The original post was this Buzzfeed Article about, perhaps, the first baby in the world to be issued a birth certificate that does not specify their gender. Baby has U (not F, not M) as their designation. In Canada, obviously. And if you want more info, see the full
I posted, because I was interested and fully in support. To me, I was going to insert a ‘as a lesbian…blah blah ‘ qualifier in here, but really it doesn’t matter. To me, it makes perfect sense. It’s long, but hang in there. This is where we are headed. This is the frontier.
Would you put ‘genderless’ on your baby’s birth certificate? How many of us are really in the market to raise a baby _____? We often attach a gender to our hopes for that child’s future and load it with expectations. Where do you stand?
What, you might be thinking, is happening to our world?! How, you might ask, can people be okay/not be okay with this? But what I find more interesting is: How can people who don’t agree come to a civil, supportive conversation space about an issue that is as newsworthy as it is divisive. I can show you, because not five minutes from the time I posted it, knowing most of my friends and colleagues would probably be as approving (and unquestioning) of this as I would, I got a response from a friend who comes from a different place in life than I do, linguistically, culturally, sexually. What do we have in common? We are nice, cisgender, femme and white… oh, and we both like Pole Fit.
For the purposes of this transcript: She will be S. I will be A. In a civil society, important discussions, where people start at polar points, could go something like this:
S: Can I know your opinion on that [article]? For me I find it a little confusing and I don’t know how to approach it. Are we going to stop teaching male from female to children? Like, it’s still nature. I totally understand that a pink doesn’t = girl and stuff like that. But I don’t see what’s wrong to say to a female ‘you are a female’ and a male ‘you are a male.’ I feel that genderless doesn’t solve the solution of ”stereotype” of what’s a girl or a boy thing… why we just don’t teach that a girl can have short hair and that a guy can wear makeup? The child can make a decision when he’s grown up, but how is choosing to not put a sex on an ID card not choosing for him ? Sorry, I’m really confused when it comes to non-gender things and whenever I ask on Facebook I get blasted [with] oh comments like: ”HOW DARE YOU ARE ASKING THAT” and I truly want to understand different points of view.
“This Infant Might Be The First Baby In The World With An Official Genderless ID Card
Their parent, Kori Doty, believes doctors should not have the right to assign a baby’s gender at birth.”
A: Hi S, I think that’s a great question and I love how open you are. I think for me, an analogy that works is about heterosexuality: for example, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether I was gay, because for 16 years of my life everyone assumed I was straight and acted like that was a given. The default. The norm. I actively had to fight against what everyone believed about me, and even what I thought I knew about myself, which was confusing and scary.
If I had been raised in a family that said things to me like ‘when you grow up you might be gay or straight or bisexual or Aromantic or non-binary,’ it might logically have occurred to me that I could make the choice to define myself when I was ready.
But most parents are not progressive, or well-versed enough to raise kids who questions these things, or are actively opposed to raising children that might be gay, to have those kinds of conversations and rear children that are attuned to themselves, even when they have the best intentions. I don’t think that the idea [in the article] is that every child would have a genderless birth certificate: more so, I think the implication is that parents should be able to provide space and not make decisions which will determine how every other person in the child’s life interacts with them, until the child is able to express, in whatever vocabulary feels right to them, at whatever time feels right to them, what their identity is.
So much of the pain and struggle that a lot of children go through, in regards to their sexuality and gender, occurs because other people have expectations about what their gender should mean. Just as you said, one can recognize pink and blue are not gendered colours inherently, but we can’t control whether other people will try to teach these things to our children as a course of habit (history, bias, etc).
S: Thank you so much! I think what’s bothering me, or where my mind block is… is when I compare all of that with science or nature.
A: There’s a great short story called Baby X: A Fabulous Child’s Story. (PDF is here). It deals fictionally with the same thing that this parent is facing in real life. As a parent [in the article in question] who has dealt with the struggle of changing one’s gender [in the eyes of society] or becoming non-binary, the parent clearly understands what it’s like to fight back against a society that genders you incorrectly. Yes, this child might experience difficulty with the lack of a gender, but this might actually shift in the future with more parents allowing the option for their children to decide their own identity, as a precedent, and recognizing that biology doesn’t always neatly match one’s own perception of their gender. Or allowing that gender is a construct [more on that later]. Perhaps in the future, in school, we won’t tell kids ‘boys can do the same thing as girls can do,’ but rather ‘every person is capable of reaching their potential and we are all different.’
S: Yes, that makes sense, but how will we teach them to care for their body if we can’t talk about bodies that have body parts?
A: Parents who want to will and can still tell their children whatever they like about the idea of gender. On intellectual level, I really like the idea of raising children to be more aware of gender on a spectrum, but given that we live in a very gendered society, it will take groundbreakers to do the tough work of destabilizing those categories, and the support of people who can help young people learn not to limit themselves by what has typically been ‘allowed.’ Because our language is limited in scope, not everywhere, but specifically and Western, English and Christian contexts. I honestly feel that if every little child grew up believing that their feelings and creativity should guide them to discover who they are, and that would be met with support, we would have less bullying, less sexism, misogyny and potentially less violence – since so much political and sexual violence is tied to people being in power… or shut out of power, based on how well they perform their gender; or… even consider how much more emotionally intuitive and well-adjusted generations of men would be without the programming of ‘boys don’t cry,’ and ‘having feelings is weak’ brainwashing.
S: Why [would it] be bad to say to a female that she’s a woman, even if she dresses or acts like a man? Like, it’s stupid to say, but if you have a vagina you are a female. Penis, male. Except if you do surgery or something like that. That’s really where my mind block [happens]. Like why [is it such] a bad thing to have a vagina and take hormones to look like a man? You are still a female. Like it’s really [just] physical.
A: I don’t think that this parent is saying that their child will learn that gender as a concept doesn’t exist, or feel right for some people, but that the parent wants to leave the option to the child to decide, and to use genderless pronouns like a they and their, rather than misdiagnosing a child and making a life-impacting decision for them …when there is none to make the choice for that individual, except adults who take a narrow view of what gender even means, and will load a whole history of oppression into them with just one checked box on a form.
Don’t even let me get started on the optics of gender as a defining trait once the child grows up. If we label a child, and get it wrong… And live, for example, in the United States, that child can be denied access to basic human rights like access to a bathroom, if we accidentally give the child the gender that doesn’t feel correct to them. As an interesting problem to consider: if a child is genderless, how can they be denied the rights belonging to one class of people? It’s a problem of definition.
If our concepts only exist on paper, how can we deny rights to people based on things that other people, who don’t know them, decide in the first minutes of their birth?
Thank you so much for asking this question. I love having these think-projects. I’d love to hear your perspective on it and would happily answer any other questions to the best of my ability. (I didn’t know if this would be the end of our chat. It wasn’t!)
S: Like I said, I could care less what a person can identify to (gender/sexuality). You can love who you want to love and you can act and dress the way you want. But I really have a hard time with ‘genderless.’ I feel its like avoiding the subject or hiding the real problem.
A: These are just my thoughts, but then again I’m a cisgender woman, who comfortably and conveniently inhabits a category called: female. But what if I’d been born 50 years ago, in a time when someone was likely to tell me that, as a woman I am too loud, too confident, too ambitious, insufficiently feminine? And what if the definition at that time in history narrowed the opportunity for what my life might be? On one hand, yes, we should be fighting to open up the categories to be more broad and overlapping, and less stereotypical. But to that end, should we not also potentially be questioning the very necessity [?] and logic of those categories as a good fit for our very diverse human experiences?
S: Still… a female cant’ have a prostate exam. (Like do you get what I mean ?) Maybe I’m just “too open minded.” I don’t feel that we need to change all the gender things, but do proper education. For me, non-gender is like not doing any sexual education for children and that they [would] have to figure it out. Which I think would be the worst thing ever. You have to explain how sexuality works and that there’s a bunch of possibilities. Not just one. And if I sound rude, I’m sorry it’s not my intention at all. Explaining a point is not my strength. Like can you imagine, in French even an apple, a plane, a moustache have a gender and half of time they don’t fit the “stereotype” …a moustache is feminine.
Anyway my point is, I don’t mind what you want to be, but don’t deny what nature gave you. Like a female body and male body doesn’t work the same way, we don’t have the same hormones, physiology, etc. Why would you deny that ? Again let’s say the bathroom debate: I find it pretty stupid that “men” have to pee there and “women” have to pee somewhere else. Peeing is natural. Why do we have to do that in a different spot?
But you can definitely be a male and be a woman. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.
IT’S SO HARD. Like why do people have a hard time to just accept people? I feel that the whole non-gender thing is because people “judge” people to much, so we have to create a whole new gender category so people can “understand” better.
A: Is the assumption that if some people are gender- less, they wouldn’t learn about people that do have specific genders? Or that if people have physical anatomy, they wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves and understand the way their body functions? It’s possible to educate about anatomy without it being part of someone’s identity. I am not my foot or my colon. Where I think people need to be careful is to narrowly define male and female. For example, to your earlier point, is a woman who has had a hysterectomy a woman? Or who has had a Masectomy? Not all women have female organs. Many people have bodies that don’t neatly fit outdated categories, and there are people who are legitimately intersex, and have both parts, and a multitude of trans identities. Why should we have to choose? There are trans people who have just as much, if not more ‘woman-ness,’ than I do. But again… what is ‘woman-ness?’
S: THAT: that people have people have physical anatomy. That’s what I meant: they wouldn’t know how to take care of their body functions.
A: But knowing your body and your self is personal. And it is every person’s right to decide what they feel and who they are. In many countries, there are people who would argue that my head or my spirit are broken, because I’m a lesbian (and even ‘lesbian’ is a term I don’t always use depending on the context). But some people think that it’s a choice. How about asking a straight person to try being gay… see how much of a choice it is? If the government or a doctor pronounced you ‘gay’ would that paper change how you felt about your own identity? I don’t think it’s fair to say, as a cisgender woman: ‘people should just be comfortable in the body they have and be whatever kind of woman they are.’ I’ve never had to live in a body that felt like a lie.
S: Yes yes, like I said, I don’t mind the whole “be what you want in the body that you want,” but more I’m concerned about the sex categories, which come back to the F or M on your ID.
Let’s say you have a car accident. Like I think it’s proper information to know. I’m not saying that you will have a different treatment (which would be pretty stupid), but for whatever healthy thing paramedics have to do.
A: To your point: we teach health classes quite clearly to all kinds of students, and there are still kids who don’t know how to properly care for themselves. Having access to information doesn’t mean people use it, but also we shouldn’t assume that in 2017 talking about the physical body is necessarily more important than talking about the mental wellbeing and overall health of the whole child. Forcing someone to live in a body that feels wrong for them, and insisting on calling it a female body, when they 100% feel that that is not supposed to be their body, can I have huge emotional and mental health repercussions for that individual. And… if someone’s in a car accident, they aren’t talking to the patient specifically about whether they enjoy being female or male, they’re doing an exam of the body and figuring out how to save the organs. It’s not about whether they liked Girl Guides or Karate, or if they have a crush on Justin Bieber… medically those things are irrelevant.
S: It just feels bad that we have “banned” penis and vagina. People who have both, okay fine. Just put MF on your card. (joke joke)
A: On the subject of it being about banning penises or vaginas, that sounds a little bit like the “everybody is hating on Christmas. They are discriminating against Christians” argument, when what I really think is happening [in most scenarios] is that people who have typically had power, and a dominant voice, feel threatened by the fact that being more inclusive has disrupted a monopoly, caused more religions to have recognition and for us to question some customs, which have typically excluded diverse people and focussed instead on a majority who is taking [that status] for granted.
The health concern is legitimate, you wouldn’t want to accidentally take an ovary out or cut out someone’s prostate. But that’s why the medical staff have training to screen for all kinds of things that are not immediately visible, like allergies to specific drugs, or history of excessive bleeding, current or past illnesses, auto-immune disease or diabetes. If someone is awake, ask them; if someone arrives without id, proceed with caution, an M or F tells so little.
S: Oh, I totally agree with you and I understand that part of that whole debate.
A: Every body that is examined has hidden histories, which is why I think it might be more relevant to gather detailed patient information on a case-by-case basis rather than having medical staff assume that they know a patient’s story without speaking to them. That’s not always possible in cases of trauma
S: But why should a female have to feel bad to feel stuck in her body, if you think you’re a male? Maybe I’m just a too ’25 year old confident woman.’ I guess that you can be pretty lost at 8 years old.
A: Race is NOT the same as gender, but to try and paint a picture: Can you imagine what it would be like if you felt like a 35-year-old black man, but every single person saw you as an 85-year-old Asian grandmother, and in every interaction you had people spoke to you and treated you, and told you how to be, where to go, and how to behave, based on their expectations for how they saw you, but not how you felt?
S: Mmmmm yeah I understand better. But I still don’t understand why the pronoun “they” is so important. And I get the aspect [of] people who had power feeling threatened.
A: It’s about people having the ability to manifest their own identity and be legible to people in a way that feels real to them. As a French-Canadian (and whatever other relevant part of your id fits here) imagine if every single person spoke to you and insisted that you speak English (just because ‘most people here do,’ but you also must not speak with an accent, and forget your upbringing, which is core to your sense of self, even though you have family who knows and loves you and knows who you are; You are a French Canadian woman, but because “everybody else” in Canada, or at least a powerful majority does not see the value in a language that is not useful to them? Oh, I’m getting into dark territory here… as soon as it becomes a big picture… it starts to sound like colonization and imperialism all over again, endlessly repeating. Are we using language to continue oppressing a minority because we’ve colonized people’s psyches?
S: Oh well, if we take that example. I would say that we still speak French in Ontario.
I respect the culture of Ontario so I accommodate myself to the way it works here.
A: I took French immersion and deeply value our country’s bilingualism. However, there are many who might say, if it isn’t what ‘I’ do then why should I pay attention to it? It’s so much ‘effort’ to be thoughtful and inclusive… lol.
A: I know lots of people who use ‘they’ as pronouns to avoid being put into a gender category that feels inauthentic.
S: Really? Such a stupid question but…
CAN I STILL IDENTIFY AS A WOMAN ?! Like I feel that’s mainly it. Is that the new thing now? Just being genderless? I’m not saying that it’s a trend (not at all)
But in a ideal world we would be all genderless? Like snail
A: So, as a gay person, for example. It is HUGELY helpful to me that straight people use words like ‘partner’ when referring to their spouse or boyfriend (not that they CAN’T use boyfriend or wife or whatever), but that by using words that don’t make it obvious that they are straight, it makes it less necessary for ME to constantly come out. They don’t use their heterosexual privilege if they consciously choose words that make themselves more ambiguous. If a straight woman uses ‘partner,’ it means that I can refer to my partner without having to OUT myself in every conversation. It also lets them have that conversation for me, which is tiring, and helps me to see/recognize allies.
I think the whole thing is really about not telling people how to identify or what feels right for them.
S: OOOHH I SEE. I like the partner comparison.
A: If someone is non-binary, which several of my students are, I respect that it’s THEIR identity. I can at least make the effort to use pronouns that don’t continue to marginalize them. It’s not to say that everyone needs not to have gender.
S: But would you have problem to say “my wife ?”
A: Not at all; that would actually go quite badly for many gay people who define themselves based on an attraction to the OPPOSITE SEX. I often say ‘my wife.’ I sometimes say ‘partner.’ Depends on the context.
If I feel worried that someone is not accepting, I will use language vaguely for safety.
S: So you can say both? A genderless person can use both ? Just so thy don’t get categorized.
A: …until you’ve been in that situation it’s hard to imagine it from that perspective. I often say partner, and wait for the person to make an assumption, which allows me to teach. They say: ‘oh, your husband.’ (like they are correcting my vagueness). ‘No,’ I’ll say: ‘my wife’. And then they question it for the next time.
S: Yeah, I understand better the context. So why people are so pissed about that?
Because they don’t understand? Is it because they feel frightened? What [about being part of a gender] is the problem?
A: Many students, and other trans people in general, might feel deeply uncomfortable either with a) the idea that a body part is somehow the indicator of a whole way of being in the world, or that b) the parts they were born with do not match the person in their brain and heart. It’s all very well for you and I to say ‘but I feel that I can be whatever kind of woman I want’ … but if we are being honest, this ease is mostly due to privilege: we are white, pretty, able-bodied, educated Western women who have ( I can probably safely say) never had people terrorize us by putting us into boxes that shame us for being the wrong kind of woman. Even as a gay woman, I still avoided so much of the bullying, violence and shame that others feel because I was very obviously feminine.
Many butchy or tough women are harassed for not fitting into standards created by a heterosexual, patriarchal society. I wish we were face to face, because we could easily crush a few drinks and have this great conversation.
S: I’m gonna save the last paragraphs. I think that answered well my question
A: So much aggression around gender is about people maintaining power. Men have typically had it. Some women get it by being the kind of women society can deal with or celebrate, but every generation has rebels who don’t fit neatly into boxes and those individuals do the hard work for all of us; because you can put your bets on it: in a few decades, the rules and possibilities for ALL women and all people will have shifted because the political agitators who are willing to take this heat are questioning the ideas that hold us ALL down. No women benefit from ideas that our gender should prescribe WHO we become. But, if we insist on putting everyone into boxes, who are those boxes for? A child doesn’t need to know it has a penis and a penis means X … they need to understand what their body does.. but more so, that their body is strong and capable and they need to know that what their body IS … it is a house for their mind; not a ticket to their ultimate value. Other people may like categories because we pretend it means that we understand them.
S: Oh wow !! Also are you religious?
A: on one hand, yes, I love being a woman and celebrate that – in the context of a history of overcoming and being empowered, but I don’t think there isn’t room in this movement for a drag queen who has fought to show herself that being the kind of young queer person who loves lipstick and heels is ALSO possible. Plus, there is are multiple theories around gender performance. For example, Judith Butler (awesome read) argues that ALL gender is performance. If a drag queen can put on a performance of ‘woman’ then how real is ‘woman-ness’? We ALL perform gender.
S: No, I totally agree with that! Just in general our society is truly a killer dream. I think everyone has so much talent and passion, but because that’s often not “the proper way to success in life” well, you end up doing something else.
A: And I think it goes the same way for gender. It’s not this magic thing that you have or don’t have…. you learn it and copy it. Drag is a parody of a copy without an original (according to Butler). I talk to my students about this and it either blows their minds or deeply upsets them… partly because they think it means they CAN’T be boys or girls anymore… but that’s not it… it just means that what we think of as natural is actually a series of learned actions and reactions. Our bodies are separate from our psyche.
S: I think that was bothering me… I was thinking that deep down I have to stop to be a woman, so I was offended. But now I understand better the whole picture.
A: …which goes to your point: if we are ourselves, why should we care about what our body IS or is labelled as? Well, for me, I don’t, but I’ve never had to live in the WRONG body or been told to be less of something. I also had so much support in being whoever I dreamed of being. I was raised Anglican, but it was a very liberal church that focused on being kind and helping others.
In one sense, the same offence (like your initial reaction to feeling YOUR gender was under attack) happens with people who don’t want gay people to get married: they make it about THEIR marriage or the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, but honestly, how does another person’s sex life impact the quality of yours? Or another person being a woman, a womyn, a boi or a je ne sais quoi? How exactly does it disrupt our understanding of ourself?
S: I just don’t understand marriage in general (no offense, or well religious weddings).
A: I get you. I definitely feel white shame when I hear about racism and first nations issues: I feel guilty; and part of my reaction (when I’m honest about it) is somewhere deep down my ego is saying ‘I don’t want to be lumped-in or feel that my identity is somehow bad because it feels bad to someone else’. I want to distance myself from that and that denial is pretty natural; no one wants to be a villain in someone else’s story. But just as you said… marriage is about lots of things, it doesn’t mean one thing to every one. It’s a state contract, a personal agreement, a party, a union, religious, not… but we agree to let a multitude of opinions exist. Because that’s what it means to be human.
S: Don’t wanna start another debate but I always find funny when black people, women, gays and lesbian are religious… … religion was what put you in a corner and blamed what you are for more than 100 years… SO WHY? Not the same thing [as] being spiritual… Believing in yourself and meditation is not the same thing.
A: If I am happy with me, I have so much compassion and empathy for others to strive for that same self-love and happiness. It takes nothing away from ME to have another person be full and happy; if I have to shift my use of the language (even as an English teacher) then I’m happy to make that ‘sacrifice’ if it allows comfort and eliminates micro-aggressions against people who are just trying to exist.
Even in the religion department MANY of those institutions are evolving and those that aren’t are clinging to systems that privilege people who have always held power: men, the wealthy, those who can read and who can live a particular, often privileged way. Many religious organizations and leaders (like my father in law who is a priest) keep men in positions of power and delegitimize other ideas, even if there is actual proof to oppose their bias in the text they follow; they are picking and choosing what suits them. That isn’t always the case though. There are many mosques and churches that are welcoming of all people and genders, which is (if people want religion and community) a step in the right direction.
S: Yeah so true! Well, I love you very much…and I really appreciate that whole conversation and time you gave to me so I can have a better understanding.
I’m happy that you are a teacher.
A: I love having these kinds of discussions. I think it’s so valuable. Miss you!
How can this be turned into a teachable moment? I’d open my class with a question: What do you feel strongly about? Then…
When you hear people disagree about an issue, what does it sound like? What words do you hear? What tone? What does it feel like? How do they look? What do you see?
How do you feel about issue X, Y, or Z? How do you feel talking to someone with an opposing viewpoint?
Coach them. Set ground rules: A few tips for having those tough conversations: Speak clearly and without sarcasm or judgement. Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t take things personally. Here’s what that might look like. Try it with a ‘tough’ topic or article. Share an article like this one.
Use chart paper to map it: What are the sides (there are probably many). Where do you stand? What do you believe? Why? What makes you believe that? Is it true? How do you know?
Let’s see one of these conversations unfold. What ways of knowing are touched upon in the exploration?