Melissa Carter: Reading our baby’s gender code

How many slang terms can you come up with for the penis? It’s not a question I ever thought would be directed my way, but it was a problem I had to solve during my baby shower last week.

My girlfriend, Katie Jo, and I are expecting a son in October, and former colleagues Jenn Hobby and Jeff Dauler hosted the party in our honor. One of the games we played was polling the room to answer the aforementioned question, and the hilarious conclusion of two lesbians reciting the responses to the entire room.

Another game we played, in honor of having a boy, was a twist on the television game show, “The Price Is Right.” Katie and I attempted to correctly guess the prices of such items as condoms, body spray, and hair color for men. Needless to say, we didn’t fare too well.

But that was the extent of the focus on the baby’s gender. Katie Jo and I have made a conscious effort to choose items for our baby registry that would apply to both boys and girls. (The only exception is the Peepee Teepee so I won’t get urine in my mouth when I change Mr. Carter.)

The reason? To avoid unnecessary gender coding of our child.

Gender coding is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as “assigning particular traits or behaviors exclusively or predominantly to males or females.” I never thought about it until I was a graduate student at Georgia State University and it was discussed in class.

The scenario presented was how to speak to a baby. When you see a baby dressed in pink, do you raise your voice to a higher octave and tell her how pretty she is? Do you push your voice to a lower register when talking to a baby in blue, mentioning how tough or strong he is? Each baby simply sits and drools in response, but if you have ever treated babies differently based on what color they wear, you are guilty of gender coding.

There are parents who went further than Katie Jo and I with our registry, and didn’t reveal their child’s gender for more than two years! A Swedish couple named their child “Pop,” and explained to the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in 2009 that gender is a social construction: “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mold from the outset. It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.” They went on to explain in the article that as long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

I was fortunate to be the youngest in a family of boys and girls, so my hand-me-downs included Barbies and Hot Wheels cars. I was never instructed on which toys were more appropriate for me, and was always told I was both smart and pretty. I wore dresses and got my knees dirty, pledged a sorority and learned how to change a tire. Being a lesbian only opened my eyes that much more, since I wouldn’t be able to live up to society’s expectation that I serve as the dutiful wife while my big strong husband takes care of everything.

The idea that all girls should do certain things while boys should do others is boring, and I look forward to teaching my son that all the possibilities of this world are open to him regardless of his gender. Whether I catch him wearing my make-up, or he honors me with his collection of worms, Mr. Carter’s mothers will always love him. And I expect everyone else to treat him the same way.