Note: I intended to post this some time ago, but completely forgot about it – TS
The novelty of media attention. It is certainly a draw for some people. Some people will find any reason to make their personal decisions known, and when it draws media attention they are all for it… until it also draws a public reaction.
Take the case of Kathy Witterick and her husband David Stocker. The pair decided to keep their newborn baby Storm’s sex a secret. According to them:
‘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? …).’
According to the article:
The couple believe they are releasing Storm from the constraints society imposes on males and females. They claim children can make meaningful decisions for themselves from a very young age.
They called parents who make choices for their children ‘obnoxious’, instead telling their children to challenge how they’re expected to look and act based on their sex.
That logic could easily apply to Witterick and Stocker. For instance, their choice to teach their older sons to choose whatever clothes they want from both boys and girls sections created a situation where their oldest son Jazz did not want to attend school. Why? Primarily because people make judgments about his sex based on how he dresses and the length of his hair. If you look at the picture included with the article, it is easy to mistake the boy for a girl.
As anyone with children will know, there is a fine line between what a child consciously chooses to do and what a child does to conform to their parents’ wishes. As much as these parents think they are not imposing constraints on their children, their desire to create an air of androgyny does just that. By not correcting people when those people incorrectly call their sons girls, these parents impose a very specific constraint on their children: one’s sex ought to be kept secret. Witterick and Stocker seem to think they send the message that a person’s sex does not matter, but their oldest son Jazz is learning that it clearly does. And it bothers him enough that he opted not to start school in September.
Witterick tried to explain away this conflict:
But, said Mrs Witterick, we are all mocked for our appearance at some point. ‘When faced with inevitable judgment by others, which child stands tall (and sticks up for others) — the one facing teasing despite desperately trying to fit in, or the one with a strong sense of self and at least two ‘go-to’ adults who love them unconditionally?’ she asked.
‘Well, I guess you know which one we choose.’
Yes we do, but unfortunately, by Witterick’s own words, that does not describe her oldest son. Strong-willed people do not avoid new situations. My godson gets picked on because of his height. He is very strong-willed, and if he does not snap back with a better quip, he is not afraid to pound the other kid into the ground. And God forbid anyone picks on his friends. Yet, as much as he has been bullied, he has never skipped school because of it. It is his indifference to fitting in that helps more than anything. The person who cares about fitting in or fitting in will face far more problems than those who could not care less.
The key factor in this is that a strong sense of self can easily get torn down if it has no defenses. It appears Witterick and Stocker did not prepare their sons for the backlash they had to know their sons would face, hence their present decision:
It was during that ‘intense time’ for Jazz that his parents decided they simply wouldn’t say what gender Storm was.
So they did not make this choice because they wanted to prove how progressive they were, but in a half-assed attempt address the problems their son Jazz faced due to the constraints they placed on him.
I try not to be too critical of parents because children do not come with instructions. Everyone makes mistakes with their children. There is no way to anticipate what will happen or how a child will deal with a situation. However, when people try these thought experiments out on their children, it usually has disastrous results. The moment the child gets outside of the family safe-zone, they have no way of navigating through it.
As was noted in the article:
California-based psychologist Diane Ehrensaft told the Star she believes parents should support gender-creative children.
She said there is something innate about gender – but said Storm’s case is worrying.
The child will be unable to position his or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between, she said, arguing that they have created another category entirely.
‘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,’ she said.
And asking children as young as Jazz and Kio to keep the secret is also alarming, she said. ‘For very young children, just in their brains, they’re not ready to do the kind of sophisticated discernment we do about when a secret is necessary.’
Dr Ken Zucker, the head of the gender identity service for children at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said that even when parents don’t make a choice, that’s still a choice, and one that can have an impact on the children.
Having spent many years facilitating on the topic of abuse and violence prevention, particularly as it pertains to children, I would never tell my children (or anyone) to keep a secret.
Secrets are not safe and healthy. I, like many parents, have taught my children that some things are private matters, and when you want to share them, you need to do so honestly with sensitivity and consideration.
If I had to convince my children not to share Storm’s sex (which I don’t because my children simply are not interested at this point) -I would teach them that someone else’s genitals and sense of how they relate to their gender is their private business, to be shared by them or in a context where safety, acceptance and sensitivity are paramount. Storm will certainly need to understand his/her own sex and gender to navigate this world (the outcry has confirmed this clearly!), but there has never been any question that within our family, the issues of sex and gender and the decisions relating to it are open for age-appropriate discussion and action.
Teaching a child that someone else’s genitals and sense of how they relate to their gender is their private business to be shared by them or in a context where safety, acceptance, and sensitivity are paramount is just a verbose, progressive liberal way of saying “keep it secret”. Yes, there are certain things that do not need to be discussed, but a person’s sex is not one of them. It is a stupid thing to keep secret, like keeping a child’s surname secret.
More so, a child’s sex informs their identity, and there is plenty of literature to support that. One of the first distinctions children learn is the difference between males and females. This has nothing to do with bias. It is simply a child learning that all people do not look the same. To put a child in a situation where they are not allowed to make such distinctions is harmful because it denies them the chance to see how they fit in the world.
Witterick’s contradictory response also shows that is not a well-considered experiment. She stated in another interview that she requested that the grandparents not disclose the child’s sex, i.e. she asked them to keep it secret. Presumably she has informed her oldest son to do the same thing, otherwise he might just say it as six-year-olds tend to do.
She went on to state:
In my heart of hearts, I squirm when my son picks a dress from the rack (won’t people tease him?), even though I know from experience and research that the argument that children need a binary gender orthodoxy taught to them in order to feel safe is simply incorrect. My children know who they are, through supported and facilitated experience with their world, and I avoid hypocrisy, inaccuracy and exhaustion by saving my energy for non-negotiable limit-setting related to safety, kindness, self respect, health, fulfilment and fairness.
No research states that children do not need a binary gender orthodoxy, whatever that means, to feel safe. That is not something people would research. They would research whether our cultural recognition of male and female impacts a child’s understanding of their world and themselves. The research demonstrates that it very much does.
Likewise, the issue is not whether the boys like themselves or view themselves as boys. The issue is how well they will mesh with the rest of society. No matter how strong a sense of self a person has, ostracization hurts. It always has some negative impact. This notion that these children will be fine just because Mom and Dad love them has been proven wrong numerous time.
It is unlikely that two out of three children from a family would randomly gender-bend. That is something that they were taught to do. If Witterick and Stocker want to raise their children in an androgynous fashion, they should at least prepare their children for the potential backlash instead of just waiting for it to happen. Of course, since these are real children, there is no telling what will happen.
It really is past pathetic when adults behave more like the children they are supposed to be educating. Studies have already demonstrated that male/female behaviour in play groups and kindergarten have already been determined by the children themselves. One test consisted of placing a boundary across a room that allowed them to pass if they wanted to, it allowed the children to do whatever they wanted. They found that the girls were happy to play in the restricted area while the boys were more inclined to peak around the boundary or just ignore it and moved on. They were not told or trained to behave in any fashion as they were only 2 year old and upwards.
Obviously, it’s not the children who require the assistance on this occasion as the parents demonstrate and practice their own harmful behavioural pattern which would requires more than just being spoken to. Maybe, give them both the naughty chair..
Father of Four..(raised and released)
Shit like this should never of happened in the first place. Because its like this you can keep the childs gender a secret who gives a shit at the end of the day. But making his crash in society enevitably is a bad thing. Im not saying that those kids will be part of a school shoot out well actally that may happen if they get the guns.
Anyways ill say this too, a child should have a right to wear what they want and pick what they want. But the other children at the school would notice and tell him/her what to wear and that will rub off on the child and he/she would pick what they want going back to what they want to wear but I bet that those parrents are forcing them to not cut there hair or wear somthing to fit it. You get what i mean here.
Mr Stocker should go to work wearin a pink tutu dress to prove to his kids that its okay to wear what they want without facing any problem.
I feel sorry for Storm though, what if he or she wants to join a sports team and realise the hard way that there are two genders which are different from each other in many ways. Also what if he/she has an erection or a period for the first time and which of his/her friend should he/she talk about it ?
I understand what you’re getting at, here, and I don’t entirely disagree with you, but I do take issue with your statement:
“Teaching a child that someone else’s genitals and sense of how they relate to their gender is their private business to be shared by them or in a context where safety, acceptance, and sensitivity are paramount is just a verbose, progressive liberal way of saying ‘keep it secret’.”
There is a profound difference between saying, “Keep it secret” and “This is not information that you need.” As someone who was born intersexed, I don’t feel that it’s anybody’s business what’s in my pants until or unless I choose to have that conversation. They are not entitled to that information, and it should have no bearing on how they relate to me as a person. As far as I’m concerned, and as far as anyone else need be, I am a man. I should not be obligated to wear my medical history on a sign around my neck and submit myself to prurient questions simply to make others comfortable. In short, my genitals ARE my private business.
I realise that I am a special case, but it should also be noted that Storm’s parents are not proposing to raise a sexless child. Neither are they denying the existence of the male/female binary. They are not attempting to negate the fact that Storm IS either male or female. They are simply choosing not to publicly divulge that information at a stage when the child itself does not yet have any concept of its own sexual identity. In so doing, all they are trying to do is avoid the arbitrary boy=blue, girl=pink issue which has already aversely affected their son Jazz (their SON Jazz who unequivocally self-identifies as a boy) who is being ostracised for not conforming to male gender stereotypes.
My nephew is a perfectly happy, well-adjusted little boy who also happens to enjoy wearing nail polish and playing with My Little Ponies. Some of his relatives think he should be discouraged in that because it’s too “feminine” – that, as a boy, he should only be given trucks and action figures to play with. Is it more healthy to enforce those stereotypes or to allow a child to express a certain degree of gender variance? That’s a matter of opinion. There are benefits and drawbacks to either approach. Speaking as an intersexed person who identifies as male, but who was socialised as female until the age of twelve, I can say that, yes, ostracism does hurt – but so does being forced to conform to a gender role that conflicts with your basic internal and natural sense of self.
That said, however, I would say that there is a difference between being supportive of a naturally gender-variant child and actively encouraging gender-variance as a matter of personal politics. One is good parenting; the other is irresponsible egotism.
Not in this situation. In this situation, the parents specifically told the child, the child’s older brother, and the child’s grandparents to keep the child’s sex a secret. There is no reason for this. The child, as far as we know, is not intersexed. This is simply the child’s parents playing out a thought experiment.
That actually does negate whether the child is male or female, not only because the parents are preventing the child from displaying or saying anything about his or her sex, but also by preventing others from interacting with the child based on that child’s sex. Likewise, children absorb information at a very early age, and this is also being reinforced by the child’s older siblings. The potential for this confusing the child is high. It already happened with their son Jazz.
We do not know that Jazz unequivocally self-identifies as a boy. The article does not state that. However, we do know that the parents are not just trying to avoid arbitrary issues. They go out of their way to make their kids as androgynous as possible.
I would ask why your nephew likes nail polish and playing with My Little Ponies. That is not a trick question. Did he do that all on his own out of his own interest or is he around a lot of girls and women and simply wants to fit in with them? People seem to think that socialization happens only in one direction, but it does not. Simply being around more members of the opposite sex can prompt that kind of interest. It is amazing the way children will pick up messages that people may not even intend.
And that is the issue in this situation. Are these children choosing to behave this way or are their parents playing out a thought experiment with them? I think it is the latter, especially given how things worked out for Jazz.
“That actually does negate whether the child is male or female, not only because the parents are preventing the child from displaying or saying anything about his or her sex, but also by preventing others from interacting with the child based on that child’s sex. Likewise, children absorb information at a very early age, and this is also being reinforced by the child’s older siblings.”
Storm is an infant. A child’s understanding of sex/gender does not begin to form until the age of 2 or 3 years old – that is to say, that is the age at which they can correctly identify themselves and others as either male or female. Storm, as yet, has no such awareness (Storm has only just turned two the winter of this year), and therefore it is ridiculous to suggest that he/she is being suppressed in any way, and it is equally ridiculous to suggest that, at such a young age, the way that someone would interact with a male versus a female infant would be fundamentally different.
“The potential for this confusing the child is high. It already happened with their son Jazz. […] We do not know that Jazz unequivocally self-identifies as a boy. The article does not state that.”
Jazz is not confused. Jazz knows and understands that he is a boy.(http://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/2011/05/28/genderless_babys_mother_responds_to_media_frenzy.html). It is not uncommon for young children to naturally display a degree of gender variance if they are not actively discouraged from doing so. According to the DSM, only a very small percentage of children who display GID behaviours will continue to do so in adolescence and adulthood. Particularly in the case of boys, 75-80% who display gender-variance in early childhood grow up to identify as homosexual, but are gender-conforming.
Again, it comes down to allowing vs. encouraging gender-variant expression. Since we are strangers looking in, we can’t possibly know which is truly the case.
“I would ask why your nephew likes nail polish and playing with My Little Ponies. That is not a trick question. Did he do that all on his own out of his own interest or is he around a lot of girls and women and simply wants to fit in with them? People seem to think that socialization happens only in one direction, but it does not. Simply being around more members of the opposite sex can prompt that kind of interest. It is amazing the way children will pick up messages that people may not even intend.”
I am certainly aware that children don’t develop in a vacuum. In my nephew’s case, it is a personal preference. He lives with both parents, is one of three boys (the other two are typically masculine in their interests), and has only one sister who is not a stereotypically “girly” girl (she loves video games and heavy metal). The My Little Ponies were originally a gift for his sister, who did not show much interest in them. My nephew, however, did. There were some raised eyebrows. We agonised; should we discourage him from playing with a toy he clearly enjoys just because some people think he shouldn’t? We decided that we shouldn’t do that. If he wants to play with little toy horses, who is he hurting? Similarly with the nail polish, we let him wear it at home if he wants to. We don’t allow him to wear it to school. Are we giving him a mixed message – be yourself at home, but not out there? I don’t know. These are issues that Jazz and his parents are going to have to deal with, too.
We do not live in that home, so we do not know what awareness the child does or does not have. What we can assume, however, is that these parents put forth a very specific model of androgyny that their children will pick up.
If you agree that society imposes a gender binary, then is not ridiculous to suggest that the way people will interact with a baby girl would differ in some ways to how they would interact with a baby boy.
Actually, he was confused by the way people reacted to his hair and clothes. That happened not just because of his personal choices, but primarily because of his parents’ choice to try out this notion of genderlessness.
There are two issues with that train of logic. One, “gender variance” is a subjective concept that ignores cultural norms. It is normal in some cultures for boys to have long hair. It is also normal in some cultures for boys to wear flowers. It is only see as odd in the West because those are no longer considered “masculine” norms. Two, it is not clear that it is “gender variance” to begin with. It may be that a child likes a particular object but only has the choice of that object in a “gender-coded” way. In other words, a boy my like horses but finds that all the horse toys are made for girls. That he plays with those toys does not mean he is expressing “gender variance”. He may just as soon play with toy ponies made for boys if they were available.
That goes to my question about your nephew. It may be that he simply likes ponies and since the MLP were there he played with them. The nail polish may simply be him mimicking something he saw. My godson will wear nail polish because he saw my brother wearing it and because of Naruto. He cannot wear it at school because it violates the dress code. However, he does not go for “feminine” colors.
“We do not live in that home, so we do not know what awareness the child does or does not have. What we can assume, however, is that these parents put forth a very specific model of androgyny that their children will pick up.”
My comment was based on the generally accepted scientific/medical understanding of how a child develops psychologically. Yes, each child is an individual, but it is reasonable to assume that the majority of children will follow this developmental model. It is, however, only an assumption on our part to say that the parents of these particular children are setting a model of androgyny for them (that is, that they are actively fostering it rather than simply not deterring it). It may be correct. It may not. There is no way to know.
“If you agree that society imposes a gender binary, then is not ridiculous to suggest that the way people will interact with a baby girl would differ in some ways to how they would interact with a baby boy.”
I agree that society imposes a gender binary on children from a young age, yes, but I would not go so far as to say that it imposes that gender binary on pre-verbal infants except in ultimately meaningless and superficial ways such as the baby’s clothing – much of which tends to be more or less unisex at that age, anyway. So, no, I don’t believe that there is any significant difference. A baby has no effective gender role. A child that young is not yet being actively socialised as male or female except in appearance.
“Actually, he was confused by the way people reacted to his hair and clothes. That happened not just because of his personal choices, but primarily because of his parents’ choice to try out this notion of genderlessness.”
Jazz was upset by peoples’ reactions, but he understood the reason for them – that it was because his choices are not what would typically be considered “masculine” in this society. He does not consider himself “genderless”, nor do his parents – as they have explicitly stated (see the article I linked earlier). Jazz’s sex is male. His self-defined gender is masculine. If this is difficult to understand, then it seems like the real issue is not Jazz’s understanding of his own gender, but others’ opinions on it. To them, a boy who likes to have long hair and wear pink is not a “proper” boy.
“There are two issues with that train of logic. One, “gender variance” is a subjective concept that ignores cultural norms. It is normal in some cultures for boys to have long hair. It is also normal in some cultures for boys to wear flowers. It is only see as odd in the West because those are no longer considered “masculine” norms. Two, it is not clear that it is “gender variance” to begin with. It may be that a child likes a particular object but only has the choice of that object in a “gender-coded” way. In other words, a boy my like horses but finds that all the horse toys are made for girls. That he plays with those toys does not mean he is expressing “gender variance”. He may just as soon play with toy ponies made for boys if they were available.”
Gender variance is not a subjective concept. It is a definite concept with a subjective presentation in the individual cultures in which it occurs, and, as such, it is measured against the norms of the culture to which the person in question belongs. As we are discussing a specific case within a specific culture, the question of differing cultural standards is immaterial. Speaking of Jazz, his behaviour is inarguably gender variant – two major indications of gender variance, as clinically defined, are cross-gender clothing and grooming preferences – but, in his case, it does not seem to coincide with a gender identity disorder (he does not assert that he is or wishes to be a girl).
As for my nephew, I don’t claim that he is gender variant except incidentally (despite the fact that he does actually have a preference for MLP over generic toy horses, and a preference for glitter nail polish over other colours). I merely used him as an example of how gender atypical preferences in certain areas do not necessarily indicate wider reaching gender confusion, clinical or otherwise, and that they may occur independently in an environment which does not actively impose them. So, in that respect, we are actually in agreement.
Since we seem to be going back and forth quite a bit, I want to emphasise that I am not upset or offended, and I am not trying to be confrontational or accusatory. If I come across that way, it is entirely unintentional, and I apologise.
It cannot be a definite concept if what counts as “gender variance” varies from culture to culture. The variance seems dependent on cultural norms, and often very specific cultural norms. For example, many Western men wear their hair long. Any boy who watches WWE will see dozens of over-muscled, clearly masculine men with long hair. The notion that people associate long hair with femininity is limited to a specific subcultural norm. The color issue is a better example, however, that again does not show “gender variance”. In other words, a boy liking pink does not mean he wants to or is trying to gender bend. He may simply like the color.
I do not take your comments as confrontational. You are presenting your position and I am presenting mine. I wish people could be as civil as you are.
I’m glad you didn’t take it that way. With this kind of communication – the absence of tone and other cues – it’s always a danger. I respect your blog, and you already seem to have enough abusive comments to put up with without me unintentionally adding to them.
Getting back to my point, I may not have been clear in my explanation, but the reason I say that gender variance is a definite concept is because it is a phenomena that occurs and is recognised in every culture. What is considered gender variant behaviour will vary from culture to culture according to societal norms, and can only be judged within the context of that culture, but it is not the concept itself that is subjective. Only its presentation. That is to say, any given behaviour cannot be said to be gender variant or not independent of the cultural context in which it is occurring, but that does not negate the fact that it may be, within that context, non-normative. It’s also a question of degree. I agree with you that a simple preference for the colour pink is not necessarily any indication, nor is having long hair (I’m Métis; long hair is part of my culture, for example, and not unusual). However, a preference for wearing specifically feminine clothing such as dresses and skirts, and traditionally feminine hairstyles such as braids and pigtails (again, within the context of White, North American culture) are a much stronger indication which is why, as I mentioned before, a strong and persistent preference for cross-gendered clothing and grooming is considered a major indication of gender variance in children. The concept of gender variance as a definite phenomena is also strengthened when biological factors are taken into consideration. For example, another poster mentioned play studies that were conducted with male and female children which seemed to indicate that boys and girls tended to have innate preferences for certain toys and types of play. Similar studies were also conducted with rhesus monkeys, suggesting that even animals display similarly gendered preferences which cannot be explained purely by socialisation (the study can be found here, if you’re interested: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2583786/).
That said, it does bear mentioning – and I think it is a flaw within the diagnostic system and a reflection of unconscious societal bias (which is difficult to avoid, as you suggest) – that the scope of what is clinically considered to be gender variant behaviour in young boys is much broader than it is for girls. This is one of the reasons why there is professional and public controversy over the diagnostic criteria used in the current version of the DSM (IV), and why the proposal has been made that the next revision (due to come out in May of this year) distinguish more precisely between gender variant expression in children, which is not considered a pathology, and true gender identity disorder (GID), which is.
Ultimately, though, the question is largely academic to the point. I have been considering our thread, and was actually discussing it today with someone else. It helped me to clarify in my own mind what I was trying to say, and what my opinion is on the matter. As I said in my original comment, there is a difference between being supportive of a naturally gender variant child and actively encouraging gender variance as a matter of personal politics. I personally believe that Jazz is naturally gender variant, but whether he is or not, I don’t think that it is right for Storm’s parents to bring Storm into that – not by denying Storm’s sex or gender, which was never their intention, but by making it such a public issue. That is to say, while they may think that they are helping their son Jazz by raising awareness, breaking down stereotypes, and trying to promote acceptance (which would be admirable, normally), I don’t see that there is any benefit in going about it as they have. In fact, if anything, it has probably been counter-productive, because it has opened up their children to unnecessary criticism and ridicule by making them the focus of a media circus.
So, while I would still not characterise Jazz’s behaviour as the result of an intentional “thought experiment” on behalf of his parents, and I still maintain that sexual identity and gender expression can be intensely personal issues (particularly for traditionally non-gender-conforming individuals), and that gender variant children can grow up just as happy and well-adjusted as gender-conforming children with the proper support, I am of the unfortunate opinion that Witterick and Stocker’s decision not to announce Storm’s sex – and to make that non-disclosure so unnecessarily public – does seem rather like using their baby as a soapbox.