In recent years there’s been a cultural movement to try and abolish the biological realities of sex and gender. A number of parents, typically referred to as “theybies,” have taken to describing their ‘babies’ by the pronoun they instead of he or she (hence the name). Jennifer Lopez apparently jumped on this bandwagon, introducing her 14-year-old daughter, Emme, under the gender-neutral pronoun “they” during a recent concert performance the pair did together at a baseball game.
It’s always a mixed bag when celebrities take up pet causes. On one hand, they have the power to sway millions with their voice. On the other hand, so very few of them actually take the time to do thorough research or analysis before opening their mouth. Social issues are always many layers deep, and the scratching at the surface most people do almost never results in responsible activism, because these initial impressions are almost always deeply flawed, or at least, more complicated than they first appear. Case in point: Jenny McCartney has inadvertently killed more children than the most prolific serial killer in America through the anti-vaccine movement she spearheaded.
This “theybie” trend drives me bonkers, so it’s concerning to see yet another celebrity parent jump on this trend that’s fueling gender confusion in youth. But before you accuse me of being transphobic or old fashioned, of whom I am neither, allow me to explain why this trend is so concerning.
Theybie parents think they’re being progressive and bucking gender stereotypes. In actuality, they’re reinforcing them. This trend of referring to children as “they” or letting kids decide if they’re a boy or girl based on their preferences is like gender stereotypes on steroids. It’s taking aspects of a child’s personality or personal interests and saying these define their sex and gender. (*1) It’s saying that if a child likes sports she must be a boy, or if he’s quiet and gentle he must be a girl. Instead of freeing children from gender stereotypes, it’s defining a child’s gender on the basis of their personality traits or what they like to do, or throwing them into this category of “they” if they don’t fit perfectly into society’s prejudice about what a boy or girl should be. This isn’t bucking society’s gender stereotypes, it’s acquiescing and lending credence to them. It’s taking these stereotypes and elevating their status to make them a defining aspect of reality.
It’s also fueling gender confusion, something that’s becoming a significant problem in this country. True transgenderism does exist, but it’s extremely rare, occurring in less than 1% of children. Around 0.8%-1% of kids are born “intersex” or with “ambiguous” sexual features, according to most well-conducted studies. This includes a hodgepodge of multiple abnormalities, and can range from children born with both male and female genitalia to boys whose penises never fully formed. However, not even this full 1% fit the definition of transgender. Of these kids born with biological ambiguities in regards to sex, basic mathematics dictate only half of these or less would be misaligned with their biology. It’s also possible there are fetal development abnormalities in the brain we cannot see that result in a normally appearing boy or girl being biologically transgender. In any case, the number of truly biological transgender children is probably around 1 in 200, perhaps as high as 1 in 100, if you’re being extremely liberal, but certainly no more than this.
The number of children suffering from gender confusion is much, much higher, and many of these kids are being incorrectly labeled transgender. Research suggests that for every biologically transgender child, at least 3 kids suffering from gender confusion are falsely thrown into this category. These are kids suffering an identity complex because they don’t feel they fit in, or their interests and personality don’t align with the gender stereotypes society promotes. This is completely different from a child who has a biological (and thus irreconcilable) discrepancy between the sexology of their brain and the sexology of their body. It is a social-psychological conflict, not a biological one, and treating these two issues as one and the same leads to serious problems.
In the past, life sucked for the 1 in 200 or so biologically transgender youth, and we should do all we can to help these kids find a place in the world. (*2) But it’s equally horrendous and irresponsible to take the many kids who are dissatisfied with gender stereotypes and send them the message that they need to change their sex and gender in order to find their place in the world, when it should be the other way around. We should be helping them expand the definition of gender so they feel comfortable in the biological gender they were born into.
We have the most mentally ill children in all of world history. There are many reasons for this, from the rampant rise in overprotective parenting to social media and lifestyle changes to the shit-show of a world we’ve created for them. But stoking even more gender confusion isn’t helping. Rather than carving up the English language or trying to eliminate what used to be harmless pronouns, maybe we should focus more on what should be our ultimate goal: expanding our cultural ideas about gender so that more people feel comfortable in their own skin.
The problem isn’t that sex and gender exist. It’s that our ideas about gender are too constraining. We need a world where girls can like sports and playing in the dirt and still be a girl, or where boys can have “girlish” interests and still be a boy. The “theybie” trend isn’t tackling this problem, it’s reinforcing the stereotypes that lie at the center of it and making things worse. The true liberation of children will only occur when the words “boy” and “girl” are given more room to breathe, and aren’t hastily rejected because they don’t align with social prejudices of what a boy or girl should be.
*1: I’m aware of the different definitions between sex and gender, but the terms are incestuous and nearly impossible to separate, and society is always conflating the two. If “gender” is said to be entirely a social construct detached from biological sex, then it is a meaningless term anyway.
*2:Though there is no definitive means of discerning a truly transgender child from those suffering gender confusion, except in those cases where a medical test can confirm biological discrepancies, true transgender children tend to dispute their sex and gender from a very early age, and are consistent, vocal, and persistent in this conviction. Gender confusion tends to emerge later, often during adolescence, and seemingly out of the blue after a child has shown little or no such tendencies before.