May 26, 2011

What’s in a gender?

By Andrew Haines *

I’m frankly surprised this has garnered so much attention. But it has, and it probably should.

Very recently, a Toronto, Ontario couple—Kathy Witterick and David Stocker—made local news by refusing to disclose publicly the gender of their 4-month-old child, Storm. What’s the reason for the cover-up? “We've decided not to share Storm’s sex for now,” said the parents, “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? ...).”

Contrary to popular belief (and common sense), there’s nothing ambiguous about Storm’s genitalia. Apparently, the child’s two brothers, Jazz and Kio, know the sex of their sibling. So do a few others. Kathy and David simply want to leave the options open for their youngest to do as s/he likes.

As one article remarks, “Witterick and Stocker believe they are giving their children the freedom to choose who they want to be, unconstrained by social norms about males and females.” That is, after all, their more comprehensive parenting philosophy. “Jazz and Kio have picked out their own clothes in the boys and girls sections of stores since they were 18 months old. Just this week, Jazz unearthed a pink dress at Value Village, which he loves because it ‘really poofs out at the bottom. It feels so nice.’”

What’s really surprising about all this is that criticism of Witterick and Stocker’s decision is being registered across the board. It’s not surprising that social conservatives would disagree with gender-neutrality. But social liberals, and even those who support theories of social evolution, have lambasted the stunt as a “bizarre lab experiment” that flies in the face of natural history. Rather than critiquing the damage done to a child by withholding gender identity, social evolutionists believe that critical models, or scripts, will suffer if such a situation becomes widespread.

Either way, the isolated case of an overly-zealous Canadian couple gives good cause to reflect on the bigger question: what’s in a gender?

From the very fact that it’s such a touchy topic, we immediately realize that “gender issues” are serious matters. For liberals (or “progressives,” as Storm’s parents opt to say), “gender” is inherently linked to the fundamental human capacity for choice. Sex organs aren’t enough to determine what “sort” of person we’ll grow up to be. Sex organs are just that—sex organs. They’re not indicative of anything deeper. They simply serve a practical purpose.

For conservatives, on the other hand, “gender” is the product of sexual classification. Being masculine or feminine is linked directly to having a certain set of sexual organs. The organs have a utilitarian function; but they also signal the essential make-up of an individual.

When faced with the possibility of completely stifling any public recognition of sex organs, though, only the most “progressive” among us can stand strong. To most, it’s utterly unthinkable: to raise a child whom you never affirm as being either male or female, masculine or feminine? Even most who despise the “archaic” gender roles of yesteryear see the value in identifying people as “men” and “women.” (Whether or not those terms hold much water in the long run is another story.) There’s something very practical about preserving the traditional distinctions: assigning bathrooms stands out as a clear example.

At bottom, what Witterick and Stocker are aiming to do is not simply to advocate “choice” and “progress,” but instead to deny the very fact that being human entails having a body. Transsexuals acknowledge that to be a certain gender, reassignment surgery and hormone introductions are required. For baby Storm, the case is even more severe: s/he can choose to be any gender, and biology has nothing to do with it.

Moreover, since human beings are free in their choosing—i.e., not simply binary selectors—the logical conclusion is that there must be more than two genders to pick from—presumably innumerable genders, as many as there are people to possess them.

Ultimately, it’s not hard to see why baby Storm has caused such an uproar. From both sides of the (ever-widening) aisle of social theory, justifiable criticisms have been leveled that help to pinpoint precisely what’s at stake when gender identity is relegated to one’s power to choose. Not only is the dignity of the child put at risk—a dignity that is closely associated with his or her gender—but also the very fundamental truth that human beings are bodily beings, and that the two realities aren’t separable.

Across the board, disregard for the value and meaning of human life is becoming more and more linked to a disregard for the human body. We see it in abortion, where full human organisms are killed with no concern for the person they bespeak. We see it in IVF, where the biological coming-to-be of new life is separated entirely from the personal self-gift of spouses. And now we recognize it in the case of an unfortunate toddler, whose delusional parents have chosen to play politics rather than to prioritize the health and well-being of their child.

When push comes to shove, no one should be willing to sacrifice the value of human life—and the privilege of choice—to sensationalized ideologies. Surely, both social conservatives and social liberals, alike, can appreciate that.

Maybe, then, the story of baby Storm—in a strange twist of fate—does have the potential to make real social progress a little more accessible, after all.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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