By Heather McNamara
Lisa Selin Davis would like us to know that her daughter is not transgender. Her daughter is a tomboy thankyouverymuch. Lisa would like us to know that she is super tolerant and loves it that her daughter is gender-nonconforming – but you’d darn well better stop asking if she’s trans because not every child who dresses unladylike is a trans boy gosh darnit. Oh and don’t worry! Because if her child decides that they are transgender, she’ll totally listen. She promises: “Let’s be clear: If my daughter does begin to feel that the gender in her mind and the sex of her body don’t match, I will be supportive.”
You would almost get the impression that the advent of transgender awareness and activism had resulted in a plague of false positives! Children transitioning left and right because their well-meaning parents hadn’t considered the possibility that a kid was “just” a tomboy (or the reverse – a janegirl?), resulting in tragically, permanently transitioned kids who certainly regret their decisions as adults.
Well good news! Lisa is completely wrong. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (2013), the definitive manual psychiatrists and psychologists use to diagnose gender dysphoria (and everything else), specifically addresses your concern:
Gender dysphoria should be distinguished from simple nonconformity to stereotypical gender role behavior by the strong desire to be of another gender than the assigned one and by the extent and pervasiveness of gender-variant activities and interests. The diagnosis is not meant to merely describe nonconformity to stereotypical gender role behavior (e.g., “tomboyism” in girls, “girly-boy” behavior in boys, occasional cross-dressing in adult men).
Which is probably why, in study after study spanning decades of research on this topic, we find extremely low numbers of transgender people regretting their transitions – around 2% or less (Dhejne, Öberg, Arver, & Landén, 2014).
She’s also full of shit. If you’re like me, you were probably wondering why, in the beginning of her article, Lisa referred to a teacher who was asking whether her child wanted to be called a boy. When I was a kid, there were tomboys everywhere – girls with their hair forever in sloppy ponytails or cropped close, girls who were always determined to make boys look foolish in sports, girls who went by boyish nicknames and never ever wore pink. Tomboys have been around forever and what’s more? They’re completely unremarkable. Whatever Lisa may be thinking, her ideas about girls not conforming to feminine stereotypes are not original. What makes her child unique is not that they are a tomboy, but that they are a trans boy, as evidenced by Lisa’s own disturbing words in her previous article in Parenting magazine.
She insisted on being Spiderman for Halloween, and on getting light-up superhero sneakers “like my friend Luca’s” when she needed new shoes. They told us at school that she gravitated toward the boys, and though she is quite small for her age, and not particularly hearty, they told us she could hold her own with the rowdy bunch of them.
And again, I thought, “How great is she?”
Well, okay, 90 percent of me said that. The other 10% thought, “uh-oh.” As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like “Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?” the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.
Let me say that I don’t hold particularly conventional views about gender or sexuality. There are so many lesbians in my family that I fully expect either or both of my daughters to be gay (though of course I will love and accept them if they turn out to be heterosexual). But there is something about having the only girl who won’t play princess, the only girl in the school who thinks and says she’s a boy, that has shaken me a bit. Dressing like a boy? Cool. Thinking you actually are a boy? Way more complicated. . . .
And, yeah, it would be upsetting to think that my daughter would grow to idolize reality stars with a lifetime’s worth of plastic surgery at 25. But I suppose my fear is about what’s on the other end of that direct line when your kid wants to be the royal dog?
The royal dog! Imagine that. How terrible. Being a boy with a vagina is like thinking you’re the “royal dog.” Very progressive, Lisa. Super supportive. Well fucking done.
Underneath all of her reassurances that actually she’s totally liberal and would accept a transgender child, Lisa treats the possibility of her child’s transness like it’s a cancer – a potential defect written on her child’s cells whose symptoms, possibly subtle at first, must be watched for with a vigilance because should her child be allowed to succumb, the only way through is a terrifying, life-altering treatment. In truth, transness is not written on or in anyone. It cannot be analyzed, tested for, or ruled out, its presence definitively deduced by piecing together the clues in a dossier.
A person discovers their gender through discovering their desires. It leads a person on a path that should not be blocked – not because it is a physical inevitability and they have no choice, but because nobody’s pursuit of happiness and self-actualization should ever be blocked. It is the stuff that gives us purpose. Pursuit of our desires gives us the meaning we require to wake up in the mornings and face the challenges of life.
Imagine wanting children and learning you could not bear any, or falling in some tragic type of unrequited love. You would expect to encounter depression and a crisis of identity as you tried to work out what your meaning should now become. Imagine how much worse it would be if those desires you couldn’t pursue were blocked not by fate or circumstance but by a parent – an authority figure who claims to love you and want only what is in your best interest. This parent is blocking your pursuit of self-actualization because your idea of happiness is their idea of sick. They treat your desire as though it were cancer. Imagine now the Stygian nightmare your life would become as you faced the world daily with that parent looming over you.
So, Lisa, when parents, teachers, physicians, and transgender people ask you if maybe your “daughter” would like to be a boy, it is not because we’ve never been introduced to this “novel” concept of gender nonconformity. We are not failing to listen, but in fact paying attention to exactly what you say. We listened when your child expressed a desire to be seen as and, as you put it, ‘mistaken for’ a boy. We’re not pushing her toward anything. We’re asking you to get out of his way.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Dhejne, C., Öberg, K., Arver, S., & Landén, M. (2014). An analysis of all applications for sex reassignment surgery in Sweden, 1960-2010: prevalence, incidence, and regrets. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(8), 1535–1545.