In a world where gender norms are too often rigidly controlled by tradition, religiosity and politicking – iconoclasts are disrupting the norm. Abroad these take the form of parents who’re choosing to bring children up gender-free, while locally an emerging artist and political author questions the legitimacy of limiting local gender constructions. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto should have anticipated the public outcry that followed their unusual decision after the birth of their child Storm, two years ago. After all, they weren’t the first parents to decide that their baby would be raised gender-free.
In March 2009, a Swedish couple declared in Svenska Dagbladet that they refused to reveal the sex of their child to anyone, stirring up heated global debate.
justinThe twenty-something parents said they were keeping the child’s gender a secret in line with feminist philosophy that determined gender was a social construct. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead,” the toddler’s mother told the Nordic newspaper, and added that she felt her baby would grow up more freely without having the restriction of being forced into a specific gender mould.
Unlike the Swedish couple who opted for anonymity, Canada’s Witterick and Stocker went public in Toronto’s The Star, and very soon their faces (and that of their cherub child’s) were on CNN and other global networks.
The whole world was hearing how the pair sent out an email to relatives and friends after Storm’s birth, informing them that they wouldn’t be announcing their child’s sex as 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 couple said theirs wasn’t an impulsive decision, but had been informed by much research from books like Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, who writes about the toll of forcing gender stereotypes onto people. Witterick and Stocker told The Star that they wanted Storm, and their other two children whose genders were identified, to make “meaningful decisions for themselves”, and to have “the freedom to choose who they would like to be, unconstrained by what’s expected of males and females”.
The world was not generous or understanding. Angry letters were hand-delivered to the family’s door, and when they were on outings, cars slowed down and people shouted “BOY” out of the window. Online people called Storm’s parents “insane” or wrote that their decision was tantamount to “child abuse”.
“What this couple is doing is confronting the gender regulations that are imposed on people based on their bodies,” Christi van der Westhuizen, a research associate at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State, tells Daily Maverick. “Essentially what these parents are saying is that they refuse the gender policing of their children’s identities. In this sense, gender is a system of power that people think is natural and inborn, but the only reason this is so is because it is a norm that is reiterated and reinforced so often people think it must be true.”
“But gender is all constructed by us – we make it all up, and we perpetuate it by repeating it, but what these couples are doing is trying to break this cycle and afford their children freedom of choice while getting society to think about gender constructions,” Van der Westhuizen says.
A columnist and political journalist who started her career at Vrye Weekblad, Van der Westhuizen is the author of White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party and edited Gender Instruments – Critical Perspectives, Future Strategies. Currently studying her PhD at UCT, Van der Westhuizen hopes to force South Africans to confront the “damaged and damaging” social gender constructions they’ve adopted. Speaking about gender, the writer says she shares the views held by US philosopher Judith Butler, who maintains society uses gender to make fundamental divisions based on sex, and that these binary decisions construct social order.
“When a child is born and it is declared that ‘it is a boy’ or ‘it is a girl’ this puts a person on a very distinct path for the rest of (their) life, this declaration of sex. To realise how powerful this determination is, one merely needs to look at what this determines in life,” Van der Westhuizen states. She explains that different meanings are attached to male and female bodies by society, and that this moulding of gender roles determines anything and everything from life opportunity, earning capacity, human rights and privileges, and even in some societies what people wear or eat. “Gender can even determine how much you eat, and there are reports in more traditional families of the best and biggest pieces of meat being kept for men and boys. In some societies women eat last,” she adds.
“Sport on television is predominantly masculine, so being declared male means you can use your body in a defined way to make more money than women. In society, being male means building your body up and making it as powerful as possible, and Oscar Pistorius is a good example of this,” Van der Westhuizen says, pointing out that the Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp case offers a predictable example of how masculinity and femininity play out in South African society.
“Oscar bulked his body up and wanted to become as big and muscular as possible, whilst Reeva was a model so she had to be as small and thin as possible,” the author and political researcher says. “This is interesting, because you can see the social effect gender stereotyping has on bodies – even though women are objectively physically weaker, we are arguably far weaker than we would have been if being bulky and muscular wasn’t contrary to society’s norms of femininity,” says Van der Westhuizen, speaking to Daily Maverick from Cape Town.
In Johannesburg, Germaine de Larch is a writer, artist and identity activist who is documenting her disruption of society’s confining gender dictates. De Larch documents her own experiences through writing and photography, and uses portraiture to communicate imagery that interrupts gender norms.
Photo: Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need.
Her skin is also a biography of sorts. “Some people just don’t get the tattoo on the back of my neck,” she says. Ink on skin, words from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock flow where de Larch’s hairline ends:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
Like Eliot’s Prufrock, De Larch has survived a fixed ‘formulated phrase.’ In her case this was gender labelling that diminished De Larch and, in her perception, rendered her invisible. “My teen years and 20s were spent identifying according to how others saw me, and the ‘dis-ease’ I felt with that identity was at the root of a depression that almost claimed my life,” says De Larch.
Tumbling off the edge into the darkness was chilling for a young De Larch. She abandoned an MA in Philosophy at Wits, but the debilitating depression that saw her hospitalised proved to be a catalyst for the reincarnation of her identity. “My decision to leap off the cliff and begin again – reconstructing not only my life but myself – saw the end of my clinical depression and the beginning of a life that far exceeds what I ever wished for myself,” she says, and adds: “The sheer terror that accompanies reconstructing one’s life and identity could only be mitigated by the realisation I am only fully alive when playing with my identity, specifically my gender identity.”
Photo: Shades of Gay 0.1
For De Larch, rebirth has meant casting off ill-fitting familiars – the gender and identity constructions that family and society clumsily cobbled together for her. “My early years were very much about feeling invisible – I had massive social phobia and could only really begin voicing myself in my late 20’s,” she says.
Growing up, De Larch never felt aligned with her gender. When she realised that she was a ‘woman’ – and she uses the quotation marks consciously – who was attracted to other females, she emulated her upbringing by crafting a catch-all to try make sense of her identity. “I made the mistake that so many people make and believed that if I was not heterosexual, I must be homosexual, and if I was a homosexual woman, then I must be butch.” But the ‘butch lesbian’ label didn’t fit. “This never felt authentic and was as claustrophobic as the doilies and ponytails of my childhood.”
Photo: Shades of Gay 0.2
At 35, De Larch now chooses to define herself as ‘queer’ because this is the least limiting self-descriptor she’s yet found. “For me ‘queer’ works as a description of my fluid self, as it allows me the freedom to explore myself, my identity and my world within loose boundaries,” she says.
“Queer makes the necessary, and often overlooked, distinction between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Within these three areas there is a multitude of descriptors,” De Larch says, explaining that when it comes to gender identity, she does not fix herself in one gender but prefers the freedom of moving back and forth between the boundaries of male and female. She identifies herself as being androgynous, but mostly enjoys expressing her gender as male.
“Gender-queer means that I am attracted to people who embody both masculine and feminine qualities but who do not situate themselves within one gender. This is distinct from bisexuality in that bisexuals are attracted to specific genders, to people who are either male- or female-bodied; whereas I am attracted to those who are gender-free,” she says. “In terms of my gender expression (the outward expression of my gender), I feel most comfortable expressing myself as male,” says the identity activist who shaves her head, enjoys being muscular and wears male clothing.
Photo: Shades of Gay 0.4
De Larch is happy being female-bodied and a discussion about pronouns reveals that the writer and artist chooses to be referred to as ‘she’, although she’s uncomfortable with the claustrophobic containment of binary labelling. “I have no desire to be male; but have as little desire to be female. Both are equally stereotyped. While I present myself mainly as male, I have a lot of fun with stereotypes by unleashing my inner gay man when I wear lilac shirts, and adding the feminine touch of polished nails to my masculine attire,” she says.
Predictably, De Larch is confronted daily by a society that wants to construct her gender identity for her. “Petrol attendants and shop assistants call me ‘sir’ and when out with a friend or my partner at restaurants, I’m the one to whom they give the bill. I still want to wear a hidden camera so that I can catch these gendering interactions on camera. They’re very interesting and completely indicative of how society is very much constructed along gender lines,” she says.
Instead of taking offence, as some people might, De Larch engages playfully: “I participate in the gendering game, causing people to question their own gender and gendering constructions. As part of my male gender expression, I have fun with the convention of ‘the gentleman’ and hold doors open for other people.” In the split second that people pass through the door they construct De Larch as male, but turn around in confusion. “They pass through and register my breasts,” she says, adding: “You can actually see brains rebooting as they try to recover from their inability to categorise me.”
Today De Larch embraces her identity by helping others to surrender to theirs through her photographic portraiture work that disrupts conventional notions of gender identity. “My work is a collaboration with people who are on a journey in terms of who they are; who are interested in playing with their identities; people who want to explore the possibilities outside of the stereotypes of society and politics that activism participates in. It is an artistic exploration of making the private public,” says De Larch.
“For me there is no politics outside of the private, nothing extraordinary outside of the carnival of everyday, ordinary life. My artistic vision stems from the need to share the quirky, queer, beautiful and extraordinary that I see in the ordinary every day. I challenge the social construction of identity by performing the processes of identity formation, calling on my audience to see themselves and others as capable of recreating their identity, empowering them to reassert personal agency,” she adds.
Clean, striking and mostly black-and-white, De Larch’s work is arresting. In one photograph she encircles her partner in a loving embrace – on her arm, an intricate tattoo of a bird in flight, underscored by the words: “hope is a feathered thing”. This is an adaptation from the work of Emily Dickinson, who wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
In stark contrast to De Larch’s playful fluidity, local gender norms are rigidly controlled by tradition, religiosity and politicking that gives voice to constitutional parity; but which fails to realise true gender diversity or equality. Underscored by a de facto patriarchy, South African attitudes to gender are strictly binary and vulgarly imprisoning. A vagina and breasts means ‘girl’, while a penis means ‘man’ – with the attendant controls of passivity vs. strength that attend this crude dichotomy.
People like De Larch, Van der Westhuizen and the couples pioneering gender-free parenting can help society to confront gender stereotypes and present the fragile hope that things can be different. They show that the deeply ingrained expectations societies have of people don’t always fit, aren’t always useful, and are in many ways a dysfunction that too harshly defines some aspects of identity, while mistakenly confusing others.
The fragile hope is that as a society we might move closer to forgoing the politics of controlling gender identity to empowering people with the freedom to make their own choices. DM
Main photo: Mary’s Boy Child – Self-portrait with Ang Lloyd. All photos by Germaine de Larch