“It’s a girl!” “It’s a boy!”
These are often the first things that are learned about a newborn child – even before its name is known. And what indeed is so bad about calling a child a girl or boy, if in fact you are going to assign it a first name it didn’t choose anyway?
Recognizing a newborn baby’s sex is not at all wrong. It’s their biology – same as their blood type, for example. But gender is different from sex. Sex is about the physical body parts – specifically, those parts that are considered very private (or at least this is the popular view – but whether it’s about genitalia or chromosomes, it’s still a very private matter). Gender is just the opposite – it’s completely public. Gender has to do with what you look like, how you act, how you think, how you see yourself, and whom you identify with; it can even go as far as loosely outlining what kind of personality you have and the activities you are attracted to.
Gender is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with somebody being a boy or girl (or even something besides those two options), anymore than there would be anything wrong with somebody being a doctor or a basketball player (or… something besides those two options!). The problem happens when we slot people into a gender automatically, solely based on the parts they have between their legs – their sex. It’s as if we told tall people that they cannot become doctors, that they just have to play basketball no matter what, even if they love curing disease and have no interest in shooting hoops. And gender is way more intimate and life-defining than one’s occupation.
Plus – what are the social benefits of shoving our children into a gender before they’re old enough to decide for themselves? “Fitting in” is not a good reason, because by that logic, anything that causes a child not to “fit in” is supposedly detrimental to the child. What about families that are interracial, mixed-religion, mixed-class, foreign-language-speaking, polyamorous, gay and lesbian, handicapped, blind, deaf, or any number of things can impact a child’s ability to fit in? Is fitting in the Holy Grail, rather than one’s sense of self-worth?
The whole point of “private parts” is that these things don’t matter in the day-to-day – because they are private. This intimate area of the body is supposed to be more private than pretty much anything else. So why then is “what kind of private parts you have” one of the first and foremost things that a person is supposed to publicly declare? That’s basically what knee-jerk gender assignment amounts to, if you don’t separate gender from biological sex.
In today’s heteronormative climate of separate bathrooms and radically different appearance norms for men and women, I quite well understand the desire to not try to challenge gender assumptions. A Canadian couple who decided to raise their baby without a gender marker for the time being is being subject to a firestorm of criticism, as if they were committing some grave sin. But this is not only not wrong; it is a step in the right direction. The whole point is that the child will choose – something that should be recognized even if the child is already gender-categorized.
Why put kids through such struggles? Well who is really putting people through struggles here, those who want to de-dogmatize gender, or those who impose gender on a person based on their private parts? There was a time when the concept of “race-mixing” was taboo, and that could only change when children, as well as adults, challenged it. Then, recently, there has come the struggle for equality for gays and lesbians – something that is far from over. Gay kids have found themselves at the forefront of this struggle, enduring merciless bullying and scorn from people who don’t like the way that they are “different” from the norm. These “dogmas of normalcy” must go.
The lack of recognition of gender as separate from sex means that transgender and other-gendered people cannot fit in because, at best, they are always having to clarify and explain “what they are” (as if they are some sort of different species). The dogma of “private parts = gender” feeds a harmful stereotype in society about trans people, gay people, and anyone else who falls outside the norms: “you are deceptive, because you don’t conform to our assumptions about what you should be.” Somehow, the assumptions people make about a person become more important than who the person actually is. When Chaz Bono (who recently chose to become a man) went on Dancing with the Stars, there was this big uproar over how “this might be confusing for kids to watch” in some way. But really, it’s only confusing if you’re fixated on the private parts. Whose head is really in the gutter here?
What about the gendered name issue?
Good question. Names much of the time carry very strong gender markers. Females named James and males named Mary are hard to come by, and most names do carry a bias toward one or another gender. However, there are a good deal of non-gendered names in most languages; in English, names like Rory, Jamie, Morgan, Cecil, Gerry, and Jordan, and “shortened” names like Jackie, Chris, Sam, and Alex do the trick. Then there are the spelling variations: Johnnie/Johnny, Billie/Billy, Rae/Ray, and so on. But here’s the other thing: when a person carries a first name that is somewhat less common, very often the sense of gender attachment to it becomes much less strong. I know of a female Quincy, for example; this is perhaps thought to generally be a male name, but it’s no great shock for anybody to apply it to a woman. You quickly get used to it. How about a man named Tamar, or Shannon, or Darcy (traditionally female first names)? Or a woman named Cedric, or Fabrice, or Dylan (traditionally male first names)?
And, if we get away from established first names and onto even less common territory, pretty much anything you can come up with can be gendered any way you want. The Canadian family bringing up the “currently genderless” child chose the name “Storm,” for example. I’m not going to get ridiculous proposing creative, uncommon names one could give to a kid here, but try out pretty much anything that sounds good and is not already socially established as a first name belonging to one gender. You’ll usually be able to imagine it applying to a person of either gender pretty easily. There is no one standard. Just take a look at first names from other parts of the world like Amparo, Monali, Wanderley, Xiaoxuan, Hotaka, and Sarath – all of these names, in the places where they are most common, are considered either male or female, but not both. Can you figure out which ones are the male names and which ones are the female names? If you don’t have a previously established frame of reference… it’s anybody’s guess!
As the world becomes more interconnected and different cultures meet and exchange ideas, our minds must become more open. It’s not a coincidence that the question of gender not being immediately determinable is coming up now – we are in an age that is forcing us to reexamine the assumptions we tend to make. That is a good thing, and just as our culture has expanded to give women the right to vote and run their own lives, and make room for “Ms” as a non-marriage-related female title (instead of just Miss and Mrs.), and begun to welcome the coexistence of gay and lesbian family units in addition to heterosexual ones – so also must our culture adapt to freer, less rigid, less dogmatic norms about gender, including the question of gender at birth. So much of today’s haggling between feminists and men’s rights advocates, for example, boils down to a very incomplete social understanding of what gender really is, and how the way gender is presumptively applied in our society very often hamstrings us. We often don’t get the choice early on to confront these problems, because society as a whole is not aware of them. Letting a child choose her/his gender is a wonderful next step on the road to understanding, controlling, and minimizing sexual inequalities of all kinds.
EDIT: Having received some feedback, I want to be clear about two things here:
1. I am not arguing that gender should be totally ignored. It’s perfectly reasonable that one can be aware of gender in society while still not having a gender identity. Kind of like not being into BDSM, and thus not having a label associated with it, but knowing that there are people out there who identify as “dominant” or “submissive.”
2. I am not arguing either that parents who do choose a gender for their children are bad folks, anymore than a parent that chooses a name for their child is a bad person. Raising this issue is merely a way of saying “this approach – not assigning gender at birth – is also valid, and should not be thought of as bad either.”