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Baby X 2011: A Storm of Controversy

 Once upon a time, a baby named X was born. This baby was named X so that nobody could tell whether it was a boy or a girl. Its parents could tell, of course, but they couldn’t tell anybody else. They couldn’t even tell Baby X, at first. – X: A Fabulous Child’s Story — by Lois Gould © 1972

Okay, so everyone’s using some variant of that headline – but here’s the story: A four month old Canadian baby named Storm recently became a tiny tempest in a Toronto teapot when his/her parents decided to keep the baby’s gender a secret  from all but a very select few. Kathy Witterick and her husband, David Stocker, who have two other children, sons ages 5 and 2,  want Storm to discover her/his identity as free of outside influences as possible.

Witterick and Stocker announced Storm’s birth via email to friends and family thusly: “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? …).”

…in not telling the gender of my precious baby,” writes Witterick, “ I am saying to the world, ‘Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s (he) wants to be?!”

The Internet, along with Witterick and Stocker’s friends and family, is, of course, abuzz with opinions. If nothing else, the family has created an opportunity for some serious discussion on gender issues with their happy cherubic baby at the heart of an interesting social experiment. Reactions to their effort say a lot about our views on gender, some new (The Truth about Genderless Babies ) , some not so new (Well Intentioned but Wrong ).

Their effort, however, is hardly the first of its kind. Experiments in gender neutrality in the U.S. and abroad go back at least forty years. In the 1972 short story,  X: A Fabulous Child’s Story (PDF) (Grosset & Dunlap, 1980) , author Lois Gould tells the story of child raised to adulthood in complete gender neutrality.  In the largely autobiographical 1998 book , An Unconventional Family (Yale University Press) author and psychologist Sandra Lipstiz Bem author talks about her conviction that it “ought to be possible for even young children to be gender liberated if we can inoculate them early enough and effectively enough against the culture.

In 2009, a Swedish family made headlines with Pop, their gender neutral child.

We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

And last year, a young woman raised in a gender neutral environment in the 80s shared her story in a Newsweek article titled, My Name is Jesse .

To some degree, I quite agree with Pop’s mom and Storm’s. Our three children,were all born just a couple of years apart, and we were determined not to lock them into any preconceived roles just because of their genders. So our son played with dolls and his sisters played with trucks and all three ran around with sticks in the yard, and built forts and played in the dirt and painted and cuddled.

We had the same expectations of all three of them – that they conduct themselves with self-discipline, grace and decency as their ages and abilities allowed. And we had the same wishes for all three of them – that they all grow up to be strong, capable, thoughtful, caring people.

But it wasn’t hard to see differences in our children that we could only attribute to gender. Our daughters explored their world carefully, systematically, running their fingers over things, picking them up and putting them down gently. Our son explored the world by putting everything in his mouth and flinging things across the room when he was done with them.

Jesse Ellison, reflecting on her upbringing, observed “… my parents’ little project in gender neutrality (namely, me) was, from the get-go, a total failure. As soon as I could speak, I demanded they replace my overalls with a long, pink, lacy dress. Far from gender-neutral, I was emphatically, defiantly a “girl.

Ellison’s mother said, “We all thought that the differences had to do with how you were brought up in a sexist culture, and if you gave children the same chances, it would equalize. It took a while to think, ‘Maybe men and women really are different from each other, and they’re both equally valuable.‘ ”

In fact, the traits we considered gender driven were just that – traits,  the different ways most (although certainly not all) boys and girls approach the world.   But we never considered those traits limiting in any way – just different ways of being. And in the end, those different ways of being resulted in three unique individuals, unlimited by their genders.

Gender neutrality, or perhaps more accurately, cross gender conduct, actually has quite ancient roots.  Among the Blackfoot tribes of the Dakotas, a “third gender” has traditionally been identified. The ninauposkitzipxpe, or the “manly hearted women,” are known for their aggressiveness, independence, boldness and sexual freedom. In Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, author Will Roscoe writes, “Manly hearts excelled in both men’s and women’s work.”  Other cultures, in the Americas and abroad, have similar cross gender traditions, where women will assume male roles in the absence of male heirs or husbands, and manage property and business more traditionally conducted by men.

But I think gender also plays a vital and useful role in society. In the story of Baby X, the scientists had difficulty finding a suitable family to raise their Xperimental genderless baby. “There were families with grandparents named Milton and Agatha, who didn’t see why a baby couldn’t be named Milton or Agatha instead of X, even if it was an X. There were families with aunts who insisted on knitting tiny dresses and uncles who insisted on sending tiny baseball mitts.

Gender, right, wrong or indifferent, really is a social experience, and as a young parent, I enjoyed sharing my daughters and son with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who all related to them in their own special ways – some indulging them in every conceivable gender specific gift or conduct, and others bringing powerful cross gender images and experiences to bear. They got to see that there were all kinds of ways to be men and women, and to decide where they comfortably fit.

The little brother whom my daughters delighted in dressing up is a computer geek who loves mechanical things, and is also deeply thoughtful, introspective, empathetic and affectionate. My daughters are both avid outdoorswomen. One enjoys dresses on occasion and wears make up; the other abhors anything feminine, and is happiest outdoors, camping, canoeing or hunting. The girls, too, are thoughtful, introspective, compassionate and loving people.

The Official Instruction Manual for Baby X, in Gould’s story, provides some sage counsel for Xs parents, and for all parents really, of Bettys and Bobbys and Pops and Storms and Jesses.

Never make Baby X feel embarrassed or ashamed about what it wants to play with. And if X gets dirty climbing rocks, never say ‘Nice little Xes don’t get dirty climbing rocks.‘ ”

Likewise, it said, “If X falls down and cries, never say ‘Brave little Xes don’t cry.’ Because, of course, nice little Xes do get dirty, and brave little Xes do cry. No matter how dirty X gets, or how hard it cries, don’t worry. It’s all part of the Xperiment.”

…Ultimately, “ wrote Jesse, of the experiment of her childhood, “the whole point was to ensure that I had the freedom, and choice, to be whoever I wanted—which is, after all, what feminism is all about. And even though it’s still cause for confusion, I even like my name. Actually, given that the alternatives included—true story—Oyster and Wing, I love it.

Storm, obviously loved and well cared for, will be fine, and will become whomever Storm wants to be, whatever the outside world’s opinion.  It’s clearly a Western luxury to withhold news of a child’s gender in “ a tribute to freedom and choice.”  Cruelty is not coming into the world with a blue or pink stamp on a child’s forehead.  What’s truly cruel is the fact that we live in a world where 1 billion children – nearly half of the world’s 2.2 billion children – live in poverty, where 640 million lack adequate shelter, 400 million lack access to safe water, 250 million labor worldwide, and nearly 11 million die before the age of five (Statistics on the State of Children Worldwide) .

I hope that in Storm’s lifetime the world not only becomes a more progressive place where Storm’s gender both doesn’t matter, and can be fully celebrated, but also that the world becomes a safer, healthier, happier place for the billions of children who share the planet with Storm.  All Baby Xes deserve nothing less.

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