One of the many things expectant parents gush over is how to decorate their new arrival’s room. While for some, this discussion still revolves around whether to paint the room blue or pink — or picking even more gender-stereotyped decor like princess for a girl and sports for a boy — a growing number of parents are embracing gender neutrality instead.
A new movement is rising, inspiring expectant and new parents to replace gendered terminology like “boy” and “girl” (along with normative pronouns for the baby) with a new term: “theyby.” (and gender neutral pronouns they/their/them) The new term aims to better represent all forms of gender identities, such as nonbinary, trans, or two-spirit. It also acknowledges, despite what the Trump administration may think, that experts believe gender identity is not determined neither by physical markers, like genitals, nor by our DNA.
As NBC News reported earlier this year, progressive American parents are increasingly allowing boys and girls to play with the same toys and wear the same clothes, but the marker of this newest “gender open” style of parenting is that the parents do not reveal the sex their children were assigned at birth. The children are also taught not to associate their own body parts with being a boy or girl.
Babble notes that parents spearheading the movement don’t “reveal the [child’s assigned sex] to others, lest someone attach a gender label based on their child’s body parts.” The purpose is to allow children to choose their own gender identity rather than being pushed to adopt one, especially a stereotypical one. This approach has been around since at least 2011, when a Canadian couple gained international notoriety for raising their child, Storm, without gender designations. Recently New York City became the fifth jurisdiction in the U.S. (after California, Oregon, Washington, and New Jersey according to Reuters) to issue gender-neutral birth certificates with “X” for sex.
A growing number of American parents are now taking the gender-open approach, and one Facebook community of such parents has roughly 220 members. That’s where Bobby McCullough told New York magazine he was first introduced to the term “theybies.” McCullough, a black “outspoken ally” of the trans community, said earlier this year that the group empowered him and his partner, Lesley Fleishman, to follow suit. “It was just like, ‘Wow, there’s something that we can do parenting-wise that completely goes with our value system.’”
Julia and Nate Sharpe from Cambridge, Mass., are also raising their twin daughters with gender neutral pronouns. “I think that knowing the sex or the gender of your child is important to other people, partially just because it’s part of the social script,” Julia Sharpe told NBC. “They don’t notice that they’re any different from any other children because they have no idea that some children are a ‘she’ and some children are ‘he.’ To them, they’re all children.”
Some of this new generation of parents shy away from the term gender neutral, instead preferring “gender open,” “gender affirming,” or “gender creative” to describe their parenting style. That’s the approach taken by Kyl Myers, a former gender studies student at the University of Utah who documents raising their theyby toddler — and shares gender creative parenting tips — on RaisingZoomer.com.
News analyst Cathy Areu is in full support of the movement, telling Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, “It’s about not necessarily labeling the baby. It’s about allowing the baby to decide what gender that baby wants to be — when that baby can decide, which is around 4 years old.”
But others are concerned that the noble experiment in gender neutrality may face barriers. Socially, the journey of accepting one’s gender identity, especially when it doesn’t match cultural expectations, can be an uphill battle, and gender nonconforming and nonbinary children are often bullied at school.
“Once your child meets the outer world, which may be daycare or preschool or grandparents — it’s pretty much impossible to maintain a gender-free state,” Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — And What We Can Do About It told NBC. She worries, “depending on how conventional
your community is, you could be setting your child up for bullying
Still, some parents are successfully navigating this style of parenting and paving the way for others to do the same. Leah Jacobs and her nonbinary partner are parents of a gender creative toddler named Scout, and found San Francisco Bay Area providers to be accepting. But moving to Pittsburgh raised concerns about finding a preschool that would honor their choices.
Jacobs told New York, “There was a lot of fear we experienced because you don’t know how other people are going to respond to that. This is like asking people to essentially provide you their philosophy on the nature of gender and whether they understand it as nonbinary and nonessential and all these things that are not just about, ‘Can we pick up and drop off between 8 and 8:30?’”
Yet, Jacobs eventually found an accommodating placement. She says most family members — grandparents, aunts, etc. — who were originally resistant have come around. Maybe there will be more gender-creative preschools, in the future, like the one founded in Stockholm nearly a decade ago.
At Egalia, a Swedish preschool aimed at diminishing gender stereotypes, staff avoid using gender pronouns and address the kids as “friends” rather than girls and boys. To ensure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes, toys, colors, and books are carefully selected. The public preschool (part of Sweden’s efforts to engineer equality between the sexes from childhood onward) is one American parents may be looking to for examples.
“Society expects girls to be nice and pretty; and boys to be manly, rough, and outgoing,” Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher at the progressive Nordic school told The Guardian. “Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”