It’s a bird… no, it’s a plane… no, wait, it’s a genderless baby?

Last month, a University of York employee, Valerie Bustros,  was challenged by a strange man about her sex when she entered a woman’s washroom on campus.  Valerie confirmed to the self-appointed washroom monitor that she was, in fact, a woman… and a lesbian too, since we’re being so open and all!  When Valerie left the washroom she found the same man waiting but this time with two friends who jumped her and kicked her on the ground.  With her buzz-cut hair, Valerie says that her gender has been questioned many times in the past but this was the first time she had ever experienced violence because of it.  Valerie admitted that “getting jumped for using the bathroom, yeah it sucks, and hopefully one day we won’t have to get jumped for that.”

Skip ahead one month and a different but related story is making headlines in Toronto news.  Over the last couple weeks a huge kerfuffle has been made over a Toronto couple’s decision to keep the sex of their 4-month old baby, Storm, a secret in order to allow the child greater space for exploring and deciding its own gender identity.  The couple claims that “they are releasing Storm from the constraints society imposes on males and females.”

Now, a lot of people have taken this decision very personally.  They have accused the couple of being bad parents, of causing future hardship for the child, of imposing their own politics on their child, and of using little Storm as an experiment.  While many people have showed support for the couple’s decision, the overwhelming response has been really quite vitriolic.

Contrary to the way it has been portrayed in the media, the couple is not actually raising a “genderless” baby.  Their goal is not to create a thing that neither identifies as feminine or masculine.  No no no!  Like any good parent they are trying to shield their child from the negative influences of society.  It just so happens that these parents find negative influences in our society’s common misunderstanding that gender is synonymous with sex.  By not sharing the sex of the child, they are trying to avoid the social influences that tell children that having a penis means you should like the colour blue, dump trucks, and obliterating frogs and mud, and that having a vagina means you should like lace, dolls, and cooking and cleaning.

This philosophy is visible in their two other children who, both (anatomically) boys, have also been given significant freedom to explore their own interests and to develop their own opinions without the dictating boundaries of our socially constructed genders.   For instance, their oldest son loves the colour pink, thinks dresses are cool, and wears his hair in three long braids.  He also believes that girls should do “boy things” and boys should do “girl things”.  Is that reeeeally so unhealthy!?

From travelling to different countries to hatching butterflies in their kitchen, the family does loads of fun and exploratory activities together.  And yet, despite their attempts to encourage the development of socially rounded children they were slammed these last weeks when their decision to keep baby Storm’s jewels a family secret went public.

Do I think that the family will be challenged by this decision down the road?  Of course!  But will it be more difficult than the challenges that transgender, homosexual, and queer people encounter in society today when discovering their full selves?  And why are we placing the blame for  their future challenges (presumably relating to prejudices) on the family and not on society?  In my opinion, this is similar to the victim blaming that we see so often.  Instead of trying to change our own discriminatory ways of thinking we blame others for straying outside of society’s tiny parametres of acceptability.  Instead of welcoming this family’s effort to raise a socially conscious and complete child ‘we’ (those who responded viciously to the story) teach our own children that there is not enough room in society for everyone and that some people should be hated ‘just because’.

One commenter on The Star article hit the nail on the head with a comment that while many of the responses appear to “fear for the well being of Storm. What they really are expressing is their fear of Storm. People are afraid of what is different, and failure to expose the child’s sex is quite different. What if it grows up to be different? God forbid.  Any hurt to Storm isn’t from what the parents are doing, but from the horrid collective negativity that people are expressing.”  Thank you!!

While many people who see their decision as a social experiment, I see it as a step in the right decision.   While some parents find what they’re doing as cruel, I think there are plenty of crueller things that parents do, like smoking, or not making time to play, or choosing to have only one child (OF COURSE I respect peoples’ decisions to only have as many kids as they like but having just one, come on!  That’s just not fair!).

Plus, baby Storm isn’t going to live “genderless” forever.  The child will eventually find its place on the gender spectrum just as everyone else does.  However, with the support and unconditional love that the baby gets from its family s/he may actually grow into a much more complete adult than many of us.  As Ms Magazine blogged this week, “Children in the U.S. enter a world where their existences are immediately understood through a gendered sphere that only becomes more relentlessly reinforced through the early childhood socialization process. What happens when a child demonstrates a transgression from the gender they’re assumed to embody through their biological sex, and what does that transgression mean?”  And how is it received in society?

Given the challenges, discrimination, and often violence that non-cisgendered people, like Valerie Bustros, experience in our society I think we should be congratulating and thanking Storm’s parent’s for breaking some of the barriers that make it so challenging for people to be themselves.

For the background story read:

http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures/article/998960—genderless-baby-s-mother-responds-to-media-frenzy

http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures/article/995846–star-readers-rage-about-couple-raising-genderless-infant

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One Response to It’s a bird… no, it’s a plane… no, wait, it’s a genderless baby?

  1. ojotigre says:

    Very interesting article and a great take on it, Laura. As you accurately point out, we might better serve the greater community with an equal amount of appall and zest about parents doing something actually neglectful, such as smoking around their children. I suppose human beings value human drama above all, and this story has it. The question strikes, however, a deeper chord. Why are we so offended by this action? What is the action? Essentially, Kathy Witterick is not teaching her children a cultural norm, but more specifically a cultural norm that deeply affects her child’s sense of self.

    While sex is biological, the concept of gender in primarily socially constructed. Gender expression has taken many different forms throughout our shared history of humans, and anthropologists and historians alike can run-off countless examples of “third gender” (the Hijra of India being among the most well-known modern-day third genders) and alternative gender expressions (men having long hair and/or wearing dresses, matriarchal societies with women taking the more dominant role, etc).

    So, what it boils down to, and what people are offended by in this case, is a challenge to our current cultural norm. However, gender is malleable and the world is evolving. We are in a period of redefining all of our previous norms.

    …And to bring the question to a more spiritual and philosophical place, I’d like to reference Paulo Coelho’s writing on “The Future Becoming Present.” He writes:

    “And we must also avoid commenting on the behavior of others: in order to have faith in our own path, we have no need to prove that the path of the other is wrong. Those who act like this have no trust in their own steps.”

    Sadly, in the case of Valerie Bustros, her assailants did the exact opposite of Paulo Coelho’s words. Let us hope that our culture evolves from this type of violence and ignorance to something more intelligent. Perhaps Kathy Witterick’s parenting skills are exactly the type of actions that will foster that kind of evolution.

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