The lesson tomboys can teach about transgender identities

Clothes and appearance don’t define what it means to be trans.


An op-ed in this week’s New York Times called “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” has prompted a lot of interesting conversations. In it, author Lisa Selin Davis talks about how her daughter enjoys dressing like and looking like a boy. She also likes a lot of boy things and most of her friends are boys. But she’s not transgender; she’s a girl. Despite many disagreements about how Davis framed this perspective, it actually offers a vital lesson about the nature of transgender identities.

For many masculine, “butch,” or gender nonconforming women, the op-ed was simply affirming of their experiences. The comments section is full of women — particularly older adult women — talking about how much harder it was to be gender nonconforming when they were younger. They applauded Davis for affirming her daughter and creating more visibility for tomboys like her.

Despite the fact Davis offered full-throated affirmation for transgender kids, the op-ed did not sit well with all transgender people. Some took umbrage to the way Davis expressed exasperation that adults are always asking her daughter if she’s transgender or expecting her to prefer male pronouns. For example, Sarah Maywalt, a trans woman, commented on the article that Davis should “appreciate the attitude people take with your daughter.” While it might be annoying that they’re asking questions based on an assumption that turns out to be wrong, at least they’re trying to be respectful, instead of mocking or rejecting her.

Chase Strangio, a trans man who heads up much of the ACLU’s transgender legal advocacy, offered an even more critical response. He argued that Davis was speaking from a place of significant privilege and that by framing her daughter’s experience in contrast to trans youth, her op-ed is contributing to the narrative that questions the legitimacy of transgender identities. “Trans youth are dying because society is telling them, telling us, that we are fake,” he wrote. “A white young person being asked questions about her gender is not a new problem and it is not a problem that should be blamed on trans people or trans affirmative shifts in society or medicine.”

According to Strangio, the op-ed and the response it has received reveal a significant double standard. Few respondents questioned Davis about who her daughter is and how she lives her life, but trans people are not afforded the same privilege of being affirmed when they talk about their identities. “Just remember when trans people write about ourselves with such confidence in our identities, we are questioned and not believed. When we talk about what makes us our gender, how we know we are a girl or a boy or neither or both, even though we possess non-conforming characteristics, we are criticized for reifying gender.”

Strangio’s concerns were validated by conservative responses to Davis’s op-ed. Despite the author’s support and affirmation for transgender youth, opponents of trans equality nevertheless saw her defense of her daughter as confirmation of the supposed dangers of respecting trans identities.

Breitbart’s Neil Munro, for example, proclaimed that “in general, gay and transgender activists are trying to impose a ‘genderless society’ on Americans’ society.” The op-ed, he argued, proved that parents have valid concerns about their kids being somehow coerced to pursue hormone replacement therapy and gender confirmation surgery just for acting like the other gender. By Munro’s logic, a “genderless society” somehow simultaneously means forcing conformity to gender norms.

At The Federalist, Leslie Loftis similarly argued that “celebrating transgender diversity requires affirming gender roles.” Her understanding of being transgender is simply taking on “feminine or masculine dress, roles, and affectations,” and she insists that the trans ideology leaves no room to distinguish between a trans boy and a tomboy girl.

But those eager to reject the legitimacy of transgender identities miss the simple lesson this op-ed offers. There is a difference between a trans boy and a tomboy girl, and the fact that it’s something other than clothes, appearance, and affectation speaks to the very reality of what it means to be transgender.

For the longest time, psychiatrists would diagnose kids as having gender dysphoria just for exhibiting the kind of gender nonconforming behaviors and preferences Davis describes about her daughter. Under the DSM-IV, which guided psychiatric practice through the early 2000s, a child could be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder of childhood” simply for their nonconforming dress, friend, and play preferences — even if they didn’t meet the criterion of insisting they actually were the other gender.

Only in the DSM-5, finalized in 2013, were the diagnostic criteria updated to require that children exhibit “a strong desire to be of the other gender or an insistence that he or she is the other gender” in addition to other gender nonconforming characteristics. The shorthand that many therapists use to describe this distinction is that some children are “persistent, consistent, and insistent” that they experience distress in their assigned gender. Studies have shown that these transgender kids identify as strongly with their gender as their cisgender peers, and they thrive when they are affirmed in these identities.

Distinguishing between this internal sense of gender and other outward gender preferences is at the core of understanding what it means to be transgender. The relative novelty of drawing this distinction in children is likely responsible for the kinds of concerns Davis expressed in her op-ed, but it’s essential to affirming both trans and gender nonconforming people alike.

There are butch trans women just like there are butch cisgender women, and there are effeminate trans men just like there are effeminate cisgender men. Additionally, the growing visibility of gender nonbinary people further speaks to the reality that one’s internal sense of gender and how that person might communicate aspects of gender through their appearance don’t have to be the same, nor does either have to align with what gender they were assigned at birth based on their biological features. Gender isn’t just any one thing; it’s a complex intersection of one’s body (biology), one’s internal sense of gender (psychology), and how one interacts with the rest of the world’s expectations for gender (sociology) — and even that breakdown probably oversimplifies it.

Like Strangio argued, just because some transgender people feel comfortable embracing some aspects of society’s prescribed gender roles doesn’t mean that transgender equality actually requires the reinforcement of a strict gender binary. It just means that trans people live in the same world as everybody else and aren’t necessarily immune to society’s gender expectations just because they’re trans.

Davis may be frustrated that her daughter is often mistaken for transgender, but her daughter is also much freer to be who she is because of the progress made by transgender pioneers. It’s intellectually lazy to blame transgender people for reinforcing gender roles when they are, in fact, at the forefront of breaking down the limitations on how anyone can express their gender.