parenting

It’s a Theyby!

For months leading up to the birth of his child, Bobby McCullough was nervous. His partner, Lesley Fleishman, had enjoyed an easy and uncomplicated pregnancy. The couple’s sunny Brooklyn apartment was now stocked with a crib and diapers and soft, tiny clothes. They were as ready to enter parenthood as any two people could be, and they welcomed it. But still, McCullough worried that the first few seconds of his child’s life would unfurl like some Hollywood script, the wriggling newborn lifted up into the air while “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” rang out across the hospital room — both pronouncement and fate. “It just would have fucked us up,” he says now, eight weeks later, as, nuzzled against his chest, his tiny baby sleeps, a sweetly mewing black-haired dollop of a human. And so he told hospital staff, “ ‘At minimum, do not describe the anatomy, or what you think the anatomy means, when this baby’s born.’ We definitely wanted to prevent them being gendered in any intense moment. And everybody was aware of that.”

In fact, McCullough and Fleishman already knew what anatomy their child would have. They’d learned it toward the end of the first trimester through a fairly routine test and had instinctually sent an email to close friends and family with the news. They didn’t particularly care what the baby’s sex was but also didn’t feel that it needed to be kept a secret. Then, just a few days later, an article showed up in McCullough’s Facebook feed about a Canadian baby who had been issued a health card without a gender designation — perhaps the first instance in the world of a government entity not assigning a gender at birth. For McCullough, this was a revelation. “Definitely the concept of not enforcing gender stereotypes was something that was on our radar, but we simply didn’t know or have the idea on our own to not assign the baby a gender,” he says. He began scouring the internet, looking for more information, for other families who might have made the same choice, for guidelines as to how one might go about it. He found a Facebook group and asked to join. Soon he was privy to the names and photos and thoughts and conversations of a small but hard-core group of families who were raising theybies — babies whose parents had decided not to reveal their sex, who used they/them pronouns for their children, and whose goal was to create an early childhood free of gendered ideas of how a child should dress, act, play, and be.

For McCullough, who is black and describes himself as an “outspoken ally” of the trans community, it was a sort of utopia come to life. “This specific group really empowered the hell out of us to do this,” he says. “It was my favorite place to go on the internet. It was just like, ‘Wow, there’s something that we can do parenting-wise that completely goes with our value system.’ ”

Fleishman was at work when, armed with several articles, McCullough reached out with the idea that their baby should be a theyby. At first, she wasn’t so sure. “It sounds a little ‘cas,’ ” — as in casual — “like, ‘I was just browsing Facebook and then we made a major life decision off our newsfeed,’ ” she tells me later, sitting next to McCullough on the sofa in their living room. “As a concept, I was always like, ‘Sure, this makes total sense.’ But it was just the pronouns conversation. I mean, having a baby is already difficult, but then having to explain that to your grandma?” By the next day, however, she’d come around to the idea. It would be sometimes hard and sometimes confusing and sometimes uncomfortable, but it was, she says, “the right thing to do.”

The couple crafted an email to friends and family explaining their decision and asking them to disregard any sex revelations they’d shared. They set up dinners with their parents to answer questions and try to allay concerns. They looked for a midwife who would be willing to not register a gender and began researching how and if they could apply for a birth certificate without one listed. Before their baby shower, Fleishman sent an email saying, “The greatest gift you could give me would be practicing the pronouns.” How could she say whether the fetus growing inside her was a boy or a girl (or neither or both)? It was clear to her that sex (which is medically assigned) and gender (which is how someone identifies) were two different things. “We wouldn’t tell somebody else how they should identify or who they should be or what they are,” McCullough points out. The baby stirs, and he pats their tiny back. “I’ve definitely had thoughts like, Why isn’t everybody doing this?

Storm, who is now 7, identifies as a girl. Photo: Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

For a small but growing cohort of parents — ones who see gender as a spectrum rather than a binary — the unisex movement of the ’60s and the “gender neutral” parenting trends that have followed have come up woefully short. For them, society’s gender troubles cannot be solved by giving all children dolls and trucks to play with or dressing them all in the color beige; the gender binary must not simply be smudged but wholly eradicated from the moment that socialization begins, clearing the way both for their child’s future gender exploration and for wholesale cultural change.

In 2011, parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker became the objects of international attention — and “vitriolic” criticism, as they told the Toronto Star, the paper that originally broke the story — when they became one of the first families to go public with their decision not to assign a gender to their third child, Storm. People questioned whether a child raised without gender would be able to form an identity, whether Storm would suffer permanent psychological damage, whether the parents themselves were mentally ill. A barrage of cruel letters arrived on the family’s doorstep. Cars passing them in the road would slow so that the driver could yell “Boy!” or “Girl!” out the window.

It was actually the anger that drew the attention of Kyl Myers, now the parent of a 2-year-old theyby, Zoomer. A gender-studies student at the University of Utah at the time, Myers understood gender to be not a biological imperative but rather a social construct. “I had read the stories about Storm, I had seen the comments, and I just thought, I have such a different experience with the world and a different idea about gender than these people do. Sure, there are biological differences among the sexes, I get that. But once I was exposed to it, I couldn’t unsee or unlearn that gender is a social construction.”

She couldn’t unsee, for example, that gender roles and norms vary across time and space, even from one household to the next. “I remember in one of my textbooks, it was like, ‘Imagine, if you could, a child that no one knows their gender.’ And it’s like, ‘Imagine, if you could? What are you talking about? That could happen.’ ” Should happen, Myers felt.

“I knew that I wanted to parent like this years before I ever got pregnant,” she says. “I knew I wanted to parent like this before I met the father of my child.” If no one knew her child’s sex, then no one could treat that baby like a boy or a girl, molding the child to fit into the stereotypes that Myers believed to be unfounded. The point was not to have a genderless child but one who comes to an understanding of their gender — whatever it might be — in an environment where colors and objects and activities are not slotted into the arbitrary and binary categories of “girl” and “boy,” and the concepts of “girl” and “boy” are not set up in opposition to each other. “We were just like, ‘Let’s make it look like a rainbow exploded in this house,’ ” Myers explains of wanting to provide Zoomer with all available options, rather than limiting options to those deemed to be gender neutral.

In fact, “gender neutral” is a term that tends to be rejected by people parenting this way — in lieu of “gender open,” “gender affirming,” or “gender creative” — and Kyl’s website, raisingzoomer.com, and its accompanying Instagram account have become go-to destinations for families curious about what gender-creative parenting might look like. And what it looks like is pretty appealing, with Myers’s photogenic and well-lit family doing such wholesome things as hiking and biking and cuddling under fluffy comforters in stylish, well-appointed rooms. Sometimes Zoomer is wearing pink. Sometimes they’re wearing blue. Sometimes they’re wearing their dinner.

What Instagram can’t quite show, however, is the awareness and specificity and — a favorite word among this cohort — intentionality required to remove gender bias from a child’s life. (When sociologist Elizabeth Sweet did an analysis of over 7,000 Sears-catalogue toy advertisements, for example, she found that toys are more gendered today than they were at any time in the 20th century.) “We aren’t going to gender things that don’t need to be gendered,” says Myers. “Zoomer has a stuffed Dory toy, and we say ‘she’ for Dory because Dory is a she.” The stuffed horse she got Zoomer at the Denver airport, however, has no backstory; it goes by “they.” Pronouns are likewise scrambled in books to give equal airtime to female and nonbinary heroes (one family tells me of reading the Harry Potter series using they/them pronouns for Harry). Parents do not shy away from describing body parts, but are quick to let children know that “some people with penises aren’t boys, and some people with vaginas aren’t girls,” as one mom told me. And families are careful to shop in both the boys’ and girls’ sections of stores, to avoid clothing that is hypergendered (almost anything with words on it), and — once they’re old enough to express a preference — to follow their children’s lead in how they want to dress, which may involve pairing sequined shoes with camo pants or a sports jersey with a tiara. Couples are also careful about how they model gender themselves. Both parents will cook and clean. Both parents will mow the lawn.

When it comes to preschool and day care, many of the most progressive places are also the most expensive — and still may not yet be progressive enough. Leah Jacobs, the parent of a gender-creative toddler named Scout whose family recently moved from the Bay Area (very gender open) to Pittsburgh (far less so), tells of going to visit day-care providers and waiting to drop what she knew could be a bombshell: “We don’t really do this whole gender thing. Do you think you could use gender-neutral pronouns for our child?” As she explains it, “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?’ ”

Once Jacobs, whose partner identifies as nonbinary, selected a day-care provider, she sent an email further explaining her stance and asking that the caregivers — who would certainly be changing Scout’s diapers — not share Scout’s anatomy with anyone else. “It was a little hard at first,” says Jenny Lee, who was one of Scout’s teachers. “Not because we had any sort of philosophical challenge with it — we were really behind what they were doing — just because of the grammar. But what it ended up doing, I think, was making us really aware of all the things in our class that were gendered unnecessarily. This baby doll that’s wearing blue we would call ‘he.’ But why? Why does Old MacDonald have to be a man?” Other parents at the day care were mostly accommodating as well, though one still continued to use a gendered pronoun for Scout. “They were just totally out of the loop,” says Jacobs, who learned her lesson and made cards introducing Scout and gender-open parenting when they moved up to the toddler class. The kids, according to Lee, couldn’t care less.

But plenty of people do care, and care deeply, and often those people are closer to home. “I think our parents might have been concerned that a gender-creative child didn’t align with their hopes of grandparenthood,” explains Myers, who decided to keep Zoomer’s anatomy a secret from her parents until they got comfortable with the pronouns. “I think they might have thought that we were taking away valuable experiences from them, like bathing their grandchild. We helped them understand that of course they could eventually know Z’s sex; we just wanted them to understand how important it was to us to parent this way.”

The response in Jacobs’s family has ranged from overwhelming support (“I knew they wouldn’t do anything without having done the research,” says Jacobs’s sister, who calls Scout her “nibling,” meaning “child of my sibling”) to outright hostility. “She lost her mind over it,” Jacobs says of one family member in particular who confronted her the weekend of her baby shower. “I think it was very disturbing for her on a really deep level, and she told me all of the ways that she found it disturbing. How we’re forcing our beliefs on other people. We’re forcing other people to adhere to our belief system. We could be damaging our child. She likened it to if I had joined an extreme religious sect and was trying to proselytize my religious beliefs.”

There is an element of proselytizing — if not an Über-progressive form of virtue signaling — on the part of some parents. Choosing to raise a theyby cannot help but function as a statement to the outside world. And Myers is okay with that: “I’m very tired of the heteronormative and cisnormative model. I’m very tired of the patriarchy. A part of why we are parenting this way is because intersex people exist, and transgender people exist, and queer people exist, and sex and gender occur on a spectrum, yet our culture loves to think people, all 7 billion of them, can and should be reduced to either/or.” Jacobs insists, however, that given her worldview, gender-open parenting was less a decision than an obligation. “You have to give people the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to love their children in the way that they know best, and that really looks different for different families. This is how we know to love our child best.”

Not to mention that the gender binary isn’t doing much for parents who don’t fit neatly onto it themselves. When Andrea (who lives in Oregon and asked to go by her first name only) decided that she wanted to have a child a few years ago, she was half of a lesbian couple. But as her partner, Kat — who goes by they/them pronouns — contemplated what sort of parent they wanted to be, they realized that “Mom” didn’t seem like a good fit, that, actually, they felt more like a trans man. “They were undergoing their transition while we were trying to get pregnant through sperm donation,” Andrea explains. “They had top surgery while I was pregnant. It was a lot of change.”

That led to innumerable conversations about gender constructs and, ultimately, the decision to raise their child as a theyby. Which puts Andrea in the interesting position of believing that her child’s anatomy didn’t matter in terms of gender assignment, though her partner’s did. “We know that people often experience gender through their bodies and through the meaning that our society has attached to bodies,” she says. “In our society, breasts are feminized, so it makes sense for someone like my partner to have their breasts removed. When we say gender is a social construct, I am certainly not arguing that bodies and hormones play no role in people’s gender identification.”

Zoomer, a 2-year-old, goes by they/them pronouns. Photo: Courtesy of the Subject

But how much of a role do they play? If gender is largely a social construct, then what leads some people’s identities to diverge from the way in which they were socialized? No one really knows. Certainly genes are not the determinants: Children with XY chromosomes who lack receptors for testosterone and thus have feminized anatomy — and are in turn socialized as women — all tend to identify as women, despite that Y chromosome. Nor do hormones seem to be the deciding factor. Children with XX chromosomes who are exposed to large amounts of testosterone in utero do tend to have more gender-ambiguous interests and are slightly more likely to identify as lesbian or bisexual than the population overall, but the majority still grow up to be straight and female-identifying. Meanwhile, the brain may be built to adapt to socialization, but “the evidence for differences in newborn brains is pretty minimal,” says Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

Yet even without human socialization, scientists have seen evidence of distinct — and distinctly gendered — toy preferences in young primates, who tend to group themselves along male-female lines. And a 2017 study found that children’s preferences for gendered toys were not much changed in countries known to be more egalitarian. There is no way to entirely untangle nature from nurture.

For gender-creative parents, however, these types of arguments are almost immaterial: The ways in which gender is constructed are so obvious that it behooves us to consider how we’re constructing it — or at least stave off its construction during the most formative early years — especially considering that gender does have real, tangible outcomes. When people ask new parents whether their child is a boy or a girl, argues Myers (who now has a doctorate in sociology focusing on population and health), they may as well be asking whether the child is more likely to develop an eating disorder (girl) or to die in a car accident (boy). “So many of the root causes of health outcomes are related to gender, not sex,” she tells me. Eliot agrees: “Given the way that every society is constructed, that gender label is probably the most important determinant of a child’s future except maybe for their family’s wealth.”

A common fear among gender-open parents, then, is that their family will be isolated, cut off from people for whom interacting would require just too much cognitive work. “It has been challenging,” says Jacobs. “We’re asking an entire community of people to understand something that they never really thought of very much to begin with and then to immediately apply some of these very abstract concepts to a day-to-day interaction in child care. It’s a lot to ask of people, and there have been moments where I have felt like it was isolating.” At the very least, the impetus for many gender-open parents — that their child will not be stereotyped — means by default that their child will be treated differently. “People are so very curious about the genitalia that people have,” says Fiona Joy Green, co-editor of Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices. “As long as we know what’s between people’s legs, then we can go from there.”

And, it turns out, that’s true even of babies, whose brains are on overdrive to create the categories that will be their neurological shorthand for life and who learn within their first few months to distinguish between male and female voices and faces. “Zoomer does point to other people and say ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada,’ ” Myers tells me. “So they have picked up on the differences between their dad and me and are recognizing similarities that I have with other women and their dad has with other men.”

But Myers doesn’t find this alarming. “I will typically say something like, ‘That person does have a beard like Dada,’ but I’m not going to say, ‘Yup, that’s a dad,’ because that would be assuming the person’s gender identity. We’re laying the foundation for having more complex conversations in the future. All I can do now is narrate the world how I want them to experience it.”

Then there’s the concern about whether gender-creative kids are treated differently enough. “These parents certainly know whether or not their child is [biologically] male or female,” says Eliot. “While they can control their conscious choices, we know that unconsciously we talk differently to men and women. We make different amounts of eye contact. The gesturing and nonverbal communication is different.” In a study from 2000, moms chose steeper slopes for their 11-month-old sons to crawl down than they did for their 11-month-old daughters, even though motor skills don’t differ by sex at this age. Gender-open parents may strive to do better, but they didn’t grow up devoid of gender socialization. “It is an undoing process,” explains McCullough.
“We’re constantly undoing and unlearning.” Which is a process these parents want their kids to be able to avoid. “I mourn this loss of possibility a little bit,” says Andrea. “Who and how might I have been had I not been encouraged toward cis-ness and femininity? I want my child to be able to do gender in a freer way than was ever provided for me.”

In her case, this means redefining behavior that others might think of as gendered, especially since, “in terms of the activities they like, my child is what people would consider boy, boy, boy, boy, boy, and so I sometimes worry that, like, my mom is looking at that and thinking, Well, why won’t they just accept that that child wants to be a boy? And I guess my answer to that is that those behaviors don’t have to be associated with boys.”

In fact, gender-open parents argue that their way of parenting helps them see just how much of a mirage gender can be. Most admit to sometimes misgendering their kids, but not always in alignment with their anatomy. “I’ve slipped and used both ‘she’ and ‘he’ pronouns before, which just seems silly to me, and I can’t explain it,” Myers tells me. None seems to mind when others slip up, as long as it’s an honest mistake. And few go to the trouble of correcting the odd stranger who looks at their child and makes assumptions, instead saving the more instructive interactions for people who will be consistently in their children’s lives. “For us, to be able to switch back into a gender pronoun is a privilege that we have exercised in certain cases,” says Andrea. One of those times was during a trip to the ER when her child had a serious case of croup. “We didn’t want our family’s understanding of gender to be a disruptive part of the medical care.”

To the extent that gender-open parenting may still be considered a social experiment, “I just think parenting in general is a social experiment,” says Myers. “That said, I just don’t think I could ever parent my child within a binary. So, like, is this an experiment? I don’t know.” At the very least, she believes it’s building momentum: Type #gendercreative into Instagram and there are posts from families from Louisiana to Tokyo. And for all these families, there is a timeline, if not an end point: Most children gender-identify well before they leave preschool. “Zoomer is going to have a gender,” Myers says. “They are going to let us know what their gender is, and it will probably happen when they’re 3 or 4. And we can all just get onboard, you know.”

In actuality, few children who’ve been raised without an assigned gender are old enough to indicate what the ultimate outcome might be, though it’s reasonable to expect that for kids who eventually identify as genderqueer or trans, this type of early childhood would provide a softer landing — and according to some parents, the possibility of that outcome may even be increased. “I wouldn’t say that we are parenting this way because we thought there was a chance that Zoomer would be gender nonconforming,” Myers says. “But now that we are parenting this way, it’s actually very possible that Zoomer will be gender nonconforming because we are not raising them to conform to a binary gender.” One of the most nuanced pushbacks Jacobs has encountered is the point that they/them actually is a gender identity for some people and that by using it, she is in fact assigning a gender to which her child may not relate. But, she counters, “For me, it comes back to the fact that if Scout is cis, then they will be fine. There will be lots of opportunities afforded to them and privileges purely because they’re cisgender, and this style of parenting isn’t going to take all those opportunities away.”

And parents trust that even for children who come to identify closer to either end of the gender spectrum, the effects of having been raised this way will be lasting. “Around 3, our kid was just like, ‘I’m a girl,’ ” says one gender-open parent from the Pacific Northwest (who asked to remain anonymous). “And we said, ‘Oh, yay, we’ve always wanted a girl. You’re amazing. Welcome.’ ” Yet they were surprised that, even growing up in a household of expansive gender expression, their daughter’s concept of “girl-ness” included many social cues from the outside world. “When this child said ‘girl,’ let me tell you, that meant all these things that were pink and glittery and made of tulle,” the parent explains. “But she’s taught me that feminine is feminist, and she can do things that other people might say are ‘boyish,’ but she redefines them as ‘girlish.’ ”

Now 13, she also shares this expanded view of gender with her community. When a nonprofit put on a sex-ed panel at her school, she was the one who asked why they weren’t talking about trans or gay relationships alongside straight, cis ones. “She thinks critically,” continues the parent, who views gender-open parenting as one facet of a larger education in social justice. And, the parent laughs, “Every queer and trans kid somehow manages to invite theirself over to our house.”

In the end, McCullough’s preparations paid off. When his child, Sojourner Wildfire, came into the world, no one looked at their tiny body and made any sort of announcements as to who or what that child might grow up to be. And since then, there have been other reassuring moments. A nurse mentioned to them that another family had asked to use they/them pronouns for their baby, and at a gender workshop hosted by a local preschool, McCullough’s explanation of how he was raising Sojourner met with unqualified approval (“Hell, yeah!” was one parent’s response). Most important, a few weeks after leaving the hospital — and after months of calls and supplications to the New York Department of Health — baby Sojourner’s birth certificate arrived in the mail, with four little stars where the gender designation would normally be. “That,” says McCullough, “is a very powerful, meaningful thing for us, that birth certificate.”

Still, the family’s day-to-day routine does not revolve solely around gender; it revolves around the minor catastrophes of keeping a tiny newborn human alive. The few times they’ve ventured out in the winter cold have been mainly uneventful. If people ask if Sojourner is a boy or a girl, Fleishman explains, they say something to the effect of: “We’re going to let them decide how they identify when they’re ready.” In their Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, that often does the trick, though a neighbor initially thought they were joking. “She thought we were pulling a fast one on her,” says McCullough. “I was like, ‘No, this is what we’re doing.’ ” Friends and acquaintances usually just roll with it. “But I don’t know if our parents are onboard,” says Fleishman, describing their stance as “tolerating.” Most accepting by far was McCullough’s mom, but, he says, “she still has some reservations about what we’re doing.”

McCullough and Fleishman don’t. “Our baby is going to be whatever they want to be,” he says. “And then we’re going to send somebody out into the world who is in turn not going to project their own opinions or stereotypes onto who someone else should be. I’m happy for our kid to be the vehicle in which our parents and friends get up to speed with what’s going on. Change has to happen, and we’re doing it.”

Meanwhile, this tiny vehicle for change knows nothing of these lofty goals. They just gently sleep.

*This article appears in the April 2, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!