Is it a BOY or a GIRL?
Here I am, visibly pregnant and waddling around North America like a duck, and there’s not a day that goes by when someone doesn’t ask me whether there’s a girl baby or a boy baby in here. I would prefer the question to be, “How are you?” or, “Do you need to sit down?” but, 9 times out of 10, the question becomes about the baby’s sex. C’mon people, is it really that important?
I realize that sometimes it’s about the ease of that question fitting into the gap called “small talk.” Besides the other most-frequently-asked question: “When are you due?,” there’s no other really common and acceptable inquiry that people who don’t know you feel they can ask. Maybe people are awkward and don’t know what else to say? (suggested my percussionist on this tour, Kelly Zullo.) Or maybe few people think about these things as deeply as I do. Maybe I’m just a product of my queer community in this way.
So does that mean that everyone else is obsessed with gender? Or, because gender has been such a topic in my life for so many years, does that make me the one obsessed with it?
My standard answer is simply: “It’s a baby. I suppose we’ll know the biological sex when it is born, but its gender will be something Little Spark will have to figure out on his/her own.”
This generally leaves people confused. I’ve started smiling to soften that response and then occasionally, if I have the energy, going on to explain that I believe that gender is something that shouldn’t be assigned to a child, but should instead be something they’re given the opportunity to explore and discover for themselves. I say to them that I firmly believe that all infants are effectively the same: just babies, free from gender. It is we adults who assign gender roles and attitudes to these children with our incessant genderized chatter like: “Isn’t she beautiful!” and “Look at that big, strong boy!” and our ridiculous obsession with colour coding our babies so that we can be sure his or her biological sex is on display (and contained in either blue or pink).
My Mother (whom I love dearly) was originally hoping we would be finding out the gender of the baby so that she could choose “correct” colours for the quilt she wants to make.
I rest my case.
(I am thrilled that she will be making a quilt, just not so thrilled that any specific colours are required for a boy or a girl.)
In China, the colour for an infant has traditionally been pink. No matter if the baby was a girl or a boy, the colour was simply pink. Only recently have markets started to have a few options in blue for the Westerners who are obsessed with buying blue baby clothes for the baby boys in their lives. I find that really interesting, especially considering how gender segregated China is on so many other levels.
Regarding finding out the gender before birth, however, it’s illegal in China. At least, it’s not permitted for a Chinese national. As I’m not a national (or citizen), I can legally find out, but I am being given my prenatal information and check-ups at a hospital in which I have never seen another foreigner. When I went for the second ultrasound and asked them to please not tell me the sex, the technician almost took my head off with a curt:
“We NEVER tell the sex of the baby. It’s against policy.”
I gently explained that I could find out, legally, as a result of my being a foreigner, but that this wouldn’t be necessary because I wasn’t interested in knowing. Rather than dropping the subject, she stiffly grumbled that I would need written permission, in that case, and seemed affronted at the very mention of something so unorthodox. I think she just got her feathers ruffled because I challenged her absolutism. I just shrugged and laughed out loud saying, “Good thing I don’t want to know then! What a hassle that would be!” and the session continued without either of us mentioning it again.
The reason that Chinese people can’t find out is that there is a Single Child Policy in China that restricts families from having more than one child. This has been in effect since 1978 (and so Guo Jian has no siblings) and continues today. There are exceptions to the policy, and non-Chinese citizens are among those exceptions, which means that I don’t have to adhere to it. Still, there have been both positive and negative effects of this policy since its implementation.
On a positive note, based on population trends up until 1978, it is estimated that 400 million births have been prevented in China over the last thirty-three years. That’s a considerable number and certainly has helped to control population growth in an already extremely populated country! On a negative note, however, early phases of this policy meant that many people were electing to abort or abandon girl children as the patriarchy was all-encompassing and inheritance laws took their time to catch up and enable daughters to continue family businesses and/or own family property. (That’s why so many people in North America adopted girl babies from China in the eighties.) This was a terrible thing to start happening and prompted a lot of policy changes, but the bad memory of it (and understandable defensiveness among ultrasound technicians) still remains.
That’s why finding out the sex of the child in utero is firmly illegal. It will likely remain so indefinitely.
And I think it’s great. Why do we need to know in advance anyway? If it’s all about control and superficial decorations, then that’s silly! Can’t we learn a bit of patience? My Mother couldn’t find out what my sex was when I was in the womb and our whole generation was just fine! It’s one of life’s last great mysteries and it only requires waiting another few months before the mystery is solved!
Now, sometimes when people ask me that question, I tell them that it might not even be a person in there! “Who knows?” I say “Maybe it’s a dragon!”
Other times when I’m not feeling as patient or playful, I tell them that it’s just a baby and then I leave the conversation or change the subject.
Sometimes I’m just so annoyed with the question that I just shake my head and raise my eyebrows, biting my lip. These are the moments when I’m so over that question that I have to actively keep my mouth shut so that I don’t blurt out some unedited diatribe about gender and control and society’s obsession with a non-existent gender binary. Sometimes I want to just scream out: “Maybe the kid is a HERMAPHRODITE? Why doesn’t anyone ever guess that!?”
Anything’s possible, after all.
And let’s not even talk about the next level of the conversation in which people step back and take a look at how you’re carrying, the shape of the bump, ask you the amount of weight you’ve gained, take in the shape of your face, or a number of other factors and immediately surmise the baby’s sex based on a series of wives’ tales that they’ve heard or presumed to be fact. Now that my face has gotten fatter, everyone keeps telling me it’s a girl, for instance. No matter how annoyed I am about the obsession with knowing or predicting, I am then doubly annoyed that they’ve pointed out that I have a fat face. THANKS PEOPLE!
No matter what, I already love this child. I have more work to do to choose names, but it’s hardly a burden to think up different names–perhaps a boy name, a girl name, and a name that could apply to either biological sex or an inter-sexed baby! But, most importantly, I want to give this baby the space any human being deserves to just discover themselves. A family in Toronto is doing just that, although more officially and publicly, and I really admire their position. I think they’ve chosen a hard path and I won’t be keeping the biological sex a secret, but I do believe strongly that there is a difference between biological sex and gender and it seems that they do too.
Biological sex is what will appear between my child’s legs on the day that I see his or her birthday suit for the first time.
Gender, on the other hand, is a set of behaviours, traits, roles and assigned characteristics that are usually linked, socially, to our biological sex. Sometimes (most times), they are linked in such a way that seems typical or expected: boy kids who just gravitate to dump trucks, for instance, and girl kids who want the princess dresses. But other times, there is more fluidity and there are girls who play with dolls along with toy cars and boys who want to have tea parties as much as they want to play with their train sets. Other times, kids express gender in a unique way and surprise us with their own gender definitions and creativity.The point, in my opinion, is to let it happen as it happens–naturally.
Gender is as much born into a child–in my estimation–as biological sex, but it is simply too controlled by adults as it slowly emerges, like a river dammed from the moment it emerges from the fresh water spring. It rarely seems to get the opportunity to flow freely. The damming happens immediately–and sometimes even before birth when we know in advance–because we adults have a tendency to inadvertently (sometimes subconsciously) steer kids towards what is more of a typical gender for their biological sex. This happens through the purchasing of toys–decision we ultimately make or are made by those in our extended families–and through the clothes we put on them, colour choices, and language-based associations that we teach them as they grow up. Maybe we don’t do it on purpose, but it happens. If not by us or our loved ones, then by strangers and media in the world at large.
Perhaps we are powerless to really control it fully, but I still want to be as conscious as I can. I hope to keep the doors open to letting my child really discover him or herself through that openness without imposing a set of gender rules. I hope that I can inspire those around this child to do the same.
I will certainly try.
And until then, I will let this baby that is growing inside of me (and who just kicked me to remind me that he or she is there!) to just be a baby for a few more months without a bunch of annoying adults cooing gender-specific words, emotions and expectations at it through the permeable membrane of my belly.
Enjoy the freedom from gender stereotyping while you still have it, kid!