The Violent History of ‘Tomboy’ and Assigned Female-Bodied Trans People

Warning: If you were assigned female-bodied and are anywhere on the trans spectrum, this post could be triggering to you for everything from trans-antagonism to all forms of overt violence.

In this post, I’m going to use “assigned female-bodied trans people” to talk about the experiences of people born with a vagina who fall anywhere on the trans spectrum. The “assigned female-bodied” part is important because there is a specific form of violence that happens when you are born with a vagina, regardless of gender identity, that has yet to have a name attached to it.

Some background, in case you missed it: A horrible opinion piece was written on The New York Times about a child whose parent insists the child is a tomboy and not transgender. I haven’t been able to read the entire piece because I can’t make it through two paragraphs without violently shaking because of PTSD.

To make the whole thing worse, it came to light that this same parent wrote a piece for Parenting.com about how this child has verbally expressed they are a boy and the parent forces them to wear skirts and dresses while denying their verbalized identity.

In case you are wondering why I am using the singular ‘they/them/their,’ it is because I’m not going to be yet another person who imposes a gender on this child when they are unable to speak for them self. Based on various things said by the parent, while it may be fair to assume this child is indeed a trans boy, I’m personally not comfortable assigning pronouns until I can actually ask someone, “What are your pronouns?” Getting it second, third, fourth-hand isn’t enough for me.

If I haven’t spent the last two days in a nightmare of PTSD somatic flashbacks, I’d break down every bit of transphobic, trans-erasure, trans-antagonism in those two articles. But, the last two days have been a literal waking nightmare and I don’t have it within me to relive every single abuse  I experienced — not only from family but society at large — and continue to experience that is mirrored in those articles.

The one thing I do want to focus on is the word ‘tomboy’ because it used in both of those articles and it is used in a way that assigned-female bodied trans people are so very well versed in, towards which everyone else simply is ignorant. Or so it appears. For many assigned female-bodied trans people, ‘tomboy’ is far from a positive word. It is a violent word.

(I’m going to attempt to not be too general here because experiences do vary, especially due to culture; not only on based upon in which country someone was born, but right down to in which city. Societal gender norms have huge variations based on pockets of geography. But even with my best attempts, I may unintentionally overgeneralize.)

It started with the following Twitter thread:

 

Someone took the first tweet in that thread, and quote RT’d it saying the following (I’m not embedding the tweet because they don’t need their mentions swamped):

So true. Also a Sissy boy is a parents failure but a tomboy girl is strong.

I was angry. It’s like they completely ignored the rest of the thread about violence and abuses. Or maybe they think even if it was as “simple” as erasure and all of the things that go along with that, like being denied any form of medical and/or legal transition (if that is the route someone would like to go — remember those things are not necessary to transition), is okay. They don’t see any inherit violence in a system that was written to purposely exclude assigned female-bodied people from it while also dictating what being trans is supposed to look like which feeds into the whole “not trans enough” stuff.

But there is also this perception that tomboy=strong.

I’ve been trying for many hours how to explain this. Assigned female-bodied trans people’s experiences are different than assigned male-bodied trans people, right down to around which parts of our bodies we experience dysphoria. It was the diagnostic criteria that once said someone must experience dysphoria with their genitals (this has been removed from the DSMV) that excluded assigned female-bodied trans people from a diagnosis which, in turn, excluded them from being counted or in studies, and excluded them from a long list of medical treatments (where I live, trans men were denied most medical treatments until 2010 while trans women have had access since the late 1980s), and legal transitions, among many other things.

The fact is, while some assigned female-bodied trans people may experience dysphoria around their vagina, the majority do not because our vaginas are not what outwardly force a gender assignment from society. Dysphoria is more typically felt around things like the chest, hips, hands, lack of body hair, jawline, height, menstruation and therefore the uterus.

There are volumes more I can say about the assigned female-bodied experiences but you may be wondering, “What does this have to do with the word tomboy and the inherit violence of that word? Why doesn’t tomboy=strong?”

This is a complicated piece to weave. I don’t have the current mental health capacity to weave a large picture but I don’t want to oversimplify it, either. I must balance my mental well-being with trying to paint some sort of decent picture.

At the base of all of this is an intersection of institutional processes that deny assigned female-bodied trans identities with society and imposed gender norms which, as already stated, vary greatly. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg scenario: Did the word ‘tomboy’ get created to keep people who were born with vaginas in their place and the transgender diagnostic criteria popped up as a result, or did the criteria that excludes assigned female-bodies trans identities cause the label of ‘tomboy’ to also keep people born with vaginas in their place? Because heaven forbid someone with a vagina have any agency over their bodies, am I right?

So, the violence. The violence comes from both feminism and patriarchy. Intersectional feminist are also guilty. Some of the violence comes in the forms of micro-aggression. Some comes from bullying and physical assault from peers and emotional blackmail that continues throughout one’s lifetime. Some comes from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from family. And then there is the sexual assault that has very specific words that are said during the process.

In the beginning…

In the beginning, it’s “cute.” In the beginning, it’s “a phase”. But this phase is only accepted if certain criteria are met. Reference the tweet: I was once a tomboy but I’m better now…

While those words are more of a paraphrase of a bunch of different things said, the sentiment is all the same. I know way more cis women who feel shame around being a tomboy than something they embrace as a way of kicking gender stereotypes to the curb. Both feminism — Intersectional feminist are not the majority — and patriarchy send out both subtle and overt messaging that, if you were born with a vagina, you’re only allowed to embrace masculinity to a point. Feminism wants you to embrace your womanhood. Patriarchy rages because someone has a vagina and how dare they attempt to take a privilege of which they are undeserving! And while cis women may continue to carry around that shame, they didn’t experience the things that happen to assigned female-bodied trans people, because they “outgrew” it.

Society expects this “phase” to pass. And when it doesn’t, then the more overt abuse begins.

It starts with forcing children to wear things they hate. When that doesn’t work, then any “boy” things they may want are used as bargaining tools and blackmail. And when that doesn’t work, stronger and stronger forms of abuse are implemented in an attempt to convert the child. I’m not going to list these abuses because it’s too painful and I’m probably causing people to relive enough hurt already.

And it’s not just at home, but also in school. Children reach an age when, because of societal pressures, it’s no longer acceptable for the assigned female-bodied person to play in a certain way, and they get shunned from all social groups until they conform. Once they reach high school, verbal bullying, exclusion, and physical assaults increase. I can remember being very crushed when one of my best friends who identified as a ‘tomboy’ started to ‘outgrow’ it and embrace more ‘feminine’ things because that made me alone, again. Then, I was crushed again when this best friend just stopped talking to me because years into puberty had passed, I still hadn’t ‘outgrown’ my childhood fancy. To be clear, she still liked ‘masculine’ things, but she also didn’t have the pain I had surrounding puberty, she was okay being labelled a young woman and doing some of the more feminine things like suddenly loving to wear dresses, and it just wasn’t acceptable that I had pain and didn’t enjoy any of those things.

Then there is a stage where someone has more autonomy. They may reach out to a therapist or a doctor. It all begins again: Identity is denied; you are labelled a ‘tomboy’ and you just need to try harder to find that thing that connects you to ‘womanhood.’ “You’re just not trying hard enough. No, you cannot get a hysterectomy. How are you going to have babies? No, you cannot have hormones. No. No. No. Let’s work through your internalized misogyny and fix you.” Assigned female-bodied people are most likely to be denied any form of medical transition. And if you live in the United States, chances are, surgery is required before legal documents can be updated.

I’ve already written about how reproductive health care, and health care in general, is discussed. But it’s also related to ‘tomboy’ and erasure of assigned female-bodied trans erasure in general. I never see trigger warning when feminists, including intersectional feminists, share articles about these issues that completely erase and ignore assigned female-bodied trans people, referring to us as ‘women.’ It’s a micoragression and erasure that causes big psychological distress.

There is also this general shock when people learn that some assigned female-bodied trans people want to give birth to their own biological babies and chest feed. Why is it so shocking that we’d want kids just like any other person who wants a kid? People can’t seem to wrap their brains around someone having dysphoria around periods yet would still want to have a baby. Well, maybe if menstrual products weren’t advertised as “women WOmen WOMEN, look even this ‘tomboy’ is happy go lucky if you use this product!” it would be a different topic of conversation.

Like no-one knows what assigned female-bodied trans looks like or how we experience dysphoria or our wants and needs because our entire lived experiences involve the attempt to erase us from around the time we begin school. Hell, many of us still don’t understand it ourselves because everything denied our existence, so we’re just trying to figure it all out. We don’t have a solid language yet for this conversation.

For some, it begins earlier. But school-age is when we are truly start to ‘outgrow’ it as we are more exposed to cis girls and are supposed to begin finding our ‘sisterhood,’ whatever that means.

And I still haven’t talked about the sexual violence because I don’t know how to say it without causing harm. But it basically involves, “You just haven’t been [blank] by a real man to feel like a real woman” as the sexual assault begins. There is also other forms of intimate partner violence that happens when the ‘woman’ oversteps their boundaries.

All of these things are forms of conversion therapies. Everything is of a design to erase any sense of being something other than ‘woman.’ If you identify with “womanhood,” you’ll be praised by both the patriarchy for accepting that ‘masculine’ things are superior but you’re still accepting your place, and you’ll be praised by feminism for finding your place in the ‘sisterhood’ while also saying screw it to gender roles. And of course, there are huge variations of this within each. Both sides can absolutely hate anything to do ‘tomboy’ness for very opposing reasons.

I still feel as if I’m being way too vague and general in all of this and no-one is going to even begin to understand how ‘tomboy’ is a word associated with multiple forms of systematic, institutional, and societal violence that starts off in subtle ways and progresses into larger forms of violence the longer someone doesn’t move on through this ‘phase.’ I’m simply not capable of digging deeper because it is truly triggering my PTSD.

That said, I do hope I have given you enough of a picture for you to understand why the word ‘tomboy’ needs to be retired. Why can’t you just use, “My gender non-conforming child”? And that gender non-conforming child may turn out to be trans, or they may not be.

At the minimum, you need to understand that the insistence of that mother that their child is not transgender and is instead a ‘tomboy’ is how assigned female-bodied trans people of this generation will begin to experience transphobia and trans-antagonism. You need to understand that for those of us who belong to other generations, this is how our experiences with the complete erasure of our existence began because the entire system was setup to do so and keep us in our place as “women”, to tell us “you are not trans enough” and therefore “you do not exist,” with micro-aggressions turning into overt violence.

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