April 24, 2017

Tomboy or trans: The main misconceptions in the current transgender debate

On April 18 Lisa Selin Davis published an article in the New York Times called My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.  She was clearly annoyed with the fact that some people think of her gender-nonconforming kid as transgender. Davis believes that her child is just that: non-conforming when it comes to gender roles.
Photo: Digital Vision

I have included some links to the following debate below.

Needless to say, TERFs and other transphobes have tried to use this article to argue that transgender activists are trying to turn perfectly normal cis kids into trans kids, and even entice them into transitioning.

There are even arguments about being trans becoming "trendy", which -- given the 40 percent attempted suicide rate among trans people -- is both stupid and insulting.

There are three fundamental misconceptions that drive this debate.

Transgender is not the same as transsexual

Davis and others seem to believe that the word transgender means transsexual, in the sense that a transgender person wants to -- or should -- transition and live as their target sex.

This is not what transgender means. Transgender is an umbrella term for all types of gender variance and have been so since the early 1990s. A tomboy (a girl that expresses stereotypical masculine traits or interests) is transgender by this definition.

Gender identity is not binary, but a continuum

I believe this misinterpretation of the word transgender is based in another common misconception, namely the idea that there is a clear and distinct boundary between transgender and non-transgender on the one hand and between male and female on the other.

Transgender is therefore understood as moving from one exclusive gender to the other. All other forms of gender variance are ignored.

What I have learned as transgender and as a trans activist is that there is much diversity as regards transgender experiences and identities. Some are gender dysphoric and identify fully with their target sex or true gender. Others are OK with living as their assigned gender, but experience a deep-felt need to express some traits that are normally associated with the "other" gender.

We are facing a kind of multi-dimensional continuum where the "gender violations" may be associated with different biological, psychological, cultural and social factors:
  • Gender expression (as in clothes or mannerisms)
  • Masculinity and femininity (like in "butch", "femme" or something else)
  • Gender atypical interests (like a woman becoming a solider or a truck driver)
  • Gender identity (as in "I am a man", "I am a woman", "I am neither man nor woman". "I am both man and woman")
  • Sexual orientation (male to female trans persons may love women, female to male trans people may love men)
Some transgender people feel alienated from their assigned gender as regards all these dimensions. Some are  challenging just some of the culturally defined expectations. We should also keep in mind that some might have benefited from transitioning, but do not do so for a wide variety of reasons. 

Unfortunately even trans people are now arguing that being transgender is the same as moving socially over to "the other team", which leaves no room for ambiguity and little room for the long journey.

Gender identities shift

What I find even more disturbing is the idea that there is no transgender journey of self exploration and that your conscious gender identity is fixed for life.

I am open to the idea that our basic gendered orientation in the world is at least partly hard-wired, but that does not mean that transgender people cannot move from one conscious identification to another (as opposed to from one underlying identity to another).

The social pressure to conform to assigned gender roles and identities is extreme. For years I tried to live up to the idea that I was a man. I actively repressed the other side of me, and it took a life crisis for me to finally face who I truly was.

Davis cannot possibly know whether her kid is "just a tomboy" or "really a boy". By insisting that the child is a girl, she is actually limiting this child's ability to find out for themselves. Kids are not stupid, they sense what their parents want and try to live up to it.

(Indeed, in another article by Davis we find that her child has actually clearly stated that they are a boy!)

And as Helen Boyd points out: "Any assumption that the child being a trans boy is a worse or ‘less real’ outcome than the child being a tomboy is also transphobic."

We should all stop trying to judge and define the identities of children. Give them time to explore their gender. Given room they will, in time, decide for themselves.


  1. Thank you. I was reading up on this and I kept seeing the twisted definition of transgender even from trans individuals and I wanted to throw my phone. Yes, tomboys ARE transgendered. To be transgendered is NOT to be interested in changing your socially viewed gender by medical means, but is FAR broader in definition thank they are comprehending.

    1. Just curious... Am I transgender because I hate dresses, like comfortable shoes, mostly sneakers and enjoy lifting weights?

  2. Although atypical gender EXPRESSION is subsumed under the broader "transgender umbrella", the term "transgender" is increasingly considered to refer to gender IDENTITY these days - though including non-binary (a. k. a. genderqueer) identities. Gender EXPRESSION is about cultural stereotypes and norms - femininity, masculinity, interests -, and needs to be sharply distinguished from IDENTITY.

    A "tomboyish girl" who was assigned female at birth is not considered transgender (by the way, the term "transgendered" is also falling out of favour) in this understanding (only in the "umbrella" sense). However, if a child perceived as a "tomboyish girl" ends up rejecting (exclusive) girlhood/womanhood, the person IS transgender even in the currently favoured sense (regardless of whether they pinpoint their identity as male or in another way, or not at all).

    Identity is wholly internal - a person perceived as male who wears feminine clothing can be a male crossdresser, drag queen, feminine cis man, trans man, trans woman, or non-binary. There's no way to tell without asking. Even very many transgender individuals are gender-nonconforming with respect to their identity gender (and frequently with respect to both assigned and identity gender), such as "effeminate" or "androgynous" trans men and "tomboyish" trans women.

    The distinction between EXPRESSION and IDENTITY is particularly important in the case of gender-variant children. A child with gender-atypical expression who never explicitly identifies as anything else but the gender they were assigned at birth and never expresses a desire to modify their body or to avoid the puberty they will undergo without interference is merely gender-nonconforming ("tomboyish girl", "girly boy"; also called "gender-expansive" or "gender-creative") and will have no need for medical intervention (unless they express uncertainty or confusion).

    A child raised in an environment where gender norms are not policed (maybe not even communicated) and gender-nonconformance is completely accepted can still be transgender (in the narrower sense). Therefore, even in a "gender utopia", where the idea of gender-nonconformance loses its meaning as gender norms in effect do not exist anymore, individuals who express a transgender IDENTITY will still exist. (Even if the practice of assigning a gender at birth is abolished in this environment, medical intervention will still be necessary for some gender-variant individuals.) Therefore, it makes sense to limit the scope of the term "transgender" to those who actually express an identity at variance with the gender they were assigned at birth. Most trans-antagonistic observers and activists fail to make the critical distinction between IDENTITY and EXPRESSION.

    1. Exactly - "I'm a girl, I want to do X, and it's not fair that girls can't do X here" is not the same thing as "I'm not a girl."

  3. I agree that it is important to keep the distinction between gender identity and gender expression in mind, in the sense that most people -- also those that will forever identify with their assigned gender -- display a mix of interests, abilities, mannerisms, expressions that go across gender stereotypes.

    A child can express a desire to express both masculinity or femininity (whatever we mean by these terms). That does not mean that he/she/they should transition later on.

    The reason I stick to the broad umbrella definition of transgender, however, is that being transgender is a journey of self-exploration and self-expression. Most transgender people do not KNOW that they are transgender at the age of four (or whether they are not).

    Cultural oppression, social suppression and personal repression forces many to try to adapt to the role of their assigned gender, to the point that they do not even understand that they are misgendered.
    Others do understand that they are "different", but not to what extent this is just a gender variation or whether they are truly of the "other" gender.

    Moreover, an alternative gender expression (like in crossdressing) is often the psyche's way of handling the misalignment between the inside and the outside, which makes it hard to identify the distinction between identity and expression in real life.

    I must admit I also stick to the traditional definition of transgender for another reason. The drive towards restricting the term to those who fully identify with their target gender, is abused by some transgender people and "experts" to invalidate transgender people who do not live up to their ideas of what a proper transgender man or woman should be.

    This division normally reflects the old divide between "transvestites", "crossdressers" "or "fetishists" on the one hand and "true" trans people on the other.

    The more recent wave of trans separatism ("truscum" and "transmedicalists") reflect this world view. The previous generation (the "Harry Benjamin Syndrome" crowd) tried to achieve the same thing by dismissing the term transgender and monopolize the term transsexual.

    This divide leaves no room for the journey, the doubters and those who do not transition even if they are gender dysphoric and fully identify with their real gender in their minds.


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