Since its birth five years ago, TIMP has been devoted to answering questions from gender-neutral pronoun users and allies, and sharing resources. Just like singular they is growing and becoming more common, TIMP is evolving. While I’ll continue to respond to new questions and direct askers to questions already answered, today I’m starting a new series of posts that will profile diverse folks who use singular they.
Each episode in the series WE ARE THEY will be based on an interview with someone who uses singular they, either because it’s their personal pronoun or because they use it consistently in other ways. The series aims to share the diversity of singular they usage and users, and how gender-neutral pronouns are making change in the world around us, every day.
The first episode in WE ARE THEY features Helene, her partner Curtis, and Avery, their toddler. Helene sat down with Lee and shared how she and Curtis are raising Avery in a gender-open way, including using singular they as Avery’s pronoun.
WE ARE THEY, Episode 1. Raising Avery
Usually when a person uses singular they, it’s their own decision. As many of us know, this leads to a lot of hard work: coming out, answering questions, correcting other peoples’ mistakes, and sometimes literally fighting for our right to use our chosen pronoun. However, a small but growing number of (brand new) people are singular they users even before they have any awareness of gender at all, let alone of who they would like to be in the gender department. And it’s their parents who are doing this hard work, at least in the beginning.
“We wanted our child to be able to be who they are from the start.”
When they were getting ready to have Avery, Helene and Curtis made the decision to practice gender-open parenting. To the best of their ability, they would get out of the way and provide an open space for Avery to explore. “We wanted our child to be able to be who they are from the start,” Helene explains. “We just didn’t want to put any boundaries or constraints on them gender-wise so they can identify how they will, and play how they will, and dress how they want to. We just thought, why not let them do this from the beginning?” Helene is clear that this isn’t gender-neutral or ‘genderless’ parenting. “Avery has masculine expressions, feminine expressions, andro expressions and who-gives-a-shit expressions,” she says. Gender is very much a part of Avery’s world, but what that looks like depends on the day (and the weather).
Helene and Curtis’ own identities informed their choice to parent in a gender-open way. They both identify as queer, and Curtis as a transgender man. Helene and Curtis were initially puzzled by people – many queer, some transgender – who share their values but chose their baby’s names and pronouns the old fashioned way: based on external genitalia alone. “People say ‘oh, I’d be very supportive if my child was trans but we’re using this pronoun or assuming this gender and I’ll support them if they tell me differently.” Helene and Curtis feel that keeping gender open means not assigning a binary gender to Avery at all until Avery makes up their own mind. But Helene acknowledges that this decision might be less possible for other parents. “They might experience enough scrutiny on their parenting already as a same-sex couple, or perhaps they live in a place where even boys just playing with dolls is seen as transgressive. These real barriers may make some parents fearful, and we understand that.”
“It’s hard to dress a kid to not signify.”
For these parents, an important part of keeping gender open for Avery is the language they use to refer to them. As one of the world’s youngest singular they users (I’ll wager), Avery goes from bus to day care to park to home with Helene and Curtis trying their hardest to ensure that others use Avery’s pronoun. As an infant, Avery had ‘My Pronoun is They’ patches sewn onto their onesies, and it worked. Babies and toddlers are androgynous anyway, usually registering as male unless they have pink outfits, pierced ears, long hair, or bejewelled elastic bands around their little bald heads. As time goes on, Helene and Curtis try to select Avery’s clothing to help others correctly gender them, but “it’s hard to have Avery present in a way that doesn’t indicate gender. Whether it’s clothes or whether it’s Avery’s face or hair, or whether it’s society, people do gender Avery most of the time. Occasionally I’ll have someone ask if Avery is a boy or a girl but most of the time people just assume based on what they see.” Gender-open parenting involves presenting a child who is neither a girl nor a boy as neither, and as Helene observes, “it’s hard to dress a kid to not signify.” This raises an interesting (and impossible) question about singular they users: what do ‘we’ look like?
When a stranger mis-genders Avery (by using he or she instead of they), Helene usually makes the choice to correct them based on whether Avery will see them again. “If we’re walking down the street and someone says ‘what a pretty girl!’ and they keep walking, I don’t say ‘well, ACTUALLY…’ and stop them!” We laugh, agreeing that this might be a bit much. “But if I’m at my playground and I’m talking with another parent, and we’re getting into a more friendly conversation that’s more than hi/bye, I will say ‘yeah that’s my kid. Actually, we’re raising Avery gender-open so we’re using they and them as pronouns and we’re letting Avery decide.’” Without this intervention, Avery is generally called a mixed bag of pronouns, most of them gendered. Helene wonders if the mixed bag could be having the desired effect of gender openness. It’s certainly easier to accept the mixed bag, she says, but it doesn’t change the world, “which isn’t why we’re doing it, but it’s a good benefit.”
“‘I’m just going to say Avery.’”
A main event in many toddler lives is the shift from parental care to extended family or day care. I was eager to know how Helene and Curtis were managing this recent transition now that Helene has returned to work. They’ve experienced a lot of supportive energy from caregivers, as well as a willingness to learn and ask questions. “But even people who know we’re using they/them/their still use a gendered pronoun a lot.” Helene sometimes thinks this is because caregivers see what kind of genitals Avery has, which is something unique about young children who use singular they: that people will have this knowledge and think they know something as a result. She also attributes mis-gendering to a basic unfamiliarity with singular they, and doesn’t feel like it’s malicious. But resistance can take on a more active form: “some people say ‘I’m not going to use they or them. I’m just going to say Avery.’” Although her family’s pronoun usage has improved over time, Helene jokes that the family’s hard work – both remembering and reminding – might be in vain. By the time everyone gets the hang of singular they, Avery might have chosen a binary pronoun! But if Avery later decides to use a different one, will other caregivers be able to go with it? This is a bigger question, and certainly isn’t unique to gender and pronouns. Do we trust any child to make major life-changing decisions for themselves? And is consistency the best evidence that they’re right?
To my mind, the issues around assigning singular they to a baby aren’t always that different from other issues facing new parents. To illustrate, Helene’s cousin was anxious about making a mistake, and issued a heated declaration: “I don’t want a rule book for how to be with Avery!” But are gender choices any more of a ‘rule book’ than other choices? Helene feels they aren’t, because “with every child there is a sense of a rule book. We’re the parents and we get to decide, and for some people that might be about what the child eats or what toys they play with or what words they use.” For some parents, that means tuna only once a month. For Helene and Curtis, that means singular they.
“‘So have they decided yet?’”
While some things may not be unique about raising a child with singular they, other things certainly are. Helene and I spoke about how the ‘I’ll just use your name’ tactic may feel legitimate because adults presume that a child will choose another pronoun, whereas an adult user is thought to have arrived at their ‘true self.’ Each assumption is problematic in its own way. Bravely, Helene wonders whether her and Curtis’ usual response – that Avery will eventually decide who they are – somehow contributes to this problem. And others are eager to know if ‘eventually’ has arrived. “Even my ten year-old neighbour often asks me ‘so have they decided yet?’ Do they know yet? Do you know?’” When answering children, Helene keeps the question open. “With littler kids especially I say ‘I don’t know! Maybe they’re a girl, maybe they’re a boy, maybe they’re both or neither!’ With older people I just say ‘we don’t know, they haven’t told us yet.’ But I don’t often say ‘we don’t know and maybe they’ll use they for the rest of their life.’” As more parents choose this path, it remains to be seen how the yet/eventually narration of children’s singular they usage will affect broader understandings of why folks choose this pronoun.
“‘I just have the one.’”
While I was delighted to hear that, on the whole, Helene and Curtis have had a positive experience of gender-open parenting, it seems like pronouns remain a major hurdle. Sometimes singular they can be funny when it goes wrong. When talking to strangers on the phone, Helene is consistently called on to deny that she has twins. “Early on when I would book a doctor’s appointment, I might say ‘they have a cold’ and the receptionist would reply ‘oh, both of them?’ No. I just have the one.” Starting a phone call with a brief explanation has proven effective over time. Sometimes, though, singular they is just one hurdle too many. When facing things more stressful than the common cold, when their family needs support or access to resources – this is when singular they can become just too heavy to bear. “And at those points sometimes I would just pick a gendered pronoun. Because I couldn’t or didn’t want to deal and so I said ‘forget it – I’m just going to use whatever’ because I needed that help.” And sometimes pronouns just don’t seem to matter at all. “For passports and travel I just do the genitals because that’s already so complicated,” she says.
“It’s so different if a child asks for it themself.”
How about the issue of choice, of who chose this path for Avery? After all, Avery didn’t decide to use singular they, or to present as non-binary. “I’ll put my child in whatever they want to wear as long as it’s safe and appropriate for wherever we’re going,” Helene insists, but until Avery chooses their own gender and pronoun, Helene and Curtis don’t have recourse to the argument that they are defending Avery’s autonomy. “It’s so different if a child asks for it themself,” she says. This is what parents of self-identified queer or transgender children can fall back on when their decisions are challenged. But, as Helene says, “it’s my decision right now. I decide what Avery wears. Sometimes I offer Avery a choice, but Avery doesn’t care.” It seems like other kids don’t care either. Avery’s five year-old cousin routinely escorts Avery around to everyone else on the playground, announcing that “this is my cousin and they’re a they.” Helene offers an explanation for this after taking a moment to choose her words. “When kids aren’t being pushed into a box, they can treat gender in a way that’s not heavy.” Whether singular they is a burden on Avery seems to depend on the environment Avery’s adults create. And so far, it doesn’t seem to be a burden at all.
Still, Helene and I wonder out loud whether gender-open parenting and singular they usage will actually matter, in the end. We both grew up in open-minded families and, like almost everyone else, were raised with a binary pronoun and the assumption that we were cis-gender and heterosexual. For countless adult queer and/or transgender people, we are who we are now in spite of and not because of the context in which we grew up. We laugh, though, when Helene admits her worry that this logic will pan out for Avery, too. “Part of using they/them is allowing Avery to be who they are. And that actually does mean that even if who they are is a right-wing conservative I still have to find a way to respect who they are.” And that’s that.
Listening to Helene, I think about my own future as a parent who is a non-binary transgender person and singular they user, and who shares values with Helene and Curtis. Will my partner and I use singular they for our children as a contingency – until they make up their own minds? Do we need to do this, if our children will have always known about non-binary gender-ness simply because they’re mine? Would gender-open parenting push them ‘the other way,’ in the end? Do I care? I don’t know. And I feel better not knowing when I remember Helene’s wise words as we began winding down our long conversation. “I think people think you have to have everything figured out if you want to do this, but you don’t.”