Mind & Meaning: Boys will be boys, regardless
Published 06/06/2011 | 05:00
Until just over a week ago I had never heard the words 'zee' or 'hir' used as pronouns. I came across them when reading a newspaper report about Canadian parents, living in Toronto, who recently informed the world that they intend bringing up their four-month-old as the world's first genderless baby.
Called Storm, nobody except the older siblings, a family friend and the midwife who supervised the delivery in a home-birthing pool, are aware of the sex of the child. And as part of their effort to avoid gender stereotyping they are referring to the baby as 'zee' instead of he or she. The neologism 'hir' is also used instead of him or her.
In this world of gender-neutral pronouns and gender-neutral clothes, Storm will be dressed in stripes and polka dots from one of the handful of retailers specialising in unisex baby clothes.
This extreme approach to child rearing has a name -- gender-neutral parenting. This is to be distinguished from the understandable efforts by many parents to discourage unacceptable sexual stereotypes.
For instance, many will attempt to discourage aggression in boys by refusing to give them toy guns to play with or will encourage their daughters to focus on interests other than Barbie dolls.
What these parents in Canada are doing goes far beyond trying to reduce machismo or sexualisation. It moves into the realm of believing that gender is culturally defined in its entirety.
The philosophy underpinning gender-neutral parenting is that the child's development should not in any way be trammelled by traditional definitions of how the sexes should think or act. So if a boy wants to dress as a girl so be it!
Indeed one of Storm's siblings, a boy called Jazz, reportedly wears pink dresses, a pink ear stud and has braided hair. He is also reportedly refusing to go to his local school and is being home-schooled.
The idea that gender is fluid and largely a social construct has interesting roots, among them the book by psychologist Dr John Money called 'Sexual Signatures'. Dr Money was the psychologist involved in the case of David Reimar.
Bruce Reimar was an identical twin, who at the age of four months experienced a botched circumcision resulting in the loss of his penis. On the advice of this world-famous psychologist John Money, from Johns Hopkins University, Bruce's parents decided to have him castrated by removing both testicles, gave him female hormones and raised him as a girl called Brenda.
According to Money, who wrote two books about the case, Brenda behaved as if he was a girl and the experiment was deemed a success. However at the age of 14, he decided to adopt a male identity, notwithstanding the absence of male genitalia.
At that time, he had the history of his situation explained to him. He changed his name to David, had the surgery reversed, married and became an adoptive father.
It subsequently emerged in a book by John Colapinto that his parents may have mislead Money about their son's progress and that David (aka Bruce, aka Brenda) had never accepted the imposed female gender. David Reimar took his own life in 2004.
Meanwhile Money's book had become very influential by suggesting that the gender identity of the child was a tabula rasa for about one year after birth.
Some social theorists and feminist writers have also argued that many of the roles and behaviours of the sexes are socially constructed and are amenable to alteration. In some political circles, the influence of gender neutrality is growing. For example birth certificates in Spain no longer contain the word mother and father but 'parent one' and 'parent two'.
While the baby Storm case does does not involve the same situations to which baby Bruce was subjected, his tale may act as a warning to parents.
It shows that if experiments involving body mutilation and hormone treatments do not influence how one feels about one's gender, then simple social experiments like wearing frilly dresses, braiding one's hair or playing with dolls are unlikely to either.
Chances are Storm will know fairly soon whether 'zee' is a boy or girl. It will likely be obvious from play, appearance and interests.
We live in a gendered world and like it or not, Storm cannot avoid this unless the parents cocoon 'hir' for the next 18 years in isolation -- preventing any contact with children outside the family, forbidding sleep-overs and banning contact with the extended family.
This is a grim prospect, and Storm should not be the subject of such an ideological social experiment that is attempting to defy what the world and biology, with some rare exceptions, has accepted for aeons.
Health & Living