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Why did parents keep baby's gender a secret?

By Donna Rose, Special to CNN
  • Donna Rose: Parents' decision to keep baby's gender a secret raises complex issues
  • As Rose grew up, she learned people have a wide spectrum of gender expression
  • Rose: Children carry a burden to meet gender expectations from the moment they are born
  • Rose: Bullying based on perceived sexuality shows what happens if you don't conform

Editor's note: Donna Rose is an author and educator and an elected member of the Human Rights Campaign Business Council. She is a male-to-female transsexual and an advocate and spokesperson for transgender people and issues.

(CNN) -- Recent news about the Toronto parents' decision to keep their baby's gender a secret because they didn't want their child burdened or defined by gender-stereotypical pressure highlights some complex questions about gender.

The amount of condemnation of these parents also spotlights the deep-rooted societal discomfort with gender variance, and the emotional, defensive response that it can generate.

For me, as a child, gender seemed pretty simple. Girls were girls and boys were boys and that's all there was. There was no "other." There was no "none." And it certainly wasn't meant to be a multiple choice question. As I matured and my horizons broadened, however, it became apparent that it's really not that simple.

I am a male-to-female transsexual, and my own unique life experience of living on both sides of the gender line has demonstrated clearly that it is actually the opposite; that "girl" and "boy" transcend body parts, and that the spectrum of gender is as diverse as the sea of people that it comprises. It has also proven time and again that this conundrum often brings out the best, and worst, in people.

The pressures to conform to gender-appropriate behaviors are among the strongest and most stifling our kids will experience.
--Donna Rose

The debate over whether gender behavior is innate or learned, whether it is a social construct or some kind of universal truth, or whether it has direct ties to morality and character, is as sure to cause an argument as conversations involving religion or politics. And the role that parents should play teaching their children about gender and preparing them to be healthy adult men and women is similarly volatile.

Admittedly, the Toronto couple's parenting decision may provide some practical challenges. For example, what pronoun will people use when referring to this child in the third person? What public bathroom will the child use? You'd be surprised at the number of gender-specific things you do each and every day without giving it a second thought.

Most people rarely pause to recognize that the decision with the biggest single impact on their life gets made not by them, but for them. The moment a doctor pronounces a newborn to be a boy or a girl has ramifications that reverberate through every aspect of that person's life, from then on. A close corollary, however, is that the pressures to conform to gender-appropriate behaviors are among the strongest and most stifling that our kids will experience from then on as well.

Baseball great Satchel Page once mused, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" It might be appropriate to ask, "How would you behave if you didn't know how you were supposed to behave?"

Pressure to act sufficiently boyish or girlish enough to suit others is a heavy, sometimes suffocating, weight to place on our kids, and it all starts at home. If parents can't or won't enforce gender boundaries, then peers and others often will. Incidents of pervasive teenage bullying based on perceived sexuality are vivid reminders of what can happen to those who can't or won't conform. And a heartbreaking incident last year in which a man was accused of beating a crying 17-month-old to death because the child wasn't acting "boyish" enough is another symptom of this much deeper systemic problem.

Gender is the social anchor that determines how we act and interact with others. When it's not clear we can get confused or even angry. I am not advocating the deconstruction of gender altogether, nor, I suspect, are the Toronto parents.

What I advocate is recognition about the burden to conform that gender places on our kids from the moment of their birth. Easing some of that pressure and supporting our kids isn't necessarily a bad thing. It requires strong parenting and faith that our kids' sense of self will develop so that, perhaps, they will grow up to be who they truly are rather than who we try to force them to be.

In "The Prophet," Kahlil Gibran wrote about the relationship between parents and children. "They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you."

The best that any of us can do for our kids is to support them, love them and provide the best environment that we can for them to grow and develop into healthy adults. Although we can debate what those parental responsibilities entail, it doesn't make anyone more right or wrong. Sometimes as a parent, you have to follow your instincts.

Reducing complex realities to simplistic labels inherently loses the essence of what you're trying to describe. But to a parent supporting their child who may be "different," none of that really matters.

On Tuesday, a Florida student, Andrew Viveros, who goes by Andii, was crowned prom queen. As the mother of the transgender teenager said, "He's my child and I'm going to love him no matter what." In all of this, it's that kind of unconditional courageous love that is truly newsworthy.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Donna Rose.