Our Discomfort with the Ungendered

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 2, 2011 7:57 am

A couple in Toronto has decided to keep the gender of their baby, named Storm, private. Good for them! Way too many people can guess what gender I am, it takes the fun out of everything. Guessing my sexuality is quite a bit more difficult, but I digress. People are upset about Storm the genderless baby! Why? How we portray friendly and scary aliens in science fiction may help explain why people are worried about a person’s gender being indeterminate.

Let’s clear some things up first. Storm has a biological sex. I have no idea what it is, but chances are that Storm is biologically male or female, as those are pretty common ways for people to be. Of course, intersex – that is, ambiguous genitalia and/or blended sexual maturation – is a real, though minor, possibility. And that’d be just fine too.

But you and I don’t know for sure. Storm’s parents feel that our society’s obsession with the need to know what sex a person is biologically (and how that jives with that person’s gender presentation) is an invasion of privacy. Second, gender is, almost by definition, impossible to keep secret. Gender is what we present to the world. Thus, if I can’t tell what gender a person is, that doesn’t mean that person’s gender is secret, it just means I don’t have a mental category for what I’m seeing. Gender presentation can be obvious, ambiguous, over-the-top, cliché or mundane, but it’s never hidden.

So it’s not that Storm doesn’t have a sex or gender that is getting attention, but that Storm’s parents don’t seem eager to make Storm’s gender presentation obvious, nor to confirm that their baby’s gender presentation matches their baby’s biological sex. Ok, so where do aliens come into play?

The discomfort around not knowing Storm’s gender arises in part because gender is how we humanize someone.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation, those who view Data as a mere robot refer to him as “it” until they have an epiphany and recognize Data as a person, at which point Data becomes a “he.” Gendering Data is the way he is acknowledged a subject instead of an object. We do this to babies as well. What’s the first thing we say when a person is born? “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” I love how that sentence is one of the only ones in the English language in which it is ok to refer to a human being as an “it.” Saying “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” metaphorically transforms the generic baby in the womb into a specific, individual human in the outside world. Gendering is also the way we include the new human baby as “one of us.” Beyond the exception of newborns, to refer to a person as an “it” carries the connotation of that person being inhuman or alien thing. So when we can’t refer to a baby as he or she, we get anxious.

Those anxieties around gender manifest in our portrayal of aliens. The best examples of genderless monsters are invading evil aliens. The scarier and more killable the alien is supposed to be, the more ungendered the alien species is. Friendly, or at least pitiable species, like E.T., the Prawn (from District 9) and even the lovable monotone elcor in Mass Effect are all ostensibly gendered (i.e. male-ish). Alternatively, the unstoppable world destroyers in films like Independence Day, War of the Worlds, and The Thing? All sexless, genderless Horsealiens of the Apocalypse. There are notable exceptions (the critters in Flight of the Navigator are neuter and good, the xenomorphs in Alien are sexed and evil). These exceptions show how we can sometimes decouple our need for gender certainty from our normative good/evil and human/thing judgments about an individual.

Storm’s humanity isn’t really in question, but not knowing it forces our brain to struggle for a handhold. Given that genderless non-human persons (e.g. A.I.) may one day be a big part of our world, we need to figure out a way to deal with an ungendered individual. Suggestions?

MORE ABOUT: Gender, Star Trek

Comments (24)

  1. dancinbojangles

    While the question of gender and humanity is an ongoing and thorny one, Storm’s parents’ unwillingness to share their baby’s gender seems ill-advised to me, simply because there is no agreed-upon gender-neutral singular pronoun in the English language. It probably won’t be a problem for the infant Storm, but if they persist into childhood proper, and as the child learns to speak, it could be a major problem! How are people supposed to refer to “it?” I’ve hear “ze”, “zie,” “yo,” “e,” all sorts of suggested alternatives, many of which are fine, but none of which are in the slightest bit recognized by the population at large.

    Assuming that this genderlessness does persist, the two possibilities seem to be that the child will be forced to think as an “it” and suffer the stigma attached (regardless of that stigma’s injustice), or will be able to associate only with people on the leading edge of the social sciences. Neither seems ideal in my humble opinion. It is certainly their right to parent as they wish, and children have been raised fine in FAR more ridiculous circumstances. I see no reason, however, that it should be trumpeted as virtuous behavior to make a child into a social experiment for no other purpose than to start a discussion, however much that discussion may need to be started.

    As for suggestions: I don’t know; my expertise doesn’t even come close to touching issues such as this. Whatever the eventual solution though, it will undoubtedly be awesome to refer to an AI with a real, actual pronoun that doesn’t imply it’s just a dead hunk of metal.

  2. Jumblepudding

    Unconventional name+non-disclosure of gender=A high desire for attention on the part of the parents. We get it folks, you’re special snowflakes.

  3. dancinbojangles

    Heh, totally agreed, @jumblepudding; with a name like that, it could almost be a Final Fantasy character! Storm Angst, teen mercenary for hire.

  4. Kyle Munkittrick

    @dancinbojangles: neuter pronouns are so weird. I think “they” might end up becoming a neuter singular, though it pains every English nerd bone in my body.

    @jumblepudding: Hey, no disagreement here. The parents are probably trolling for publicity. But the interesting part is why saying their baby has no gender gets so much publicity.

  5. dancinbojangles

    @kyle: I give a little involuntary shudder whenever I hear a singular “they.” I hate being a snob, but it’s just… so… HARD sometimes.

  6. Jim Johnson

    This baby is (almost certainly) either a he or a she, regardless of whether the parents acknowledge that fact. Unless the child’s society is restricted to remote contact (ie Facebook) then everyone who meets “them” (sorry dancinbojangles) is immediately going to recognize that sex and interact according to the gender perceived.

    This strikes me an awful lot like outlawing gravity or making a rule against heartbeats.

    Some things are not mutable – they just are what they are.

    BTW Kyle, my experience with young parents is that they tend to get quite irritable with people referring to their infant as “it”, a phenomenon that supports your thesis.

  7. dancinbojangles

    @Jim: I like that analogy. Like Cnut ordering the tide not to come in, denying the role gender plays in our every interaction is to try changing the fundamental nature of humanity simply by ordering it so! Or in this case, more likely by getting huffy when anyone refuses to go along with you.

  8. Paul

    Being understanding parents of a freak kid is good. But when I was a kid, I noticed that the parents who had some weird socio-politico-parental agenda (“We believe in raising our children to be…X”) tended to have the most psychologically or socially damaged kids. Worse even than verbally-abusive-otherwise-negligent parents, roughly on a par with physically or sexually abusive parents.

    (Publicising as widely as you can, that you believe gender questions are voyeuristic, is massively hypocritical and self-serving. “Everyone look at me! I’m being private!” And that hypocrisy doesn’t bode well for the mental health of the children.)

    Weird parents without an agenda, otoh, tend to have massively normal kids. It’s not the parents’ weirdness that was the problem, it seems to be the act of trying to force the kid(s) to fit into the agenda.

    I think that’s also the reason for the fascination with the story. It’s not our horror (or whatever) at the genderless child, it’s our recognition of (and instinctive dislike of) those sorts of parents. We cringe on behalf of the kids.

  9. Berick

    I remember that one of the most common 1960s complaints about long hair on men was “you can’t tell the girls from the boys!”.

  10. Lucian

    The neuter pronoun I prefer is “shme”. Clear, concise, and obvious. Everyone I’ve told that word instantly knew what I meant.

  11. Eh. I’m with Kyle on this. Storm absolutely has a biological sex. And when he or she is older he or she will definitely develop a sexual identity, a sexual orientation, some degree of interest in expressing it, and so on. And however that shakes out it’ll be completely unambiguous both to Storm and his or her prospective partners. In other words Storm is just like everybody else.

    And I absolutely agree with Kyle’s point that in English and a lot of other languages assigning sexed pronouns is how we humanize people. In fact I think that’s a really brilliant point and one that really, really helps explain the incredible resistance otherwise sensible people are feeling about the parents decision not to disclose it.

    What’s tough is all the baggage we happen to overload on the assignment of sex. For instance the first five words of an article about Storm’s parents decision are “Bruising boy or blushing girl?” Which kind of gets to the heart of the problem of gender as opposed to sex. A 4-month old is unlikely to either bruise someone else or to blush. Unfortunately just by knowing which gender a child is encourages onlookers to decide whether it’s ok for Storm to be bruised (if he’s a boy) or ok for Storm to blush (if she’s a girl.)

    And what sucks about that is that in fact girls and boys are perfectly capable of both blushing and bruising in roughly equal measure. And so when we go assigning “blushing” to one or “bruising” to another we’re basically demanding that they restrict perfectly natural qualities they’re born with in order to further meet our expectations of how gender “ought” to be.

    That’s not to say that the sexes are either biologically indistinguishable or socially irrelevant. It just means that in addition to the natural differences of sex it’s stupid that the processes we believe make someone “more of a man” involves subtracting from them to a point where they’re scared literally out of their senses that someone will mistake them for “gay.” Same with women who are constantly admonished to be “more lady-like,” which almost always involves subtracting thoroughly natural and often enjoyable behaviors associated with “masculinity.”

    Anyway, while I agree the parents are milking the attention they’re getting they by no means are responsible for generating that attention. Even the best parents make the occasional stupid self-serving mistake with their children every now and then and less prepared parents do it every day. But they don’t wind up in nearly every newspaper in the world with an English language edition. That’s not the baby’s fault, and it’s not the parent’s fault either.

    The baby will be fine. As soon as it’s important to the boy or girl to let people know he or she will do so. And it’s not very likely the parents will do anything to prevent it. But until then this is just a great natural experiment in the way language actually does structure the way people think. To a point where we have the equivalent of a “phantom limb” or lexical gender dysphoria when we don’t know which pronoun to use.


  12. amphiox

    If you go back to the original news stories on this, you find that the parents did not keep the gender entirely a secret. They didn’t tell the child’s grandparents, but they did tell the child’s siblings.

    I think this is a key point that people who have been devolving into hysterics are overlooking. What this means is that for the first few years of this child’s life, the four people who will be interacting with it(?) constantly (Mom, Dad, and both big brothers) will all know and their interactions with the child will be affected by that knowledge. So the parents really aren’t going to be shielding this child from all gender-based interaction stereotypes (either this is not their intent, or if it is, they’ve not thought it through), only from those stereotypes and expectations originating from outside their nuclear family. SO really it just boils down to an expression of a common parental desire to minimize the greater society’s influence on their children and maximize their own.

    The child’s siblings are 2 and 5 years old. 2 and 5 years! Just how long are a 2 and 5 year old going to be able to keep such a secret. It’ll probably last no more than halfway through the 5 year old’s first completely school year. This also suggests that the parents intend for the secret to be kept only for a limited time period, namely the child’s most formative toddler years, and no more. (And if that is not their intent, then again they haven’t really thought things through).

    And it seems to me a very good indication that if they’ve already told the siblings, they’re going to tell the child, too, as soon as the child is old enough. Remember that one of those siblings who has already been told is only 2 years old. And once the child knows, the frankly the rest does not matter anymore, not one whit.

  13. jemand

    I like the parent’s choice, I dislike the fact that they consented to talk to the media about it. I think these stories would have died earlier and the child’s privacy maintained better if the parents consistently said *no comment* and refused to explain exactly why they didn’t want to share their child’s biological sex.

    I mean, honestly, the answer is obvious, and the questions invasive, and personally I think they don’t even warrant any kind of reply at all.

  14. @#4, #5:

    The singular “they” as a genderless pronoun has been in use to greater or lesser acclaim or derision for over five hundred years.

    If your inner English nerd is shuddering at such usages, I respectfully submit that your inner nerd is in need of recalibration.

    Otherwise, you are effectively suggesting that your English ninjitsu trumps the art of the language attested by the likes of Shakespeare, Wilde, Twain and the King James Bible.

    Being as erudite as you no doubt are, I’m sure your linguistic snobbery could be more profitably trained on worse things, like people who say “bemused” when they don’t mean to suggest confusion or people who point out purported errors in English that actually have a long distinguished pedigree of usage (thus bringing us full circle, in this particular jerk).

    By the bye, nice post, Kyle!

    Yours in letters,
    Cheeseburger Brown

  15. Derrick

    I understand the parents position here, their dislike of societies imposition of gender-based stereotypes. However, I think this “experiment” of theirs is needlessly cruel and amounts to abuse – though not in a legally liable way of course.

    Regardless of their goals, society is gender based. It doesn’t matter if they like it or not, that’s how it is. So, they are creating a situation where their child will be a freak once he’s part of society. Other people – particularly other children, but adults too – will not know how to deal with him. This will result most frequently in those other people being uncomfortable in his/her presence, which leads to ostracism or worse.

    If they want to change the world, to reduce the impact gender has on how people are treated and what is expected of them, then there are many other ways to approaching this. Forcing a child into their agenda, at their child’s own expense, is cruel at best.

  16. Thanks for writing this entry. I really enjoyed it. Keep up the excellent work, dude!

  17. Heather

    I think this is such a cool idea. It sounds like something my hippie grandparents would have thought up. I can only imagine the conversations to come between parent and child about what it means to present individual gender identity to society.

  18. Mark Plus

    Jeez, this nonsense has come back again. Someone wrote a story based on a similar premise and published it in 1974 in the anthology “Woman in the Year 2000,” edited by Maggie Tripp. Right after that foolishness follows an essay by F.M. Esfandiary about how we would live forever in space colonies by that mysterious, far-future year 2000:


  19. I suggest Shulamith Firestone’s feminist revolution to abolish sex distinction so that genital difference no longer matter culturally. Removing the binary pronouns from language will be a must.

  20. rascheR duB

    I disagree with Summerspeaker about Firestone’s avowal to “abolish sex distinction.” Who would do the abolishing and who would do the enforcement? Such paternalism is immiscible with a spirit of openness in matters of sexuality. Greater laxity, not uptightness and regulation around these matters seems to me to be vital. Anyway, I’m not sure that one parent in Toronto deciding to keep her baby’s gender a secret is indicative of anything, or even if it’s news at all. Secrecy ultimately backpedals into the arms of repression, hypocrisy and the illusion of control — all told rather the opposite of a live-and-let-live, panreceptive, polymorphous sexual ethos.

  21. While it’s understandable to state the intentions of the parents as both simultaneously backwards and progressive, I feel bad for the kid. Seriously. I agree with #6, this kid is going to be choosing very, very quickly. As soon as they hit any type of schooling, they’re going to have to choose. It’s not going to be Boys Vs Girls Vs Storm in kickball or any schoolyard competition – even if ’em is given a choice, they’re still alienated. “Hey, we’re you on the girls side last year?”
    We’re not in a world like the Doctor visits, where they respectfully say “Ladies, Gentlemen, and all variations thereupon” to get our attention. Locker room drama will be even more dramatic. And even if Storm decides on a gender by that time, they’ll still have very obvious physical differences that alienate them if they choose “wrong”. That’ll lead to either medical solutions (hormone shots, reversal/reduction surgery) or psychiactric ones (therepy). And even if they choose “right”, there’s still a load of unneeded experiences scarring their past.
    We may have discomfort for the ungendered, but not nearly so much discomfort as they will have.

  22. J

    I just don’t think this gets to the heart of the matter, though. It’s not what the baby’s sex is, it’s how you interpret it and inter act with the information of this baby being x, y or z. It seems like they’re doing a bigger disservice to topic of “the importance (or lack of) of gender ” by nullifying it. By making it a big enough deal to get rid of it all together (in a way).

    I wouldn’t alter my roll in society (for the better) as a person by removing or hiding my gender, and it’s not the kind of weight I would put on my developing child either.

  23. Matt B.

    “Jive”, “jibe” and “gibe”. Please look them up.

    “It” refers to people all the time: “Who is it?” “It’s me.” “It puts the lotion on its skin.” (Wait, bad example.)

    Some languages have only genderless third-person pronouns and guess what–they still notice biological gender.


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