One Day ‘Gender’ May Not Matter
If we’d learned from BABY X perhaps society would be further along
Illustration 114005513 © M-sur | Dreamstime.com
I grew up in Texas, where football was at the top of the sports heap, and other athletes scuffled for attention. Players wore their tight-fitting jerseys for Friday pep rallies while our silky-haired cheerleaders twirled their short skirts on the sidelines. Everyone else ogled these high school and college celebrities.
I never imagined that one day, a talented female soccer player would be kicking off for her college football team as Sarah Fuller did for Vanderbilt. I certainly never thought I’d hear unreserved support for transgender athletes as I did today when U.S education secretary nominee, Miguel Cardona, spoke during his confirmation hearing.
“I think it’s the legal responsibility of schools to provide opportunities for students to participate in activities and this includes students who are transgender,” Cardona said. “I think that’s their right.”
I was stunned and ebullient, realizing that deeply-rooted gender roles and societal rigidity that begins at birth may finally be changing for good. About friggin’ time. It reminded me of a children’s story I read almost 50 years ago that was a game-changer for me.
The fable was wedged inside a game-changing magazine which was always placed — along with the mail — on my mother’s white wicker chaise lounge. This was her, “don’t bother me, I’m reading” chair.
I’d whisk it away before my mother saw it, hide with it and a flashlight in my closet. By the time she came home from seeing patients, I would’ve inhaled the entire issue, exhaling a southern girl’s relief from the feminine order. I absorbed the photos, the startling articles, and the “stories for free children” in every issue. Addressed to the Mrs., it challenged us to leave the Miss behind and become a Ms.
This was food for feminists. Ms. Magazine became my reference book, fomented my inner dialogue and has served as a guidepost to the world around me.
It challenged readers to question the current standards, beliefs, and conventions that our mothers and grandmothers had been living under for years. Suddenly, in addition to the bold and wickedly independent women in my own family, I could envision a world different from the one outside my small-town-Texas front door.
I’m a feminist today because of its co-founders Gloria Steinem and also Letty Cottin Pogrebin. What child of the ’70s isn’t also a fan of the Free to Be, You and Me book, album, and video? I had all three.
The December issue of Ms. was arresting. The bold pink cover shouted in all capital letters, “Peace on Earth and Good Will to People.” Not just men. All people. The children’s story that month, written by Lois Gould, opened a window into a world I hadn’t considered but never forgot.
In her obituary, the New York Times referred to Gould as a “writer of women’s inner lives.” She wrote the inaugural “Hers” column in 1977. Gould died in 2002 — the 30th anniversary year of Ms. Magazine, but her novels, essays, and articles are still relevant. I’ve never forgotten the children’s story from that issue.
It changed my perspective on everything — the way I viewed myself, the way I viewed the world and, ultimately, the way I chose to raise my own children.
X: A Fabulous Child’s Story presented an idea that lodged its kernels of truth inside of me. We are born, most of us, either male or female. But our gender isn’t always determined by our sex organs, nor can it always be determined by the million large and small decisions made for children every day. Like all good stories, it begins like every fairytale.
“Once upon a time, a Baby named X was born. The Baby was named X so that nobody could tell whether it was a boy or a girl. It’s parents could tell, of course, but they couldn’t tell anybody else. They couldn’t even tell Baby X — at least not until much, much later.”
As it turns out, a group of scientists had set up an experiment to allow Baby X to grow into anything the baby wanted by determining their own gender. To do this, they provided the volunteer parents with an Instruction Manual that noted such toys to play with (all kinds), adjectives to use (non-binary), and such.
The story follows Baby X through growth to school, where X begins to have challenges with Other Children. By knowing X, the other children begin to change their behaviors. The girls refuse to wear pink; the boys want to play with dolls and other gender identifying actions. This causes a huge upset with the parents, who demand that the school examine X and determine X’s gender.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but we can only hope we’re finally heading toward the society Lois Gould hoped for way back in 1972.
Forty-nine years later, gender issues are still being debated and remain a considerable topic in art, film, TV shows, and politics. Lines are being drawn, including which one to stand in for the bathroom, who pays for birth control and Viagra, and if gender is a social construct. Many of us are still choosing pink vs. blue.
The January 2017 issue of National Geographic devoted an entire issue to gender. The New York Times still posts an entire column on gender. And Ms. Magazine continues to focus on gender even today but in an ever more expansive way.
People who want to challenge gender are now using pronouns differently and boldly identify themselves to others. And, they’re asking all of us for support by joining them. One small way is by adding our preferred pronouns to our name in ZOOM calls and encouraging others to do the same.
Still, the battle for gender understanding, equity, and LGBTQ+ rights continues. How far we’ve come but how much farther we still have to go.
I doubt Lois Gould knew how prescient Baby X would be. If only we’d listened then. How differently we might treat each other. If boys and girls weren’t imprinted from birth, how might we relate to each other? If children and adults (who were stifled as children) were allowed to be WHO they are without fear but with acceptance, how might it affect the understanding of gender for all of us?
In the Black Lives Matter movement's awakening, many people dedicated themselves to unlearning attitudes about race. Still, we must also consider other ideals we must unlearn about difference, including those surrounding gender.
As a feminist cis-gender woman who has fought to be considered equal, I must rally around intersectional feminism as well every person who is female-identifying.
It’s important to keep BABY X as part of our history of defining literature. It’s important to reflect on the people and books, films, and television that have been asking us to change.
So, please consider rereading it and sharing it with your own Baby X’s. https://waylandbrown.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/x-story.pdf
Author’s Photo of her well-worn copy