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.)

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.

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