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Genderless, or Clueless? May 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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4 comments

First of all, Hi everybody—sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. Just finishing the stacks of papers to be graded, and other work to be completed before the summer—it’s been a busy semester. Good classes, good discussions, but very little energy left over for blogging. I have, however, been tweeting! You can find my tweets under “@Socalethicsprof.”

Next, the story: I read it this morning, and it has been poking at me ever since: A family in Toronto has made a decision which seems to me right out of the Seventies (yes, I remember them well): they are raising their third baby without telling anyone his/her gender.

“When the baby comes out, even the people who love you the most and know you so intimately, the first question they ask is, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’” says Witterick, bouncing Storm, dressed in a red-fleece jumper, on her lap at the kitchen table.

“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker.

When Storm was born, the couple sent an email to friends and family: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

It seems to me that the parents are trying to do two different things, and they aren’t necessarily compatible: For one thing, they’re trying to educate the world about its knee-jerk ways of gender assumptions. Well, that’s been attempted since the 1960s, and while it is a noble thought—and I’ve done my share of attempting to Educate the World over the years, giving my cousins’ and friends’ babies stuffed toys and farm animal figures instead of dolls and toy trucks, and choosing green and yellow baby clothes instead of pinks and blues—you’re up against 100,000 years of Homo Sapiens stereotypes. And it is somewhat naive of the parents to think they can put a dent in hardwired human nature. However, things have changed since the mid-20th century, and gender roles have become more flexible, due to new ideals and a willingness to be nonconformist. But the other side to their project seems to me far less noble, and mostly self-serving: They are trying to force Storm into a mold that they consider politically preferable: a world where gender roles are a matter of choice. They’re waiting to see what kind of person s/he will choose to be—but after the sad case of David Reimer in the 1990s and other failed attempts at enforcing the psychosexual neutrality theory, haven’t we all had to realize that a fair amount of sexual identity is hardwired? In other words, Storm will discover who s/he is, not choose it, and no amount of societal pressure from people making assumptions about her/his gender is going to make a bit of difference. I’m afraid the only thing the parents will accomplish is turning their child into a social experiment. In a way all of us, as children, have of course been social experiments, and most of us have turned out fairly well-functioning, but part of being a child is being allowed to feel safe, and to belong. Children are hungry for rules and predictability, and little Storm is being set up so s/he will be the oddball of whatever community s/he will be a part of. Choice is great, but not until one is mature enough to know what one is choosing.

A psychologist, Diane Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made, has some good comments to the story:

Ehrensaft believes there is something innate about gender, and points to the ’70s, when parents experimented by giving dolls to boys and trucks to girls.

“It only worked up to a certain extent. Some girls never played with the trucks, some boys weren’t interested in ballet … It was a humbling experiment for us because we learned we don’t have the control that we thought we did.”

But she worries by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child.

“I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what’s inside them.”

Ehrensaft gets the “What the heck?!” reaction people may have when they hear about Storm. “I think it probably makes people feel played with to have that information withheld from them.”

As Socrates would say, a well-balanced person is not just someone who understands himself or herself, but who also is a well-adjusted citizen. You can’t become a well-adjusted citizen in a world where other people think you’re trying to fool them…

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