Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Every now and then an issue comes up that puts a magnifying glass on just how deeply confused our collective cultural psyche has become, and this story about parents raising their child without gender is just such an occasion. For those of you whose internet connections have been broken for the past few days, here’s a summary of this story that’s making the rounds through the blog world: A Canadian couple named Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have decided to raise their child without gender. Witterick explains: “In fact, in 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?’” The couple claims that this sort of thing is working out well for their older children, Jazz and Kio:
Jazz—soft-spoken, with a slight frame and curious brown eyes—keeps his hair long, preferring to wear it in three braids, two in the front and one in the back, even though both his parents have close-cropped hair. His favorite colour is pink, although his parents don’t own a piece of pink clothing between them. He loves to paint his fingernails and wears a sparkly pink stud in one ear, despite the fact his parents wear no nail polish or jewelry.
Kio keeps his curly blond hair just below his chin. The 2-year-old loves purple, although he’s happiest in any kind of pyjama pants.
“As a result, Jazz and now Kio are almost exclusively assumed to be girls,” says Stocker, adding he and Witterick don’t out them. It’s the boys’ choice whether they want to offer a correction.
More notable than the article itself is the various reactions to it. A scan through the blog buzz shows that the average reaction is earnest hand-wringing about whether or not this just might make sense.
One psychologist quoted in the Parent Central article is concerned about it, but probably not for the same reasons you are:
[S]he worries by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child.
“I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this 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.”
At Forbes, Victoria Pynchon has mixed feelings about the situation, but finds the bright side by pointing out that at least they’re not Christian homeschoolers:
It’s far more common for parents to restrict their children’s opportunities than it is for mothers and fathers to open up to their kids every possibility imaginable. Think Christian home schoolers, the Amish, and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. These are people who deliberately press upon their children their own strict ideologies expecting that they will spend an entire lifetime inside a culture that is counter to one they would otherwise inherit as their geographic destiny.
Anna North is also conflicted, but agrees that it’s “reductive” to label people as male or female:
Witterick and Stocker’s approach is almost certainly better than the strict gender essentialism they’re fighting against ... I tend to agree that gender isn’t the most important of all the ways people differ from one another, and the idea that “boy” and “girl” are the most crucial categories a person can fit into is pretty reductive.
One commenter to North’s post sums up a feeling I’ve seen expressed frequently in various comboxes:
I think, at worst, all this could backfire and these children could end up rebelling against their parents by choosing to conform to gender norms when they get older.
If biology truly means nothing, then perhaps another set of parents could let their child choose his own species, not confining him to the narrow label “homo sapiens” but giving him the freedom to explore whether he is a dog or a cat or a mollusk. It’s interesting that most people would still recognize that as nonsensical, yet when it comes to whether a person has XX or XY chromosomes, there’s this push to pretend like its irrelevant. We’ve become so disconnected from the meaning of human sexuality that we’ve come to think of male and female sexual organs as nothing more than arbitrary ways people experience pleasure, and “gender” as nothing more than a social construct.
This is why I think it’s only a matter of time until the world sees vast numbers of people bursting down the doors of the Catholic Church, begging to convert as soon as possible. The Witterick-Stocker family is doing nothing more than taking a common element of a standard secular worldview—that gender is a social construct—and carrying it to its logical conclusion. As more and more people live out the “truths” that modern society has come to embrace, at some point we’re going to jump the shark. We’re already pretty close to that point by virtue of the fact that we’re having a serious debate in the public square about whether it makes sense to let toddlers choose their own gender; if this kind of thing goes on much longer, it won’t be hard for the average truth-seeking person to recognize the Catholic Church as the last bastion of sanity in the middle of a crazy world, the one institution that has been proclaiming timeless truths for two thousand years and continues to do so today—starting with the fact that you can’t choose whether you’re a boy or a girl.