When Gender Matters

First published at 365gay.com on June 3, 2011

Many years ago I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy conference. As usual, a respondent was assigned: a Professor Robin Somebody (I don’t recall the last name). I found out about the assignment by mail, and I remember wondering immediately, “Is Robin a man or a woman?”

This was in the pre-internet days, so I couldn’t do a Google Image Search. But I told myself that it didn’t matter, and let it go.

Then Professor Robin’s comments arrived, and I had to write a rejoinder. What pronouns should I use?

And it wasn’t just about pronouns. For some strange reason, it became important to me to mentally categorize Professor Robin correctly. Even though our papers had nothing to do with sex or gender, I wanted to imagine the author in the correct “voice.”

Mind you, we often supply authors with “voices” that are way off-base even apart from gender: for example, we give “old” voices to young authors, or deep calm voices to exuberant ones. But of all the details we require of, or provide for, others, gender seems fundamental. We treat it as being necessary even in contexts—like philosophy colloquia—where it clearly shouldn’t matter.

Professor Robin and I were trading arguments; we weren’t shopping for clothes or visiting the restroom. Nevertheless, until the day Professor Robin called me and left an answering-machine message in a distinctively male voice (Phew!), I stressed out about his gender.

I recalled this experience when reflecting on the case of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the Canadian couple who are aiming to raise their baby Storm in a gender-neutral way.

Witterick and Stocker have decided that Storm’s biological sex is not something that strangers need to know right now, and that Storm’s gender identity will emerge when the child is old enough to assert it. Witterick’s explanation and defense of their decision, in the face of some truly nasty attacks, is a must read. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html]

I admit: when I first heard about this story, I thought “That’s just weird.”

Sure, gender identity sometimes diverges from biological sex, and it’s great that Storm’s parents are sensitive to that fact. But I worried that, in a well-intentioned attempt to avoid imposing gender expectations on the child, they were instead imposing social confusion.

Having studied Witterick’s explanation, I no longer have that worry. [http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Baby+Storm+mother+speaks+gender+parenting+media/4857577/story.html] (Before you pass judgment, you should read it too.) On the contrary, I think Storm is very lucky to have such parents, even if as a parent I would likely make different choices.

To be clear: Witterick and Stocker are not insisting that Storm’s gender be kept private indefinitely. Rather, their decision is “a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.” Storm will assert a gender when Storm is ready.

To the extent that I worry about Storm—and all children—it’s because the ensuing backlash has reminded me of how far our society has to go in terms of gender acceptance.

The fact is that I no more need to know Storm’s sex or gender than I needed to know Professor Robin’s. Neither do you, unless perhaps you’re Storm’s pediatrician.

And while some find it inconvenient to learn gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “hir,” that inconvenience is a minor price to pay for breaking free of some ugly gender-rigidity.

Make no mistake: gender-rigidity can get quite ugly. Witness some of the responses to Storm’s case.

Take Mitch Albom, whose inspirational confections like “Tuesdays with Morrie” suggest an author with some human sensitivity. Apparently that sensitivity evaporates where gender nonconformity is involved. In his syndicated column [http://www.freep.com/article/20110529/COL01/105290429/-1/7DAYSARCHIVES/Mitch-Albom-We-good-news-s-brand-new-baby-something-], Albom responds with a transgender-phobic, intersex-ignorant screed, reducing the complexity of gender to what’s “evident in the first pee pee” and describing gender-reassignment surgery as asking a doctor to “mangle” one’s private parts.

What’s more, he ridicules Witterick and Stocker for allowing their older son Jazz to dress in pink, paint his nails, and wear an earring. Albom compares such harmless self-expression to letting a child play with a chainsaw or sit in its own excrement.

The more this case prompts such stupid reactions, the more I think Storm’s parents have a point.

There are obviously boundaries that are important to a child’s safety. (“Don’t touch the stove.”) But the package of assumptions we impose with gender expectations says far more about our own prejudices than about children’s needs.

Although Storm’s parents may be taking the “no assumptions” approach to an extreme, they invite us to question why gender matters to us so much in cases where there’s no clear reason that it should. Is our rigid pink and blue approach really best for children?

It’s a good question. If only we could muster the sanity and sensitivity to formulate a thoughtful answer.