Baby Searyl Atli Doty case raises issue of forcing gender identity on children

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When someone is pregnant or a new baby is born, usually the first question on everyone’s lips is: is it a boy or a girl?

Despite this preoccupation with gender, the parent of eight-month-old Canadian baby Searyl Atli Doty is determined not to enforce or register a gender for Searyl. In British Colombia, where Searyl was born, the gender of a birth can only be registered as either male or female.

Kori Doty, Searyl’s parent, identifies as gender non-binary, neither male nor female, and uses the gender neutral pronouns “they, them, their” for themselves and for Searyl, as a child who has not yet expressed any gender preference.

Kori told CBC News that “until they have the sense of self and command of vocabulary to tell me who they are, I’m recognising them as a baby and trying to give them all the love and support to be the most whole person that they can be outside of the restrictions that come with the boy box and the girl box.”

I can see the shrieks of opposition voicing outrage that this child is being forced to live genderless. But that’s not the case at all. This is about being afforded the time, love and support to be whoever they are, whether that is male, female, neither or both.

The child could have a gender enforced upon it according to its sex, but what if their gender identity is different from their sex? If they do end up identifying consistently with their sex, the child will get there on their own.

Western society is slowly catching on to the notion that one’s sex and gender identity are not always binary and not necessarily consistent. Many do not even realise that sex (one’s biological characteristics such as chromosomes and reproductive organs) and gender (one’s innate sense of feeling male,female, neither or both) are two different things, and the terms are commonly, incorrectly, used interchangeably.

But the recent increase in coverage of people coming out as transgender in order to correct their gender identity has facilitated mainstream conversations about sex and gender identity.

Numerous non-western cultures have long embraced a third gender or multiple genders, such as the hijras of India and the fa’afafine of Polynesia. In terms of sex, there is still much progress to be made in the recognition and treatment of people born with an intersex condition (that is, people born with either a combination of male and female sexual characteristics or unambiguous genitals).

In Australia, laws regarding birth certificates vary. Only the ACT and South Australia allow parents to register a birth with a non-specified gender marker, and allow a person to change their gender marker on their birth certificate or list their gender as unspecified without having to undergo gender confirmation surgery. All other Australian states and territories only allow a person to change their gender marker or register a non-specified gender marker after undergoing gender confirmation surgery.

In contrast, the federal government allows people to change the gender marker in their passport, or list a non-specified gender, without the need for surgery. The different standard between state and federal laws results in some people (including myself) having mismatching identity documents, which makes things awkward when needing to prove one’s identity.

Being gender non-binary, Kori knows all too well the pain and torment associated with being assigned the wrong gender, or in their case, assigned one of the binary genders when you identify as neither.

So is Kori doing their child a favour by refraining from assigning a gender and allowing them to determine who they are?

From my own experience, I knew something was wrong with my gender identity from a very young age – around three or four. I used to dress up in ballet outfits at my family day care, and I can vividly remember the first time I felt shame at six years old for feeling feminine and wearing girls clothing.

I didn’t have the confidence or the support to explore my gender identity from that age, so I internalised my own shame and disgust for 30 years before deciding to embrace who I really was. That internal torment is not something I would wish upon anyone.

There was much outrage around the Safe Schools debate regarding exposing young children to the idea of gender identity, including the notion that some people may not identify as either male or female. There was concern that children weren’t mature enough to determine who they were or appreciate the consequences of making such decisions.

I hate to be one that smashes this myth wide open, but everyone has a gender identity. Yep, even those who aren’t transgender (i.e. cisgender people). So to apply the reasoning of the doubters, if a transgender child isn’t mature enough to make decisions about their gender identity, then neither is every other cisgender child.

But we let cisgender kids be who they are without question. Why can’t we do the same for transgender kids?

To unpack that argument: Little Billy is born with male sex characteristics, likes to play with trucks in the dirt and is conscious that he is a boy and is validated by society in doing so, but little Timmy born with male sex characteristics and who wears dresses and insists they are a girl is deemed not capable of understanding who they are?

Seems like a double standard to me.

Once a child becomes acutely aware of gender constructs and the consequences of failing to abide by those constructs, most are quickly drawn into line by the fear of not fitting in and being ostracised.

Kids do know who they are, and they show it everyday. You only need to look at those courageous children who break down gender barriers out of sheer necessity. Gender identity is not something that can be imposed; every transgender person is testament to that.

I’m sure many will be quick to pile onto Searyl’s parent for their choice not to register and enforce their child’s gender, but is it more fair to assign a gender to a child that could be wrong and possibly inflict a lifetime of torment?

After all, a birth certificate is only a piece of paper, and it sounds like Searyl will have all the love and support to be whoever they are regardless. It certainly raises many questions about how we think about gender and how we raise our children.

Dale Sheridan is a lawyer and transgender woman.

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