'Genderless' Baby Raises a Storm of Controversy

Filed under: In The News



When Kathy Witterick gave birth to her third child in January, friends and family knew not to send blue or pink balloons.

The Toronto Star reports that, following their home waterbirth, Witterick, 38, and her husband, David Stocker, 39, sent a simple email to everyone in their social network, explaining that they planned to keep their child's biological sex a secret. Only six people -- apart from Storm -- know the child's biological sex: the parents, his or her two brothers Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2, and the two midwives present at the baby's birth.

"We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now -- a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...)," the Toronto-based couple wrote.

At only 4 months old, Storm has already lived up to his or her name, birthing a tempest of controversy. The story has made international headlines, was featured on "Today" and "The View" this morning and has spurred ethical debates throughout the parenting blogosphere.

genderless baby

Baby Storm and older brother, Jazz. Credit: Steve Russell, Toronto Star

Cause for Concern?

According to the Star, Witterick was inspired to hide Storm's biological sex from the public after reading Lois Gould's 1972 short story "X: A Fabulous Child's Story." The fictional account revolves around X, who hides his or her biological sex from the public. While neighbors are confused and at times angry about X's sexual ambiguity, X has a confident sense of self and embraces whatever gendered behavior -- be it dressing in pink and playing with Barbies or wearing blue and smashing Tonka trucks –- he or she sees fit. The story ends with the assertion, "by the time X's sex matters, it won't be a secret anymore!"

When the Star's report was published, outraged responses filled the newspaper's online comment section.

"This is a perfect example of why you should have a license to have children," Chrissy111 writes.

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based organization that promotes "traditional family values," tells Fox News he "[doesn't] think there's any question that this is going to do severe harm to this child. ... That child is either a male or female, and it's a tragedy that his parents or her parents are apparently unwilling to base their approach [to child rearing] on scientific and biological truth."

Other members of the psychiatric and psychological community, however, approach Witterick and Stocker's parenting ideology with more open minds.

"I would not presume harm on any individual child without knowing the full scope of development and the full understanding of the parents' decision," Dr. Scott Leibowitz, a psychiatrist at Children's Hospital Boston and liaison to the Gender Management Service, tells ParentDish. "Gender identity is typically formed around age 3, so the infant doesn't know one way or the other."

While Leibowitz mentioned studies that have implied children raised in unconventional ways do well by having positive egos, strength and resilience, he says "since no studies have been done [that involve] raising kids as a genderless role, [there's no way] to know what psychological effect this might have on the kid."


Family therapist Susan Stiffelman, who writes the AdviceMama column for ParentDish, says she applauds the family for trying to de-emphasize gender norms, but adds that she " just can't get behind an experiment with a human child."

She says her main concern does not lie with Storm, but rather with the child's older brothers being encouraged to keep their sibling's gender a secret. According to the Star, even Storm's grandparents do not know the baby's sex.

"It's typical for a 2-year-old child to say 'my little brother' or 'my little sister,' " she tells ParentDish. "This is not the same [kind of secret] as saying, 'don't tell anyone I beat you at night,' but there's the contradiction that they want to raise their children with a sense of freedom and a lack of restraint in terms of gender expectations and, at the very same time... they are confining their other children."

Is it Possible to Keep Biological Sex a Secret?

While this child-rearing experiment is unique, it is not unprecedented. In 2009, a Swedish newspaper created a similar uproar when it followed a family who raised its toddler, Pop, as gender neutral. There has been no follow up with the now 4-year-old child. In an email to the Star, Witterick indicates her family, will decline future interviews.

But many medical professionals question whether it is feasible to keep Storm's sex a secret for long.

"The truth is, I don't see remotely how that is possible," Stiffelman says. "As soon as that child goes pee-pee it's going to be over."

Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology and women's, gender and sexual studies at Yale University, wonders if the family, in spite of its best intentions, will be able to interact with Storm without gender biases.

"I would be surprised if they didn't behave differently despite their best efforts," LaFrance tells ParentDish. "Little things like that can combine over the course of days, months or years."

LaFrance cites studies that have found boy babies tend to be more "inconsolable" than girls, so they get a different type of nurturing that implies "big boys don't cry." Girls also tend to be held more, she adds. Other studies have shown that when people observe a crying baby and are told it is a girl, the child is labeled "sad." When told the baby is a boy, however, observers find the baby "angry."

Story Just Part of a Bigger Issue

Backlash to Witterick and Stocker's decision has brought about discussion surrounding the larger societal issue of accepting those who do not fit into gender norms.

Online comments critiqued not only Storm's ambiguous sex, but the fact that Kio loves purple and Jazz is allowed to wear his hair in braids tied with colorful elastics and sparkly dresses.

"We really need to ask ourselves why it is that we are so uncomfortable when children express themselves differently," says Cheryl Kilodavis, author of the children's book "My Princess Boy," a term coined by her pink tutu-loving son.

Kilodavis says she hopes this story will invigorate a national conversation about accepting all children, even if they defy gender stereotypes.

"It is very courageous to challenge [the world] on adjectives that you use on children," Kilodavis tells ParentDish. "Instead of saying what a strong boy what a pretty girl, they are saying what a strong or beautiful child."

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