On gender identity, tomboys, and a New York Times op-ed

Yes, this is going to be another long post, citing multiple external articles and elaborating on many different parts of the topic (gender identity/transgender issues).

I recently came across this reaction by Chase Strangio to a New York Times op-ed by Lisa Selin Davis (paywall with limited free views). I realize both the op-ed and the reaction are almost five years old now. However, this is probably even more relevant today than it was in the spring of 2017, as gender identity and expression have come even more to the forefront now than then.

Chase opens with an acknowledgment that he wanted to avoid the piece but then saw the praise for it. What he condemns the most is the challenge of the very concept of “trans-ness”, which he believes unnecessary. I agree with him for the most part. Howver, I also believe the original op-ed could be rewritten in places to be less abrasive, less offensive, and easier to understand.

Quoting the op-ed first:

“I just wanted to check,” the teacher said. “Your child wants to be called a boy, right? Or is she a boy that wants to be called a girl? Which is it again?”

I cocked my head. I am used to correcting strangers, who mistake my 7-year-old daughter for a boy 100 percent of the time.

In fact, I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like. But my daughter had been attending the after-school program where this woman taught for six months.

“She’s a girl,” I said. The woman looked unconvinced. “Really. She’s a girl, and you can refer to her as a girl.”

And Chase’s reaction:

The author’s issue is not with trans people or trans-ness—or it shouldn’t be; it is with enforcement of gender norms and the impulse to situate people outside of real girlhood or boyhood because of who they are or how they look or how they act. But connecting this to the affirmation of trans young people in their genders is reckless and dangerous and wrong.

Weighing in here, I believe that trans-ness is real and support the rights of everyone to express their gender and sexuality as they see fit. The fact that some people see trans-ness as fraudulent and that people still ask many questions of those who do not conform to traditional gender roles is a problem.

At this point I refer to “The Holistic Trans Body Poster” and its related descriptive text on wannalearnmore.com. This poster lists the various descriptions of gender identity, assigned gender/sex at birth, gender expression, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation. It is accompanied by descriptions in text format. These are all slightly different concepts. It is quite possible for someone to be, for example, AMAB (assigned male at birth) and have a feminine or androgynous gender expression, yet still be heterosexual and/or heteroromantic.

Now, under this system, how would we describe women traditionally labeled “tomboys”? According to this list, most “tomboys” would be described as AFAB (assigned female at birth) with androgynous to masculine gender expression; the other items could go just about any direction. Now, it’s still quite possible for even an AFAB with completely masculine gender expression to be heterosexual (sexually attracted to men), heteroromantic (romantically attracted to men), and cisgender (i.e. “not trans” in the sense of not identifying as male). I will admit it’s probably not all that common, but still quite possible. To each their own.

Chase nails it with these two points, made at different places in his reply:

The fact that the author takes joy in this shows her privilege. The fact that the Times published this, shows their absence of perspective.

and then later:

Does it suck that the author’s child has to constantly affirm her gender to others? Yes, sure. But that is happening because we constantly impose gender on others — not unlike the author of the piece is doing — and not because some people have a more supportive approach to loving and affirming trans youth.

As for me personally? In my case, I check pretty much all the boxes for traditional maleness. I’m cisgender, AMAB, heterosexual, heteroromantic, and mostly masculine expression. It’s this last one that’s kind of where things get sticky.

With apologies to Cyndi Lauper, boys just want to have fun too, lest we forget. There are two things about gender identity and expression that I keep coming back to. The first is that a lot of the norms of what is considered masculine or feminine gender expression get sillier the more I really think about them. Perhaps one of the better examples are women’s skirts versus men’s kilts. They are basically the same item of clothing with only minimal differences.

The second is that these norms have a very high amount of inertia. Many people still stick to these norms despite their rather questionable relevance in modern times (i.e. they have become outdated). At least, that’s how I see it based on my experiences. The one that comes to mind for me is skin care and cosmetic products. I’m not expecting most men to channel their inner James Charles, Jeffree Star, or Wayne Goss, but I don’t see the big harm in tasteful use of color cosmetics (i.e. makeup) for hiding blemishes and the like. This norm used to be stricter. Yet, even then, there were exceptions to this norm for those in film, television, the performing arts, camouflage face paint for hunters and soldiers, and probably a few others I can’t think of. (This exception didn’t always include drag queens, which is a whole different story for another day.)

Another outdated norm is body hair removal (shaving, waxing, etc). The product descriptions and marketing/advertising still refer to women’s razors for those body hair removal and men’s razors for those designed for facial hair removal. Today, there’s less of a split along gender lines and quite a few people buy both types of razors for different reasons (I’m among them).

As luck would have it, I had done a little research on this a while back. What I learned was a real eye-opener. If you look at stories such as this article on the history of women shaving on Bustle and extrapolate just a bit, the reason most men never took up shaving their body hair is because the razor companies were already making their money from them selling razors for facial hair.

(The razor companies marketed to women by selling them on shaving their body hair. Unlike the men, the women weren’t already buying from the razor companies. It only follows that the razor companies felt they didn’t need to do this for the men, and that they potentially risked alienating some of their male customers if they did try to sell the idea. Of course, back then, the words “shave”, “razor”, and “blade” carried deeply masculine connotations. This meant the early ads were a tricky balancing act.)

As it turns out, there may be more to this than I would have originally have imagined. A recent WWD report blares the headline “Decoding Genderless Fashion, the Future of the Industry”. That’s a bit of a bold statement. However, I don’t have a problem with it in the least if that’s where we are headed. Reading further down the WWD article yields this quote from Rad Hourani, one of the pioneers of genderless fashion:

“In the past two years, [genderless fashion] became a bigger subject, but what I notice the most is they use designs that are loose-fitting, but I think it’s a much deeper look at unisex morphology. There’s nothing new about making a woman masculine or a man feminine. That’s not unisex, that’s making one the other,” Hourani said. “For androgynous, you can’t tell, but it’s not unisex. Unisex is free of any gender categorization or limitation.”

And then we have articles such as this one from an Indian news site Mid-Day which also blazes out what would have been an unthinkable headline decades ago: “Fashion expert shares tips for men on how to ace gender bending looks”. Granted, this article was from 2021 November so maybe it’s not exactly the freshest potato chip in the bag, but it’s still timely enough to be relevant.

The way I look at it, this is a great time for fashion, self-expression, and identity exploration. Tomboys (and janegirls, i.e. males who enjoy traditionally feminine things) aren’t going anywhere. Maybe the terms themselves will fall out of fashion. But it’s likely fashion and self-expression that breaks with the norms of years past will be with us for a good long while.

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