On Security Guards and Hostesses

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When the Toronto Star (May 21, 2011) reported that a Canadian couple is keeping their baby’s gender private in the name of freedom and choice, the story went viral. People around the world read about four-month-old Storm Witterick, whose gender is unknown even to the baby’s grandparents. Only the midwives who birthed Storm are in the know, along with one family friend and brothers Jazz and Kio.

At first blush, it seems pretty wacky. Crazy. Attention-seeking. Progressive beyond the point of rationale. Potentially damaging to baby Storm. Who wants to be the kid whose nutty parents turned a simple fact–I’m female or I’m male–into a media-fueled social experiment?

Amid the cacophony of criticism aimed at Storm’s parents, Columbia professor Patricia J. Williams shares her thoughtful response in The Nation (June 20, 2011). Williams reminds us about the powerful gender stereotypes assigned to boys and girls–specifically, her own two-year-old son and his nursery school pal Jessie, who both loved to help out by carrying their playmates’ lunches to the fridge every morning. Their teacher unconsciously divided their identical behavior along gender lines: “Your son is such a sturdy little security guard! And Jessie, she’s our mini-hostess with the mostest!”

Boys are strong and protective; girls are sweet and nurturing. That’s the gender profile, anyway. Boys get camouflage pjs and puppy dogs, girls pink tutus and kitty-cats. With a gender-neutral household an unattainable dream for many parents, Storm’s parents came up with a creative way to circumvent it all.

The media outlash compelled Storm’s mother, Kathy Witterick, self-described as “shy and idealistic,” to respond in a heartfelt open letter in the Ottawa Citizen (May 28, 2011). It’s a hugely likeable letter. She writes about their five-year-old son Jazz, whose clothing choices–including pink dresses and long braids–don’t fit the world’s notion of boy’s clothes. Keeping Storm genderless was born out of a simple discussion of the impending onslaught of pink or blue clothing.

In her letter, Kathy doesn’t seem wacky. Or crazy. Certainly not attention-seeking. More progressive than the average mom, but with reasonable limits. Baby Storm will certainly grow up differently than other kids, but that’s not by definition a damaging thing. In fact, in some ways, Kathy seems downright brilliant:

The strong, lighting-fast, vitriolic response was a shock…. [T]o protect our children from the media frenzy that we did not anticipate, we have declined over 100 requests for interviews from all over the world, including offers to fly to New York all expenses paid and to appear on almost every American morning show. We have learning to do, parks to visit and butterflies to care for.

Sources: Toronto Star, The Nation(free registration required), Ottawa Citizen

Image by sarahemcc, licensed under Creative Commons.

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