These Pa. families are using gender-affirming parenting to help their kids to explore their own identities

Turtle (left), Mother Caitlin Evan, and Emma Jane (right), play a board game in their O’Hara township home. (Pittsburgh Current photos by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Brittany Hailer

Turtle and their little brother, Philip, play make believe, conjuring relationships and modeling adult life. Philip always plays the mom because Turtle always wants to be the dad.

When their aunts or uncles send dresses or shirts that are sparkly, Turtle refuses to wear them. Philip will bring his blue, typically boy clothes over to his sibling and say, “‘I’ll wear your shirt and you can wear my shirt.”

Caitlin Evan knew Turtle was non-binary from the moment they were born. This was a gut feeling, something that bubbled up, and, she admits, scared her. Despite her instinct, Evan chose a feminine name and used feminine pronouns for the baby.

However, by the time her child was 3, they wanted to be called Turtle.

“I want to be a boy!” Turtle said.

Turtle refused to respond to any other name and wanted their pronouns to be he/him. [For the purpose of this story, Turtle’s preferred pronouns were they/them/their.]

At first, Evan had a “weird reaction to it.”

“I wouldn’t say it caused negative emotions, but fear. What is the life my child will have? Will I have to let go of the life I thought this person would have or be? It wasn’t shocking, though. They never wore dresses. Never liked sparkles, stuff like that,” Evan said.

Evan decided to affirm Turtle’s gender exploration instead of asking them to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender-affirming parenting — or supporting a child and building their self-esteem as it relates to their gender identity– is on the rise throughout the United States.

In the 70’s and 80’s there was a surge of “non-gendered” parenting, which focused more on eliminating gender than exploring it. (Turns out, kids hated it and it’s impossible to eliminate one’s gender identity) Today, the gender affirming parenting is more about exploration and expression–allowing children to pick and choose how they want to perform gender.

In Evan’s case, Turtle started exploring on their own, but there are other families who are raising “Theybies”– babies born without a gender designation at birth. Parents choose not to reveal the sex of their child, however, that doesn’t mean they’re eliminating gender entirely. As the child grows into their own identity and personality, they are encouraged to explore masculinity, femininity, and everything in between  without expectation.

Turtle’s daycare accepted their new name immediately. Teachers and fellow students respected their gender exploration at it ebbed and flowed. If Turtle wanted to be a boy that day, they were a boy. If they wanted to be a girl, they were a girl. Even the lunch ladies gifted Turtle stuffed toys and trinkets that matched their name.

“They’ve know Turtle since they were under a year old, and they followed,” said Evan

Evan says she still stumbles over pronouns and fears she’s “doing things wrong.” She tells Turtle, “If Mommy calls you something you don’t want to be called, just remind me.”

When Evan enrolled Turtle in the Fox Chapel Area School District (FCASD) this past fall, she felt pause. The paperwork only allows for male or female gender designations. Evan was also unsure what to put down under name, so she filled out the name Turtle was assigned at birth. However, the paperwork did ask for a nickname and Evan  wrote down Turtle.

“As soon as they learned to spell Turtle, they wrote it in parentheses under all their name tags at school,” Evan  said.

Turtle age 5 plays the board game Sorry (Photo via The Pittsburgh Current).

The Pittsburgh Current reached out to FCASD and according to Bonnie Berzonski, the district’s coordinator of communications, the institution does not have a policy pertaining to gender-neutral or gender-expansive children.

“We recently deleted all fields requesting information about gender on our online enrollment portal/forms except one — as we are required to submit a gender to the state. We updated the question to read: ‘For state reporting purposes, please select how you would like us to report your student’s gender.’ Parents then select ‘Male’ or ‘Female’,” Berzonski wrote in an email.

FCASD does not have a non-binary gender designation for enrolled students.

According to Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s Media Reference Guide:

Non-binary and/or genderqueer are the terms used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms.

The shift from Turtle’s daycare experience to public school has also been an adjustment in communication. Evan  was used to getting daily updates from Turtle’s teachers. They talked openly about Turtle’s name and gender designation. At FCASD, gender isn’t discussed:

“The teachers won’t give updates if they’re calling them Turtle or a girl,” Evan said.

At the beginning of the school year in August, Evan told Turtle’s teacher that they sometimes identify as a boy. The teacher seemed receptive. However, when Turtle comes home from school, they say they were called a girl. They were called their birth name. Evan asks who Turtle played with and they say, “Nobody.”

“I don’t know how much they would stick up for themselves,” Evan said.

Berzonski wrote in an email, “We encourage parents/guardians and students to let us know about any special circumstances pertaining to any of our students. And, again, we would meet with the parents/guardians and/or the student to determine how we can best serve the student’s needs.  We do not utilize a one-size-fits-all approach as that may not be helpful for all students and parents/guardians.”

But, Evan feels that puts a lot of pressure on a kindergartener to assert their gender identity. She’d  rather their teachers inquire and encourage them. No one at Turtle’s school offered a plan or sit-down meeting with the family.

“I think in part we were still in a place of fear in August/September when school started and trying to not make a big deal about it so other people felt comfortable with it instead of making sure [Turtle]  felt safe being themselves,” Evan wrote.

Dr. Diane Ehrensaft is developmental and clinical psychologist who specializes in gender and the author of “The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes.”Ehrensaft encourages parents to forget any assumptions about gender when it comes to children. She says adults can learn a lot from kids.

(Photo via The Pittsburgh Current)

“We’re straddling and new world and old world–our children are revolutionary leaders,” she said.

While the children can teach adults a thing or two, it is up to adults to advocate and affirm gender expression. Gender expansive, gender nonconforming and non-binary children will experience microaggressions both from peers and adults. However, it’s up to the adults to intervene and educate youth.

According to Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s Media Reference Guide:

Gender Non-Conforming is a term used to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity. Please note that not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender; nor are all transgender people gender non-conforming. Many people have gender expressions that are not entirely conventional – that fact alone does not make them transgender. Many transgender men and women have gender expressions that are conventionally masculine or feminine. Simply being transgender does not make someone gender non-conforming.

Sometimes, a child will inquire about a peer’s gender expression and hurt their feelings without even realizing. Ehrensaft recommends that classrooms have circle time where gender is discussed. Children should learn from an early age that gender is fluid, ever-changing. Gender expression and identity can look different for each and every person.

“You want to build up a gender resilience. They need their own toolbox. Your child will learn how to respond with confidence and pride–and empathy for those who don’t understand,” said Ehrensaft.

Parents can role play with their child. A parent can ask, “What are some things we can say when someone calls you a girl instead of a boy?”  If the child is shy, Ehrensaft recommends teaching them to find a favorite teacher or caregiver when they encounter a microaggression.

“Eyes need to be wide open by all caregivers…We must keep an eye out for those microaggressions. If they occur, you step in to press pause,” said Ehrensaft.

Siblings also play an important role for gender expansive kids and are often the child’s first ally. When gender creativity and expression is fostered in the home, siblings will build a connection and resilience when they encounter challenges in society.

What to do if you’re a parent

If a school does not have a gender policy in place, Ehrensaft recommended that parents visit Genderspectrum.org and download the organization’s gender support plan. Some of the plan’s questions include:

  • What training (s) will the school engage in to build capacity for working with gender expansive students?
  • How will the school work to create more gender inclusive conditions for all students
  • How will a teacher/staff member respond to any questions about the student’s gender from Other students? Staff members? Parents/community?
  • Who will be the student’s “go to adults” on campus?
  • If these people aren’t available, what should the student do?
  • What, if any, will be the process for periodically checking in with the student and/or family?

Ehrensaft says to tell administrators, “I want this completed for my child. I am asking you to implement it. I am asking you to do this under Title IX and I am expecting it to be enforced.”

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

When it comes to raising a gender expansive child, Ehrensaft says “there is no such thing as a helicopter parent. There is only an advocating parent.”

Recently, Turtle’s been experimenting with their name again. First Blue. Then Squirtle, like the Pokemon.

When they’re mad, they’ll shout, “Squirtle! Squirtle! Squirtle!”

But with each name comes the same gender: boy, boy, boy.

Meet Nicholai

Nicholai’s long blond hair whips down his back during hockey games and practices. He wears in a braid, which he calls his “hockey braid.” Nicholai wears leggings with pink stars and when someone misgenders him, he corrects them politely.

Nicholai is 9 years old, and the eldest of Dana’s three children. His younger sibling, Daphne, is almost 5. She loves “Frozen,” the color pink and she dances. Their mother, Dana (who asked to go by her first name only) said that Daphne is a girly-girl, always has been.

The family lives on the North Side.

“We didn’t use he or she pronouns with either of them until they were old enough to give us [a preference]. If they wanted to go by they, their and them forever that would have been fine by us. My oldest took a little bit longer to have a preference, he didn’t really care,” said Dana.

Dana and her husband did not reveal the sex of their children when they were born and their anatomy did not dictate their gender. Each child was allowed to explore and express their gender identity however they wanted. In the beginning, each baby’s pronouns were they/them. “They’re a baby, they don’t know the difference,” Dana said.

As the children got older, they designated a pronoun preference on their own. They’re also allowed to change that pronoun at any time.

Daphne declared she/her pronouns by age 2. Dana calls her a whirlwind compared to Nicholai who didn’t care what people called him. Dana says he’s been more fluid in his gender since he was a toddler.

Nicholai was 5 when he told his mom, “I’d really like it if people used, he.” Dana took his lead and said she would help him correct people. Shortly after, Dana and Nicholai were at the grocery store and a stranger misgendered him: “You have a beautiful daughter.”

Nicholai looked up at his mom and she corrected the stranger, “Oh, this is my son.”

The stranger, embarrassed, apologized directly to Nicholai.

“Why are you sorry?” Nicholai asked, “There’s nothing wrong with being a girl.”

Dana homeschools her children in an environment where they can explore gender without expectation. Nicholai’s hockey team and coach are aware of his gender exploration. Dana also makes sure to advocate for her kids’ choices out of the home. She has experienced pushback, especially at sports-related events, but Dana has sat down with different adults to explain how her children are exploring and expanding their genders.

Dana said she and her husband wanted to give their kids options to choose. She added, “No child has a problem expressing their opinions once they are four. Any parent with a four-year-old will tell you that.”

According to lana Michelle Sherer of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children develop their gender identity and can express it usually around age two.

“So, it’s great that parents want to avoid making assumptions about who they are before then and avoiding gender-based stereotypes. The AAP supports children of all gender identities and supports parents in following their leads to promote healthy development. While not all parents will use they/them pronouns for their kids, allowing kids to make their own decisions about play, clothing, and yes, pronouns, is a positive move toward a more inclusive world,” Sherer wrote.

AAP’s policy statement “Ensuring Comprehensive Care and Support for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children and Adolescents” a family’s acceptance or rejection has little influence  on the gender identty of the child “however, it may profoundly affect young people’s ability to openly discuss or disclose concerns about their identity.”

AAP research also suggests that parents put less focus on who the child will become. Instead, value who they are now. This will foster a secure relationship as well as resilience.

Dana said she and her husband’s major motivator was, “Do no harm.”

“For us it just came down to having all these big expectations for such tiny people didn’t seem realistic…It’s not just for the sake of doing things different, or being a snowflake, there’s actual, tangible harm from having these stringent, arbitrary expectations of humans based on what’s in their pants. Anybody who is putting any thought into it–when you break it down to that level, it doesn’t make sense,” Dana said.

Jay Yoder came out as non-binary in their mid-twenties. On Facebook, they changed their name to Jay and designated they/them pronouns.

Yoder’s family called: “Can you just tell us? Did you change your name and pronouns?”

Yoder gulped. “Yeah…” they admitted.

And, that was that. No blow up. No shame. Their family just wanted to know and followed Yoder’s lead. Yoder wasn’t sure why they were so scared to tell their parents directly.

“I think it was the, emotional, over intellectual fear of finding your family’s boundary. I’m already the survivor of violence. I’m already the feminist. I’m already the lesbian. I’m the queer. Now I’m going to tell them I used a different name,” Yoder said.

They felt a societal pressure, a burden. Yoder says their family did nothing wrong and had always been supportive.

“It’s in my head. It’s a narrative I see out in the community. They’re really important to me. If they had said, ‘Jay, you’re changing identities. You’re crazy.’ It would have been devastating to me,” Yoder said.

Yoder navigated gender and queerness with a family who was open, but who didn’t necessarily have the language for what they were experiencing. They wanted to be seen for who they were and said it hurts when adults, parents, siblings, pastors, or teachers, refuse to do that.

“And,” they said, “It hurts when they do see you for exactly who you are, and want you to change it.”

An advocate speaks

Charlie Borowicz is the transgender health project manager at the Center for Inclusion Health for Allegheny Health Network. They train departments and offices throughout the health system–making sure doctors and healthcare providers are using the correct pronouns for patients and coworkers.

Borowicz also advocates within the healthsystem. When a non-binary or trans person calls, Borowicz is their ambassador, connecting them with the appropriate department and recommending different docotors or healthcare providers who are specifically trained in pronoun usage and trans / nonbinary healthcare.

“We work with traditionally excluded or marginalized populations who struggle with access to healthcare…It’s more than just using someone’s name, it’s ensuring that somebody feels welcomed and is supported. But also that their identity is affirmed when they’re doing things to take care of their bodies,” said Borowicz.

Borowicz also uses they/them pronouns within the healthcare system, which informs their work as well.

“It’s pretty much a constant education of people,” they said,” Any time I meet somebody new who I am going to continue to interact with, it’s a conversation about what pronouns are appropriate. Sometimes that conversation happens once, and that’s great. And sometimes that conversation has to happen a few times, which is not as great,” said Borowicz.

Borowicz observed that it’s become easier–people are catching on quicker or have met a non-binary person outside of the workplace. (“I have a friend, cousin, neighbor, who uses ‘they’ too!”)

Borowicz encourages parents to not only educate themselves, but expand their child’s vocabulary in regards to gender. Gender expression and identity isn’t just cis, or trans, or boy or girl, there’s gender fluid, non-binary, gender neutral, gender expansive–a whole array of identities.

“I started thinking about gender identity when I was about 18,” Borowicz said.

Gender exploration wasn’t something they were encouraged to do as a child. It didn’t occur to them to challenge the identity they were assigned until they got older. When they were 18 the question became, Am I a trans man? 

“I thought you could be a male or you could be a female and nothing in between. I was uncomfortable for 9 years until those words came about.  It wasn’t anything in the middle until much later. I didn’t come out as non-binary until I was 27.

“And that’s simply because I did not have the vocabulary to understand.”

Brittany Hailer is a contributing writer for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.