Tag Archives: parenting

Word to the Mother

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Baby Storm, posted with vodpod
 
Kathy Witterick, mother of “gender-neutral” Storm speaks out about being a mother, their family’s decision to keep the baby’s sex a secret, and the hoopla it has caused.  (Posted from Men Stopping Violence)

The bus driver smiled at me, my three children, the snacks that were rolling in all directions and the grocery bags hung too heavy on the back of the stroller. As always, he said, “You got everyone?” Then he added, “I haven’t seen you this week!” I was so relieved. “I’m glad to hear that,” I said.

We went to soccer class, played in the park with friends, read books at the library, learned a little bit about dinosaurs and observed the butterflies that only yesterday hatched from chrysalises in our kitchen. Jazz and Kio drew pictures. Jazz wanted to go to badminton at a local gym. An ordinary day.

My name is Kathy Witterick. I’m shy and idealistic, and all my life I’ve worked in the field of abuse and violence prevention. I married a teacher named David Stocker and we have three children.

Jazz is five years old. Since he was a young baby, he’s enjoyed colour, texture and vibrancy. When he was 18 months, he loved to wear layers of wildly striped and mismatched clothing and when his grandparents took him to get his very first pair of shoes, he chose the ones with orange toes and pink flowers on the side. When his brother was born, I joked I’d grow old as woman in a man’s world.

As Jazz grew, his love of bright colours (especially pink) and lots of fabric (especially dresses) continued, and he wanted to grow his hair. The older he became, the more he met with pressure from peers and adults to adjust his image and “act more like a boy.” Jazz remained committed to his own style.

I re-read the research and approaches of Alfie Kohn, Barbara Coloroso and Adele Faber to find ways to support him. The firm rule around self image became: it has to be clean and healthy, but you can choose the colours and the lengths.

When Storm was near arrival, Jazz was listening to Free to Be You and Me on repeat (it was a gift from a friend). He wondered if people would respond differently if they didn’t know the baby’s sex. What gifts would they bring? If Storm were a boy, would he be allowed to wear dresses? Pink?

There are these moments as a parent when you wish your child could bring a different issue to the table — but there it is, plop! And if you really mean what you say about being kind, honouring difference, having an open mind and placing limits thoughtfully where they help children develop competencies and be safe, then you better walk the talk.

We agreed to keep the sex of our new baby private.

It is true that an infant, at four or five months is still learning to recognize themselves — to look in the mirror and think, “Hey, that’s me!” — and is not ready developmentally to find a place in a gender binary. It is true and demonstrated in research and in the day to day world that strict gender stereotyping causes suffering to both men and women. So surely, we thought, people would understand our five-year-old’s curiosity about why people need to know the baby’s sex.

The events of the last week suggest otherwise.

More accurately, we have received many letters that include intelligent, heartfelt, research and experience based support for the idea. We’ve also heard some articulate and meaningful concerns expressed. We’ve witnessed a discussion erupt that could be transformative. It is important to challenge orthodoxies and raise questions, because the discussion that emerges not only “outs” issues (in a rush to pass judgment, people articulate prevailing views, prejudices, and misconceptions), but also has the effect of helping people examine whether they truly do believe the status quo to be the best that we can do. Will these norms grow healthy, happy, kind, well adjusted children?

The strong, lighting-fast, vitriolic response was a shock. These voices demonstrate how much parents are in the world’s critical eye — in particular mothers, who are judged based on little (mis)information and not offered opportunities to share, grow, learn and be supported and celebrated by the community to raise children.

The psychologist on the Today Show for example, was willing to make strong, unqualified conclusions about a family (and children) he had never met, based on (generously) one per cent of what there is to know about said family. Will that behaviour help grow healthy, happy, kind, well adjusted children? Ironically, the idea to keep the baby’s sex private was a tribute to authentically trying to get to know a person, listening carefully and responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves.

This short letter won’t help you to know my family. And to protect our children from the media frenzy that we did not anticipate, we have declined over 100 requests for interviews from all over the world, including offers to fly to New York all expenses paid and to appear on almost every American morning show.

We have learning to do, parks to visit and butterflies to care for. But we do feel it’s important to correct clear factual errors in the media, who incidentally have been reporting false information.

Having spent many years facilitating on the topic of abuse and violence prevention, particularly as it pertains to children, I would never tell my children (or anyone) to keep a secret.

Secrets are not safe and healthy. I, like many parents, have taught my children that some things are private matters, and when you want to share them, you need to do so honestly with sensitivity and consideration. If I had to convince my children not to share Storm’s sex (which I don’t because my children simply are not interested at this point) — I would teach them that someone else’s genitals and sense of how they relate to their gender is their private business, to be shared by them or in a context where safety, acceptance and sensitivity are paramount. Storm will certainly need to understand his/her own sex and gender to navigate this world (the outcry has confirmed this clearly!), but there has never been any question that within our family, the issues of sex and gender and the decisions relating to it are open for age appropriate discussion and action.

In my heart of hearts, I squirm when my son picks a dress from the rack (won’t people tease him?), even though I know from experience and research that the argument that children need a binary gender orthodoxy taught to them in order to feel safe is simply incorrect. My children know who they are, through supported and facilitated experience with their world, and I avoid hypocrisy, inaccuracy and exhaustion by saving my energy for non-negotiable limit-setting related to safety, kindness, self respect, health, fulfilment and fairness.

None of my children are gender-free or genderless (and neither am I). It is true that my oldest son Jazz does not have a traditional notion of what boys should wear, look like or do. It is also true that we believe our children should have the right to choose their clothes and hairstyle. Jazz has a strong sense of being a boy, and he understands that his choices to wear pink and have long hair are not always acceptable to his community. He chooses freely to do them anyway, because he also has been taught to respect difference, love himself and navigate the world in a way that is true to his own voice. Kio also strongly self identifies as a boy, and his choices around behaviours and image are different but have an equal amount of two-year-old integrity.

Storm has a sex which those closest to him/her know and acknowledge. We don’t know yet about colour preferences or dress inclinations, but the idea that the whole world must know our baby’s sex strikes me as unhealthy, unsafe and voyeuristic.

Storm is my third child and this is what I know — some day soon, Storm will have something to say about it, so in the meantime, I’m just listening carefully.

— Kathy Witterick is the mother of Jazz, Kio and Storm. They live in Toronto.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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The Plastics at Morehouse

With all of the recent dialogue over homophobia due to the recent teen suicides, we need to have a better discussion about the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality.  In my most recent post on C. J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag, I included a snippet from her section on the racialized contexts of the use of homophobia epithets.

One issue that she didn’t get into is the pressures of heterosexuality within the black community, especially for black men.  After reading Vibe’s article on the new dress code at Morehouse and how it affects transgender students, I felt like I needed to go read some bell hooks.

I initially heard about Morehouse’s changes in its dress code policy when I attended Agnes Scott College – an all women’s college not too far from Morehouse.

In our day and age, traditional femininity is devalued.  (More conservative) Parents expect their daughters to be born fragile, vulnerable, and domestic because they believe these characteristics are biological.  Parents, therefore, encourage girls to be more masculine – more powerful, more engaged in sports, and louder.  Women are lauded for having a balance of both characteristically masculine and feminine traits.

Young boys, on the other hand, are expected to be born masculine, and any hint of femininity is perceived as homosexual, feminine, and therefore weak.  In saying, “Don’t be a sissy, don’t cry!” parents force their boys to continuously “accomplish” their masculinity throughout their lives as they feel that they constantly need to prove it to themselves and others.

Combine this incessant quest for masculinity with the issues of race and you’ve got a hell of an article.

Although it would be great if all Princess Boys could grow up in loving families with supportive schools, Morehouse shows more discussions are needed in how institutions help reinforce heterosexual masculinity.

Here are some excerpts from Vibe’s article “The Mean Girls of Morehouse.”  Read the FASCINATING story in its entirety here.

You should also check out the comments, where you can witness largely black men and women criticizing the actions of these Morehouse students because it reflects badly on the race.  Take, for example, this comment by Desiree, (1 of 234 comments) who stated:

If you dont know about Morehouse College, then you would not understand what the president is coming from… I go to Clark Atlanta University, which is right next door to More house College. What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (who graduateed and tought at Morehouse) say if his school all of a sudden had male students looking like women.
As black people we can not turn our cheek and let foolishness continue. We need to make our ancestors proud and be better for our future. I do not have a problem with gay men because they know what they want, men. I have a problem with Men looking like women claiming to be men and a gay guy looking for a women like man to be his boo, then find a female….
Posted 10-12-2010 01:27 pm
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And finally, some excerpts from the article:

WITHIN THE OPENLY GAY COMMUNITY AT ATLANTA’S MOREHOUSE COLLEGE, THERE’S A SUBGROUP: GENDER BENDERS WHO ROCK MAKEUP, MARC JACOBS TOTE BAGS, SKY-HIGH HEELS AND BEYONCÉ- STYLE HAIR WEAVES. CAN A MAN OF MOREHOUSE BE GAY? ABSOLUTELY. BUT CAN HE BE A WOMAN? MEET THE PLASTICS.

Diamond Martin Poulin, 20, teetering in strappy sandals with three-inch heels, steps into an eclectic clothing boutique in Little Five Points, a quaint cluster of shops and restaurants two and a half miles outside of downtown Atlanta. “Ooooh,” squeals Diamond. “What about this?” Holding up a white floor-skimming skirt with an eyelet hem, he swoons. The proprietor of the store looks up at Diamond, does a double take, and immediately picks up the cordless phone at the register. “There’s a man in here with heels on!” she whispers loudly into the phone. Diamond raises his eyebrows and continues browsing the racks. He shrugs when asked if the comment bothers him. “Isn’t it true?” he says, chuckling. “There is a man in here with heels on.”

Nibbling on sushi later that day, Diamond explains why he left after one year at Morehouse. A bastion for producing leaders in politics, community service and medicine, Morehouse College has long been viewed as the ultimate HBCU for young Black men, who are conferred with the mystique of being “Men of Morehouse.” Established in 1867 in Augusta, Georgia, as the Augusta Institute, the school counts such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard H. Jackson, Jr.; financier Reginald E. Davis; School Daze writer/director Spike Lee; the late Keith “Guru” Elam of Gang Starr; and the late Def Jam exec Shakir Stewart among its graduates.

"Diamond"That pedigree is what brought Diamond (pictured left) to Morehouse, but he says the school’s social conservatism drove him out. In October of last year, the Morehouse College administration announced a new “appropriate attire policy.” The dress code stated that students, referred to as “Renaissance Men,” were not allowed to wear caps, do-rags, sunglasses or sagging pants on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events. But what raised most eyebrows was the rule about women’s clothing: no wearing of dresses, tops, tunics, purses or pumps.

The new dress code resulted in a flurry of media coverage, prompting Dr. William Bynum, Jr., vice president for Student Services, to release a statement to several news outlets: “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men.” During a recent visit to the campus, the poet Saul Williams wore a skirt in solidarity.

“Morehouse wasn’t ready for me,” says Diamond, who has the word “unbreakable” tattooed on his collarbone and the acronym C.R.E.A.M (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” coined by rap group Wu Tang Clan) wrapped around his right wrist. “I’m about freedom of expression. I’m about being whomever you truly are inside. I came to Morehouse because of all the historical leaders that attended and impacted the world so heavily. You know, I really wanted to follow in their footsteps. I don’t think Morehouse believes that someone like me—someone who wears heels and dresses—can uphold that reputation. But they’re wrong.”

“We respect the identity and choices of all young men at Morehouse,” Dr. Bynum said via email. “However, the Morehouse leadership development model sets a certain standard of how we expect young men to dress, and this attire does not fit within the model. Our proper attire policy expresses that standard.”

Diamond now attends American InterContinental University, majoring in fashion marketing and design. “I want to, like, teach at Parsons. Or you know, maybe even in London—who knows?”

“I was in the cafeteria, and I had on this cropped hooded sweatshirt. So my stomach was out,” he recalls. “I had on a nice pair of jeans and some sandals. And this boy, a football player, said something that sounded like ‘faggot.’ Before I could even stop myself, I threw my plate of food at him. That’s not even my style. I’m more of a middle-finger kind of person. We ended up yelling at each other for a few minutes, but nothing really came out of it. He could have hit me, but he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. I was already hurt and embarrassed.”

While Diamond insists he’s happier at AIU, his tone and demeanor suggest that he wishes he’d had the opportunity to prove his worth at Morehouse. “I wanted to go to an HBCU,” he says, dipping shrimp tempura into soy sauce. “I wanted the whole African-American experience. I thought it would be a beautiful thing.”

After leaving Morehouse, Diamond would return occasionally to see friends at the school and use the computer lab. Earlier this year, after the new dress code was enacted, he was asked to leave by school security officers. “I had my Nicki Minaj-style Chinese bangs,” says Diamond, a defiant twinkle in his eyes. “I showed them my ID from AIU. I didn’t go to the school, so the dress code should not have applied to me. But they wanted me off campus anyway.”

Kevin Rome, Ph.D., Morehouse class of 1989, is the former vice president for Student Services for the College. He says that people like Diamond are a small minority of the students at the College, and shouldn’t make up such a large percentage of the press the school has received about the appropriate attire policy. “There are nearly 3,000 students at Morehouse, and maybe three that [the ban on women’s attire] applies to. We’re giving such a large influence on a minute population. It’s not representative of the school.”

This is not the first time Morehouse has had to deal with controversy surrounding its gay community. In November, 2002, Morehouse student Gregory Love suffered a fractured skull after being beaten with a baseball bat in a dormitory bathroom shower. A fellow student, Aaron Price, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and served seven for assault and battery. The attack was reportedly prompted by what was thought to be a sexual advance from Love.

Diamond believes he’s a trendsetter. While the population may be small now, he sees the gender benders as a growing group. And as for the future gender benders at Morehouse, Diamond is hopeful. “Even though I’m gone, the Plastics are still represented at Morehouse,” says Diamond. “And I think as time goes on, the administration will have to accept the different types of men enrolled. They need to look to the future. It didn’t work out for me, but I put in the work for people like me to come to Morehouse….”

Read on, friends!

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