I perpetually have a draft or seven in my drafts folder about how progressive cisgender parents are failing transgender children. I feel deeply complicated about these drafts, and often have had trouble articulating them to the point of completion. I am not transgender, and this is not a blog about trans issues. I am not qualified to talk about what transness is, or isn’t, with any kind of authority.
Yet, this is, at least to some degree, a blog about parenting. And while I’m not a transgender person, what I am is a cisgender parent. So I am quite qualified to talk about being a cisgender parent, and to tell other cisgender parents that they are fucking up.
Cisgender parents: You are fucking up.
So of course, I had a draft about this idea (and a fairly recent one) percolating the other day, when I saw a New York Times op-ed titled “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s A Tomboy” floating around the internet. When I first saw the headline, I rolled my eyes.
NOTE: This blog post is over 3000 words long. If you want to read about why that New York Times piece is a fucking problem, I suggest you read this excellent piece first or even instead. If you only have the time/energy to read one piece about this issue today, don’t make it mine.
ANOTHER NOTE: I do not personally know the author of the NYT piece discussed here, but we are in some of the same professional networks, and I have read and enjoyed some of her other work.
“Well how do you know?” I whispered under my breath.
But, as a writer who writes for the internet, I know that writers almost never get to choose their own headlines. And I know that editors sometimes put rather ridiculous headlines on pieces for reasons of “search engine optimization” (basically, clickbait). And this particular piece of writing was being shared by feminists who I love and respect.
If you are one of those feminists that I love and respect who shared the article on social media, please know I am not singling you out here. It really was a wide variety of folks in multiple circles, and I am not doing that passive aggressive thing where one says “lots of people did X” when they really mean “my friend Betsy did X but I don’t want to name her.”
Anyway, because people I respected had shared the article, I figured maybe the headline was just crap and it was worth a read. So I read it.
Tomboys are great. I was raised by one, a fierce woman who knew very much that she was a woman, and also that she was better than everyone else at climbing trees. She was, in many ways, a paradox of society’s gendered expectations, and also of what we think of when we use the word “mother.” Growing up, she was a small and compact woman, who literally seemed to never stop moving during the day. When I was very young, she quit the army to be a stay at home mom, and that is how I remember her. She was an excellent mother who regularly helped us with fun craft projects and made cookies all the damn time. She was also an athletic woman who loved playing outside as much as she loved baking, flatly refused to learn how to put on make up, and loathed dresses.
As a child, my mother was forced to wear dresses to school, because that was the rule. When I picture the mother of my childhood, I see her in jeans and a tucked in flannel shirt. I remember her heartbreaking stories about being a teenage girl and having boys say “you’re not like a girl, you’re more like a buddy.” But she was a girl.
A few weeks ago, a heard a story that I hear over and over again. Someone’s young child, a boy, was doing something that didn’t align with the expectations of the gender assigned to him. Specifically this particular boy wanted to wear a dress, and also his mother’s shoes. And one of his parents — his father — was very upset and concerned by this behavior. He wasn’t sure his son should be allowed to do these things. And his other parent — his mother — felt that it was fine and was no big deal and was looking for was to reassure the nervous dad.
The responses, from other progressive parents, were very telling.
“Oh, my nephew was really into dresses when he was that age, then he grew out of it, it probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“A lot of little boys go through that phase, it’s nothing to worry about.”
“My son was really into pink for awhile. We were worried about it but we just let him do it, then one day he just suddenly stopped. So it’ll probably be fine!”
All of these responses have the noble goal of soothing the nervous dad so that the kid can go on doing what he wants to do, dressing the way he wants to dress and playing the way he wants to play. But all of these responses are also very troubling, particularly if we take two seconds to think about what words like “anything” and “nothing” and “fine” mean in this context.
What they are saying, though they won’t come right out and say it, is “I understand that you are worried that this could mean your child is gay or transgender, but don’t worry, he probably isn’t!” They are affirming homophobia and transphobia as right and good (because nobody wants their kid to turn out to be some kind of queer, right?) and assuring the parents that it’ll probably be fine. And bear in mind here, these are progressive parents. These are parents who, when pressed, would say that of course they would support a gay child or even a trans child and love them “no matter what.”
But situating straight as cisgender as a “fine” way for a child to be and queer and transgender as somehow dangerous is homophobic and transphobic. And if the kid turns out to be any kind of LGBTQIA, those subtle messages could make a child feel less safe and less able to come out. And sometimes, those messages are not subtle at all.
Four years ago (according to her tweets, there is no date on the piece), the author of that New York Times op-ed published another essay about her child. That piece is on parenting.com and bears the headline “My Daughter Wants To Be A Boy!” In her recent tweets, Davis has pointed out that we writers rarely write our own headlines, and she did not write that one. She seems to think that the problem with that earlier piece, and how it relates to her more recent piece (My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s A Tomboy) is the headline. But here are some quotes from that apparently four year old piece:
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.
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 I’ve already endured the heartbreaking experience of having long-haired, pink-and-purple-clad girlie-girls look at my daughter and say, “Is that a boy or a girl?”
There’s really only one remaining objection to [redacted]’s proclivity: we have the loveliest assortment of hand-me-down dresses, ones that currently [redacted] refuses to wear but that I don’t want to waste. For this, though, I have clear-cut solutions. We wear dresses on Thursdays, and any time she wants to wear her tie, she has to wear a skirt, too. Which she does, as long as she can wear jeans underneath and, as always, her Spiderman shoes.
So no, the issue is not the crappy headline. The crappy headline, while crappy, is actually fairly accurate to the piece. Four years ago, Davis’ child (who she refers to by name in the piece, though I won’t republish a child’s name in that way) showed signs “both subtle and direct” that she wanted to be a boy. Davis was cool with her kid being a tomboy, but transgender was a step too far, it made her uncomfortable, it made her afraid. It made her so afraid that she was willing to force her child into a skirt and unhappiness. This piece is basically the very definition of a well-meaning parent — who sees herself as enlightened and accepting — being transphobic as hell. Davis’ child did not receive subtle hints that being a boy was not something available, it was direct. We wear dresses on Thursdays.
And if her recent NYT piece is any indication, Davis got her wish. Four years later, she happily states:
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.”
But it has always just been a look, even if it came with a rejection of princesses (which also delighted me) and a willingness to play family with both boys and girls as long as she could be the dog or the police officer.
The message I want to send my daughter is this: You are an awesome girl for not giving in to pressure to be and look a certain way. I want her to be proud to be a girl.
And maybe Davis’ kid really is a girl, and really does feel like a girl now, even though four years ago that wasn’t exactly the case. For every transgender person who has said “this sounds exactly like me, once I was told I couldn’t be trans I shut up about it and just said what my parents wanted to hear” there is a cisgender person who has said “this sounds exactly like me, I thought I wanted to be a boy when I was very young, but I didn’t really.” And that’s fine, and I can’t know which camp this particular kid falls into.
But regardless, both of these pieces are a problem. And are instructive as to so much of what is wrong with progressive cisgender parents who center their own feelings about their children’s identity over and over again.
I’m already angry with how much time I’ve had to devote to Davis’ writing in this piece. I didn’t set out to write a take down of either her four year old essay or this week’s op-ed, I want to talk about something larger. But we have one more thing to cover, and it’s from this excellent article on medium by trans parent Chase Strangio:
“[T]he message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.” This is a timeless message that has been told to girls, boys and non-binary people in the United States always and has nothing to do with trans-ness. We question the “realness” of people’s gender all the time — especially people who are Black, other people of color, people with disabilities, all trans people. This is not happening to the author’s child because some people support trans kids, this is happening and has always happened because of white supremacy and patriarchy. 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. Trans youth are dying because society is telling them, telling us, that we are fake. Trans women and femmes of color are being murdered because the impulse is to believe that trans-ness is fraudulent, that our bodies are threats. A white young person being asked questions about her gender is not a new problem and it is not a problem that should be blamed on trans people or trans affirmative shifts in society or medicine.
This touches on something that I think is very important. Davis positions the questions about her child’s gender as something that is happening because of trans rights, but that is bullshit. And the most common defense of the article I have heard has been “I was also a tomboy who was called a boy as a child, and I relate to this.” And yes, girls who don’t conform to society’s idea of what a girl should be are often punished and ridiculed, and it’s crappy and mean and it shouldn’t happen. But it isn’t the fault of trans people or a result of trans kids getting a teeny tiny bit of respect from time to time.
And I think most people, at least to some degree, know that. Yet Davis is very clear on the point. And while she says she wants Trans kids to feel safe, she also pits that safety against what she really wants, which is a cisgender child. She states:
Somehow, as we have broadened our awareness of and support for gender nonconformity, we’ve narrowed what we think a boy or a girl can look like and do.
But if cisgender people who are 30, 40, or even 50 years old, are stating that they like the article precisely because they relate to the plight of a girl who is often asked if she is a boy, then that can’t be true. This isn’t happening because we, as a society, support gender nonconformity, this is happening because of the same boring old patriarchy that has always been there.
A quick return to Strangio’s piece:
We should question the impulse to situate a problem in relation to trans-ness when in fact it is a problem that exists because of systems of power that also hurt trans people. That piece could have — and should have — been written with no mention of trans-ness. But then it wouldn’t have been interesting to anyone. It is interesting because it offers a new lens to question the legitimacy of transness while just describing the basic realities of gender policing. And truthfully, pretty benign gender policing when it comes to what people of color, people in prison, homeless people, people with disabilities, trans people, are subjected to.
All of this language has consequences, not just for one child but in a general sense. It’s important to note that the NYT has a history of publishing transphobic crap by cisgender authors. And again, I am a cisgender woman and in no position to explain how that must feel for trans people. But I do know what I’ve seen since Davis’ op-ed.
Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have seized upon the article, and are using it to attack trans people on twitter. This is surprising to no one who has ever encountered TERF mythology before, and it is mythology. Yesterday I saw one woman claim that it is illegal in many places to do anything but supply puberty blockers to a child who shows any signs of being trans. When asked what places she was referring to, she dodged the question. But the idea that gender non-conforming children are being forced to transition is a huge part of the anti-trans mindset in this country, and it is dangerous and harmful.
Lisa Selin Davis should know that, and if she knows that, I find it to be very troubling that she still chose to publish this piece.
This is about cisgender parents, and cisgender parents who want to view themselves as progressive and affirming and accepting. I think Lisa Selin Davis wants to be those things, I think a lot of us do. And she isn’t the only one fucking it up. In fact, most of us are fucking it up, and to a certain degree that makes sense because parenting is hard as hell and gender is complicated.
But we need to stop this nonsense. We need to stop setting up being cisgender as “fine” and being transgender as some kind of failure that we’ll deal with and “love them no matter what.” We need to start out by supporting our kids no matter how they identify, and by keeping our nervous feelings about that to ourselves. We live in a deeply transphobic and cisnormative society, and it’s understandable that parents may have some complicated and confusing feelings about the possibility that something like gender could make our kids’ lives harder. But the only way to counter that is to actually counter it. If what really makes us nervous is that other people might make our kids’ lives harder if they aren’t cis, then we need to stop giving those “other people” a head start by doing it for them.
If we, the progressive cisgender parents of the world, are really as open and accepting and trans affirming as we say we are, then we have to start fucking acting like it. We have to make our homes the safest place in the world for trans children, and not just children we know for sure to be trans, but children who are still exploring. We need to stop wrestling our “daughters” into dresses they hate because somehow we imagine the fabric will be going to waste if it isn’t used to make our children miserable. We need to stop including the caveat “but some people might not like it!” every time we let our “sons” wear something pink. And we need to stop demanding that trans kids prove to us that they are trans fifty thousand times before we will believe them.
Because these stories are not uncommon. Again and again I hear from cisgender parents who have noticed that their child is operating outside of gender roles, or even straight up saying “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” And the parents stifle them, in direct or indirect ways. They keep on parroting “boys have penises and girls have vaginas” even though they know it’s more complicated than that, because they don’t want to “confuse” their kid. They wait to buy the dress their kid is begging for because “what if it’s just a phase?” They include with every single nail painting session the message that “some people don’t think this is ok.” Instead of positioning themselves as their kid’s biggest supporter, they are the first gender gatekeepers, the first people telling their child “it will be very hard to be what you want to be.” And then, when after years of that, the child seems to conform a little better, they breathe a sigh of relief. And even though they didn’t listen all the times the kid said something else, now that they are calling themselves the gender assigned at birth, cisgender parents are suddenly obsessed with “taking kids at their word” and they celebrate the fact that, phew, everything turned out fine.
If your kid says “hey I think I’m a boy” the answer is “great! if you say you are a boy I will call you a boy.” If your kid says “hey you know last week when I said I was boy, I realized I’m not actually a boy, I just thought I might be because some kids at school said only boys have short hair” the answer is also “great! if you say you are a girl I will call you a girl.” If your kid asks why they can’t be a boy with a vagina or a girl with a penis the answer is ACTUALLY YOU TOTALLY CAN. And if your kid asks if they can wear boys’ clothes and still be a girl, the answer to that is yes also.
And if you find yourself deeply relieved that the kid you once thought might be trans appears right now to be a cisgender tomboy, for the love of everything that is good, do not write about it for the New York Times
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