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Celebrating Transgender Diversity Requires Solid Gender Roles


There is a fun little irony in modern culture: We love the idea that standards are stifling and that we each make our own truths. We do what works for us.

But under such open, no-truth-but-our-own truth rules popular these days, the everyday rules get more rigid. Among many examples of such ironic ideologies we could discuss, the New York Times covered one earlier this week.

In “My Daughter is Not Transgender. She Is a Tomboy,” Lisa Selin Davis described her seven-year-old daughter as an active girl with the “Luke Skywalker in Episode IV hair” (a detail I indulgently include because I love it so). Between the girl’s hairstyle, age, mostly boy friends, lack of girly clothing, and preferred activities, everyone from teachers to doctors keep asking for clarifying guidance from the mom: does her daughter want to be addressed as a boy?

Celebrating Transgenderism Means Doubting The Tomboy

Hence the title. The little girl is a girl. She conforms to gender, just not to gender roles. (Italics NYT.) Writes the mother:

In many ways, this is wonderful: It shows a much-needed sensitivity to gender nonconformity and transgender issues. It is considerate of adults to ask her — in the beginning.

But when they continue to question her gender identity — and are skeptical of her response — the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl…

While celebrating the diversity of sexual and gender identities, we also need to celebrate tomboys and other girls who fall outside the narrow confines of gender roles. Don’t tell them that they’re not girls.

That is lovely in theory. But in practice, it is something else. Celebrating transgender diversity requires affirming gender roles (italics mine this time), and the polite consideration can create the perception of gender-wrongness where it did not exist.

In A Gender-Fluid Society, Gender Roles Stiffen

Without notions of feminine or masculine dress, roles, and affectations, what basis would transgender men or women use for claiming to feel like the other gender?  Or more practically stated: how would we distinguish between a transgender boy and a tomboy?

Some googling and skimming suggests that advocates see the difference in intensifying feelings of wanting the other sex’s appearance. A tomboy shuns girly things like dresses and pink as a child, and if those aversions persist and intensify, then that suggests the child is transgender.

First, note the need to have an idea of “girly things” for this analysis to make any sense. Then, consider the effect of the questioning. Surely this little girl and many other tomboys like her field some of the questions and participate in some of the resulting discussions.  How many times can a seven-year-old girl (or her mother) hear the suggestion that she might be a boy and not start to think that perhaps the adults are right—or that they expect her to be a boy? Won’t the constant questioning produce the intensifying feelings of wrongness? Are well intended and open-minded, considerate and celebrating members of the public creating dysmorphia where it did not exist?

Tomboyishness Is Threatened With Extinction

Our claim to a lack of standards allows the old rules to sneak back in, imposing identities on our children. (If I had to guess, I would say that this was the frustrating realization that prompted Davis to write her article, only she feels she can’t be direct. As a conservative, I am not so constrained.)

Davis has the proper antidote to the constant suggestions: shrug and tell the little girl she is a tomboy and that’s just fine. And speaking for once upon a time tomboys, that answer used to be the norm. Oh, I’ve heard that rigid gender role expectations existed in fringe homeschool environments. But in the typical urban and suburban communities of the 70’s and 80’s, tomboyishness was normal and uncontroversial, endearing even—save maybe Easter Sunday, school picture day, and your Uncle Charlie’s wedding when your mom dug in and insisted on a girlish appearance.

The loss of tomboy acceptability is a direct result of the “much-needed sensitivity” and celebration of gender diversity. For those pieties, the mother fields the constant questions and suggestions. For them she researches gender issues for her daughter, who likes Luke Skywalker in a non-crush way.

This Is Why Radical Feminists Exist

If biological gender does not exist, or at least is not determinative, then parents and society must be alert for any non-conforming behavior—which of course requires a notion of what conforms.

This problem isn’t new news. Radical feminists, who seek to end all notions of gender roles, have battled against transgenderism since the 60’s.  Michelle Goldberg provided a little history on the “What is a Woman?” question in the New Yorker in 2014:

The dispute began more than forty years ago, at the height of the second-wave feminist movement. In one early skirmish, in 1973, the West Coast Lesbian Conference, in Los Angeles, furiously split over a scheduled performance by the folksinger Beth Elliott, who is what was then called a transsexual. Robin Morgan, the keynote speaker, said:

I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.

Such views are shared by few feminists now, but they still have a foothold among some self-described radical feminists, who have found themselves in an acrimonious battle with trans people and their allies. Trans women say that they are women because they “feel female”—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men, it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential.

Two Different Views Of Womanhood

Despite the relative silence of opposing views, the disputes continue. Recall Caitlyn Jenner’s insulting complaint that dressing like a woman was the hardest part of being a woman, as if outward presentation was the essence of womanhood. Look at the irony of Title IX. The 2016 Dear Colleague letter (now withdrawn in late February) that changed the title’s definition of sex to include transgender saw biological males taking educational opportunities, leadership roles, and athletic awards that the law was supposed to secure for women.

Or consider the more recent complaints by transgender women during the Women’s March. All the felt vulvas, uterus art, and knit “pussy” hats made them feel excluded. Because for these males being a woman isn’t defined by anatomy or biology but by how one looks and acts. It is the ultimate dominance of the male gaze.

It has logic, though. Without the certainty of biology, notions of gender must rely upon behavior and appearance. So while mothers like Davis are generously celebrating transgender diversity, trans advocates are working to make sure that the gender roles these mothers of tomboys shun remain firmly in place in Western culture.