Regardless of their reasoning, the very ambition of the gender-neutral experiment embarked upon by parents Hobbit Humphrey and Jake England-Johns surely deserves some sort of recognition.
As they have explained in a much-studied BBC interview, the parents of an adorable 17-month-old called Anoush have already taken gender neutrality far beyond anything usually practised by enlightened carers and educators. Where less enterprising parents have rested their gender-neutral/-free hopes in, for instance, the liberating avoidance of stereotypical toys and clothing, and of traditionally girl/boy activities and endearments, England-Johns and Humphrey not only shun sex-identifying pronouns on behalf of their infant, but conceal his or her biological sex from family members.
One grandmother only discovered Anoush’s sex, a few months ago, when she changed a nappy. The aim, Ms Humphrey has said, was “to create this little bubble for our baby to be who they are”.
If this ideal is one they share with millions of parents, who, however, tolerate observable biology and related pronouns, the couple’s uncompromising scheme also puts them squarely in the tradition of utopian educators, fellow experimenters in human perfectibility. But where affluent followers of, say, Jean-Jacques Rousseau could consign candidates for upbringings based on his notion of a natural state, to private land or specialist schools, Humphrey’s child lives on a houseboat in Bristol. If this creates helpful distance between the child and his or her sexed peers, it can hardly prevent challenges from an often uncooperative natural world. To date, there is only one officially gender-neutral penguin and that, zookeepers warn, could change, “depending on the gender its biology determines”. Presumably, some answer has already been prepared on the houseboat for questions such as: “What are those ducks doing?”
Where most parents of very young children will be principally on their guard for denials, sometimes even before the watershed, of the existence of Father Christmas, the gender-neutral extremist must be continually patrolling their own narrative, whereby gender, a matter of choice and chance, eclipses human biology. Acknowledgment of sex difference, in this story, is loss of innocence. And no one, from strangers to family members and fellow tots – paddling pools must be a particular nightmare – can be relied upon not to reveal it.
Clearly, in comparison with the Bristol experimenters, 18th-century followers of Rousseau had it easy. All they needed to do was, having studied his Émile, remove their victims (whether home-grown or readily available orphans) to somewhere remote and green, toughen them up and keep them from conventions. One such subject, Richard Edgeworth’s son, “little Dick”, was dressed, writes Julia Douthwaite in The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster, “in an ‘extraordinary’ fashion, with no stockings and a jacket that left the arms bare. He was allowed to run about wherever he pleased and follow his will in everything.”
Difficulties began when the delightfully bold but increasingly obstreperous little Dick encountered non-natural company: aged eight, and unmanageable, he was sent to a seminary. Later, estranged from his family, this tragic tabula rasa had to earn a living as a sailor. What fans of Émile never quite seem to have resolved was the successful reintroduction of their free spirits back into society. (Rousseau, of course, avoided disappointment, by putting his own babies straight into orphanages.)
The child of the resolutely gender-free parent must similarly, at some point, confront a world that remains, for the most part, sub-ideal. They can’t, pending the foundation of sealed, gender-free communities, be kept forever from unwholesome texts, unevolved relations and pink signs saying “Mummy’s Little Princess on Board”.
“Eventually,” say the parents of Anoush, “once our baby is old enough, they can obviously decide for themselves what gender they want to be.”
But if this choice – is it expected to happen pre- or post-puberty? – depends on feelings and observations unrelated to Anoush’s anatomy, it may well involve significant concessions to the world of him/her. It’s unclear, anyway, how the child can decide upon a gender, with matching pronouns, unless the gender-neutral experiment recognises some socially constructed practices around gender. And if, somehow, not, how would a successfully gender-free alumnus finally pick a side (if it’s not, like Sam Smith, that of non-binary)? By tossing a coin? Or, in contravention of all the early years obfuscation, from physical evidence?
Critics of the couple have already suggested that if oppressive gendered norms like girls and mermaids, and boys and engines, are the problem, then these are better attacked directly than by, as seems to be being advocated here, inviting a child finally to decide which set of sexist expectations is more to his or her taste.
If we never, as seems only right, discover the outcome for Anoush, this episode already, as with many historical experiments, says much about child rearing as a snapshot of contemporary adult obsessions. “In the end,” says Anoush’s father, “it has proven to be a really beautiful thing and we’ve had a lot of important conversations from it.” Where his experiment differs, perhaps, from its predecessors is the parental assumption that other uninvolved – or even actively opposed – adults should endorse the sex-hiding, with its curious echoes of the fall.
Even the most extreme Rousseau practitioner was likely to resist a request to have a natural child of little Dick’s calibre over for a visit. Non-adherents would have felt zero compunction. But Anoush’s parents, possibly influenced by the proliferation of pronoun requests from adults, now including Sam Smith, ask family and friends, by using “they” and “them”, effectively to support their contention that a baby’s physical sex, rather than societal responses to it, is the problem and its concealment a promising remedy. “God makes all things good,” Rousseau begins Émile. “Man meddles with them and they become evil.” They had a point.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist