Sex, Gender, and Social Construction

Lois Gould, the author of the story “Baby X,” about a family raising their child without revealing the child’s sex, chose to call her story a fable (typically a short story conveying a moral), suggesting she was not offering a prescription for how to raise one’s children; nevertheless, one Canadian family was been inspired by Baby X and decided to raise their child, Storm, without revealing the child’s sex (Poisson, 2011). (See Chapter 1: Sex, Gender and Social Construction for more about Baby X.)

When Storm was born, the parents sent an email to friends and family – “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now – a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation . . .” As in the case of Baby X, people reacted largely negatively, accusing the parents of imposing misplaced values and potentially exposing their child to ridicule and bullying. Storm’s parents persisted but not without compromise. While visiting Cuba, feeling they didn’t have adequate Spanish language skills to explain the choice not to reveal Storm’s sex, they flipped a coin to determine whether they would refer to Storm as a girl or a boy. The coin came up heads and Storm became “he” for the next week. The parents reported people’s language changed immediately upon learning Storm’s sex and they got many comments about their “big, strong boy” (Poisson).

Storm’s parents were motivated by the desire to minimize the social messages about gender expectations being passed to Storm. “We thought that if we delayed sharing [Storm’s sex] . . . we might knock off a couple million of those messages,” they have said. It wasn’t easy. “We spend more time than we should providing explanations for why we do things this way,” explained Storm’s mother, referring not only to how they were raising Storm, but also their two older children, both of whom are given the freedom to dress, wear their hair and play as they like without regard to conventional gender expectations. 

When, nearly 10 years ago, Storm’s parents made the decision to raise their child outside of conventional gender expectations, they might often have felt alone in their endeavor. (There were media reports of several other children similarly being raised “without gender,” but the phenomenon seemed relatively rare.) Today, reports of “theybies” and “gender-open” parenting practices are more common. A Google search turns up dozens of websites and articles about gender-neutral parenting practices, some favorable, some critical. But saying the practice is more common does not mean that is, in fact, common. While The New York Times reports that the latest generation of new parents “hold more accepting views of gender nonconformity” (Tortorello, 2019), there is no way to gauge exactly how many parents are practicing gender-neutral parenting, nor does research yet exist to know what its effects may be. The intention remains the same as that of Storms’ parents, however, to allow a baby to grow up “to become a boy, a girl, or whatever feels right” (Tortorello, 2019).

Opportunities for Research – “Gender-neutral” parenting is gaining in popularity. What are its advantages? Disadvantages? Challenges? What does research tell us about children who are raised in gender-neutral ways or who are gender nonconforming?

References

Poisson, Jayme. (2011, May 21). Parents keep child’s gender secret. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/life/parent/2011/05/21/parents_keep_childs_gender_secret.html

Tortorello, M. (2019, March 7). How to Raise a Child Without Imposing Gender. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/07/style/gender-neutral-design-child.html