents of the children who are victimised?

* * *
To change gears here, I want to respond to a couple of the criticisms levelled towards these parents in some of the articles listed above, because I think these criticisms illustrate where a lot of the problem comes from.

“Friends said they were imposing their political and ideological values on a newborn.”

Yes, of course they are; all parents impose political and ideological values on their children. If you tell your child that they are a boy, and that boys act in a particular manner and wear particular clothes of a particular colour, etc., you’re imposing ideological values on them in exactly the same way that you would be if you told them that they can act and dress how they please. You’re also imposing political and ideological values on them if you raise them in a religion, or teach them that sharing and manners are polite (selflessness is not a universal value), etc. When people complain that Storm’s parents are imposing an ideology on the child, what they’re really complaining about is that Storm’s parents aren’t imposing their ideology. Of course, they can’t just say so, or they’d look petty. Which they may very well be.

In fact, let’s look a little bit deeper at this. If it’s wrong to raise a child with an ideology that strongly differentiates them from other children in their environment, does that make it wrong to raise a child Muslim if they’re going to go to a primary school where all of the other children are Christian? Isn’t that also imposing an ideology and an identity that will cause your child to be othered? Or is it, actually, perfectly all right to raise children differently than your neighbours are?

“The world around us has been set by thousands of years of social evolution. To try to undo this evolution through your child is very selfish and very inconsiderate to the child.”

OK, so I guess there are two things that need to be said in response to this. The first is that our notions of gender have not been set by thousands of years of social evolution, and the second is that there is nothing inconsiderate about telling your child that they can break out of social moulds and construct their own identity.

So the simpler one first – I don’t agree at all with the idea that it’s wrong to tell a child that they can break out of social moulds. Should women in the earlier parts of the 20th century been raised to believe that their only path in life was to become a conscientious and subservient housewife? Should black children in the 1950s have been raised to believe that they were lesser individuals than white children? Should gay children now be raised to believe that they had better pretend to be straight? Of course not; we should raise our children to demand to be treated in a fair and just manner, no matter what prejudices against them may exist.

As to the other part of that statement, that “the world around us has been set by thousands of years of social evolution”, it hasn’t, really, at least not in the case of gender as we currently conceive it. For example, there’s the fact that it wasn’t until the 1940s that blue was considered a boy’s colour and pink a girl’s colour; prior to that, it was actually considered to be the reverse. That’s 70 years of history, not thousands, and it actually reversed previous logic. Ideas about what men or women should wear are also more recent social inventions (depending on what you count as “recent”). In much of the Mediterannean world, robes/draped cloths/etc. were commonly worn by men instead of pants long past the turn of the first millennium (ie, far closer to today than “thousands of years” ago). Kilts were commonly worn in parts of Scotland as recently as the 19th century. And these are only a couple of many possible examples.

Modern conceptions of gender are just that – modern. They do not line up very well with what was believed in the past in many instances. And it’s also worth noting that universal primary education is itself a relatively recent invention; as recently as the 19th century, many children did not attend school at all. So notions about what gender is, and how it’s applied to children, are certainly not thousands of years old. They aren’t even hundreds of years old. They’re actually quite new.

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