Monday, May 23, 2011

Storm Clouds

If you think your parents are wacko, count your blessings that you aren't Storm, the genderless baby being raised by a Toronto family. Storm isn't intersexed or two-spirited; Storm is an infant whose parents have not shared his/her gender with the world. Keeping mum on the subject - only a few people immediate family members know - has enraged some, befuddled others, and thrilled and confused from coast to coast.

I had a long conversation with some girlfriends on Friday night about Storm, and parenting, and gender politics, and I have to say, maybe it was the beers or maybe I'm just close-minded, but I don't think I fared very well. Being a good little liberal-arts grad, I understand that gender is constructed. I know that by giving a girl a pink pony, you're telling her how girls act, and are supposed to act, and how she had better act if she wants to be like other little girls. I also know two brothers whose parents, in the anti-violent, dolls-for-boys late 1980s, confiscated their play firearms. The boys, in a fit of creative desperation, chewed their toast into the shape of guns and continued on undeterred.

The article that prompted the debate originally ran in the Toronto Star, whose editorial tone was somewhat ambivalent. Storm is clearly being raised by thoughtful and engaged parents, but the writers made the point that by being, not boy, not girl, nor "or," but "none of the above," the parents were creating a hitherto unknown category they referred to as "other than other." "Other than other" seems like dangerous waters for a society that decriminalized homosexuality not so long ago, and that struggles, still, with a myriad of differences. God forbid Storm is a fat, awkward, mixed-raced shy kid with glasses, horrible teeth and no gender. That kid is fucked. Within the closed familial loop, most people are free to be something other than their gender - a great painter; a fan, as the family's eldest boy is, of pink feather boas; a weeping mess at bathtime, or some other permutation of the self that isn't penis/vagina.

But outside the family/friends circle, gender is indisputably one of the markers we use to identify people. Much like race, age, and accent, gender comes to us without thinking about it critically. It's only when we're faced with a little uncertainty that we get nervous. If someone is mixed-race, like my fabulous friend Kelli, they often get pegged as one or the other; her recent musings about trying to be multi in a world that often prefers you to check one box was an insightful look at passing, and resenting the pass that comes at the expense of her more honest and interesting background. Likewise, Storm, at least as a baby, will be able to pass as one of two genders, but eventually, kindergarten will happen, and bathroom breaks, and changing for swim club. Genderlessness is a gift given to the very young and will eventually erode as the child makes choices.

Do I applaud Storm's family? Well, as my friend Suzanne pointed out, it expands the realm of the possible in exciting ways. She said, "You just know some other family is thinking about doing the same thing now, because they know it can be done." Which is true: the debate about whether or not it should be done comes because, like it or not, it is being done.

But I said on Friday, and will stand by it, that parenting in this way is an activist, political act that isn't about the child, but rather about the parents. I dislike parenting as activism; if Storm's parents wanted to explore what it's like to live without gender, they should have done that experiment on themselves, not on their young child. This is the same part of my brain that shudders at vegan children and elementary school kids who attend anti-abortion rallies. Even though I understand that this education strives for more openness and examination of what is possible, the reality is that it's happening to someone young and presumably without the critical thinking skills that would benefit, say, someone who attended university for equity studies. Being told "You have no gender unless you choose one" takes away a certain type of self-definition that children often learn through.

Their older son wrote a book about "The Gender Explorer," presumably because the parents needed to address the gender questions for their long-haired, pink-loving boy. But this baby doesn't need to be some kind of science experience for social-norm spelunkers. There's a very real chance that Storm will resent his or her early-years ambiguity, even though it saved on a heap of pink or blue baby accessories. Who wants to grow up to be "that baby whose parents were all, 'this baby has no gender!'?"I have no beef with Storm's parents and siblings teaching the kid that gender can be, and should be, fluid - that it's okay to love horsies, pink, dump trucks or climbing trees no matter what you were born as, or grow up to be however femme or butch you want - but opting out of the system entirely seems like it may cause more grief than it's worth.

Part of me hopes Storm becomes the very definition of gender normativity - a little girl who can't get enough dolls, or a boy who loves karate and catching frogs. I wonder if Storm's gender-exploring parents would be as excited about a child who refused to participate in the gender debate, who loved his or her pink-wearing brother without wanting to follow him down that particular yellow brick road. Parents everywhere will intone that as long as the child is healthy and happy, it doesn't matter how their kids express their gender. The Witterick-Stocker family are devoted to their children, and to raising them in an nurturing and supportive environment. But teaching them that "gender" is an option, rather than "my gender" is a choice, walks an unpalatable line between reality, and a constructed world that applies only to this family.


  1. I don't there is a better piece of writing on this issue out ther right now. This is a phenomenal piece of writing. In my opinion. Which may not mean anything to anyone but me...but hey, I read this three times and was saying "yes! of course!" outloud at my desk.
    thanks lady.

  2. "Parenting in this way is an activist, political act that isn't about the child, but rather about the parents. I dislike parenting as activism; if Storm's parents wanted to explore what it's like to live without gender, they should have done that experiment on themselves, not on their young child."

    Yes, yes, yes. Sums up my feelings, exactly. While on some level what the parents are doing is brave and commendable, ultimately they are making a non-consenting research subject out of their child, which (at least according to research ethics models) is a grave violation of ethics. That they agreed to share their story with The Star also shows that they aren't too terribly concerned with their kids' privacy.

    P.S. Thanks for the shoutout!

  3. I think it would only become an issue once the child is registered for school, or an equivalent event. At young ages children act out gender roles but have no notion of the concept of gender, I think that is when the parents can then say "Storm, you were born to 'this' gender but the rest is up to you", like their other kids. It's true that society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on making people, including children conform to all sorts of 'normal' roles. There is a RuPaul quote I like- "We're all born naked, and the rest is drag". If you think about it, super macho guys are posturing and essentially in drag for that role. It's performance. Same with what ever identity we put out to the world. We are trying to convince the world of what and who we are.
    I agree that involving one's children in one's politics is unethical as children are able to consent, but I have to wonder about the context of this. Did the parents decide "let's raise this baby outside of gender constructs" and then call the press to raise this in the public arena? Or was it more like people were asking "Is it a boy or girl?" to which the parents replied "It's a baby, my baby" and then someone else called the press. Personally, I think this is pretty benign at this point. There is no way the children of these parents attend a tough knocks public school. To me it is obvious that the family lives within a certain context that allows them to have freedom and safety within their social circles. Their hand will be forced at some point when the child is old enough to ask questions, or when the inevitable tick boxes come up. I'm sure there are lots of kids out there who wish their families hadn't been the ones pushing rigid notions of gender on them that has them seeking therapy, but in those cases the parents had the backings and blessings of larger society.
    -Leslie P