'Boy or girl?' Parents raising 'theybies' let kids decide

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So few parents are raising “theybies” that there is no research yet on how this type of parenting affects children. Anecdotally, many children raised this way come to their own conclusion about their gender around age 4, just like their peers.

Some experts, including Steever, say it’s unlikely that children would be confused by a gender-open upbringing. Brown, though, said it’s important for parents to prepare children for “a society that’s really obsessed with a gender binary.”

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“And people are going to want to put that child into one of those binary categories,” she said. “And so for children to not be confused, parents have to give kids the language and the understanding of recognizing that ‘I’m not taking part in this binary.’”

How people react to ‘theybies’

For parents raising their children without gender designation, confrontations with bewildered strangers are as routine as changing diapers.

“People are very, very invested in whether one’s child is a boy or a girl,” said Nathan Levitt, 40, a Brooklyn resident who does not disclose the sex of his 18-month-old, Zo. “It’s usually complete strangers that come up to us and say, ‘Boy or a girl?’ I think it’s been challenging because we don’t always want to have that conversation when you’re just going to the playground or taking your kids on a trip.”

Nathan Levitt, left, with his husband and Zo.Courtesy family

Levitt, a family nurse practitioner, remembers an incident when he was on an airplane with his husband, also a nurse, and Zo, who was bundled in a pink sweater at the time. “Oh, you’re so lucky you have a girl,” a fellow passenger said. “Girls are so pretty and … fragile, and she’s going to grow up and get so many boyfriends.” Not wanting to get into a potential argument, the couple didn’t bother to correct her. But later, after they had removed Zo’s sweatshirt, the same woman became upset when she saw the baby wearing blue. “You didn’t tell me you had a boy,” Levitt recalled her saying.

“I said, ‘We didn’t actually tell you any gender that our child is — our child is going to tell us how they identify,’” he said.

The woman became angry and accused the couple of setting Zo up for a difficult life.

Levitt didn’t argue with the woman because he didn’t want to upset his child, but the encounter left him shaken. “If this is what a random stranger is saying on a plane,” Levitt wondered, “what are some other things that people might say in school or on a playground?”

Studies show that many gender-nonconforming children face bullying. A 2012 survey from GLSEN, which advocates for safe school environments for LGBTQ children, found that 20 to 25 percent of elementary schoolers reported seeing gender-nonconforming classmates being bullied or called names. A 2015 study found that over 95 percent of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 21 heard negative comments about not acting “masculine” or “feminine” enough.

But attitudes are evolving, especially among young people, said Jamey Jesperson, an education associate with GLSEN, who works with K-12 students. Younger generations today are less rigid about gender, especially in more liberal areas of the country, Jesperson said. Fifty-six percent of “Generation Zers” — the generation born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s — report knowing someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.

“They’re more used to using pronouns that are not just she/her or he/him,” Jesperson said.

Hazel Dennis, 7, holds 5-month-old SparrowHazel Dennis, 7, holds 5-month-old Sparrow.Courtesy family

Hazel Dennis, 7, has seen this openness firsthand. The second-grader wasn’t raised as a “theyby” but began asking to be identified with “they” pronouns about three years ago. The talkative second-grader, who lives in Orlando, Florida, has long hair and identifies as a “demigirl,” someone who is partly a girl. The other kids at Hazel’s K-8 charter school sometimes have trouble with the pronouns, which can be frustrating, but they have been largely accepting.

“I’m sure they’ll get into the habit at some time, but they do call me she/her more than they/them,” Hazel said. But, Hazel added, “They’re not mean to me about it at all.”

One of Hazel’s parents — Ari Dennis, 30, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns — says the family’s top priority is to ensure that their children feel accepted for who they are. They decided to raise their youngest, 5-month-old Sparrow, as a “theyby.”

Dennis, who started a Facebook page chronicling the family’s adventures in gender-open parenting, is careful to describe Sparrow with both masculine and feminine adjectives.

“I just call my baby ‘beautiful’ and ‘pretty’ and ‘handsome’ and ‘strong,’ back and forth, I’ll use both, and I’ll compliment different manifestations of personality traits,” Dennis said.

When theybies venture into a world of pink and blue

Soon, Kadyn and Zyler will enter grade school — a time when kids put themselves and others into strict gender categories. The Sharpes hope to get them into a Montessori public school in Cambridge, which they believe will be accepting of their parenting style.

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