“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.