Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Not Transgender, Just a Tomboy

In the category of "we keep making things more complicated than they need to be" I give you Lisa Selin Davis' essay on her daughter:
“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.”

Later, when I relayed this conversation to my daughter, she said, “More girls should look like this so it’s more popular so grown-ups won’t be so confused.”

My daughter wears track pants and T-shirts. She has shaggy short hair (the look she requested from the hairdresser was “Luke Skywalker in Episode IV”). Most, but not all, of her friends are boys. She is sporty and strong, incredibly sweet, and a girl.

And yet she is asked by the pediatrician, by her teachers, by people who have known her for many years, if she feels like, or wants to be called, or wants to be, a boy. . . .
The harder we try to be open and non-judgmental, the more categories we invent to impose on each other.


G. Verloren said...

I get into thorny discussions sometimes with friends about this issue.

The problem I run into is that my views on gender are arguably quite radical - I think gender simply shouldn't exist.

In my opinion, allowing someone to choose which arbitrary category they fall under in order to receive the arbitrarily related set of societal expectations and treatment they prefer doesn't solve anything. In my mind, the problem is the very fact that we lump people into categories, and then treat them differently based on those categories.

Treating people differently based on their appearance and demeanor is fundamentally absurd. Altering your appearance and demeanor to receive the different treatment you want from society at large is equally absurd, and somewhat morally dubious in its manipulative nature.

The problem is gender itself, and the idiotic associations we pin to it. Just because a man wants to keep his hair long and wear dresses doesn't mean he needs to have hormone therapy, undergo plastic surgery, and be treated "like a woman". We shouldn't be treating people differently to begin with. We should just let such men wear dresses without comment or even thought. It shouldn't even occur to us to notice such things. It should be utterly ordinary and accepted unthinkingly.

The comparison I always make is to problems of race. The solution to racial inequality isn't to convince people that if they don't like the way society treats them, the answer is to undergo surgery and neuro-chemical treatments and behavioral therapy to change their appearance and demeanor to that of a different race, in order to "pass" as such and be treated accordingly by society. The solution is to stamp out racism, and to foster a culture in which appearance of race doesn't factor in to how people are treated.

John said...

The problem with that approach is that some people really want identities. They don't want to be just human; they want to be something in particular. I know white Americans who are jealous of Jews because Jews have an identity and a history that is theirs. Of course I also know Jews who feel burdened by that identity, or indifferent to it, and would just as soon not have it, but, well, that's life.

"What am I?" is a fundamental human question, and "human" is just not a good enough answer for many.

My experience of raising children was that no matter how hard I tried not to treat my sons and daughters differently they were determined to have gendered identities. My youngest daughter especially was fanatically determined to be a girl and to have everything that went with being a girl. Obviously the details of girliness were largely set by our society but the desire to be a girl sprang, so far as I could tell, from deep inside her own mind.

It is nice for some of us to imagine that we should create our own identities free of all categories and be done not just with race but with jocks and nerds and yuppies and rednecks and every other way we have found to divide people. But it's a gigantic amount of work, and anyway most other people will put you in some category anyway.

Freedom is burdensome. Every time you free people to make a decision, you place on them the burden of making that decision. Having to craft an identity for yourself seems to be a huge burden for many of us, and the result leaves many people feeling rootless and adrift. So most end up either going with the majority or joining one of the pre-made identities there for the choosing.

I guess where I end up is that no solution to question of identity will work for everyone. Some long to be free of labels, but some long to have them. Of course neither extreme is really possible so long as the other option exists. In a crazily diverse world you can't have the certainty that went with living in a traditional tribe, and you will never be truly free so long as millions around define everything in terms of gender and race and so on.

So here we are.

David said...

I would say the problem with longing for no categories is even deeper than what John says. Virtually all living things are, on various levels, category-making creatures. Even unicellular creatures have membranes that accept some molecules and keep out others. And humans are deeply social creatures. We are very interested in each other, and most of us are preoccupied with how others treat us and how we do/should/want to treat others. The article itself exemplifies this, with the author's obviously detailed memory of how others have treated the author's daughter. Put our social nature together with life's necessity of categorizing, and social categorizing is inevitable. Social categorizing can be done in a more or less refined, insightful, subtle, friendly, hostile, judgmental, sanctimonious, or stereotyped way, or in other fashion--but for most of us, it will be done, and for many, probably most, a life without social interaction and thinking about the same, including looking for patterns (and thus categories) in the same would be empty.

G. Verloren said...


"Obviously the details of girliness were largely set by our society but the desire to be a girl sprang, so far as I could tell, from deep inside her own mind."

I believe you're not examining the issue carefully enough, or in enough detail.

I'm convinced that the desire you speak of is not some intrinsic thing that sprang from her, but rather an agglomeration of many factors, formed from her constant daily interactions with other people and people surrogates - teachers, fellow students, television personalities, animated children's movie characters, storybook heroes, advertisements on billboards, gender coded toys and possessions, fashion trends, et cetera.

She was constantly bombarded with all sorts of messages about identity, and what it means to "be a girl", often on an unconscious or even subliminal level. As a child, she was almost certainly wearing gendered clothing, wearing her hair in a gendered style, eatting lunch from a gendered lunchbox, doing her schoolwork with gendered school supplies, et cetera, all without her (or you!) ever really stopping to think about it and recognize the degree to which it was occuring.

And even if that somehow wasn't the case for her personally, it was for all of the other children at school, and all the teachers, and all the random people on the street, or in the grocery store, or on TV, and everywhere else. She grew up observing other girls receive positive reinforcement for acting "feminine", and she doubtless received that same reinforcement herself when she acted the same way.

She, like all of us, was psychologically conditioned by society. She was given a set of expectations, and then rewarded when she met them, and discouraged when she deviated from them. And all of it happened automatically, unthinkingly, without premeditation or intent. She quite naturally wanted to "be a girl" because it was presented as normal and expected that she do so, and because she found the consequences of conforming agreeable, or at least preferable to immediately available alternatives.

If she had been raised in a different society, under different expectations, she would have embraced those instead. If she had been born into a Buddhist society, she would unsurprisingly be some flavor of Buddhist, and her worldview would be shaped by Buddhist values and influences. If she had somehow spent her entire life completely isolated without human interaction, she wouldn't know how to interact with other humans at all. If she never in her life saw her reflection, she would lack the ability to visually self-identify. If she had been raised by wolves, she would quite naturally think and behave like a wolf.

Yes, she chose to embrace the gender that society assigned her, and thus "being a girl". And yes, not everyone does choose to embrace the role society assigns them. But her choice was inescapeably and immeasureably influenced to an astounding degree by her constant interactions with society at large.

She didn't just wake up one day and decide to act "feminine" - she was convinced to act that way, indirectly, incrementally, over the procession of the years of her life, and all the untold millions of individual interactions with other people, great and small.

pootrsox said...

To Mr/Ms Verloren:

"Men who want to wear dresses" are not the same thing as transgender people.

However societal or intrinsic a sense of one's gender is-- the fact remains that it exists in everyone-- even in those who say "I am no gender."

A transgender person (TG) isn't a man who wants to wear a dress or a woman who wants to have short hair and wear menswear. A transgender person *knows* at the deepest level of their (pronoun chosen deliberately) being that the external body they inhabit is *wrong*.

For you and for me, our bodies may have many defects, but they are not "wrong"-- we don't feel alien inside them. For a TG, the externals of breasts or penis or whatever feels like a violation of their very self, their essence as a human being.

If you have never done so, read some writings by transgender people who are not celebrities like Jenner or Bono. There are plenty of them out there. I've known several TGs-- all of them said the same thing: their bodies were *wrong* and needed alteration for them to fee at home within them. (Note: for some, especially F2M TGs, surgery is not as necessary-- or at least only mastectomies, not genital reassignment surgery. That may be because of the far less effective nature of such surgery or because of the easier passing an F2M has. I've read conflicting stories on the issue. Virtually every M2F TG I've read about/known wants her body to feel like she feels a body should feel. I'd love to see some research on the differences between the two kinds of TG persons.)

G. Verloren said...



I understand that transgender is specifically an identity issue. You don't need to tell me that wanting to wear a dress is not the same thing as being transgender.

I do however believe you are completely wrong about gender.

Gender is absolutely not intrinsic. That fact can be demonstrated easily by comparing different societies and cultures, and noting that they can possess vastly differing gender values. What is "masculine" to one society can be "feminine" to another. It cannot possibly be an inborn quality, given that information.

Gender is, as I have stated, an artificial construct. People do not naturally possess gender - they are assigned a gender by society, in exactly the same way that they are assigned a seat in a classroom, or assigned a social security number.

You aren't born somehow intrinsically "knowing" that you are social security number 281-44-1049, you are told it, and you can either accept that designation or reject it. Although you and I would both be puzzled by someone who did choose to reject it, and passionately informed us that they had always "felt" all their life that they had the wrong social security number, and that they fundamentally identified as having an altogether different one, and that they "just knew" that this was actually the case.

Thus, I cannot entertain the notion there is a "right" or "wrong" body for a person. We have absolutely no logical evidence to suggest such a thing. Consequently, I believe that anyone who relies only on "feeling" to decide what their body "should" be is merely and lamentably confused or deluded, and conflating physical sex with biological gender.

If someone told you they identify as a raccoon, that their human body "felt wrong", and that they wanted to undergo major reconstructive surgery to change their body to that of a raccoon, you'd be highly concerned for their mental wellbeing and suggest psychological therapy - and rightly so.

Why? Because they are, to every measure we possess to observe and judge, a human being, and it is obvious to us that their self identification as a raccoon is the product of mental sickness - not some cosmic mixup in which a raccoon's "soul" (an invented notion with no logical support, mind you!) got accidentally placed into a human's body.

So why then should we believe people who have the exact same sorts of "feelings" about being the wrong "gender"? Are we seriously entertaining the notion that a person is somehow magically "meant" to "be a man" or to "be a woman" at their birth? (Whatever that means?) How could that be remotely possible?

You might as well suggest that someone is "meant" from birth to be a Communist, or to worship Odin and Thor. Mere "feelings" about one's identity are simply not enough. The human mind is fallible, and human emotions are frequently irrational and go against reality, falling prey to delusion and fantasy.

And what even does transition accomplish? It doesn't alter your genetics - you are still either XX or XY chromosomally (or the other quite rare alternatives, but that's not relevant). The only thing being changed is your surface level appearance and demeanor.

Why? To make the body superficially match some secret mystical "essence" hidden indetectably inside someone, that only they can know?

...or perhaps just so that they can match their appearance to society's standards for a given gender, and thus receive the sort of societal treatment they would prefer to have?

Which seems the more rational and likely of an explanation to you?

G. Verloren said...


For further contemplation, please consider the psychological condition known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder.

This is a psychological disorder "in which an otherwise healthy individual feels that they are meant to be disabled." You have people who are utterly convinced that they aren't supposed to have certain body parts, and it causes them great emotional distress and discomfort that those parts are still attached.

And so these individuals seek amputation. They beg and plead with doctors to just cut their legs off, because it "feels wrong" to have legs, and they're depressed and miserable and suffering because they aren't legless. Obviously they are denied, and so (if psychologicall untreated) they frequently resort to self maiming, either arranging "accidents" which force doctors to perform amputation, or outright self-amputating, frequently dying in the attempts.

Clearly these people are mentally ill, and a danger to themselves. Clearly the problem is their delusional fixation on violently altering their body to match a chosen self identification - not the wholeness of their bodies.

They'll say they're "supposed" to be crippled and disabled. But the psychological truth is that typically they're unhappy about how society treats them, and want to receive the sort of "special" attention that we give to the disabled. They want to be pitied, and cared for, and absolved of certain kinds of responsibilities. It is worth noting that the majority of BIID sufferers are white, middle-aged males.

Are we to seriously entertain the desires of these patients? Should we allow them to mutilate themselves in pursuit of their "identity" as disabled individuals?

Or should we instead psychologically treat them? Provide them with therapy and counseling, helping them to accept the reality of their bodies, to recognize the irrationality of their desires, to self identify in a less senselessly destructive way, and to make peace with who and what they are without having to resort to drastic measures like major surgery?

Because whichever answer we choose for these people must, logically, be the same answer we choose for those with other body-identity crises.

G. Verloren said...



"conflating physical sex with biological gender"

...should read as...

"conflating physical sex with sociological gender"

szopen said...

G. Verloren - you are so wrong I don't even know where to start. While gender is to some extent imposed, it is imposed on biological reality. There are statistical differences between biological sexes. In almost all societies males are more aggressive than females (in that society; the males from one society may be less aggressive that females from other society, though)[1], are more risk prone, commit more crimes. In almost all societies females tend to do more childcaring than males. Males tend to hunt and to be warriors. The exceptions are so rare that they could be, for all practical reasons, ignored (especially since sometimes the existance of exceptions is debated, and was case with so called "findings" of Margaret Mead). There are also statistical differences in brain structure, in hormones, statistical differences in personality types and so on. There are HUGE differences in muscle mass and strength (the upper ody strength distribution between males and females have very little overlap!). Women and man, on average, use their brains differently to achieve different things. Not to mention such facts as that for many different traits (height, brain structures...) males are more variable than women.

It does not seem that gender is assigned to people. This is more a wishful thinking that reflection of reality. Rather, most people seems to seek their gender and they instinctively WANT to have gender. Moreover, the existing statistical differences are exxagerated by a society to the point of absurdity. Moreover, if there are some visible differences between two groups of people, our minds automatically create stereotypes, and those stereotypes usually are quite accurate ( I have stereotype that females are shorter than males, that females are less physically aggressive than males. When I see a person and I have no other information other than gender, and yet I have to choose how to interact with that person - and I have no time nor possibilities to find out more information - the only possible way is to base my behavior on a stereotype (initially, while seeking more information). That is, I will use different language with different people based on their clothes, their language and their gender. I could be wrong, of course, and surely I will be wrong in some cases, but without using stereotypes I would be wrong more often. Hence, categorisation of people, including categorisation into sexes, is useful, existence of atypical people notwithstanding.

[1] One should note, however, that when two different ethnographers observe at the same time the same society, they can come to different conclusions, as in case of Margaret Mead (who stayed in one place because of IIRC broken leg) and her husband (who was freely roaming over the area).

szopen said...

" Are we seriously entertaining the notion that a person is somehow magically "meant" to "be a man" or to "be a woman" at their birth? (Whatever that means?) How could that be remotely possible?"

Does that mean genetics and hormones are "magic" ?

G. Verloren said...


You are conflating sex and gender. They are not the same thing. You are also mistaking tendencies for absolutes. One does not equal the other.

Yes, hormones and brain chemistry influence behavior. But the key word is "influence". It is only one factor of many. A person can develop or be conditioned to respond in ways that directly oppose their hormonal dispositions. An individual's upbringing and cultural values can override their instinctual and hormonal behavior tendencies.

Gender roles may be partially influenced by our evolutionary heritage and our genetic predispositions - but that doesn't make them any less artificial.

Consider some of our other genetic predispositions. We have a very strong evolutionary tendency to recognize patterns. But that doesn't mean that every time we think we've noticed a pattern, that a pattern actually exists. Just because the portion of our brains which is wired to detect faces tells us that an oddly shaped branch on a tree looks a lot like a face, doesn't mean that the tree actually has a mouth, eyes, and nose.

Gender roles most certainly arose from our evolutionary history, heavily influenced by our ape ancestry and the modest degree of sexual dimorphism we biologically exhibit. But that doesn't mean that gender roles aren't still an artificial construct - a cultural artifact, whose nature is not intrinsic, but rather coincidental and arbitrary.

You cannot be "born" with a gender. You develop a gender - in small part based on your physical sex, but primarily based on your cultural values.

Being biologically "male" is not the same thing as being "a man" - because what you consider "a man" to be depends entirely on your societal understanding of "manhood". And if you self identify as being "a man", it isn't because you were born to self identify that way - it's because you chose to self identify that way, even if only unconsciously or subliminally.

Because in order to identify as "a man", you have to have a conception what it means to BE "a man". And no human being is born with any such conception.

Just like no human being is born being a Christian, or a Buddhist, or any other religious demonination. You have to be taught what those things are. You can't possibly be a Zoroastrian if you live in a society that is completely ignorant of the existences of Zoroastrianism.

And in the same vein, you can't possibly be born "knowing" that you are actually "a man" or "a woman", because you have to be taught what those things are (according to your particular society and culture). Thus, you are not born with a gender - you acquire one over time.

szopen said...

@Verloren, thanks for the clarification, but I still think you are wrong making a comparison between "christian" and "male". Being "christian" is absolutely arbitrary and the only biological constraint is taht it seems many people seem to have innate desire for _some kind of spirituality_. In contrast, I think that biological sex put constraints on what could be reasonably expected from "man" or "woman". Hence, I disagree the roles are arbitrary. If men are innately more aggressive and stronger, then assigning roles of warrior, hunter to males are not "arbitrary", and developing codes to constrain male aggression and promoting self-control are also not arbitrary. It seems to me than a lot of behaviours of little boys (rough play, desire to wreck havoc, to cause noises) is innate and rather have to be unlearned, and not learned.

And then, while you may not be born knowing that you are "(gender) man" it seems that children are particularly keen on finding out what does it mean to be "(gender) man". The very existence of trans people means that even if "(gender) man" is arbitrary, the desire to be _some kind_ of "(gender) man" is innate and not arteficial.

So yeah, associating "pink" with women and thinking males should not wear dress is purely arbitrary; but associating males with dominance, aggressiveness seems to be not arbitrary.

szopen said...

Besides, I think that social categories are useful, because they are, in fact, used in creating social conventions: what you can expect from other people and how you should behave in order to be considered conforming to society. They smooth social interactions.

David said...

If the fantasy of doing away with all categorization represents the failure of one philosophy taken to an extreme, the statement that "a lot of behaviours of little boys (rough play, desire to wreck havoc, to cause noises) is innate" represents another failure of taking a certain kind of idea to an extreme. What is the point of blinding oneself to the very obvious fact of individual difference? In any group of kids, some will want rough play, and some will not. Some of those wanting rough play will be boys, and some will be girls. Some of those wanting rough play will want it because their environment has encouraged them in this, some will be hungering for it even though their parents try to keep them quiet, some will be wanting it precisely because their environment discourages it (and would want whatever their environment discourages, for that very reason), and some mostly just because they like it. Some will want rough play if that is what most other kids are doing, some will want it because that is what the most obviously aggressive and authoritative kids are doing (and would also reject it if that's what the obvious sources of power and authority wanted), and some will reject it precisely because authority or majority wants rough play (and would go against whatever the majority, or authority wanted). Some will reject it because they themselves won't be in charge this time. Some will reject rough play because they hate rough play, whether or not their parents or siblings or whatever encourage them in it and regardless of which and how many other kids are engaging in it, and regardless of who gets to be in charge. These differences will all have varying degrees of innate or environmental factors affecting them.

In other words, we need an understanding that can encompass and allow for both John's youngest daughter and the tomboy in the original NYT piece. Reality certainly does. Is it so hard to imagine a highly individual combination of nature and nurture applying in both cases, as in all others?

I've just been reading an essay in which Louis Menand comments, "Darwin's fundamental insight as a biologist was that, among members of a species, what is important is not the similarities but the differences. If human beings were identical, a single change in the environment could wipe out the race. Similarity, ultimately, is death." Is it so difficult to accept that any human group exhibits a huge variety of ways of being, the result of a complexity of interactions between nature and nurture, that this variety is essential to human flourishing--and that none of this can or should prevent us from thinking about our fellow humans, hunting for patterns, and dreaming up analytical categories?

szopen said...

David, either I (because I am not native speaker) have not expressed myself clearly, or you are trying to misrepresent. That's true that "some boys" do not like rough plays, while "some girls" do like them. However using such words suggest that there rough play is not more typical amongst boys than amongst girls, which is wrong. Liking rough plays seems to be more common amongst boys. That there are exceptions does not mean the behaviour is not innate. Most men is attracted to women, but exceptions exist; does that mean you think the attraction is not innate??

David said...

I certainly believe in a strong role for innate factors in an enormous amount of human behavior, including play, sex, etc. But I think these innate factors operate on the individual level, and are more subtle, complex, and unpredictable in their working than seems to be contained in the statement, rough play is a behavior innate to little boys.

szopen said...

David, OK.