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Tomboys, Gender Non Conformity, & Trans Identity

A few more thoughts about that NYT tomboy article, the various rebuttals, and my post from yesterday.

I have to own that I wanted that mom to be right. For starters, because the world is transphobic and I am too – not because I mean to be but because it’s so easy to be so. It’s how the world is structured.

For example, some folks immediately objected to my using ‘he’ pronouns for this child, but only trans people objected to the child being referred to as ‘she’. And I think that’s precisely because most people still think biology is destiny, and thinking the child’s gender assignment at birth is more natural than the child being trans is, basically, transphobic.

Any assumption that the child being a trans boy is a worse or ‘less real’ outcome than the child being a tomboy is also transphobic.

While all of that may or may not have caused me to be cheering on this tomboy, it’s way more than that, too.

What was disappointing about that article is the way she presented trans and GNC as if they are mutually exclusive opponents of some kind. They are not.

The thing is, I want company. I’ve been gender non conforming in one way or another for most of my life; even when I was as feminine as I could manage – and I tried, I swear I tried – I was often assumed to be a lesbian. These days, when people know that me or my wife is trans, they assume I’m the trans one — though I’m honestly never clear which direction they think I’ve gone/am going in, to be honest. I’m personally thankful that the trans movement has made my own liminally trans/GNC gender a little more legible, but as a result I face another dilemma: people assume I’m trans because I’m GNC.

And that’s the nut of why I and so many others wanted that mom to be both honest and right: because gender non conformity is policed all the time, and it seems sad that the only way to convince others that your gender non conforming behavior or appearance is real is to identify as trans yourself. Gender stereotypes and gender role enforcement are bullshit for everyone whether you’re trans or not trans. A trans woman feeling forced to be stereotypically feminine is as bullshit as a non trans woman who experiences the same patriarchal pressure.

Here’s the thing: I know I’m not trans. Some crossdressers know they aren’t. For the same reasons we trust trans people to know their own gender identities, we know what ours are too. And mine just isn’t binary or nameable or whatever. Sometimes I like Ursula LeGuin’s “bad man” idea. Other times I remember I produce more testosterone than most people born with ovaries. I also choose not to identify as trans because I am married to my wife, who did transition, and who lives with a world of bullshit that I do not. That is, I don’t identify as trans because I respect the authority of the people who I know to be trans, and I am sure my experience is nothing like theirs. That is, I have cis(sexual) privilege, despite not being normatively gendered.

I really shouldn’t even have to explain that but I feel, often, that I do. I’m not trans because I’m not, just as my wife is trans because she is.

But right now my gender identity (GNC) and her gender identity (trans) are supposed to be part of the same big trans umbrella. Originally the word transgender was meant to be an inclusive term that included transsexual people (along with many others) but transgender has since supplanted transsexual and now that it’s been shortened to trans that’s even more true.

To explain: the definition of transsexual was, in the first place, meant to describe people who had pursued medical/legal/social transition. Transgender was supposed to enlarge and expand that, to include those who couldn’t medically transition or to cover those who were socially dysphoric but not body dysphoric, etc. So it’s awesome that we have an expanded sense of what trans is except that it really isn’t. The thing is, almost every visible trans person is not only transitioned, but they are usually and often binary transitioners (meaning they go from people who are assigned one gender at birth who live as the “opposite” gender after transition). As a result, transgender often effectively means transsexual, even though we don’t use the latter term much at all anymore. The umbrella has collapsed, where every other version of trans that isn’t transition has become ‘less than’.

As many genderqueer, non binary, gender fluid, gender non conforming people, crossdressers, drag queens, sissies and tomboys will tell you: when we don’t claim big umbrella trans it’s because trans is also policed, and only those who choose either binary or medical/legal/social transition are considered truly trans. As another piece explains well, it’s really as if cis/trans has become the next binary, or an emerging binary, except that I’m not entirely sure who’s supposed to be on which side.

So that’s why I don’t identify as trans. I use “gendery” because it seems more accurate. I have a lot of gender(s), and some of them are visible and available all the time and some of them come and go. I was a tomboy as a kid.

What we’re left with, really, is a problem, and perhaps the biggest unspoken wish when I was reading that tomboy article: not only do I want company, but I want to BE, and so do a whole bunch of people like me. And while it’s true that many trans people are open to the idea of others being GNC, I’m not really sure we’re considered real, not by anyone, actually, trans or cis alike.

The reality is that trans people are FAR more comfortable with gender non conforming people than cis people are. There is no trans agenda that “encourages” children to transition. But I’d argue that transphobia is itself the reason that people may want gender non conforming children to transition or for adults who are NB to “choose one or the other” (as if there are only two). Trans/cis is not a particularly useful binary for those of us who aren’t either, exactly; I’ve written before about being cissexual but not cisgender.

Here’s the first clue: maybe a goddamned binary won’t work, because they never do.

I don’t want to feel forced to identify as trans in order for my gender to be recognized, and neither should any kid. So maybe instead of diagnosing this child, we should be thinking instead about how we make space for children and for people who are traditionally gendered or binary, those who are gender non conforming, and for those who are legally/medically trans. We can call it the gender trifecta. Trinities are always cooler than binaries anyway.

The thing is, this girl exists. This tomboy. The NYT author may have been lying or in denial or just transphobic, but even if this particular child is not a tomboy and is trans, that doesn’t mean that other tomboy isn’t out there. She is.

I was her. She is me. That child may also grow up to be a man, a gender normative woman, or any number of other gender choices. What I hope she won’t be is hostile to trans people of any stripe: this is not a contest between; it’s a distinction among. That child is the reason I’m a loud and proud trans advocate; not because I don’t believe in trans people, but because I do: I live right next door.

(much thanks to Paisley Currah and Erica Foley for providing the space and pressure to work out these ideas.)

Happy Earth Day? From an Urban Green

I’ve never really figured out how I’m supposed to love Mother Earth and am suspicious of anything as awesome as a planet being gendered, of course. That’s human silliness.

I first became green when I volunteered for NYC’s Earth Day, in Central Park, in 1990. I’d taken a great environmental biology class – and read the amazing Economy of Nature by Ricklefs – and that was that. IIRC, I sold my ‘staff’ t-shirt so I could get into Wetlands that night, an awesome little performance space that I still miss. In a year or so I was working at NYPIRG, where we organized for recycling laws, the 5-cent deposit on cans & bottles, against disposability and for environmental economic justice. (Harlem, for instance, got a water treatment plant but it also got a park to go with it, at least.)

My point, however, is this: there is sometimes an assumption that greens or environmentalists have to be crunchy hippie types. That you have to be a vegetarian. That you must own things made out of hemp, or you must be a stoner, or like folk music, or like hiking, or crystals. You can’t wear makeup or smoke cigarettes or, even, live in a goddamned city, even though city dwellers have far smaller carbon footprints than those who don’t. It honestly pisses me off that people who go hiking and live in the suburbs and drive their asses everywhere are considered greener than people in cities. I am for mass transit and trains because they’re green, and I didn’t get my license until I was 42 because I refused to participate in car culture and all of the noxious bullshit it brings.

Even now I am more worried about the ways the poor will experience environmental degradation, that the coastal cities will flood, that indigenous people who live on flood plains or islands will become refugees, that the rates of cancer will go up, that the kinds of natural disasters will become so common that we will cease recovering from them and live in places that are half broken from whatever tornado/hurricane came through last. As far as I can tell, the Rockaways and Long Island never totally recovered from Sandy, and I’m not sure anyone outside of NY knows that, or if anyone inside NY wants to admit it.

And then there’s the water table, which honestly, I can’t even think about some days because what’s coming scares me.

I do believe that some science and technology will help; humans are ingenious. But I worry too that these technologies will benefit only the wealthiest, as they often do.

I am skeptical of a lot of science, all the biases human beings bring to it, the ways we still don’t have enough women or people of color doing the work. It enrages me, to be honest, because we really do need all hands on deck, and the very best of the best, which we don’t get when we skew toward white men getting all the jobs.

So instead maybe of Marching for Science or celebrating the Earth, think of Earth Day this way: you’re marching for rationalism, for education, for creative genius; you’re marching for respect for people and cultures and health; you’re marching today for water and air that won’t kill you, for elephants and polar bears and giraffes. But to me, mostly, you’ve marching against riots over resources, for the poor, for the chance at justice.

I am not cheerful today, or optimistic. But I will be present because I have to be. You should too.

 

Dismayed: Tomboys in the NYT

So many people, including me, read that NYT piece about the mom who was proud of her GNC child who she described as a tomboy – a girl who is masculine but female-identified. Yay, gender non conformity! Yay tomboys!

There was expected pushback from trans quarters – expected and valuable, even if I thought it was sometimes beside the point. I have a problem with all GNC behavior being considered trans except for the kinds, you know, that aren’t “trans enough” – and I know you crossdressers and genderqueer/GNC and enbies know what I’m talking about, when a binary trans person claims the high ground.

But I agreed that it didn’t make sense for the mom to be so “but she’s not trans” because honestly? So many GNC children DO turn out to be trans, and the mom would need to be open to whatever path her child might be on.

There was an exceptionally good piece by Zack Ford that tried to work out the separations and overlaps of GNC and trans.

That said, it’s come to light that the child has in fact talked about being and wanting to be a boy. Here’s the line:

“As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like “Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?” the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.

So honestly? I’m disappointed and aggrieved that this mom is clinging to her child’s GNC identity as if it’s somehow the last outskirts of “normal” – that she is trying to keep her kid from crossing over into scary transland.

Just FUCK TRANSPHOBIA already.

But here’s the thing: even if her kid was “only a tomboy” – which he doesn’t seem to be – the child is already trans. Maybe not transition track, maybe not interested in medical, biological changes to their body, but trans – in the sense of the trans umbrella – all the same.

So let’s all get over it, shall we? These are not teams where one side “wins” later. More tomboys doesn’t mean more/better feminist future. Gender non conforming children need support no matter where they end up, but the last thing they need is a mom proving some point (which honestly, I’m not even sure what it is at this point) or a bunch of strangers diagnosing their gender for them. What we don’t need is parents lying about their kids’ gender identities because it suits them, and that’s exactly what this mom did.

For once, please, can we all try to realize that everyone’s experience of gender is different, and that we need to hear what people say about their own, and provide environments for children to be trans or GNC or whatever it is they are.

What Comes Back

It’s been a long year of so many losses, but in a sense, this start of spring, the undoing of wintry death, reminds us too of what won’t come undone just with the passage of time, that some things, and some people, will stay dead, but that other things are still on their way, incoming bits of beauty that are awaiting just the right ray of sunshine to make their appearance known to us.

My mom loved the spring because she loved trees and plants and flowers in ways that I never really understood; she could be moved to tears at the right bud on the right flower making its way through the ground. She loved babies too, of all kinds, and I regret that she never did get to see spring in Wisconsin, the baby bunnies and baby raccoons and ducklings all in the midst of this powerful, powerful green. It’s a little overwhelming for a city kid, and my allergies are a fucking wreck, but it’s still so profound every year, the way this place comes back to life after being so frozen and so cold and so gray for months and months and months.

A former student wrote to me with doubt about writing his life with a lush mother and too many bad bedrooms of his childhood. In the context of Syria, he said, who cares about my bullshit? And you know? Sometimes all we have are the human-sized losses, the ways that we can mourn what we did have and what we never had, to remember that love for each other on the day to day is the only thing that counts.

Some days I am merely thankful that my parents are not here to see what we are doing to each other in the name of freedom and peace. MOABs bring neither, but watching out for each other on a small scale might.

Keep the faith, folks. The world is already a better place than it seems to be sometimes, and so often, good things have to hibernate or disappear in order to come back.

Music: PWR BTTM

I can’t even with the news so here’s some music and cool lyrics. Sing along when the haters get you down.

[Verse 1]
There are men in every town who live to bring you down
Make themselves feel bigger making you feel small
My advice is to look incredible
As you make their lives regrettable by being your damn self
God, it’s so exhausting

[Chorus]
Curse that motherfucker who would spit upon another’s body
Who the hell gave you the right to tell me that I’m wrong
Curse every one of you who tells me that I cannot be who I want
Ain’t no fucking way you’ll fuck up my big beautiful day

[Verse 2]
There are men everywhere who cannot help but stare
When they see you ’cause they cannot understand
Within those men there are boys who have never had the choice
But to grow up and be scared to be your friend
Jesus Christ, let’s help them

[Chorus]
Curse that motherfucker who would spit upon another’s body
Who the hell gave you the right to tell me that I’m wrong
Curse every one of you who tells me that I cannot be who I want
Ain’t no fucking way you’ll fuck up my big beautiful day
My day

Baby and Bathwater

There is a tendency, I think, for those of us whose goal is creating a world that is a little more self aware of sexism, racism, transphobia, and the rest, to dismiss writers and artists based on a single opinion, utterance, work of art, song, etc.

  • Is all of Kate Bornstein’s work necessarily discredited because she defended the use of the T word?
  • Is all of Dan Savage’s work for shit because of his denial of bisexual existence and/or his transphobia? 
  • Is there any delicacy in recognizing that there was a moment in time in which being “trans amorous” was a radical and trans-positive position? 

I think about this stuff because a lot of what I’ve written over the years could be interpreted as transphobic now, or, at the very least, problematic. Some of it was at the time, too. I am not, nor have I ever been, a ‘respect your elders’ sort of person, but I’m also pretty turned off by the complete lack of historical context some seem to exist in, as if fine-tuned arguments about the nature of transphobia haven’t been happening all along: As if we didn’t debate ‘transgender’ vs ‘transgendered’. As if no one has ever called themselves a transvestite proudly. As if…

To some degree, it’s one of the reasons I feel myself not wanting to write another book about anything trans related; for starters, I think it was useful for a cis feminist liminally trans type like myself to do the work that I did at the time, but now? I think transness is in good hands for the most part, although I’m happy to pipe in when and where it’s needed.

But mostly I feel myself stymied by the idea that anything I might put into the public sphere now would be so roundly shot down on a technicality that it’s really just not worth the effort. I prefer hanging out in this tiny corner of the internet doing my thing, being read by folks who appreciate what I do, and talking to people one on one who might need some help finding resources or the like.

I’m tired of people who have opinions but who don’t do anything or create anything or legislate anything. I feel more much occupied by the work and much less interested in the debate.

Maybe it’s an older vs. younger activist sort of thing and I’m officially middle-aged, but from here on in I feel like I’m going to be asking a lot more questions of critics far and wide: well, what have you done? Who have you helped? Have you created, or tried creating, anything of lasting value? In a sense it’s an age-old problem: This doesn’t satisfy, says the critic; So what have you got? says the artist.

And out goes the bathwater, baby and all.

WI Trans Youth Study!

This is so exciting – a study of the needs of trans youth in WI. Please get the word out.

WI TRANS YOUTH STUDY

Are you a transgender or gender nonconforming young person living in Wisconsin? Make sure your voice is counted in a statewide survey to understand what resources are needed to improve the lives of trans and gender nonconforming youth!

We want to make Wisconsin a better place to live for trans and gender nonconforming youth. In order to do that, the Transgender Youth Resource Network of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Transgender Health Coalition are working together on a research project to learn about transgender and gender non-conforming youth’s access to and experiences with resources and support. We’re specifically focusing on what resources you’re currently using, what resources you need, and what barriers you experience in accessing these resources.

We do not anticipate any direct benefits from participating, but the data from this study may benefit trans youth by improving the resources available, removing barriers to those resources, and identifying new areas of need. There are some risks, which include slight discomfort in telling personal stories and confidentiality risk if sharing identifiable information in open-ended questions and providing contact information for compensation. Also, participants sometimes describe participating in surveys as beneficial because they can share personal experiences they may not otherwise have the opportunity to share.

You are eligible to participate in this study if you are age 12-22, identify as trans or gender nonconforming, and live at least part of the year in Wisconsin. Participation is voluntary. The survey should take about 15-20 minutes to complete. You will be paid for your time for participating.

Take the survey by copying the link (both below):

 

https://uwmadison.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9NVB75Jr4oa1R6l

 

For more information, please contact the Study Investigators:

Dr. Brittany Allen – bjallen@pediatrics.wisc.edu

Dr. Jennifer Rehm – jrehm@pediatrics.wisc.edu

This research study has been approved by the University of Wisconsin-Madison IRB.

Victim Blaming Dr. Dao

Now journalists are starting to dig into Dr. Dao’s past, as if some criminal history or other misdeed somehow “explains away” the violence done to him by United.

This is victim blaming.

I hope, if anything like this ever happens to me, no one asks me how I dressed, what I did in the past, or whether or not I have a criminal history.

I would just want people to respond to the unfair and violent way I was treated after having done nothing wrong but bought a plane ticket and gotten in my seat.

In gender studies we often use the idea of “asking the other question” – to see what kind of power structures might be at work. The obvious one here is capitalism, where it’s seen as legitimate for a company to protect its property instead of treating people with respect. But there’s patriarchy, too, which trains men to believe that violence is an acceptable way to protect property. I’d add as well racism – Dao is Vietnamese-American – and orientalism, if you read some of the descriptions of the way he behaved. (Honestly, if I see the word “unusual” one more time I’m going to scream.)

Other articles are pointing up sexual misconduct, too, and honestly, the whole thing is sickening. He was brutalized by a company he paid to transport him. That is all. There was no good reason for it, and the behavior of United should be roundly criticized by all of us who fly.

Medical Treatment & Trans Youth

I have to admit that I tend to peep with one eye over any article by the NYT, or any other mainstream media, when they cover trans issues of any kind. I expect the usual disasters: trans women being referred to as men, bringing up socialization as a means of discrediting their gender identity, mixing up the basics like gender expression and gender identity.

But this article, about current medical treatment for young trans people, is actually refreshing. It brings together not just what a lot of us have known for years – most people who transition do so successfully and without regret – as well as the current studies on the subject.

Despite all of the pushback, medical professionals and psychologists and teachers and parents are all beginning to get it. While I might quibble with Hannah being “born a boy” – the better way to say that is that she was assigned male at birth – overall I’m pleased to see a mainstream news article that starts with compassion and ends with science.

Becoming Trans-Parent: Poems

Hey all! A local mom, Annette Langlois Grunseth, whose daughter is trans, has written a book of poetry called Becoming Trans-Parent: One Family’s Gender Transition about the experience and she’s hoping to sell a bunch more in pre-sales as that will determine interest and the size of the printing.

If you can, please go buy one. 

Here is one of those poems:

Key Change

Live as if you were living already for the second time 

 Viktor Frankl

She sings her own song
a contemporary score
composed in new ways
perhaps dissonant to some
but not to those who really listen.
It’s still beautiful music.
Well-measured
it comes from the same place
but arranged in a new tune.
The melody exudes happiness
the harmony is real.
You can’t fault the composer for that.
Remember Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
shook people up in their time.
Listen as she brings you into the light
with her song, a symphony even.

ACLU Sues WI Over Trans Health Coverage

At long last, some good news:

MILWAUKEE – The national ACLU, ACLU of Wisconsin, and volunteer attorneys from the law firm Hawks Quindel sued Wisconsin’s state university system and insurance board today over their refusal to provide gender-affirming health insurance coverage to state employees who are transgender.

The suit was filed on behalf of Alina Boyden, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Shannon Andrews, a cancer researcher at the University of Wisconsin Medical School.

“The state continues to deny our clients coverage for medically necessary treatment simply because they are transgender, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” said John Knight, of the ACLU’s national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and HIV Project. “All that transgender people like Alina and Shannon are asking for is to be treated like everyone else, and that includes respect and coverage for the health care you need.”

May they win, and win well, and set the bar high for all employers in WI.