Guest Blogger

Tomboy Identities: A Strictly Temporary Diversion

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 14, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Alex Drummond, David Beckham, intersex, social norms, trans, Victoria Beckham

Editors' Note: Clinically trained and accredited as a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist with an MSc in counseling and psychotherapy and researched interests in transgender and adult ADHD, guest blogger Alex Drummond is the author of Queering the Tranny: New Perspectives on Male Transvestism & Transsexualism.

Box.jpgWhen David Beckham revealed that his wife Victoria was expecting a baby girl, he explained that they had already painted the room in pink and lilac in preparation and that Victoria was looking forward to buying lots of pretty clothes for her. The poor kid hadn't even been born but already was being socialised into 'appropriate' colours and setting out that her acceptability as a girl would be based on 'looking pretty.'

Who knows - maybe their daughter will want to play football, have short hair and wear dungarees. Maybe their daughter will someday want to transition and become a man. And just maybe this young child will be a person who loves shoes and handbags and will go girlie-shopping with her mum. Who's to say? If you winced when you read that last sentence, then think again - what is it that makes you feel uncomfortable with the idea that this child might develop a more male identity? It's a subtle but very evident social pressure parents feel to have 'normal' children - and that means 'proper boys' or 'proper girls.'

A recently released film, Tomboy explores this theme. The protagonist is a young person told to be female but who wishes to inhabit the world of the boy - to be treated as male. It's an endearing film, but it highlights the agonies a young person can experience when their inner self is constrained unfairly by social rules determined purely on the basis of apparent genital apparatus. Despite over 30 years of second wave feminism, we still reiterate and reinforce these rules and encourage children to see maleness as defined in opposition to femaleness and femaleness as lesser within that system.

But, imagine a world where children are born without genitals and you only got to find out the sex at puberty! How might we raise children then? At a very basic level, our expectations would be more equal and less gender-biased. The labels we reserve for socially favored gender behavior would become meaningless, and we'd finally end the inequality between sexes.

But these rigid binary gender rules do exist within our society, and this places uncomfortable pressures on children and their parents as the young person tries to work out how to be themselves in a society that places so many limitations of what they can do based on their nominal sex. Within schools there is a significant problem of homophobic bullying, but the reality is that it's the gender non-conformity that gets picked on; it has nothing to do with who they want sex with.

Recently we had a significant a brou-ha-ha over the supposed gender confusion of young Shiloh, child of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Shiloh is only four - the world is a fascinating and exciting place with so many potentials and here is a young person exploring the world and making sense of how to be in it. Shiloh has rather cleverly worked out that there was a fork in the road of the life journey and having inadvertently been sent down the route towards 'girl-world' and 'womanhood' has quickly realized that boyhood and masculinity would make a more appealing journey.

And yet people feel frightened by this. Newspapers, web-forums and blogs were awash with comments questioning the outcome of all of this. Parents and children alike are under close scrutiny to follow these strict gender rules - I mean, try buying a girl toy that isn't pink or purple at the moment: It's quite a challenge. The rules it seems are simple: Boys should be boys and like boy stuff, girls should be girls and be pretty and well-behaved, and surrounded by pink and purple sparkly things (and waiting for a prince to come for them).

The tomboy identity has of course always been seen as an endearing diversion as long as the girl went back to being a 'proper girl' by 'tweenage' or puberty at the latest. And of course, when it comes to boys wanting to express femininity or a girl-identity it is so taboo that it apparently affords licence to release the hounds of Hell on the parent who would even contemplate permitting that. Allowing or encouraging a child to be gender non-conforming can be remarkably uncomfortable for parents too as they face the open condemnation of others: Here in the case of Jolie & Pitt I commend their strength of character to handle the criticism and allow their child to find their own route in life. Shiloh, like any young person, needs the space and the freedom to define an identity that fits, a way of being in the world that feels congruent.

Our understanding of gender identity is still evolving, but what is increasingly evident is that there are structural brain differences between typically male and typically female brains, but the gender of the brain sits on a spectrum of maleness and femaleness. Evidence for this has been growing over the last decade, and a recent article in the New Scientist sheds further light on this. In a society with so many divisions and rules based on genital anatomy, its easy to see that for someone whose brain gender is very much at odds with their genitals, the option of transsexual surgery can be so necessary and valuable in these instances. Maybe there is space for more gender diversity: maybe not everyone has to be shoe-horned into a rigidly defined binary.

I admire the parent who allows their child to self define, to explore how to be themselves and affords that person acceptance. If the end result really is that more people end up as adults living openly as transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual then what's the problem? Surely that has to be preferable to those same people living with chronic internal discomfort, trying to be something others expect of them that simply isn't who or what they are.

These are exciting times, and as more young people question the compulsory identities to which they were assigned at birth, we will no doubt start to become more accustomed to a broader bandwidth of gender and sexual identities. Imagine a prospective parent saying, "I'd like three children, maybe one of each!"

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Being a "tomboy"is so much more acceptable than being a boy who likes what girls like. That said, it is some Puritanical ideology which causes pigeon-holing.
We seem to have that Japanese cliché mentality of the nail which sticks up is the one which gets hammered down. Let's face it. Placating to some percieved societal "norm" is peer pressure and abuse in this respect. Let's name it as gender-identity bullying.
My parents were first generation Americans. My grandparents came from Russia, Poland and Scotland. I was raised in an extended family and taught traditions and ideals. My bedrooms were painted neutral colors until I, at puberty, decided what colors I wanted and painted them.
I played with soldiers and tanks and easy-bake ovens. G.I. Joe's and Ken dolls with my female friends. My parents never made a face, said a word, or commented on any of it if someone made a comment. They would just say they loved me and I could play with whatever I wanted.
I watched a PBS documentary a while back about sexual identity. The most amazing thing about that film was the interviews with elementary school children. Those children, in a public school system, diverse and happy, had said who cares whether you are a boy or a girl? It doesn't matter if you want to dress one way or another or both. It doesn't matter if you like boys and are a boy or like girls and are a girl!
It seems, like prejudices and hatred, our children have it all right until we brow-beat and mentally abuse them to think like us. Stop this abuse. For abuse it is. It is just that the wounds are not visible on the outside. At least not yet.

Post-transitioned 15 yrs - FTM here. I'm also a father. My wife and I did everything that we could think of to keep colors and gender influences away from our newborn - mostly just out of openness and curiosity. We used primary colors of all sorts, dressed her in non-gendered baby clothes, etc. And I swear to you - from the get go - our baby just CRAVED pink. She just did. It was remarkable for us to watch. She gravitated to "ultra-fem" everything much to our surprise! We came to believe there really IS something to the common use of pink and blue that's far more organic based than we in the trans community may wish to believe. While I agree that the pressures from our outer world should be more open handed and willing to embrace ALL children (ALL people), for all our arguments about societal expectations of gender, I have come to believe there really are some organic pieces to this puzzle. I don't argue people can be astoundingly and unecessarily cruel when it comes to gender. No question. But I think there is also a biological basis for some of the core of our gender expectations/choices that are not just "societal pressures". I think it's a weak argument for our trans ideals to say everyone in the world needs to "get" the spectrum of gender - and be gender-non-conforming in all ways. That's not even remotely realistic. But I DO think the "train of tolerance" can be driven to a positive result for all that includes gender. The world is not going to change to understand all the ways gender can express itself. But we've seen it change to be far more open to differences (of all kinds) (Obviously this is a broad and general statement and is in no way always true). I also believe heavily that the more we (trans people) are comfortable in our own skin and are open and sharing of our authentic lives, the more we will find our place in the world and not be so incredibly prickly about all this. For transgender people - and for me in this context I mean those who choose not to or cannot for some reason transition, it is a MUCH harder road in certain ways (though I'm quick to add it's not always a picnic for those who DO transition - particularly MTFs) - so I get this is the group that's going to yell the loudest. And perhaps that's good. But I'd like to see the talking points get broadened and deepened beyond this polyanna idea that we're all going to raise our children gender nuetral til they choose. Perhaps the more realistic notion would be to raise our children how we do, but be completely supportive if/when they decide something different. That seems a road we're moving towards and there are many many parents beginning to do this now. Thanks for the topic, Best.

I very much appreciate the message of this essay. Parents (and teachers) need to stop projecting their own assumptions onto their child and take their cues from this new little person who, contrary to some old school theories, is not a blank state.

I DON'T appreciate the title of Mr. Drummond's book which, as a woman who is trans, I find highly offensive. Moreover, Mr. Drummond seems to understand that it's offensive to many trans women yet chose that title anyway, seemingly to make a stir. That's really disappointing how someone who wrote this essay chose to do something like that.

Aubrey Haltom | September 16, 2011 8:40 AM

My husband and I have a (now) 5-year old son (we're a 2-dad family, btw). And I've always been amazed at how often I hear what bmts is saying, particularly about young girls. (i.e., 'she just "naturally" went for 'girly' things; we didn't encourage it at all.)
But my take on it is a little different than btms'.
A few thoughts - it's hard to raise a child, at any time in a child's life, without being exposed to these gender stereotypes. Even infants are scoping out the world from the first moment, and they don't miss all the messages being sent. 'Girls=pink, boys=blue', and all the other characteristics that go with it.
If you think our culture is trying to enforce a binary rule on its citizens, wait till you have a child. I was overwhelmed from the first moment my son was born - even the hospital was all about the color-coded, personality-typed gender distinctions. (and we were at a hospital that celebrated us as 2 dads, not uncommon here.)
It's hard to escape this cultural definition of gender, no matter how committed one is to doing so.
But I've also noticed that sometimes 'queer' families seem to ('unconsciously'?) want their kids to fit into these 'normal' definitions. This is obviously just armchair psychology, but perhaps it's a desire to see their kids fit into a world that they didn't as a child. I don't know the motivations, but I do know that anecdotally I see it in my world.
Final thought - why do we assume that because one child (even our own children) reflect certain traits that this must be representative of 'nature', that this must mean there is an 'organic' quality (that applies to all children) at play here? Perhaps btms' girl loves pink things. So? My son loved pink when he was very young. Purple and glitter were staples. Now he's definitely into those boy/girl distinctions, and we have daily conversations about these attempts to pre-define people.
But I don't assume that because my son is a certain way, all boys are that way.
It is so difficult to try and carve out the space, in any community, for a child to find their own 'identity'. Early development is so much about finding one's place within an ever-revolving sense of community (parents, family, friends, neighbors, neighborhoods, daycares, pre-schools, schools, etc...).
I guess I wish we were not so quick to claim 'biology', or even 'society' as the reasons for our children's behavior. We seem to grasp for some universal reason to explain each action of our kids.