Gender Offenders by Robert Vandrish

“CONGRATULATIONS, it’s an ‘It!’” That’s what Joy Behar, from ABC’s The View, believes well-wishers of the Witterick and Stocker family might say upon hearing of the birth of their child, Storm.

Last month, the most read article on the Toronto Star’s website, entitled “Parents keep child's gender secret,”  introduced the world to Kathy Witterick (female), David Stocker (male) and their 4-month-old baby, Storm (data unavailable).

A blond, wispy-haired infant with cheeks like a satisfied chipmunk, Storm made headlines across the world when the child’s parents decided to keep its sex a secret. As Stocker explains in the Star article, “If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs.”

The parents’ aim is to raise a child free from an imposed gender, offering “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime,” according to an email sent to friends and family. There are no boy or girl toys, just toys; no boy or girl clothes; just clothes; and no boy or girl child for now, just Storm.

But the world doesn’t work this way, say critics.

The recurring concern: Storm will not grow up safely because s/he is being raised as a political and social experiment. People are worried Storm will be made fun of or bullied by a society that can persecute outsiders.

But this concern, echoed by readers of the article, even by international media outlets, is rooted in the idea that society wouldn't already bring politics into how Storm should grow up. And it ignores that parents who do not challenge the societal gender norms are still imposing their gender politics on the children they raise. When parents give dolls to girls and trucks to boys, they are making a political decision; they are supporting child-rearing conventions, whether actively or passively.

The story of Storm went viral in part because it defies gender conventions to a radical degree. The numerous media responses dealt with its deviation from the norm, in both positive and negative terms. But what has been lacking from this conversation is a critique of our current parenting paradigm.

Rachel Epstein, coordinator for the LGBTQ Parenting Network in Toronto, believes there are numerous issues that arise in “gendering” children based on sex.

Gendering – the act of assigning a gender to a person or object – is not a commonly used word but it is a commonly used practice.

“Although many of us have been struggling for decades against stereotypical notions of gender based on sex, we continue to run into very strongly-held ideas about gender and parents can feel pressure to have kids conform,” she says.

Indeed, with a societal system that looks between the legs of babies to impose genders on them, there are consequences for those who don’t fit into the stereotypes belonging to the “male” or “female” labels.

Citing the experiences of gender-variant and transgendered children, Epstein says, “when children are exhibiting behaviours that don’t fit traditional gender norms, it can be harsh on them and potentially dangerous.”

But deviations from gender stereotypes can also be a good thing.

The LGBTQ Parenting Network is an organization that provides services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer families and their communities. It has a resource database Epstein happily points to, singling out a landmark article from 2001, by Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, entitled “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” This research piece explores the differences between children with same-sex parents and children with heterosexual parents. Using 15 years of data on children with lesbian moms, Stacey’s and Biblarz’s article showed how children of queer families benefited in many ways, boasting higher self-esteem, better mental health and less traditional gender stereotyping.

In other words, these children aren’t as restricted to traditional gender roles and they are, overall, happier and less inhibited.

Epstein says that children of same-sex parents might grow up to see adults in their households fulfilling untraditional gender roles. For example, a gay mother may be seen using power tools while a gay father may be seen cooking and cleaning. This results in children with a construct of gender that is more encompassing of various expressions.

The old argument that homosexual couples are unfit to parent because their children would not be exposed to the essential parenting skills and gender models of the both mothers and fathers has been disproven by Stacey and Biblarz. These researchers have countered the myth that children of gay parents are more liable to suffer confusion over their gender and sexual identities.

For heterosexual parents, this means there isn’t one rule when it comes to child-rearing. In fact, the 2001 study shows that non-heteronormative and gender-typing parenting can even be beneficial. It also rejects the idea that children need rigid gender role models, as children of queer parents are not more prone to gender confusion. Indeed, by opening more than just two doors – one blue, one pink – kids are exposed to more alleys of personal gender expression which may suit them better.

As an activist, Epstein has come across advocates for the use of gender-neutral pronouns, though the use of these pronouns is not a popular phenomenon. Instead of “he” and “she,” there exists like “sie” (often pronounced “see”) and, instead of “his” and “her,” there exists “hir” (often pronounced “here”). Still, these are used almost exclusively by LGBTQ communities aware of the problems with the dominant gender binary ideology. For everyone else, using the awkward “he/she” pronoun is the only grammatically (and politically) correct way to refer to singular persons whose genders are unknown.

One neighbour asks, not for the first time, if Storm is a boy. Something beneath those ambiguous, pudgy cheeks has many people questioning just what this child is. The Toronto Star repeated this question, polling readers on whether Storm is a boy or a girl.

But really, this poll is asking what hir sex is. While the newspaper did not portray the Witterick and Stocker family’s parenting decisions in a negative light, its poll clashed with Stocker’s belief that “you don’t ask what’s between [the] legs” of someone you want to know.

And maybe that’s why Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2, Storm’s older siblings, wear clothes they have picked out for themselves – regardless of whether the attire stems from the girl or boy sections of the store. This makes them quite unconventional boys. But boys they are. As for Storm, this now 5-month-old baby’s gender hasn’t fully formed yet.

This raises the possibility, say some of the (roughly) 500 people who commented on the Star’s online version of the article, that Storm will grow up to be gender confused, or even worse, an experiment gone wrong.

"Cruel Experiment. If you want to conduct psychological experiments on innocent human beings, I suggest these two misguided 'parents' buy a rat!” says goodgumptionyoyo.

“There is absolutely no reason to know what the child has between their legs, which is essentially what most people are asking. This isn't a social experiment. The only thing that affects the child is not being forced into gender roles. On the other hand, reinforcing gender roles IS playing with the kid's mind and is something that the child has no say over,” retorts Culicidae.
“These children will, one day, have to face the real world not the one dreamed up for them by their parents. Not providing these children with even the most basic education and a confused gender identity will not bode well for them in the future. I can't help but wonder what the view of Child Protective Services would be on this situation.” says Piper.

The conversation is very long.

Indeed, the amount of criticism and hype this Star article has garnered shows how ingrained gendering is in our culture.

Regarding her experiences with her eldest son, Jazz, who draws and writes poems under the pseudonym “Gender Explorer,” Witterick has regrets. She laments that her son “has to discuss his gender before people ask him meaningful questions about what he does and sees in this world, but I don't think I am responsible for that – the culture that narrowly defines what he should do, wear and look like is.”

Of course, how the parents are raising Storm is more radical than how they are raising Jazz, or even Kio. Critics call Witterick’s and Stocker’s rearing of Storm an extreme experiment – and they’re right.

There are, however, less extreme parental alternatives brewing in Western society; some parents raise “princess boys,” who are children identifying as male but who love to wear dresses (like Cheryl Kilodavis’s son, who is the subject of his mother’s controversial book called My Princess Boy); some parents give their children Barbies and action figures (like mine); and some parents just happen to model untraditional gender expressions for their kids (like the lesbians referenced in Stacey’s and Biblarz’s article).

As for an experiment as radical as Witterick’s and Stocker’s, there is one precedent.

In Sweden, 2009, a feminist, heterosexual couple was raising a child with a secret sex. Their hope in doing this was to hinder the possibility of outsiders imposing a gender on the child. To preserve the anonymity of their offspring, the parents had the media call their child sie “Pop.” Like Storm’s siblings do now, Pop dressed herself every day, be it in traditional female or male attire.

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in the spring of 2009. The mother believes “it’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their [sic] forehead.” Just like with Storm, Pop’s actual gender is up to the child to reveal.

When this story broke, paediatric endocrinologist Anna Nordenström told the online Swedish newspaper, The Local, of her doubts on how Pop’s parents will affect the child, though she was sure there would be an effect.

“I don’t know what they are trying to achieve” said Nordenström, who studies the hormonal influences on gender development at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. “It’s going to make the child different, make them very special.

“We don’t know exactly what determines sexual identity, but it’s not only sexual upbringing; gender-typical behaviour, sexual preferences and sexual identity usually go together. There are hormonal and other influences that we don’t know that will determine the gender of the child.”

Indeed, it is also too early to tell how the 5-month-old Storm will turn out. However sie self-identifies in the future will likely provide fodder to the long-drawn nature vs. nurture debate on issues like gender identity. The only thing that seems certain is that, like hir older brothers, Jazz and Kio, Storm may have a gender expression that will defy strict male and female roles.

The debate that arose following the publication of the most read article on the Toronto Star website, may have been a flavour of the month, or part of a much larger conversation that will continue on.

For a long time, homosexual couples were thought to be unfit parents because there was a fear that they would raise gender-confused kids who would turn out to be homosexuals themselves. While this debate continues (heatedly) in some circles, it has been proven to be an unsubstantiated concern. As Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz showed, sometimes non-heteronormative parenting can even be beneficial.

Perhaps the Storm experiment will shed similar results. Perhaps not.

No matter how Storm is being named, dressed, pronoun-ed and gendered through any other means, what sie will eventually face is a period of self-discovery. But for now, this child – like all other children – will have to weather the storm.

Robert Vandrish is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. His work has been published in The Spill Magazine, The Pipe Newspaper and, of course, The Little Red Umbrella. You can follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


Liz Windsor said...


I just wanted to say that there are alternatives to Barbie that are female action figures. They are perhaps more expensive than Barbie, but well worth it in my opinion, as Barbie is virtually disabled, with her non-articulated arms and legs, unrealistic body shape and inability to stand. I have action figures of the woman from Hero (the film with Jet Li) with two different outfits of robe plus pants in different colours, , and a Vietnamese guerilla fighter called Lin. Once their weapons are removed (if that's your bag) they are much more appropriate counterparts to male action figures, and they look great on the articulated World Peacekeepers horses that I have in the same 1:6 scale.

Anonymous said...

Storm is just a wonderful little X, that's all.

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