Baby Gender Trouble

Baby Gender Trouble

Being pregnant, I get a front-row seat to the gender-policing that happens before a baby’s even born.


“Do you know what the gender is?” is the question people most frequently ask expecting parents, including me. Usually, I give the conventional response: “No, we are waiting to be surprised.” But occasionally I offer up one of my two real answers, “We don’t know the sex or the gender” or “I don’t really believe in gender anyway.”

Eyebrows are raised. And then a series of explanations follow.

Sometimes I go into a long monologue, à la feminist philosopher Judith Butler, about gender being a fiction, consisting of two opposite categories and a series of staged acts that we tacitly agree to “perform, produce, and sustain.” On the most basic level, why is blue is the agreed upon costume color for boys, while pink is the color for girls?

Butler’s groundbreaking 1990 book, Gender Trouble, goes on to argue that we preserve the performance in order to maintain a fantasy of order, rules and normalcy. To break away from these two categories, to actually understand gender, as it really is—unstable, complicated, and multiple—risks harsh social punishments.

It is hard for most people to separate sex from gender. Sex refers to the biological differences, the presence of XX-female or XY-male chromosomes. (Even this is not a hard-set rule, as the Intersex Society of North America reminds us, about one in 1,500 to one in 2,000 babies is born each year with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definition of female or male.)

Gender, on the other hand, is neither biological or chromosomal but social and cultural. The traits we associate with “being a boy” or “acting like a girl” have no grounding in science, but we assume they are natural and normal. For example, in the emotional spectrum, an excessive emotionality from girl children means dolls and princess clothing and hyper-aggression from boy children translates into trucks and knights.

Some parents try free their children from these constraints—their versions of live and let live—by allowing their children to chose their own gender identities. Canadian parents Beck Lexton and Kieran Cooper created quite a brouhaha this past January when the revealed that they decided to bring up their 5-year-old child, Sasha, as “gender neutral.”

Trying to avoid stereotyping and boxing their child into one gender category, they referred to Sasha as “‘the infant’” and kept their child’s sex a secret from all but a few close friends and relatives. As Sasha grew older, “he was encouraged to play with dolls as much as Lego, slept in a neutral yellow room and was allowed to wear both boys’ and girls’ clothes,” reports the Daily Mail.

While I found their decision laudable, some of my Facebook friends responded to my post of this story with shock. On The Today Show, panelists Donny Deutsch and Star Jones suggested that these parents should be locked up for injuring a child.

Lest we think parents of color are more rigid, the Washington Post recently published “Transgender at Five,” a story about Tyler, now 5, who insisted at 2 years old on being a boy. At first these interracial parents thought their daughter was a tomboy, but over time came to recognize that her persistent question, “When did you change me?” wasn’t going to go away. Now, they are embracing Tyler’s gender as his choice.

In utero, gender ambiguity might be socially acceptable or even garner kudos (especially from older generations who like the idea of keeping it a surprise), but it has grave consequences for adults. As Kellee Terrell’s post on, “No Justice for CeCe,” reminds us, transgender women and gender-nonconforming individuals, particular those of color, are especially vulnerable to vicious attacks and hate crimes.

Terrell points to two recent studies conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs: “According to a 2011 study (pdf) people who were both transgender and of color were almost 2.5 times more likely to experience discrimination and nearly two times as likely to experience intimidation as non-transgender white individuals. A 2009 report conducted by the same group found that of the twenty-two people who were murdered in 2009 because of their sexual orientation, about 80 percent were people of color and half were transgender women; the other half were overwhelmingly men who defied gender stereotypes.”

Rather than policing gender as a biological fact from which people should not deviate, we should recognize that gender is experimental, variant and ever changing.

One of the things I am going miss the most about being pregnant is the freedom to imagine and therefore refuse gender rules. And in the meantime, green and yellow, gray and orange, purple and brown onesies offer far more options than pink and blue to me.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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