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.

That’s illegal in Sudan?

NewsBlaze.com recently reported on one of the more bizarre police blotter cases on the planet. And it comes out of a Muslim fundamentalist part of Sudan.

A Sudanese court convicted seven men and one woman for indecency and fined them each the local currency equivalent of US$80. The men’s “indecency” was wearing makeup during a fashion show in the town of Khartoum; the woman’s “indecency” was being the makeup artist.

Unfortunately this is par for the course for countries ruled by law based in religious fundamentalism. It’s not entirely unexpected that a fundamentalist regime takes such a dim view of free expression rights, acknowledged in Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Regardless, this is such a pathetic use of law enforcement resources that it deserves condemnation on those grounds alone.

Shame on you, Sudan. If you wonder why the world looks down on you, this is why.

Sexism, alive and well in 2009

This is probably the one topic I have needed to write about ever since starting this blog, but for some reason have been too caught up in other current events to do justice to. The topic is sexism. Particularly, sexism against men, and the double standard by which sexism is measured depending on which gender it is against.

What brought on the urge to write this? This tweet on Twitter by one of my friends on Twitter, Jason Armstrong: “so I like feminine drinks. Whatev.” My response, I dare say, was me at my best: “hey, alcohol is alcohol.” That response provides one small glimpse–okay, maybe more than just a glimpse–into my viewpoint, but it runs deeper than that.

This would be just another ephemeral exchange on Twitter were it not for Jason’s prior blog post, where he is writing about which I will quote in part:

I’m just not a “macho” kind of guy and in fact I have a strong dislike for machismo. Although I’ve been in the Army and a police officer, I am an emotional person. I’m a sensitive person. I’ll cry at a movie.

I remember the first time I read this post, particularly this part which I identified quite a bit with. It is quite frustrating that men are expected not to show emotion, and I see this as just the tip of a sexist iceberg.

I originally planned for the “feminine drink” reference to just be the introduction, but I will say here in as many words: the entire concept of “feminine drinks” or “women’s cocktails” is something I find rather silly. For the record, I defy any self-described “macho man” to down five pink ladies within an hour (or any so-called “feminine” drink of his choice) and pass a field sobriety test.

Some years ago when watching Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (back when we had HBO as part of our satellite TV package) I once ran across a story similar to this one detailed in a New York Times article about a case where Title IX was used to get a boy on a girl’s field hockey team. (Title IX refers to one of the Education Amendments of 1972, guaranteeing equal participation in Federally funded education programs regardless of gender, and is the legislation which is essentially responsible for organized scholastic female athletics as we know them today.) Now, I agree in principle with what happened here; Title IX should work both ways. The tone of one comment in the article, “He’ll be playing varsity soon… That means a girl will have to sit down,” is something I take just a bit of exception to.

With those kind of comments, how far have we really come as a society? What would happen to the parent of a boy on the boy’s football team with a girl who made the team thanks to Title IX were that parent to say “She’ll be playing varsity soon, that means my son might be sitting down?” That parent would probably face some rather sharp criticism, Especially if it were a father in question; he’d be the target of so many “male chauvinist pig” comments he may as well go buy a pig costume and get used to saying “oink oink” at the next football game. Yet it’s completely acceptable for the parent of a female athlete to make the same types of comments against a boy. Why? It sure as hell shouldn’t be. It makes no sense at all.

We, as a society, have mostly ignored even the possibility of anti-male sexism. In fact, I believe most people reading this would not know that such a thing could exist, and that sexism by default refers to anti-female comments. Such an assumption cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. Sexism goes both ways.

I’ll cite a particularly insidious example that I have some experience with: the repackaging of personal care products with a “for men” label. I have no real issue with this, but often it’s the same product, just sold at a higher price. Most notably, this is true of skin care products and hair color. I have no idea where I originally came across this, but I do remember it being noted once men’s hair color and women’s hair color are the same product, sold at the same price, except the product for men contains a much smaller amount of actual hair color. The skin care products are the same way: similar products tended to be priced higher when packaged “for men” during my last observation. Sometimes the product made “for men” is in fact a different product, but in general I feel the difference in price is disproportionate.

One of the stronger manifestations of anti-male sexism was the ridicule that the late Michael Jackson endured due to his vitiligo and the makeup used and plastic surgery he underwent, in an attempt to attempt to look somewhat normal. Women take advantage of both makeup and plastic surgery and it’s not the least bit unusual. Why would it be such a big deal that someone, particularly someone with the high profile that Michael Jackson had, to just want to look somewhat normal?

To be fair about it, during the peak of Jackson’s fame, there were little to no “street-grade” color cosmetics aimed either at a unisex or male demographic. (By “street-grade” I mean products intended for daily wear, as opposed to performance makeup used for stage, TV, or film, which is emphatically not intended for daily wear.) Today, of course, we do have color cosmetics (makeup) specifically marketed to men. Often, they aren’t labelled quite the same way, and are rarely if ever referred to as “makeup” outright. The usual descriptive labels of foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, etc. are cast aside for alternative and supposed “macho man friendly” terminology such as “complexion enhancer” or “beard cover.” At least the very existence of these products acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with men wanting to look their best. When the availability of these products was much narrower, I remember stumbling across an article in a prominent men’s Web site (I want to say it was specifically the Web site of a prominent men’s magazine but unfortunately cannot find the article now) that once said something along the lines of “men should not wear makeup, period.” This is flagrant sexism and I would expect better of a major magazine. (And yes, I would find it equally unacceptable coming from Glamour, Allure, Marie Claire, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, etc.)

Another example is the infamous shirt design with the inscription “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.” I realize this is a bit old and well documented at Wikipedia already, but it is still very relevant. (I only found out about the shirts and controversy recently.) What happens if we turn this around and sell shirts to guys saying “girls are dumb, throw rocks at them?” All of a sudden, we have accusations of male chauvinism and sexism running wild. From this the only reasonable conclusion is that the original is sexist as well. To conclude otherwise sets a double standard or validates that sexism is only sexism when directed at women.

Even clothing styles have somewhat of a sexist slant. Women fought for the right to wear pants and shirts similar to those worn by men, not entirely on functional grounds, and finally won acceptance a few decades ago. Yet the options for men have remained relatively the same over the years. Companies like Utilikilts which make “utility kilts” are still the exception, and the concept of “legless shorts” for men still has yet to catch on.

However, even this is far from the most horrendous example. We hear all the time about female genital mutilation, to the point that I have doubts the term “female circumcision” is seen as acceptable now. Contrast this with its male counterpart. “Male circumcision” to the average person is redundant; “circumcision” by itself has been assumed to apply to males assuming the context does not imply otherwise. Male genital mutilation (circumcision) came into being as the result of a flawed medical study, and continues to be practiced today despite the fact the complication risks outweigh any benefits. Why is it acceptable to mutilate the genitals of males and only males? What is wrong with this picture?

Of course, I have only scratched the surface. Do I think it’s just plain wrong that we as a society apparently use machismo as an excuse to allow sexism against men to remain unchecked? Absolutely. This differs a bit from an active dislike of that machismo in and of itself, though I have a slight distaste for that as well, it is far from a complete aversion.