Occasionally, as part of courses I teach on gender and education, I include a reading by Lois Gould entitled ‘X: A Fabulous Child’s Story’. Written in a fairy-tale style, and first published in 1978, it conveys a fictional story about a child – X – who is part of an ‘Xperiment’ (sic) to see what happens if a child is raised as an X rather than as a girl or a boy.In this Xperiment no-one except the parents (and the experiment organisers) have seen the child’s external genitalia. When asked whether the child is a boy or a girl, the parents reply ‘it’s an X’.
Gould explores, in a light-hearted style, the issues raised when parents refuse to label a child as a girl or boy. Responses to their refusal to label include: anger by people who want to know the ‘truth’; embarrassment by relatives at being embroiled in such a scandal; confusion by people who don’t know how to speak to, or handle, the child; and uncertainty about what kinds of toys and clothes to give it. Of course, a host of issues emerge as the child begins school, and the teachers, other parents and administrators of the system more generally don’t know how to cope with X. In my opinion, it’s a great quick-and-easy read that highlights many issues that I want my undergraduates to engage with during their course. A few times I’ve been asked by students whether it’s a true story, ‘unfortunately not’, I’ve replied with a smile. Now though, we do have the beginnings of a parallel, but this time true, story.
A Canadian couple have recently hit the headlines around the world for refusing to label their 4-month-old child – Storm – a girl or a boy. There has been much coverage in the press; the following example comes from the Boston Globe:
‘Ridiculous or ultra-enlightened? A Toronto couple’s decision to keep the gender of their 4-month-old baby a secret has touched off a sometimes nasty debate over how far parents should go in protecting young ones from society’s boy-girl biases.
Kathy Witterick and David Stocker recently landed on the front page of the Toronto Star, explaining that they hope their third child, Storm, can remain untouched by the connotations of pink versus blue, male versus female, long enough to make up his or her own mind.
The decision has online haters and supporters of the family on hyperdrive. Child development experts, meanwhile, question the impact on the cherubic infant later in life and whether the couple has gone too far in their quest for gender neutrality.’
Reporters for the UK Daily Mail tabloid newspaper seemingly find it impossible not to use a gendered pronoun in their headline: ‘Don’t Judge Us! The couple raising a “genderless baby” defend their decision to keep his sex a secret’ (my emphasis). The article itself is lengthy, and includes comments about Witterick and Stocker’s other two children – Jazz and Kio – who the parents strongly encourage not to be constrained by gender stereotypes. Critiques of Witterick and Stocker’s decision not to label Storm allegedly come from friends who ‘accused the couple of taking away the newborn’s right to choice by imposing their own ideology on the tiny baby’. The notion of a newborn’s right to choice is intriguing: if the baby is such a skilled chooser at age 4 months perhaps the whole thing was the baby’s idea! And since when have the labels of girl and boy, and the typical response to these, been ideology free?
Then we get the usual obligatory comments from a psychologist, in this case ‘a California-based psychologist’, Diane Ehrensaft, who apparently told the Star that parents ‘should support gender-creative children’ but Storm’s case is worrying. According to Ehrensaft, there is something innate about gender, and the parents are putting restrictions on this particular baby ‘so that in this culture the 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’. If anyone can follow the logic of this argument please enlighten me; even if we accept for a second that gender ‘comes from inside’ (and even accepting it for a second is pushing it for me), how does not labelling a child boy or girl prevent it looking inside and finding its ‘true self’? Moreover, if, as Ehrensaft seems to suggest, the rest of us are so free to choose whatever gendered self we like, why is there so much interest in this case? Why are people upset because they don’t know whether to buy it pink or blue clothes, bounce the baby or cuddle it, give it a dinosaur or a doll, the list could go on and on? There clearly are going to be challenges for the child and its parents, but the people who are critiquing the parents for being ‘cruel’ to the child are the ones who are most likely to create the challenges.
Media-reported reactions to Storm will provide a captivating new case study for my next gender and education module. Interestingly, apparently Witterick and Stocker were inspired by ‘X: A Fabulous Child’s Story’. However, there’s a long way to go if Storm’s story is going to end in the same Happy Way as Child X’s.
Carolyn Jackson, GEA Executive