When the news emerged last week that Kathy Witterick and David Stoker were keeping their baby’s gender private in order that it be freer from gender role constriction, the parents of baby Storm weathered a deluge of criticism. There were some positive reactions, but experts and commentators were mostly in agreement that this was a particularly controlling and selfish act that would lead to violence, bullying and social exclusion. In a world where parents regularly harm their children, why was this decision given so much attention? Why do we care so much about gender?
It’s terribly hard to make enough space to really see someone else. There are so many veils in the way of really understanding other people — our own self-preoccupation, our past experiences, culture, class, age. And gender is one of the most opaque veils of all. When the parents of baby Storm chose to keep his or her gender private, they were hoping that there would be more freedom in this baby’s life, more room to see and to choose once the limitations of gender perceptions were removed. But the worldwide response to their choice was overwhelmingly critical and fearful.
I think part of the horror at this couple’s decision to be private about their child’s gender is because it was such an intentional choice. It was a deliberate act. They wanted a different experience for their child, and they knew that in order to achieve that, they needed to do something differently. And they were aware that "experts" and much of their community would not respect or understand their choice. They acted independently in a time when we value conformity and expertise in childrearing more than ever, and when the idea of the inherent differences between men and women is at a new high. In an attempt to limit hypocrisy and restriction, they chose to act on their beliefs. This is the essence of authenticity. Making choices you know are right for you at the time, bearing the discomfort and criticism of others, and taking responsibility for the results.
It’s a difficult time to take individual responsibility for our children. We are either meant to rely on experts, or to believe in our own and our children’s so-called natural abilities. Deliberate choices such as this one, particularly those that challenge fundamental assumptions like the importance of gender, are viewed with extreme suspicion. In most cases, treating children with fundamental dignity and respect challenges social norms and makes people uncomfortable. The ongoing spanking debate, the underreporting of child abuse and neglect and the ongoing detention of children seeking asylum are just some examples of this.
While current research views gender as both socially and biologically determined, each person’s experience of being a boy, girl or intersex is unique. To generalise about the experience of gender is a kind of shorthand that always obscures more than it reveals. In other words, if we really want to know someone, we need to avoid as much as possible our desire to label and to categorise them. And gender is our first category and often our most inescapable label. Part of the discomfort we feel when this label is removed, comes from the deeper question of who we really are when we don’t have a role to fall back on, and the possibility that someone might see what’s behind our gendered mask.
As children we need to be seen by our parents as who we are and who we are becoming. We need their reflections of us to be as free from their own needs and projections as possible. This is the hard work of genuinely meeting another person, bracketing our own desires and perceptions and looking, listening and checking to see if we have it right. Have I understood you?
If we have been seen, we can more easily see ourselves, and if we haven’t, we search for it in others and we are very vulnerable to settling for being seen as less than our whole selves and of slowly surrendering our identities. So many of us have surrendered our authenticity in this way, that it can be threatening to hear about anyone who is on a mission to safeguard it. Out of our envy we can become judgemental. We want the box closed and the label put back on. Otherwise we might be in danger of noticing how confining our own box has become.
Years ago a member of our family started to wear dresses and to refer to himself as Dorothy. He made this choice at four years old, and his mothers supported him despite their fear of what he might meet in the world. This boy knew what many of us forget or refuse to believe — that as Judith Butler has said, gender is really a series of acts; we continually repeat our gender performance, and over time we come to see it as reality. It’s not that the body or biology is unimportant, but when it comes to gender, so much is about how we portray ourselves in the world. This little boy knew that by putting on a dress and changing his name, he could become a girl. He knew instinctively that all of us are really in some form of drag all the time.
As much as we would like it to be, our self is not innate. We are making choices all the time, some of them passive, and some of them more deliberate, about who we will be in the world. We are constantly constructing a self in our relationships with others and with the social structures around us. We are always choosing who we are. Rightly or wrongly, Storm’s mother and father have made an attempt to expand the number of choices about how to be in the world for their baby, by not speaking of that very first limiting label.
Like all the people who took to the streets recently for SlutWalk, these parents are trying to dilute the power of the labels that have in many ways determined our choices without our consent. Our only job as witnesses to this experiment is to try to see it as clearly as possible, and to accept the challenge to our own understanding of what gender means for us.
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