I hope you enjoy the nifty new footnotes. I am undecided as to whether I will bother to back-edit the old posts, but you can now click down and back without losing your spot.1
More than 50% of expectant parents want to know the sex of their unborn child. Armed with this information, they choose the paint for their nursery, purchase a wardrobe and select appropriate toys. Mothers-to-be speak to their bellies in a higher pitch for girls than they do for boys. They begin to ascribe gender-stereotyped behaviors (strong kicks, peacefulness, etc) after the 20 week ultrasound. A 2005 study showed that birth announcements disproportionately describe the parents of boys as “proud” and the parents of girls as “happy”. Before babies give a literal shit, a whole lot of metaphorical shit has already been given regarding their heavily-gendered destiny.
As I conceded before, the binary gender system2 usually works. Most kids seem quite content with their gender assignments or at least eventually grow up into adults who do. In my business, 99% predictive power in a diagnostic test is remarkable, and the old check-between-the-legs trick appears to predict gender 99% percent of the time. It’s a great test.
Or is it? I don’t propose to answer the question so much as to encourage a bit of healthy skepticism. Do the same labels that help us choose toys and clothes for a baby come at the price of unequal pay for women? What if “girls are more empathetic” is just the flip side of “girls can’t do math”? Should we be surprised that names and fashion trends cross from boys to girls, but not in the other direction? People rob banks, not parks. Where are the public service announcements intoning that a boy can do everything that a girl can do? Children of both sexes who transgress the boundaries of gender learn early that the border is ferociously defended. Written on every guard tower are two words: male privilege.
Women who have spent their entire lives dealing with male privilege can be forgiven for amusement at the angst I feel from losing it3. The gender border exists principally to subjugate them rather than to shoot deserters like me. Considering that I continue to gain unearned advantage from my race, economic class, nationality, educational opportunity and a host of other factors, I really have no cause to bemoan that the system works against me simply because I no longer receive favoritism on account of sex. Indeed, had I not come out, I might not have even had an inkling of what disadvantage felt like. It’s probably good for me to at least taste bias, but I don’t like it one little bit.
Conscientious objection to gendering our children seems to be gaining traction. Parents in England and Canada recently made waves by choosing not to disclose the sex of their children to the general public. Swedish dictionaries have recently added a new gender-neutral pronoun for children, “hen”, reflecting a privately initiated trend in Stockholm nurseries. The linked media coverage demonstrates the difficulty we have in even talking about such an approach to raising children. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how radical these efforts are, but criticism offered so far depends on misunderstanding of terms (confusing sex and gender), misrepresentation of fact (reporting as if information is being withheld from the children themselves) or concern that children won’t develop gender differences that are supposedly innate. Well, are they or aren’t they?
We all wore the dress. Generations of clan TeBrake 4 were baptized in the long satin gown which my mom still preserves as a family heirloom and ships around the country as needed for any new arrival. If you are my age or older, you have almost certainly seen photos of your grandfathers as toddlers also wearing dresses. Less than 100 years ago, dresses were children’s clothes, not girls’ clothes. That this is no longer the case probably owes to highly absorbent disposal diapers and abundant, relatively inexpensive clothing.5 As far as I know, I am the only MTF transsexual in my family, so the dress’s track record on producing gender confusion manages to eclipse even its failure in producing lifelong religious converts.
Of course, there is far more to gender than what we wear. I trust you not to oversimplify gender in your thoughts to the extent that I often must to write a column of less than 1000 words. I aim not to persuade you to adopt gender neutral parenting, but rather to encourage you to consider whether gender stereotyping, which is almost undeniably out of hand, might be more destructive than previously recognized. Neither do I defend a position of gender as completely constructed. Stating the obvious, no one raised me to be female.
- Either/or, assigned at birth without middle ground, on the basis of sex
- Sort of. It is one thing to publicly renounce it and quite another to purge it from one’s life
- My mother’s side of the family
- Baby Gap notwithstanding. We don’t have to make clothes for our kids anymore, so there is no longer a shared children’s wardrobe.