On Gender and Refusing to Disclose It
June 7, 2011
There was a storm of controversy recently over a Toronto couple’s announcement that they were not disclosing the sex of their now 4-month-old baby. They “believe they are giving their children the freedom to choose who they want to be, unconstrained by social norms about males and females.” Not only are they raising their child Storm to be genderless, but they decided not to tell the world—and the world did not like that one bit.
The mother, Kathy Witterick, writes, “When the baby comes out, even the people who love you the most and know you so intimately, the first question they ask is, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’ If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs.” But genitals are only one indication of sex; gender-bound brain structures and chromosomes also delineate the fact that we live in a boy/girl world. And the way God set things up—to maintain the boy/girl distinction—you don’t have to ask what’s between someone’s legs because there are plenty of other signs far less intimate.
Ms. Witterick and her husband, David Stocker, hold a loose ideology about gender, which they are encouraging in Storm’s brothers, Jazz (five years old) and Kio (two). Jazz loves traditionally girly things like pink and purple, and chooses to wear his hair long in braids, which regularly invites people to assume he’s a girl. His parents give him total freedom in how he presents himself.
“It is true that my oldest son Jazz does not have a traditional notion of what boys should wear, look like or do. It is also true that we believe our children should have the right to choose their clothes and hairstyle. Jazz has a strong sense of being a boy, and he understands that his choices to wear pink and have long hair are not always acceptable to his community. He chooses freely to do them anyway, because he also has been taught to respect difference, love himself and navigate the world in a way that is true to his own voice.”
This is a five-year-old boy. How free is he, really, to make choices that he “understands” are “not always acceptable to his community”? How much understanding of the nature of the world does a five-year-old have?
Jazz’s mom suppresses her natural instincts in order to parent ideologically:
“In my heart of hearts, I squirm when my son picks a dress from the rack (won’t people tease him?), even though I know from experience and research that the argument that children need a binary gender orthodoxy taught to them in order to feel safe is simply incorrect.”
I would suggest that teaching “a binary gender orthodoxy” is not incorrect; it is woven into the very nature of how things are because God made it that way: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27) When we depart from a biblical explanation and understanding of reality, and we start making it up as we go along, we invite chaos and confusion.
I think she’s right to squirm when her son picks a dress from the rack, and not just because people will tease him. The binary nature of gender is part of God’s plan for helping us maintain boundaries between things that need to be kept separate. The Old Testament includes a prohibition against cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5) to support the natural distinction between the sexes. Creating confusion by dressing in the other gender’s clothes is not consistent with God’s intent to maintain separations between things that should not be confused or blurred. Genesis 1 tells us that He separated the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters below, the land from the sea. And when he created humans, He created them in two distinctly different types: male and female. Then, in Isaiah 5:20 He said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”
I do understand the frustrations of Storm’s parents concerning society’s too-narrow definitions of boy and girl. (Please see my blog “The Gender Spectrum.”) Jazz is one of those emotionally sensitive boys who delight in color, texture, fabrics and vibrancy, and his parents apparently fully support the kind of gifted, creative boy he is, which is great. But when parents fully indulge a boy’s gravitation to pink, and dresses, and long hair, yet he wants other people to know he’s a boy (as Jazz does), there’s some needless confusion going on because of a lack of common-sense boundaries.
There’s another aspect of this philosophy of parenting that is disturbing: the desire for children to discover “their true gender self,” as psychologist Diane Ehrensaft puts it, and to choose what they want to be. Storm’s mama wrote,
“[I]n not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, ‘Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s(he) wants to be?!. . . . 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? …)”
There are lots of legitimate choices that children can make for themselves, and exercising those “choosing muscles” develops self-confidence. But some choices are not legitimate: deciding whether or not to brush their teeth, refusing to eat anything but junk foods, discovering their own religious “truths”. . . and choosing their gender, regardless of what their body tells them. From a biblical perspective, God as creator is the one who gets to choose a child’s gender, and His choice is revealed in the first moment of birth: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” It is our place as His creations to accept and embrace God’s choice for us, not insist on the personal freedom to define ourselves according to our own limited ways of understanding. That is anarchy. That kind of independence from God is the essence of sin.
I am reminded of the deep wisdom of Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Just because something sounds good to us at the time doesn’t mean it will end up well. And this seems especially true of encouraging children to make their own paths without parental limitations.
This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/tapestry/sue_bohlin/on_gender_and_refusing_to_disclose_it