Article on ‘genderless baby’ 2011

Article – ‘Genderless Baby’

Finn Mackay, Executive Member for activist liaison with the Feminist & Women’s Studies Association (FWSA)

All babies are born genderless. I realise this may come as a shock to those whipping up a media furore around the aptly named baby, Storm. The parents of four month old Storm have decided not to disclose what sex their baby has been assigned, in the hope that they can protect the child from the worst excesses of gender stereotyping.

This admirable aim is being treated by some as if akin to child abuse. As opposed to the supposedly normal impositions that all the other parents foist on their children in the process of physically and psychologically moulding them into one or the other gender.

Responses to this story have also exposed a widespread conflation of gender and sex. These are two different things. Sex is assigned at birth based on biological characteristics: female, intersex or male. Gender is the term used to describe masculinity, femininity or anything in between, such as camp, androgynous etc. Masculinity is attached to maleness, femininity to femaleness; sex and gender are expected to be congruent.

While sex refers to biological characteristics, gender does not. Gender is a social construction. It changes over time and varies across cultures. It is neither natural nor innate. In fact, most people work very hard at trying to achieve what we are told comes naturally. Men try to measure up to current definitions of masculinity and women to current definitions of femininity. Gender is maintained by the separation of clothing stores, the separation of toys, the separation of roles, the separation of shampoos!

Because we have not yet achieved equality of the sexes, gender matters as a marker. It is used to enforce a system of sex-rank, wherein it must be immediately obvious which box one belongs to; just in case you accidentally get paid more at work, or are accidentally assumed to have autonomy over your own body or something equally troubling to the status-quo.

In the name of gender we wrap boys in camouflage and tell them they can’t cry, that although they may grow up to be Judges or CEOs they are naturally incapable of ironing, cooking, or washing their own underpants. Girls are recognisable by their pink clothes and princess dresses, they are allowed to cry because they are emotional, but they can’t play like boys because it’s not in their genes – and anyway, they would rip their princess dresses.

Against this onslaught, the Canadian couple are trying to give their children a chance at being human beings, rather than the tired and limiting stereotypes of women and men. As they don’t live in a vacuum however, their efforts can only ever be partial. This hasn’t occurred to many commentators though, bleating on about the dangers of ‘genderless babies’. Who knew the supposedly natural institution of gender is so fragile that it can be brought down by a baby wearing the ‘wrong’ colour, or having the ‘wrong’ length of hair! What next? The erosion of the nuclear family? Women voting? Where will it end?

In this case it will end when Storm decides whether or not to tell people what sex they identify as or with, if any, and what gender they identify as or with, if any. The child should be able to play with whatever toys, wear whatever clothes, cry, laugh and dream of being or doing whatever their heart desires. Sex should not be destiny. That is what these parents are trying to tell us. But society so loves to shoot the messenger who dares to hold up a mirror and ask us to look at ourselves.

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