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The "theybie" debate

Should parents wait to assign a gender to a baby?

theybies, gender assignment

A new pronoun protocol has gotten some attention recently. "Theybies" embraces the idea of letting your baby start out in life with non-gendered pronouns - not assigning labels of "he" and "she." 

Advocates of this gender-fluid, non-binary approach, say to use "they" or "them" until the child decides on their own what best suits their identity.

Local experts with a deep knowledge of gender identity and sexual orientation tell us that what's more important than which pronoun you use is keeping an open mind, listening to your child and providing opportunities for them to explore their identity.

"What pronouns to use, the concept of "theybies" and all that is involved in gender assignment is much more controversial outside of the LGBTQ community," says Farrell Brenner, director of programs and services for the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center in Kingston. People within that community feel more comfortable with fluidity around personal choice when it comes to identity.

Brenner explains that it's a common misperception that historically or even grammatically that the conventions of "he" and "she" are somehow absolutes. "We use they/them often when we don't know the gender of a person."

"We're always talking and learning as a culture and this is part of that growth," says Brenner. "Rather than accepting rigid gender roles assigned at birth, parents might want to think of this as an opportunity. Leave gender open to create an open space. By doing this a child is given a chance to explore ...they can reimagine the world on their own terms."

Brenner says can help parents with kids who are just coming out as transgender or to gain better understanding of the use of pronouns and many other aspects of the transition.

Happy children have the pronoun they want
Fran Divine has two grown sons, one of whom is gay.  She facilitates PFlag, a national organization that provides support and advocacy for families and individuals in the LGBTQ community, and a PFlag support group at the Kingston LGBTQ community center. She has worked with many families with children who expressed their transgendered identities early on.

She recalls talking with a mother whose child was born female and who is now a trans male. "At a very young age, she tore off her dress and wanted to wear her brother's underwear."  

Divine says she's not of the belief that calling a child "they" or "them" is the critical factor. Instead, she advises, "Watch for signs of your child's
preferences in clothes or toys."

The pronoun issue comes up frequently in the group she facilitates. While there is no specific age to decide on the right pronoun, Divine suggests that parents follow their child. "If you want a happy child give them the pronoun that child wants."

Her grandchild is a year old, "She's now a female, but in the future - what will she be?"

If the child is raised without options - for instance they don't know anything but pink - that's a limitation, Divine says. "Why not open up those options?"  

It is up to the child to explore identity
Kaitlyn O'Connor, an 18-year-old student from Poughkeepsie, has
personally navigated the gender spectrum more than once and voiced strong opinions on the "theybie" issue. Born female, at age 13 Kaitlyn chose to identify as male and did so for about four years. Last June, she returned to her original gender assignment.

"Using they/them for a baby is frankly pretty ridiculous, in my opinion. I say 'ridiculous' because, well, first of all a baby won't care one way or the other. Secondly, choosing they/them for your baby is still choosing for them, and that's what you're trying to avoid," O'Connor says.

She gives this advice. "Discuss the topic of gender with your child when you feel they are ready, and offer the option of different pronouns if they ever felt the need to change them ... part of being a child or teenager is exploring your identity, and this is no different. Some things stay and some things go. It's part of growing up, and as parents, it should be part of your job to support these things as they stay or go."

Avoid unnecessary confusion
Sandy Essington is Kaitlyn's mother and also a licensed clinical social
worker with a practice in Lagrangeville and 30 years of professional experience, much of it working with teens.

She doesn't believe there's an optimal age to allow a child to choose their pronouns. "I believe that raising a child using neutral pronouns from birth can cause more unnecessary confusion than support. Raising a child without traditional gendered clothing, toys, roles and expectations is a better way of teaching your child that gender is not important and that they can enjoy anything regardless of gender."

Children generally have a sense of their own gender identity between the ages of two and four but according to Essington, children can begin to identify other than their assigned gender at any age after that as well.

"Regardless of the age, I believe that supporting your child in the gender they identify teaches your child that you love and respect them for who they are."

Provide support and options while your child forges their own identity
Essington says her daughter's school and doctors were respectful and supportive during the time Kaitlyn was forging her identity. "The best thing parents can do to support their child is to provide a supportive family environment, have open and honest communication with their child, talk to extended family and friends about the importance of supporting their child and use their preferred name and pronouns."

Typically, it's the kids who approach the parent and come out to them, Brenner says. "Many youths would love to hear a parent leave gender assignment open for them... Our children need parents to come from a position of support and open mindedness."

Olivia L. Lawrence is an editor with a news organization. She's currently looking forward to kayak season and getting out on the water.