An Open Letter To Those Praising The New York Times ‘Tomboy’ Piece

Unsplash
Why do we need to have a conversation about the harms of gender norms that does so through the lens of affirming one’s not-trans-ness?

Dear NYT reader:

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece entitled “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” I saw the title and wanted to avoid it but then I saw people praising it and celebrating the need to reclaim “girlness” from the over-correction of trans-affirmation. I was troubled. I was curious. I dug in.

Me, age 2.

I can see why, on a cursory read, the piece might have some appeal. The gender binary is a force of patriarchy and white supremacy. It harms people, particularly people of color, people with disabilities, women (cis and trans), non-binary people, trans people. The piece wanted to offer a critique of expectations of gender, I think. And those who praised it probably did so for a range of reasons. Many, like me, were probably gender non-conforming children themselves who remember being misgendered in childhood like the subject of the article, the author’s child. Many others were the same cast of characters who often come out to praise pieces (pieces that all-too-often run on the prominent pages of the Times) that challenge the very nature of trans-ness. Still others probably just resonated with the challenges of parenting and figuring out what is best for our children. I am not ascribing a malicious intent to the author or her supporters but I do think both need to be challenged.

First, to situate myself, I come at the piece from the perspective of a white, transmasculine person who identifies outside the gender binary; a parent; a former gender non-conforming child; an advocate for trans people. I read the piece with a critical eye because from the very first words of the title, the piece is being framed and defined in relation to “not trans-ness”: “My daughter is not transgender.” Why do we need to know that and why do we need to have a conversation about the harms of gender norms that does so through the lens of affirming one’s not-trans-ness? This is the animating theme of the piece — the harms of the gender binary and how they take on meaning in relation to being a person who is not trans.

Me, age 34, as a parent.

The author situates herself as someone who “loves” correcting the people who, in her words, “wrongly” assume her daughter’s gender. Recounting the conversations she has with strangers who “confuse” her daughter for a boy “100 percent of the time,” she exclaims, “I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like.” I found this instructive because as a trans parent, I am perpetually worried about speaking about my child’s gender with strangers. Will they think my kid’s gender non-conformity is my fault? Will they question the legitimacy of my parenting? The legitimacy of my gender? There is nothing I love about navigating a world of conversations about gender with strangers — it is painful and dangerous. The fact that the author takes joy in this shows her privilege. The fact that the Times published this, shows their absence of perspective.

People ask my daughter questions about her gender repeatedly, the author laments. “[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.

From the very first words of the title, the piece is being framed and defined in relation to “not trans-ness.”

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.

Midway through the piece, the author offers the most incoherent part of her argument explaining of her child, “She is not gender nonconforming. She is gender role nonconforming.” What does this mean? What is the difference? What is gender if not the role and behaviors that we ascribe to it. This framing seems to suggest that a non-trans person can diverge from expectations of gender roles but that their gender itself is somehow conforming. Not only does this undermine the author’s point as I had understood it but it also limits trans-ness to that which is by definition the “nonconformity of gender itself.” This is both wrong and incoherent. It also reflects her limited understanding of what it means to be trans. One can be trans and not transition from one binary gender to another and one can be trans and have a wholly binary gender identity, expression and role (to use her language). This formulation, meaningless as it is, seems to expose the author’s investment in making real her daughter’s not-trans-ness and doing so by reifying a false distinction between gender and gender roles.

The author dreams of a society where, she says, “adults [can] have a fluid enough idea of gender roles that a 7-year-old girl can dress like “a boy” and not be asked — by people who know her, not strangers — whether she is one.” Really, is that the biggest problem we have with gender? That people are asked what their gender is? Asking people regularly their names, pronouns, gender, can save lives. Might it be annoying for some people, yes. But some people have to be uncomfortable when we shift the power structures and dynamics that kill the more vulnerable among us. White parents are constantly lamenting how hard and confusing it is to discuss race with their white children. Well, too bad. Your kid is going to have to be uncomfortable since Black kids have to worry about being killed.

The fact that the author takes joy in this shows her privilege. The fact that the Times published this, shows their absence of perspective.

Does it suck that the author’s child has to constantly affirm her gender to others? Yes, sure. But that is happening because we constantly impose gender on others — not unlike the author of the piece is doing — and not because some people have a more supportive approach to loving and affirming trans youth.

Parenting is really hard. I know first hand. There are no easy answers and we want to protect our kids and stop the world from breaking down their beautiful spirits. But when given platform on a stage like the New York Times to write about parenting and something as complex as gender, we should be careful about how we situate our narratives. 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.

This piece was a lost opportunity. It was a basic and troubling reflection that should not have been elevated to the platform of the New York Times. We need to have conversations about gender but while so many people are still invested in undermining and erasing trans-ness, perhaps we don’t need to blame trans existence for the harms of patriarchy and white supremacy.

I hope people take a few moments to re-read that piece and think of why it might be resonant. And one final note, the author makes a lot of statements about how sure she is of her child’s “girlness” and what it means to be a “girl” albeit, in her view, a different type of girl. Just remember when trans people write about ourselves with such confidence in our identities, we are questioned and not believed. When we talk about what makes us our gender, how we know we are a girl or a boy or neither or both, even though we possess non-conforming characteristics, we are criticized for reifying gender.

The fact that the author takes joy in this shows her privilege. The fact that the Times published this, shows their absence of perspective.

The piece could only have been written by a non-trans person. I assume as well that the author is white and straight. It is not that white, straight, cis people can’t write about these things, it is just that only certain people can write about them and be praised and published.

For now, I leave these thoughts on the lesser-read pages of my Medium account and hope that our dialogue continues. In the meantime, state legislatures will continue to take aim at trans people, trans youth will continue to struggle, trans women and femmes of color will continue to be policed, incarcerated, murdered. I hope that we move our thinking along more quickly. And to my trans and gender non-conforming (and gender role non-conforming) family, you are beautiful.

Sincerely,

Chase Strangio