Babies: Born This Way?

I was recently quite disturbed by this story of a couple in Toronto who have refused to divulge the gender of their recently born child, who they named Storm (how perfectly gender ambiguous!). Though Storm does indeed have a gender, Storm’s parents–Kathy Witterick and David Stocker–aren’t telling anyone, not even family and close friends, what it is.

“We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now–a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation,” wrote Witterick in an email. “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?!.”

“What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious,” said Stocker.

There are many troubling aspects to this story, not least of which is the fact that a newborn has been turned into a political statement by his/her “progressive and proud of it!” parents. If we’re talking about giving children more choices and more freedom, did anyone ask little Storm if he/she wanted to be turned into a political statement about gender ambiguity? No one asked Storm, but nevertheless it appears the baby is fated to live a life forever tainted by his/her parents refusal to raise a child with gender as a given attribute of identity.

More troubling is the notion that a baby’s gender is a choice that parents can make for it, or even a choice that the baby can make for itself at some point. I realize that this is contested territory in our society today (look no further than the new documentary Becoming Chaz to see how normalized the notion of gender malleability is in our culture), but I just have a hard time accepting this extreme insistence on freedom of choice in the realm of something as fundamental as gender. Are we really free to become anything we want to be, if science/surgery can make it possible? Where does it end? I suppose it’s a natural outgrowth of our society’s values of autonomy and liberty (no one but me controls my fate!) that now even the bodies we are born with are subject to our consumer preferences.

But perhaps most troubling in this story is the idea that making choices for children is a bad thing–that, even from birth, humans are entitled to decide everything for themselves, and that parents who get too pushy about dos and don’ts are merely cogs in the machine of an oppressive hegemony, hellbent on suffocating the freedom and fancy of autonomous individuals.

Personally, I’m thankful for rules. I’m thankful my parents lived in a world of moral norms, dos-and-don’ts, crime and punishment. I’m glad they didn’t let me decide everything for myself. I’m glad there were structures, guidelines, expectations. How awful to grow up in a formless void of anything-goes, “every feeling you have is true!” vapidity. We are fallen creatures, and every feeling we have is not true, good, or right. We need to learn that. We need people to tell us that we aren’t always right, even when we feel like we are.

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In The Tree of Life, the boys have a hard time with their disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) and seem to favor their more gracious mother (Jessica Chastain). But notice what happens when their father goes away for a trip. Under mom’s lenient watch, they get into all sorts of mischief. They discover their dark side. Freedom, unbound by the accountability of dad’s watchful eye, leads them to sin. It’s fun to be free, but it leads them down a dark path. Ultimately, they need their father. They need someone to tell them no, and they respect him all the more for it. This is loving: Being able to guide the unwieldy whims and freedom of someone you love into a pattern of virtue and restraint. Left to our own devices, free of all constraints and having no choices made for us, we’re bound for all sorts of trouble.

The whole thing reminds me of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (which I blogged about back in February), an album which sets forth an increasingly heralded ethos of embracing whoever and whatever you want to be. “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,” sings Gaga. “Cause he made you perfect, Babe… God makes no mistakes.”

But if God makes no mistakes, why not celebrate the gender of a baby who is born one way and not the other?

What Gaga is really trying to say is “YOU are God, and you make no mistakes… Forget how God, or evolution, or biology made you… None of that matters because you can change it any time you want. You are bound by no one and nothing.”

And that’s an ethos that can only lead little Storm, and the world in which he/she will grow up, into utter chaos.

—-
Brett McCracken is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide. He writes frequently for Christianity Today and Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken


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About the Author

Brett McCrackenBrett McCracken is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide. He writes frequently for Christianity Today and Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.View all posts by Brett McCracken →

  • http://twitter.com/jens3073 Jonathan Jensen

    I guess I question the parents ability to actually raise a child totally gender ambiguous. Its one thing for everyone else not to know the gender of the baby, but the most important factor in the child’s development are or should be the parents, and they know the gender. So it is up to them to confidently raise a child totally gender ambiguous, I feel like this alone creates a lot of undo pressure on the process of parenting for both the parents and the children. For instance, in the effort not to treat a boy as a boy, treating him/her as a “non-specific” is a very narrow path and seems likely to slip quite easily to the other side or treating him/her as a girl. Not to mention, I have to agree with Brett, that this is taken a little too far… gender is combination physical and psychological, doesn’t this ignore the physical aspect of gender, and isn’t that just as bad as ignore the psychological component of gender. The fact remains that ‘progressive views’ should be about the fact that identity is not solidly linked to things apart from a person’s psychological and physical makeup, things like gender, race, religion can be set apart from gender. But in this case, gender is still going to be a main component in the child’s identity development even if it is viewed from this ambiguous side, he/she is still learning that gender is identity, but because you hold the cards you have better control over identity. I think there is a better way to teach a child that gender does not necessarily create one’s identity.

  • Guest

    Do you know that there’s a difference between sex (biology) and gender (socially defined roles and behaviors)? Do you care?

  • Jay

    No one tells animals what gender they are and they still get it figured out.  I think it is quite natural.  

  • Slater

    you clearly know almost nothing about gender performativity and the differences between gender and sex.  you say “it appears the baby is fated to live a life forever tainted by his/her parents refusal to raise a child with gender as a given attribute of identity” while the parents’ whole point is that all of the rest of us have ALSO been tainted by our parents insistence on raising us with culturally defined ideas about what a little boy or girl growing up in america should do.  Their point is not necessarily to make a political statement out of their child (though i do agree slightly with your contention there), but that ALL of us are inherently used as political statements about gender roles simply by going along with the prescribed norms.  Boys aren’t told to go outside and play sports because there’s something inherently manly about it, but because that’s the way the last generation did it, and the one before that.  And when a boy doesn’t like playing sports, he gets teased and taunted or called a “girl” not because he is less of a man but because our culture teaches us to make fun of those people who don’t comply with the norms established by arbirary practices.  But if you go back far enough we learn that our ideas about what makes a man or woman in society is very different even 20 years ago, or 200 or 2000, and it’s especially varied in different cultures and countries.

    you are also confusing the ideas of performing gender ambiguously and actual sex-change operations – they are different concepts.  the parents of this child are not necessarily setting up their baby to have a sex change operation down the road, they are simply defying what their culture has arbitrarily told them they are supposed to do to raise their baby to look the “right way.”  furthermore, these concepts of gender malleability do not imply a single thing about the moral grounding of the parents or their ability to parent well when it comes to behaviors – you have taken a single decision made by these parents and made presumptuous, pompous assumptions about the way they will make every decision for the rest of their child’s life.  Tell me, did your parents make ever single decision the same way following the same strict logic every single time?  or did they take into consideration circumstances and past situations and sometimes even yes, your thoughts on the matter?  

    it’s very clear that you need to read up some more about what sex and gender actually are before going off on a tangent accusing people of bad parenting based on your limited notions of what boys and girls are supposed to do.  

    • Diana

      “it’s very clear that you need to read up some more about what sex
      and gender actually are before going off on a tangent accusing people of
      bad parenting based on your limited notions of what boys and girls are
      supposed to do”

      THIS.

  • Kristie Guerrero-Taylor

    “as fundamental as gender”? I think that is simplifying the concept a bit. Where does the fundamental notion of gender come from, other than physical and biological attributes? Which I don’t believe are the sole factors in determining personality and behavior.  I think this family is challenging the roles and challenging the way males and females are treating differently.  By challenging it., they can observe how that contributes to their development.  It isn’t easy being a girl or a boy, especially when you don’t “fit” into the accepted notions of what that is. And it seems that there is a dismissal of how much damage this “fundamental” notion of gender has done to girls and boys. Don’t blame media because the media doesn’t exist in a vacuum and those concepts came from people.  Media represents what we value and makes us value it more. Given the amount of gender violence against and woman get paid significantly less, I’d say, our society can do with a little poking and prodding at these concepts or at least get people thinking about the assumptions we have made about gender. 

  • http://www.life-after-church.com Chrystal

    I’ve been surprised at how vehemently these parents are being condemned for their decision regarding Storm. Admittedly, I believe their approach is too extreme. However, I understand their frustration with how to encourage their children to live beyond the somewhat arbitrary definitions we place on people based on gender. After the “storm” of reaction to the initial article, the mother wrote a follow up letter which I think did a much better job of describing their heart for their child and what they’re trying to accomplish.

    I agree with the author in that I believe boundaries are good, and as Christ followers we’ve committed ourselves to living within the boundaries He has established. Where I think we continue to stumble is when we confuse our cultural definitions with Christ-established boundaries. I believe that is some of what Paul was addressing in Galatians when he declared that in Christ we are no longer bound by our cultural definitions of Jew and Greek, slave and free, or the culturally defined gender roles of male and female.

    • http://popparables.com Keri

      Chrystal, you echoed a lot of the same things I wrote in my recent post on this issue.  As a Christian, I’m not bound by the confines of {gender} stereotypes.  My identity is in Christ and His Truth.  Moreover, He has designed us as male and female.  In that sense, I think gender specificity is something to be embraced.  It is not something that He intended to be “malleable” as Brett states. 

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  • http://ihopetomorrowisbetter.blogspot.com/ Molly Bandit

    I’m a little worried about what this line of reasoning says about your opinion of transgender folks.  I realize that this blog is made up of different commentators with different opinions, but for a blog that’s been supportive or at least thoughtful about LGBT issues… well, maybe we should just shorten it to LGB for a more accurate picture? 

  • Pumpkin

    As people have said above, I believe that you need to make a distinction between sex and gender. A lot of scholars believe that sex is what physical state you are born into and gender is the socially-constructed counter-part of that sex. In this sense, it makes sense that one might question how gender is to be understood. It is one thing to say your baby was born male, but another to say your child associates as male or masculine. I don’t know, those are my thoughts from being a Christian at a hippie college. 

    Actually, along what you are saying, a lot of sociologists actually support having certain identities, because they teach people how to relate to others. Growing up without an identity would definitely, as you are suggesting, have the potential to cause problems for that child in learning how to relate and communicate with others. You definitely raise some interesting questions that poke a lot of holes in certain ideologies. 

  • Anonymous

    The couple did not refuse to release the gender of their newborn, but its sex. This article lacks a basic understanding of the difference between the two while flippantly disrespecting the transgender community and the complexities of gender.

  • Drew

    If you want to crack on Bryan for using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, you may want to crack on Storm’s parents for doing the same:

    “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?!.”

  • Anonymous

    Well said.  Also disturbing that the child’s younger brothers (both under the age of six, I think) were clued in to the child’s actual sex and are also to keep it a secret.  Good luck with that!

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  • ncsgp

    An infant has no capacity to decide gender.  So right now it is real simple.  Penis=male and Vagina=female.  It is only complex because we have made it that way, not that we were born that way.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pretty sure that kids being raised a certain way never stopped them from growing up and being transgender. They are being overly cautious. Why not just raise the baby normally and when it decides they know who they want to be just support it. No matter what, the world and society will always be their to tell you who to be and judging you. EVERYONE has to deal with that. You can’t escape it.

  • liberale

    Sometimes I find the comments under an article more educational than the article itself.  This is one of them.

  • paula

    I find this opinion piece very odd and difficult. I’m not sure what parents who raise their child in a gender neutral way have to do with the general attitude of permissivenes the author is also concerned about. It is as if he has taken everything he views as progressive parenting and thrown it all together for comment. After all, we know nothing more about these parents. They may believe in corporal punishment, they may belong to a very rigid sect (albeit not of the evangelical Christian sort), they may be anything but permissive in general.

    Interestingly,  I don’t think Becoming Chaz is as much about gender maleability as about the fact that some people feel as if they are born in the wrong body. In fact, transgendered people generally feel very strongly related to a gender — just not the one that their body displays. If it were all malleable, they’d adjust to their physical attributes.

    I’m betting the author has simply been carried away by the “ick” factor. He doesn’t like the way Storm’s parents raise their child, he doesn’t like Lady Gaga, and he doesn’t like the fact that some people do feel like they are born in the wrong body. So he’s crafted a grand theory to address it all. I want to ask people who condemn transgendered people because they say “God doesn’t make mistakes” what they think about children born with congenital heart problems. I don’t know that God makes “mistakes” but sometimes there are problems, problems that may be in our power to fix.

    This piece reminds me of a definition I’ve occasionally heard of conservatives. They are people who have “an inordinate fear of chaos.” The last line gives this author away.

    So here’s another possible reaction. What if parents didn’t try to deny the obvious — the gender of their child, but used the appropriate pronouns, he or she. And what if they bought dolls and firetrucks, and let their kid play as they liked. And what if they simply listened hard to their child– if the child has a pronounced sense of being in the wrong body (rare, rare, but it happens, that is who transgendered people are) then parents can take appropriate steps to help that child. And  what if they also simply told their child about the limits of the way gender works itself out in our society. Limiting some people (the girls who want to be engineered but are told no, for example.)

    And what if we tried to raise our children to be kind (so there would be limits involved) but we didn’t beat them or shame them. Honestly, that may be the way Lady Gaga raises her kids, if she has kids. Or this other family. We don’t know what sort of rules or guidance these other parents employ.

    To summarize, the idea that these parents are simply a part of the “anything goes” ethos of our society is to view the world as simplistically as Archie Bunker once did. He too had some hankering back to some distant ideal of “the way things are supposed to be” but very little insight into what is actually happening in front of him, with all of its infinite variations.

  • Sandy

    I too am immensely grateful for good boundaries and social constructs.  They give me a feeling of safety and guidance.  However, I find the The Tree of Life to be a poor example of why we need good boundaries.  Children who are raised with external (strong disciplinarian father) controls don’t develop internal controls and therefore don’t have the skills to function when those external controls are absent.  This is bad parenting! Teaching a child to make moral decisions means they do have some choice in the decisions they make as they learn the rewards and consequences of their actions.  One of my deepest regrets in life is that I raised my children to behave how I expected them to instead of teaching them how to think through this messy thing called life. 

  • Jim Kitson

    The writer obviously has not looked into the facts of this matter, but has relied on distorted media comments.  The child is not considered genderless, and the couple has no intention of raising the child as such. They simply are not, for now, letting others know the gender so that the child will not be affected by presuppositions re gender roles.  Get you facts straight before engaging in such rants.

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