Parents raising ‘theybies’ say it liberates children from gender roles and gives them the freedom to choose their own label
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Wed 8 Jul 2020 10.00 BSTLast modified on Fri 10 Jul 2020 18.48 BST
‘My approach has been: I don’t know. I don’t know who they’re going to be or what’s going to be important to them,’ says Kori Doty of their child Searyl.
‘My approach has been: I don’t know. I don’t know who they’re going to be or what’s going to be important to them,’ says Kori Doty of their child Searyl. Photograph: Annie Tritt and Colleen Langford/The Guardian
Long before becoming pregnant, Kori Doty knew exactly how they were going to raise their child.
When Doty was born in the picturesque seaside city of Victoria, British Columbia, in the 1980s, a doctor assigned them as female, but the label didn’t fit. “When I was born, a guess was made [about my gender] because nobody knew better than to do that. And that guess was incorrect,” says Doty, who now identifies as non-binary trans – meaning they are neither a man nor a woman, and that their identity does not correspond with their birth sex. “It caused some amount of complication, upset and harm in my life.”
So when Doty gave birth in November 2016, they were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Doty decided to raise their child Searyl – Sea for short – outside the gender binary from the start. The idea was to give Sea autonomy over their own identity and presentation, whether they ultimately want to identify within the gender binary or not. “I’m not prescribing what’s right,” says Doty. “I’m not saying they are a girl, or they are a boy, or they are non-binary and therefore it has to be like this. My approach has been: ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know who they’re going to be or what’s going to be important to them. What’s important to me is that I hold all of the space so that they can figure out who they are with the full menu.”
“You parent based on who you are and what you believe in the world,” Doty adds. “What I believe in the world has led me to a place where of course my kid would have full autonomy of gender.”
Today, Sea is a sporty three-year-old who loves riding their pink bike, watching In The Night Garden on YouTube, and cozying up inside a mermaid-tail blanket. Their bedroom is decorated with all sorts of oceanic motifs – fish, mermaids and especially seahorses (“Guys who have babies” are often given seahorse-themed gifts, says Doty, “’cause that’s how seahorses do”.)
Sea enjoys being read books from the LGBTQ+ positive children’s publisher Flamingo Rampant, especially Tobi Hill-Meyer’s A Princess of Great Daring, about a trans child telling her friends she’s a girl for the first time while they play a make-believe game of fairytale knights and dragons. “They tell queer and trans stories that are positive and affirming and celebratory, not like, womp womp, your life is hard,” says Doty.
Doty does not consider any colors or aesthetics to be inherently gendered. As a result, Sea is free to gravitate towards whatever clothing or toys they like, often opting to play with Legos and wear oversized T-shirt dresses. “They really love to dance, and they have this idea that dancing well requires a skirt that swishes around,” says Doty.
Since about 2018, the concept of “theybies” – a portmanteau of the neutral pronoun “they” and the word “baby”, referring to young children raised as neither boys nor girls – has gained currency, if not exactly broken through to the mainstream. This is especially true among progressive parents, some of whom feel “gender-autonomous parenting” grants their kids more leeway for self-determination, and freedom from the gender biases which might otherwise plague them from infancy.
For instance, researchers have found that adults underestimate female children’s motor skills at 11 months, and judge baby boys with high-pitched cries as “less masculine” than their deeper-voiced counterparts. A 2017 BBC experiment demonstrated that well-meaning adults often unconsciously project gender stereotypes on to babies via the toys they offer them – consequently contributing to a cumulative, substantial impact on the babies’ development.
While the term “theybies” itself is novel, Doty, who has both worked and participated in the LGBTQ+ community for over a decade, notes that gender diversity is hardly new. “All of a sudden, [gender diversity] seems like it’s coming out of nowhere. But the truth is that it was actually there all along,” they say. “The old way is really cracking. And even people who have had enough privilege to be able to not pay attention to the fact that it needed to crack – even they’re paying attention now.”
At a glance, Doty and Sea make non-binary childhood look easy. Doty says they aren’t the only person in their community raising a non-binary child. “In Sea’s peer group of kids in the two-to-four category in our Unitarian church’s family program, maybe half of them have been given full gender autonomy, and another quarter of them, their parents have decided, ‘Yeah, we’re going to use binary pronouns, but also you can be whoever and whatever.’ So it’s very normalized in our world,” they say.
Doty’s own parents switched from being conservative Christians to becoming proud members of PFLAG, an organization for supportive family and friends of LGBTQ+ people, back when Doty came out in 2006 – so wrapping their heads around a non-binary grandchild wasn’t hard. Sea’s preschool works with a trans-friendly organization, and its teachers have been on the ball about pronoun use.
“I’ve definitely had people say, ‘Oh, I’ve never come across [a non-binary child] before,’ or, ‘You can’t expect me to get [their pronouns] right all the time,’” says Doty. “And they get it right more than they think they will. It’s not as complicated as people like to think it is.”
While some parents may worry about their gender-autonomous child becoming a target for bullies, Doty and Sea haven’t crossed that bridge yet. For their part, Doty has found that kids often understand what it means to be non-binary better than adults, anyway. “I remember one of my ex’s kids, when he was five, sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car, correcting my dad about my pronouns,” they say.
In 2017, Doty and Sea made headlines when Sea received a Canadian health card with a “U” (presumably for “unknown”) instead of an “M” or “F” to indicate their gender. Although the British Columbian provincial government has since updated its policies to allow citizens to opt for an “X” gender designation on their IDs, at the time, Sea’s health card was reported as a possible “world’s first” non-binary ID.
That news brought a lot of attention. Some of it was positive. “The most heartwarming responses were from people who hadn’t put any thought into [gender-autonomous parenting] and who were expecting or had just had kids, and who were taking it into consideration, and trying to implement ways of making sure that their kids felt like they had support and freedom to be their whole selves,” says Doty.
But Doty and Sea also received so much online harassment that Doty hired someone to filter toxic messages out of their email inbox.
“There are people who have felt that [our family] wasn’t just problematic, but was like, the antichrist, or a sign of the end times,” Doty says. “I found out that there was a campaign letter written about me by [a fundamentalist Christian activist group] and it was like, you know, ‘We’ll pray for these people because they’re so disillusioned.’
“I worry for people who have to grow up with that kind of rigidity and control and expectation,” says Doty. “I mean, I know that it’s harmful; I grew up that way. Having found my way out, I feel like if anything I will be praying for their children.”
Fortunately, the backlash against theybies hasn’t affected Sea yet – perhaps it never will. For now, they are focused on the little adventures of toddlerhood – processing a wasp sting from last summer by pretending to be a wasp themself, and learning how to count.
Doty hopes that Sea will grow up empowered, “To be able to [say], ‘Yeah, I like dressing this way,’ or ‘I like playing these games or using these words for myself because it’s what feels good to me and it’s not about anyone else,’” says Doty. “That’s how they are about it now – I want that to continue.”