Boys Legos

By now you've probably heard of the "genderless baby," a child Storm whose parents refuse to give their child a gender. Indeed, all sorts of hell broke loose when Storm's parents, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, sent out birth announcements saying their third child was born and healthy, but refusing to announce Storm's sexual assignment at birth. In the birth announcement, Witterick and Stocker said that not announcing Storm's sex was "a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation."

Needless to say, everyone has a strong (and nearly unanimously negative) opinion on the parents' decision to not gender their child. On the Today show, Glenn Stanton, author of several books including Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity, opines that gender is not about the clothes we wear, but about "science and science is telling us there is a male and female brain." Stanton also tells us that to believe we can allow our children to thrive as human beings rather than boys or girls is "fairy book" thinking. But maybe what Stanton actually meant was just plain old "fairy" thinking?  Stanton is in fact the director of "Family Formation Studies" at the ultra-conservative and homo-hating Focus on the Family. Shockingly, the Today show introduced him as an "expert" not a religious zealot. Sure, Focus on the Family is really and truly expert at saying things like "As a parent, you should be aware that there are certain signs of pre-homosexuality that are fairly easy to recognize. They usually show up early in a child's life, and they generally fall under the heading of what might be called "cross-gender behavior". And that such cross-dressing, fairy behavior can be stopped and homosexuality cured.

But what is interesting is not that rabid Evangelical Christian homophobes are allowed to be experts on gender, but that Stanton's view was echoed throughout much of the mainstream press At the Globe and Mail, Judith Timson opines

  By not identifying the baby as a boy or girl, the parents have given him/her no starting place from which to build a secure sexual and gender identity. Moreover, identifying as a girl when you are a boy or vice versa is not a decision enabled by parents. Feeling trapped in an opposite-sex body can be an excruciating process. Kids don't "choose" it, and some have killed themselves because of it.

Even at the far more feminist Jezebel, Dodai Stewart is saying

without telling anyone the kid's sex, we questioned whether their attempt at neutrality would make gender an even bigger deal. The answer is: Yes.

And by the way, Stewart adds, the 4-month-old Storm "looks like a boy."  

But let's pretend we live in a world where actual experts on gender are asked to comment, people who devote their lives to reading, writing, and teaching about the complex and thorny issues of gender, sex, desire and identity. What might the field of Gender Studies teach us about baby Storm? First and foremost, we must start with the body. As feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling writes in Myths of Gender, bodies are not exactly always "boy" or "girl" and that something like 3-5% of all babies born are not easily one or the other due to a variety of intersex conditions. But Storm was apparently born with unambiguous genitalia (we do not necessarily know Storm's chormosomal make up, however, which like many human beings might turn out to be more complicated than XX or XY). Nonetheless, because bodies are often messier than penis/vagina and because messy bodies are labeled a "medical crisis" that must be surgically or hormonally "fixed," Fausto-Sterling argues that 

...labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision.  We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender, not science, can define our sex.  Furthermore our beliefs about gender affect what kinds of knowledge science produce in the first place.

...imposing a gender norm is socially, not scientifically, driven. The lack of research into the normal distributions of genital anatomy, as well as many surgeons' lack of interest in using such data when they do exist clearly illustrate this claim."

But if labeling a body, giving it a sex, is a social decision, then defining what gender behaviors should be attached to that body is not just a social decion, it is an economic and historical one as well.  We live in an economy that sells us certain products for boys; others for girls. Legos come in primary colors and pastels. Don't let your boy sleep on Princess sheets or your girl play with Firetrucks or guns. Otherwise you might have "gender confusion" and, gasp, homosexual tendencies. Better to buy pink for her, blue for him and keep what gender theorist Judith Butler has labeled the "heterosexual matrix" in tact. According to Butler, the heterosexual matrix demands that bodies be labeled male or female, and that male bodies become mascuiine while female bodies become feminine and desire is always for the "opposite."

But the heterosexual matrix is not the result of the truth of science as it is the truth of culture and history. Bodies have not always been considered to have two sexes. Thomas Lacqueur makes that clear in his book, Sexing the Body. From Classical Greece to the Reformation, bodies were considered to have one sex, male, with females being an imperfect version. The penis and scrotum turned inside out made ovaries and uterus. Men and women produced egg and sperm and blood. Earlier medical experts thought this not because they were insane or stupid, but because our cultural beliefs always structure our scientific knowledge. We can only see that which we believe to be possible. In the current historical moment, there is a deep belief in the truth of the body, that we are "born that way," to quote Lady Gaga.  And so we produce science that says there are male brains and female brains, gay genes and straight genes.

But if there is one thing most gender experts- actual experts, not religious idealogues dressed up as gender experts- agree on is that bodies and the knowledge that surrounds them are messy. There is a "truth" to gender and to sex, but that truth is always mediated by our time and place. We believe bodies are knowable through science, but our bodies are also knowable through what we wear, what we play with, what we do, and what we buy. When parents refuse to participate in a system that demands a body with a penis be labeld a boy and then buy into a series of products to further enhance that boy's masculinity- like blue clothes and a baseball glove- they are bucking a system of gendering that is not just scientific, but economic, historical and social.

No wonder there is such a big storm brewing around little Storm. For once we stop obeying the logic of the heterosexual matrix and allow our children to be human beings, the shape of which is not fully determined by what is between our legs, then the messiness of bodies and desires could surely undermine the nice, clean and scientific fairy tales we've been told and a whole host of products we've been sold.

About the Author

Laurie Essig, Ph.D.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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