When Amy Thomas-Martinez began considering baby names a few years ago, the 34-year-old elementary school teacher and her husband, who live in Alexandria, Va., had a couple of ground rules. The name had to be unique, and it couldn’t be the same name as any child she ever taught.
While they drew up separate lists of boy and girl names, Thomas-Martinez observed several transgender or nonbinary students at her school navigate issues around their names. Some changed their birth names since they didn’t suit their gender identities, the original feeling too feminine or masculine. Occasionally, a parent accidently called their child the wrong name. “I would watch in those moments, the way the kids shrunk, the parents shrunk, and everyone felt just really bad and uncomfortable,” she says. “I just had so much empathy for both parties.”
This changed her calculation on what she wanted to name her child, which she knew was going to be a girl. “But that doesn’t mean that’s who she’ll end up being,” says Thomas-Martinez. “I asked myself, ‘What can we do that will make it easier for all of us if the gender she has been assigned is not her true gender?’”
She and her husband decided to give their child a gender-neutral name (also referred to as a unisex name), finally landing on Emory, who is now 3 years old. The couple are part of a growing cadre of parents giving their children gender-neutral names to afford the kid flexibility in the future if their gender identity doesn’t match their birth gender.
Dr. Christia Spears Brown, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has been studying issues related to gender and children for over two decades, began seeing a rise in gender-neutral names roughly 15 years ago. “But that was more about the parents pushing back from gendered stereotypes and wanting to be more gender-neutral in some of their parenting choices,” she says.
Her observation about the increasing popularity of unisex names is backed up by research conducted by Nameberry for a 2016 New York Times article, which found the number of babies with gender neutral names had risen by 88 percent from 1985 until 2015, the latter being the same year pregnancy and parenting website BabyCenter declared it “the year of the gender-neutral baby.” Earlier this year, the website Listophile examined newborn children’s names submitted to the Social Security Administration and discovered a record number of gender-neutral names in 2021: 108,571, a 4.71 percent increase from the previous year.
However, Spears Brown sees children taking their parents’ gender-neutral parenting approach to another level. “Kids increasingly see gender as a flexible identity,” Spears Brown says. “Not only are kids being more open and out if they’re trans, and being allowed to socially transition, but you see an increasing number of nonbinary kids and kids who are gender flexible.”
She sees gender-neutral names as a way of parents helping their child avoid bullying and red tape should they not identify with their birth gender, noting that when children change their names to fit their gender identity, they often face social backlash and bureaucratic hurdles at school or other institutions. “We still live in gender-as-a-binary world in many ways,” she says. “So, there are a lot of things kids have to navigate if they want to push back against that binary. This just gives them one less thing they have to do. It does give them more flexibility to be who they are going to be.”
Thomas-Martinez is not alone in her forward thinking around her child’s name. Emily (who asked her name to be withheld for privacy concerns) began considering names early in her pregnancy before she knew her child’s sex. The 38-year-old Denver-based elementary school music teacher ultimately landed on Micah. “It was one of those instinctual things,” she says. “I like it for a boy, and I like it for a girl, and I’m OK with either way.”
She was inspired by watching friends who transitioned and decided to keep their name or took on a new one similar to their birth name. One told her, “Aside from birthing me, it’s the only thing my mom can hang onto that she gave me.” Emily was comforted knowing that if her daughter ever decided she was nonbinary or transgender, Micah was a name she could keep.
Gender flexibility isn’t always at top of mind at first when parents choose a unisex name. For Crystal Williams — a 41-year-old mom living in Berkeley, Calif. — the desire to give her daughter a gender-neutral name was informed by two decades of working in the tech space, where she encountered professional challenges as a woman. “I wanted to give her some air cover, some camouflage,” she says, hoping the gender-neutral name Dylan on her daughter’s future resume and as her email address would mean recruiters wouldn’t know she was a woman and make any negative stereotypical inferences from that fact.
However, over the years, as Williams watched friends come out as nonbinary and change their names, she realized giving her daughter a gender-neutral name had an added benefit, one she fully endorses in hindsight. “There are so many things we do to try to give our kids an advantage in life,” she says. “This is just one small thing to set them up for flexibility, maximum options.”
Spears Brown sees only upsides for parents and the child, though she admits it shrinks the pool of potential names. “It’s a nice collaboration between the parent and the child,” she says. “It helps define who they are, but still allows them to be flexible.”