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.

My thoughts on the Caitlin Jenner transition and controversy

I’m going to assume most readers know what I’m referring to without needing to cite a specific news story (a practice which is becoming more hit-or-miss as the days go on and which I’m considering changing; more on this in a later post). For those of you who have missed it and need some backstory, start with this section of the Caitlin Jenner article on Wikipedia.

(I had hoped to get this out there while it was still relatively topical. By now, it’s a bit stale, but I do have a lot to say on the subject, and a lot of the topics will remain relevant for some time to come.)

The last decade has seen a fair number of high-profile events involving sexual preference, gender identity, and gender norms. For example, the “coming out” of college football player, Michael Sam, originally drafted by the St. Louis Rams, later joining the Dallas Cowboys practice squad and then the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. (Other players have since “come out” as gay or lesbian.) It’s no longer the huge taboo it once was for men to use color cosmetics (makeup), though it’s still a relatively small minority that choose to do so. Target has just recently (2015 August) decided to remove gender-based signage from the toys aisles (and some other departments) in its stores. (More on this in a future post, since this is still somewhat topical and worthy of its own post.) The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that life partnership (marriage) can no longer legally be withheld from same-sex couples. All of these combined mean a very different world going forward.

A lot of the controversy surrounded Caitlin receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the 2015 ESPY Awards. It could be said that Caitlin, with her athletic career long since over, was not all that courageous “coming out” as transgender. I can see the logic behind giving her the award though, because coming out as transgender is damned hard enough as it is, and having become this famous as a male athlete, even if three decades prior, can’t possibly have made it any easier.

When the Ashe Award has been given to multiple recipients, there has always been some connection; examples include Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick in 2002, who perished on-board United Flight 93 hijacked as part of the terrorist attacks of 2001 September 11; the Tillman brothers in 2003; and a few others. So one possible answer to the criticism, to award multiple recipients in 2015 for completely unrelated acts of courage, would probably not have gone over well and for good reason.

I’m not going to pretend to be omnipotent regarding who really should have received the award. Indeed, it could be argued there’s no objective way to measure courage and, thus, the answer as to who was the most courageous over the course of a year will vary depending on who is making the decision, and that the debate over whether or not Caitlin deserved the award will continue for many years if not decades. While we as a society have made a lot of progress, there is still a huge gap to close before we can say we have eliminated bias based on unconventional gender identity. I hope that those that disagree with the decision to give Caitlin the Ashe Award can at least respect that decision no matter how vehement their disagreement may be. It is also my hope that Caitlin’s coming out leads to more acceptance of transgender individuals and greater awareness of LGBTQ issues.

Out in the cold on December 17

An entry on Monica Helms’ blog
remembers and laments two fine human beings who perished in part
due to cruel and thoughtless homeless shelter management. The
anniversary of the deaths of both is rapidly approaching: December

On 2008 December 17, it was Jennifer Gale, the frequent political
candidate of Austin, Texas. She was found on the streets and
presumed to have died while sleeping on a bench. Why was Jennifer
sleeping on a bench when there was a women’s shelter run by the
Salvation Army in Austin? Therein lies the problem: that shelter
refused to admit her because she was a transsexual; to gain entry
to a shelter, Jennifer would have to use her old male name and
dress like a man, a complete and total assault on her dignity.
This, despite the fact Austin’s laws prohibit housing and public
accomodation discrimination based on many criteria including
“gender identity.”

On 2002 December 17, a passer-by in Atlanta, Georgia, found Alice
Johnston dead. Unlike Jennifer, Alice didn’t wait to quietly die in
the cold; she shot herself in the head. Her final e-mail from her
Yahoo account read simply: “I will soon be homeless. Since women’s
shelters in Atlanta don’t take transsexuals, I’m a goner.” Like
Austin, Atlanta’s laws also included the same anti-discrimination
ordinance, yet Alice’s inquiry to every women’s shelter in Atlanta
all met with immediate rejection once Alice, being as honest and
transparent as one could reasonably expect, told them about her
transgender situation.

When an issue such as transgender status is used to treat someone
as less than human, it is a tragedy. It is the same misguided logic
used by Hitler at the Nazi concentration camps, and it is just as
wrong today as it was then. I can only imagine how many other
senseless deaths, either self-inflicted or at the hands of the
elements, go unpublicized or under-publicized.

Regardless of the misunderstandings due to lack of awareness
regarding transgender status, it is a failure of our society when
any human being is treated as less than human. Those indirectly
responsible for the deaths of Jennifer and Alice should be ashamed
of themselves for the blood on their hands.