When my son was 2, he went to a nursery school where he often played with a cheerful little girl I’ll call Jessie. Jessie’s parents dropped her off earlier than most of the other kids, and she was in the habit of standing by the door as others arrived, taking their lunchboxes and helpfully lining them up in the classroom’s big old refrigerator. As my son and Jessie became better friends, he began to imitate her every move. Every morning Jessie would stand on the right-hand side of the door taking lunchboxes; my son would stand on the left-hand side taking lunchboxes; and they would take turns running to and from the large, battered fridge.
I remember this ritual of theirs, however, not just because they were so gosh-darned adorable. I remember it because one morning the classroom teacher smiled warmly as they went through their identical paces and said, “Your son is such a sturdy little security guard! And Jessie, she’s our mini-hostess with the mostest!”
That story came to mind when I read about Storm, the 5-month-old baby who has become the center of an international controversy because the child’s parents have refused to reveal Storm’s sex. Kathy Witterick and David Stocker sent an e-mail to their circle of friends, saying, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now—a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation.” In no time, that message went viral, showing up on The Huffington Post as well as radio, TV and in newspapers throughout North America.
The public response has been overwhelmingly negative. Although Kathy Witterick’s follow-up letter in the Ottawa Citizen made clear that Storm’s immediate family knows the sex, and that there are no secrets withheld from Storm’s siblings, most people have found it strange, “creepy” or “freakish.” On The View, Elisabeth Hasselbeck called it “a social experiment.” Others called for the couple’s children to be removed by social services.
While it seems to me that “not sharing Storm’s sex for now” is hardly a full-fledged commitment to lifelong gender suppression or neutered identity, I will leave to mental health experts the propriety of Storm’s parents’ stance. As a purely philosophical matter, however, the situation is intriguing. After all, it is a much under-interrogated political truism that “we’re all just people,” or “we’re all equal” or “it doesn’t matter what your religion is” or “I don’t see race.” Who cares about anything else if “we’re all American citizens”?
Yet when some intrepid souls actually follow such identity-erasing truisms to their logical, uncomfortable ends—refusing altogether to engage in the conventions of gendered identity, as with baby Storm—it is profoundly unsettling. We’re not supposed to talk—to think—about difference based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion et al. But that supposition holds only when the marks, the phenotypes, the stigmas, are clear—indeed so clear that all conversation coagulates around the dynamics of denial: “I didn’t notice you were black—what a reverse racist you are for labeling yourself!” “Why can’t you be like everyone else instead of flaunting your religion by wearing that khimar, that yarmulke, that bindi?” “If women want equality in the workplace, they should stop demanding womb-based privilege.”
Where, however, there is ambiguity, a switch gets flipped. If race or ethnicity is at all indeterminate, the first question is “What are you?” Where gender is not instantly discernible, anxiety or even rage ensues. We want our boxes, our neat cabinets of thought. When crowing over a newborn and asking, “Is it a boy or a girl?” we are not really in search of sexological or biological truth—for most purposes, it doesn’t really matter at such a young age. What we really are seeking with that question is the satisfaction of our own eagerness to assign gender. The instant we know, we run out to buy blue rather than pink or dolls rather than trucks. The pitch of our cooing goes up or down accordingly. Gender, rather than sex, is a social response, embedded in our language, culture, education, ideology, vision. When my son and his friend Jessie went through exactly the same motions, it was gender assignment that led their teacher to describe them in such unconsciously distinct ways.
Our anxiety in response to Witterick and Stocker’s decision reveals a tension in our culture between the insistence on pinning down unknown aspects of another’s identity and the assumption that we don’t need to know anything about anyone except that they’re human. Indeed, if there is “a social experiment” being done, it surely also tests those of us beyond the Witterick-Stocker household. Spoken or unspoken, assigning identity is something we are always doing—in fact, we need to do so as to order our world. Yet we almost always do so without giving one whit of thought to all the underlying histories of assortment we imply; perhaps taking the occasional time out to review is not a bad thing.
And so we must find some way to speak of this child. If we don’t want to call Storm “it”—and really, we don’t—we have to call Storm, well, um, Storm. All the time. No shortcuts. In English, there is no adequately humanizing yet universal pronoun, no general reference to common humanity; in order to speak comfortably, we automatically must yield to the partitions of him, of her, of gender. In the absence of pronouns, address necessarily becomes specific, individual, even intimate.
What would it mean if we were forced to hold in abeyance that foundering loss we feel when we encounter the limits of the known? What if we had to sit—just “for now”—with the uncertainty that exists beyond the bounds of the normative, the easily colloquial? What if we had to greet one another with such boundary-muddling specificity that the hostess in the security guard and the security guard in the hostess were made manifest? Perhaps we should bring less panic to that moment of liminality and instead hold ourselves open to the wealth of possibilities.