Dr. Dawg


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“Darts girly? Try axe-throwing.” That’s a link ironically appearing on the same page of the online Toronto Star as Jayme Poisson’s story of the parents who are keeping their adorable new baby Storm’s sexual characteristics a secret.

Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker consider gender—the roles and behaviours assigned to persons of the male or female sex—to be a trap. They’re right, as anyone who saw The Pinks and The Blues on TV in 1980 would agree. When it comes to gender identity, what they see is what you get.

People don’t really seem to know what to make of this decision, and maybe that’s a good thing. Even the redoubtable pseudo-philosopher Margaret Somerville seems less barkingly assertive than usual.

Gender remains a bit of a mystery. The sexual division of labour, for example, appears to be almost universal, although we don’t really know why; but the specific roles and behaviours of men and women are something else again. Margaret Mead’s study of three New Guinea societies in 1935 indicated that “genders” have no universal traits assigned to them. Women can dominate, while men are passive and emotional; women and men can both be fierce and competitive; or men and women can get along on equal and amicable terms.

(The study is not without its critics, but the better ones refine, rather than rebut, Mead’s findings. The alleged refutation of those findings is usually traceable to this article in the far-right FrontPage Magazine, whose author does not appear to be an anthropologist.)

Is gender connected with biological sex characteristics, as Somerville claims? I think we must concede that to some degree it may well be, but we don’t know to what degree, or how.

John Money’s now-infamous attempt to reconstruct an injured baby and raise this biological male as a girl has been well combed through by now: like transgendered people today, the person in question felt trapped in the “wrong” body.

I am struck, however, by the essentialism in much trans discourse—in plain language, the stereotypical caricatures held by some trans folks of the gender they want to assume. It’s always seemed to me that their views of sex roles are at the opposite pole from that of the feminist movement: fixed and immutable, awaiting only bodily reconstruction to accompany and perfect those roles.

One tries to imagine a hypothetical Chambri (formerly Tchambuli) trans male, yearning to be the strong, managerial, dominant woman that he has always known himself to be, rather than the primping, emotional man that his society expects him to be.

Inuit traditionally name a newborn after a recently-departed relative, and this practice crosses gender lines. The name-soul (atiq) of the deceased is considered to be transmitted to the baby, and the child is raised in the same gender as the deceased. A boy, for example, might be addressed as “aunt” and wear girl’s clothing. Upon puberty, the child assumes the gender of his biological sex.

Nothing traumatic has been reported as resulting from this, and I am not inclined to believe that Storm will be hurt by the deliberate mystery his or her parents have created.

Why not just let people choose their own roles? Why not avoid this sexual binarism altogether? Alas, it’s not as simple as that: our behaviours, the way we look at the world, our sense of self, all develop out of social interaction. In a world so infused with gender, a “genderless” person will not remain so for long in this day and age. But efforts like those of the parents in this case could, in the long run, help to make the whole matter far less important, even trivial.

Many of the concerns expressed about this novel approach to child-rearing have been largely incoherent, and reflect more upon those expressing them than upon the parents. Just as, back in the day, the ignorant wondered who was the “wife” and who the “husband” in same-sex relationships, some cannot imagine dealing with a child just as a child.

Not knowing the biological sex of the kid they might be interacting with makes them uncomfortable, because they literally don’t know how to behave towards him-or-her, what the social expectations of them are.

In a world so heavily dependent upon gender rules, they have been set adrift without a map, left only with the unquestionable humanity of the little tyke. How should they react? If people are upset about the parents’ so-called “experimentation,” they might want to reflect that they themselves, and not little Storm, are really the subjects of it.

UPDATE (May 29) The mother speaks out. [H/t Marky]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 28, 2011 11:15 AM.

To serve and protect: OPP clears Ottawa police in Bonds case was the previous entry in this blog.

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