Sunday, February 5, 2012

Baby X Resurfaces

In 1978, an author named Lois Gould published a fantastic fictional piece called "X: A Fabulous Child's Story," about the Joneses, two parents who participated in a special "Xperiment" to try and raise their baby as an "X" - without revealing whether little X had male or female genitalia.  The story is brilliant.  It challenges gender socialization, such as the way we talk about babies' bodies - telling baby boys they have "husky biceps" and baby girls that they have "cute dimples."  It also gives voice to some of the difficulties faced by gender-variant folks, such as public bathroom use - an issue faced by the story's own Baby X when X enters elementary school.   But the story doesn't focus only on struggle - it also highlights the warmth that members of the Jones family feel for each other and the freedom X has to play with many kinds of toys, try many kinds of activities, and express many kinds of feelings, which X appears to share with X's classmates and friends throughout the story as other children recognize the value of such freedom and claim it for themselves.  All of the tribulations and joys that the Joneses experience in the story are the tribulations and joys that come with reducing the pressure of gender expectations in our lives.  The story's point isn't to say that gender shouldn't exist or doesn't matter.  Rather, its point is that we have let gender become a dictator of our lives and personalities - a dictator that often overpowers our own sense of self.

Recently, two real-life Baby X stories have made the news.  First was the Canadian couple last May who said they weren't revealing the sex of their new baby to anyone except their immediate family, at least for the moment.  You can read their story here.  More recently is the "where are they now" version of the story - a family in the UK who have only just now revealed the biological sex of their five-year-old.  Their story is here.  There's been a lot of chatter about these stories across the internet in blogs, comment forums, and follow-up news pieces.  Some of the commentary has been positive, but much of it has been marked by vicious criticism of both parents - everything from folks accusing the families of trying to raise gender "neutral" (whatever that is) kids and being too PC to folks declaring that these parents are idiots and that they're doing their kids a disservice by raising them as "freaks."

What strikes me most about all of this is how much this totally un-scary thing scares people.  The idea that gender, and even biological sex, might not actually be the rigid categories we imagine them to be - that they might not be real - terrifies people.  I think part of this is fear of change, fear of the other, and the pervasive intensity of transphobia.  Gender and sex are such real categories to so many people that despite their roots in personal privacy (we are, after all, on some level talking about what's between everyone's legs) they become a public, not private, matter.  Many folks become angry when they discover the "truth" about trans people who present as a different gender than they were assigned at birth.  When people discover that someone they believed was a cis-gender woman in fact was born male, they often become angry because they feel that they were "deceived" in some way.  Gender informs our social interactions in a way that leaves a lot of folks lost and confused without their comforting guidance.  The first thing we ask parents of newborns is whether they've had a boy or a girl.  I think gender roles and the sex binary have become so pervasive in society that people don't know what to say or how to act until they know this information.  And now we have these parents who are refusing to tell us?  How dare they. The comments towards the real-life Baby X parents tend to focus on the kids (they'll be teased, they'll be confused, etc...) but I think this anger actually comes from a sense of so-called perceived deception.  How dare they deny us this information that we have a right to know, the tone of the criticisms suggests.   

One of the lovely things about Gould's Baby X story is its tone.  Somehow the story manages to convey the seriousness of the issue while at the same time exuding humor and exposing our ridiculous adherence to gender norms in friendly, cheerful prose.  The story reminds us that X is just being a kid and that breaking down gender barriers isn't actually the earth-shattering event we might all imagine it to be.  Perhaps we need a global rebirth of the Baby X story in the twenty-first century, followed by a collective deep breath and sigh of relief that thanks to a new generation of forward-thinking gender-benders, we may, finally, be on the brink of freedom.

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