When I first read the original “tomboy” opinion piece in the New York Times, it felt like the author had reached through my laptop to grip my bare heart in her hands. I have read no other article that so immediately evoked the worry I feel for gender non-conforming young girls today, and the lingering sadness I feel about my own girlhood. Then, another detransitioner shared Chase Strangio’s response with me, and I instead felt defeated and alone.
We do need more nuance in discussions of gender and parenting. But dismissing the experiences of gender non-conforming girls is not how we get it.
If you haven’t read the original article, here’s a quick summary: Lisa Selin Davis often has to correct people about her daughter’s pronouns, not because her daughter is trans, but because she’s a tomboy and people assume that she is transitioning. Davis notes that this is, on one hand, a wonderful sign of an increasing acceptance of gender non-conformity in general and trans people more specifically. She clearly asserts that if her daughter eventually wants to transition, she will actively support that. However, she also notes that when people repeatedly make these assumptions about her daughter, they are not only demonstrating their openness to a young girl’s possible transness–they are also shifting the definitions of “girl” and “woman” to a slightly more narrow vision requiring a little more femininity, and excluding just a little bit more butchness. And it adds up. Eventually, these questions and implications say to little girls who don’t conform to gender stereotypes: you’re not a girl if you like these things and behave this way. But you could be a boy!
Still, Davis never expresses hostility toward trans people, or to childhood transition as a concept. Instead, she embraces that acknowledging nuance is necessary–that there can be both tomboys and trans boys, that sometimes the line between those identities is hard to see, and that defining girlhood this narrowly harms all sorts of female-bodied kids. Yet in a series of tweets, Chase Strangio dismisses the piece as “basic” and claims it lacks nuance completely.
Strangio’s open letter proceeds in a more respectful tone. It starts with an acknowledgement that Davis’s piece is appealing on some levels and to certain people, and it frames the discussion as a challenge rather than an argument. And the challenge comes from a valid place–the concern that Davis’s contextualization of her daughter’s gender non-conformity within the rising awareness of trans identities blames her struggle on trans people, and might lead to harm against trans kids.
I absolutely empathize with this. When I was trans, I feared that any public discussion of a perspective counter to the trans narrative, anything that could be construed as negative toward transness, could be used to hurt us. And there is some truth to that. I also agree with Strangio on several points: first, that the stereotypes Davis’s daughter has to deal with are fundamentally rooted in patriarchy, and second, that Davis’s distinction between gender and gender roles is unnecessary and misleading. Yet at the same time, I see Strangio’s argument as fundamentally flawed.
In response to Davis saying that adults should be able to see a little girl dressing in “boy” clothes without asking her if she is actually a boy, Strangio writes, “Really, is that the biggest problem we have with gender? That people are asked what their gender is?” But Davis’s issue–and my issue, and the issue of many detransitioned women–is not with the asking, it’s with what the asking implies.
It would be a completely different situation if all little girls (and little boys) were regularly being asked their pronouns, as Strangio suggests they should be. But that’s not what’s happening. The only little girls people ask if they’re actually boys are gender non-conforming girls who exhibit traits that are “too masculine.” That’s an artifact of misogyny. That’s the patriarchal system using transness as a tool to enforce misogynist stereotypes. And it’s actively, viscerally hurting girls and women like us.
When gender non-conforming girls internalize that kind of misogyny, we retreat further into ourselves. We begin rejecting our bodies and our femaleness. We become more anxious, more prone to body dysmorphia, more dysphoric. If it continues long enough and strong enough, some of us wind up transitioning even though we don’t need to, which can be tremendously psychologically and physically damaging. Some of us wind up severely depressed, with eating disorders, engaging in self-harm or self-medication. Some of us wind up killing ourselves.
Strangio claims that connecting this process to the acceptance of trans kids is dangerous because “trans women and femmes of color are being murdered because the impulse is to believe that trans-ness is fraudulent, that our bodies are threats.” Fundamentally, though, it’s not people seeing transness as fraudulent that results in these murders. It’s a combination of misogyny and homophobia that threatens the regimented gender system and leads to fear and rage and violence. Trans bodies are threats to this system, but so are the bodies of gender non-conforming men and women, especially gay men and women. Though there are factors that increase its intensity, at its root, anti-trans violence is driven by the same forces that lead to gay men (especially effeminate gay men) getting bashed and being denied healthcare for HIV/AIDS, and the same forces that lead to lesbians (especially butches) being sexually harassed and correctively raped. Without misogyny and homophobia, it wouldn’t matter if trans women were seen as “real” women–because no one would be murdered for failing to conform to the ordered gender system patriarchy requires.
Acknowledging that gender non-conforming girls and women are hurt by the use of transness as a tool to enforce femininity upon them does not contradict the basic right of trans people to their existence. It’s good that Davis has conversations with people about her daughter’s gender, and it’s wonderful that she is glad to make them “reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like.” Doing so does not deny that trans boys exist. Instead, it makes just a little bit more room for girls that don’t look “like girls.” It makes room for Davis’s daughter. It makes room for women like me.