The comments here at Heretic TOC have long been enriched by the hugely informative wisdom of “A”, whose only fault is to have chosen a pseudonym that is absolutely useless as a search term; locating her back-catalogue of contributions is thus a bit of a nightmare. Today, though, she steps into the spotlight with a guest blog you will definitely want to bookmark in your own records if you are interested – as I think we should be – in the difficult decisions faced by children and adolescents who find themselves struggling with gender dysphoria. Following my own explorations of the theme in Trans kids 1: Insistent, consistent, persistent, “A” made an insightful comment from her own perspective as a former “tomboy”. This now appears below in an extended version. “A” describes herself as “a law-abiding but pro-AOC-abolition BL and GL woman who had a tomboyish, but never gender-dysphoric, childhood”. With an academic background in linguistics, including research-level training, she has undertaken varied work around the world. She tries, she says, “to reconcile MAP politics and feminism”.

PERSISTENCE AND DESISTANCE: A TOMBOY’S VIEW

I highly recommend the blog Trans Research. Much of the most up-to-date research is Dutch, as much of the most ‘advanced’ treatment of gender-dysphoric kids is Dutch. Here, for instance, is a Dutch long-term follow-up study of puberty suppression and here‘s another.

According to this Dutch study children should probably not be allowed to transition socially before they are ten. This recommendation is based in part on the experiences of five natal girls who had effectively lived as boys for some years, then during puberty wanted to ‘switch back’ to being girls. All had “significant feelings of shame for their earlier boyish appearance” and some worried about being teased or excluded by classmates over the switch back. Two are quoted about their difficulties with this. While it seems that the girls did in the main manage to switch over to more feminine appearance and behaviour relatively smoothly, one struggled for years, first fearing that she’d be teased if she wore earrings and bracelets like the other girls, and then actually being teased after the move to high school, which she’d hoped would help her “make a fresh start”. The gender-dysphoric boys, however, had not dressed as girls full-time during elementary school and had been perceived by the other children as boys, just different boys. Perhaps if they’d been effectively living as girls, rather than feminine boys, some of them too would have struggled with switching back.

The tomboy makeover is a major trope in our culture. “My little tomboy now wears satin and lace” go the lyrics to Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen. Tomboys who grow out of it are all over classic girls’ literature: I remember being, at age twelve, quite irked by the ending of Carol Ryrie Brink’s 1936 novel Caddie Woodlawn, in which an eleven-year-old frontier girl who does everything her brothers do finally decides to settle down a bit and learn sewing. In the film Now and Then, a less-than-entirely-successful but quite popular 1995 attempt to make a Stand By Me for girls, a sporty twelve-year-old binds her growing breasts — till she gets attention, and her first kiss, from a cute neighbour boy who likes her basketball skills.

It’s a trope for a reason, and part of that reason is that it has a lot of truth to it. When I was fourteen or fifteen and we were all changing after PE, one of the other girls remarked, apropos of what I can’t remember, that when she was younger she’d wanted to be a boy, and almost every girl in that room said she had, too. An acquaintance working on a neuroscience PhD recommended to me Lise Eliot’s book Pink Brain, Blue Brain and Rebecca Jordan-Young’s book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, both of which I recommend in turn. Jordan-Young’s book deals extensively with girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or CAH, “a genetic disorder which causes overproduction of androgens from the adrenal glands…[and] is the most common cause of genital ambiguity”. Girls with CAH on average have more masculine interests as children than unaffected girls. In chapter eight of her book, Sex-Typed Interests, Jordan-Young examines this Swedish study of CAH and non-CAH girls ages two through ten.

The CAH girls in the study spent less time playing with ‘girls’ toys’ and more time playing with ‘boys’ toys’ than the control girls. But the other side of the story is that the most popular toys among the control girls, as measured by number of seconds spent playing with a particular toy, were Lincoln Logs and a garage with four cars. Jordan-Young points out that “the normal control girls spent three times as long playing with the garage and toy cars as they did playing with the baby doll. The only ‘girls’ toy’ that was in the ballpark…with these boys’ toys was a pair of Barbie and Ken dolls. (I suspect that Barbie and Ken were riding around in some of these cars.)” At the end of the study, each child was offered one of a car, a doll and a ball to take home, and while no girl from the control group picked the car, control girls were roughly 36% more likely to choose the ball than the doll. Granted, this was in Sweden. But maybe ‘boys’ toys’ are just more fun for many kids, regardless of sex!

However, of course, almost all women are happy to be women. My experience suggests that if you stand in a crowded urban train station at rush hour, say, you’ll be in the presence of at least a couple of women who as girls were hardcore tomboys — to the point of insisting on short haircuts and gender-neutral nicknames, being delighted to be mistaken for boys, frequently wishing to be boys, becoming distressed at puberty and covering up their developing bodies with baggy clothes, etc. — but who are now happy to be women. Some are feminine women; others remain quite androgynous or ‘gender non-conforming’; most are heterosexual, though a disproportionately high number are lesbian or bisexual; and most, it seems, end up in long-term relationships with men and have kids of their own. And many will tell you quite forcefully that as children they would have jumped at the chance to transition, but that they now feel this would have been the wrong choice for them, and are glad they didn’t get to make it.

Social transition is sometimes set in motion alarmingly early these days, with very young kids ‘going stealth’, like this little trans boy (natal female), who transitioned socially at five:

“The week before he starts school, he changes his name to one that sounds more male. The principal and his teachers know his gender status, but to everyone else he’s just one of two hundred little boys showing off to each other on the playground. He worries about his body betraying him, turning him into a woman against his will, and we tell him that doctors can help him with that, if it’s still what he wants when the time comes.”

But if it’s not still what he wants when the time comes, won’t he find it awfully difficult to change back if none of his friends from kindergarten even know he was born a girl? So what does not letting kids transition socially before ten look like? Maybe something like this. The seven-year-old natal girl in question is allowed, as she should be, to present and act as she wishes, but she’s still known by a female name and female pronouns, and “at school, everyone knows she is a girl” though “no one has ever known her to look or act like one, so she gets treated more like a boy”. Her parents are willing and ready to support whichever path she eventually takes, including social and medical transition, but are well aware that that’s far from an inevitable outcome.

The son of blogger Bedford Hope, aka Accepting Dad, walked a similar middle road in middle childhood. He wore long hair and pink skirts and was fine with either set of pronouns as long as you weren’t making fun of him, but he was clear that he was a boy. At thirteen, the age when kids tend to be at their most ruthlessly conformist, he was already deep-voiced and nearly six feet tall, and he went underground with his femininity for a while, to the point of forbidding his parents to mention it. At fifteen, he was out again as a male-bodied person who likes to wear skirts and loves fashion. His parents, too, were willing and ready to support social and medical transition if it came to that, but in the meantime it was watchful waiting. It worked: partly because the parents handled it well, partly because the family lives in a socially-liberal East Coast area of the US, and partly because of the kid himself: he has great social skills and always had a lot of friends both male and female, and he responded robustly to teasing — asked on the playground why a boy would want to wear a dress, he replied “BECAUSE IT’S A FREE COUNTRY, ASSHOLE!”

A shy, awkward, sensitive kid would have required more support in walking the middle road. But then, shy, awkward, sensitive kids require more support with a lot of things. With the best will in the world, though, there are going to be at least a few kids who need to transition socially before ten, who can’t be happy any other way, and I think they should be allowed to. Yes, there’s a risk to that, but there’s also a risk to letting kids play out by themselves or have sex or even try out for the school play.

Another observation from the first study I linked is that, at least in the Netherlands, the age range ten through thirteen is often when kids end up moving towards their eventual path: ‘persisting’ in their wish to transition medically or ‘desisting’ from it. Before this four-year span, outcomes are difficult to predict. After it, kids are much less likely to change their minds, whichever path they’ve picked. But I do wonder if sometimes ‘desistance’ isn’t seized upon too eagerly, if the books aren’t closed prematurely — after all, fourteen is awfully young to know you’re cis ;)! There does seem, according to the Dutch study discussed here, to be a group of ‘persisters-after-interruption ‘: young people who try in adolescence to make it work as cis homosexuals, but who then come back to the clinics in early adulthood requesting transition. I wonder if there isn’t also a group of ‘underground persisters’ whose desires to change sex continue, but are hidden. The blog post from Transparenthood above contains an example of what many people say to the parents of tomboys:

“I had a cousin that was a tomboy. She dressed like a boy and played with the boys until she was fifteen. Then she suddenly blossomed and now she is the most beautiful, fashionable woman you’d ever meet. Don’t worry, she’ll grow out of it.” And if you scroll down, there’s a rather sad comment:

“I became one of those 15 year olds who allegedly ‘blossomed’ into femininity, boyfriends, makeup, and eventually heterosexual marriage (white gown and all) and motherhood…Guess what? That strong cross-gender identification is still there, half a lifetime later…I still think about it every day. I still wonder whether I should have pushed harder to be my true self, even though in the 1960’s there was no support for such thinking and certainly no medical options.”

Someone who in my view talks a lot of sense about this stuff is one Catherine Tuerk, a nurse, married with grown kids, who started a support group for gender-variant children and their parents after realising that the advice she’d been given to stamp out her son’s childhood femininity — he’s now a gay man — was wrong. Here she describes her 1950s tomboy childhood as her “glory days” and wonders, as I have myself, why some tomboys today don’t have more fun “liking to be boys”.

Here she says what many wouldn’t dare to: “Parents have told me it’s almost easier to tell others ‘My kid was born in the wrong body’ rather than explaining that he might be gay, which is in the back of everyone’s mind. When people think about being gay, they think about sex — and thinking about sex and kids is taboo.”

Indeed: it’s almost an article of faith among many socially-liberal cis people that the little natal boy who loves to dress up as a princess or mermaid isn’t expressing anything to do with a sexual orientation, because prepubescent kids aren’t sexual: (s)he’s expressing his (or her) gender identity, which is entirely separate from sexual orientation and which flows simply and purely from the innocence of children’s unsullied, unsexual hearts. “Why are you thinking about what’s in my six-year-old’s underwear?” is the devastating, unanswerable rejoinder to those who object to trans children using the ‘wrong’ toilets.

Some true believers in gender identity as entirely separate from gender expression and sexual orientation (the ‘Genderbread person‘ is popular now) wonder in all sincerity where the trans girl tomboys and feminine trans boys are. Well, there are probably never going to be many of them, but there may be a few. The Transparenthood blog post above describes a child who may, or may not, be a trans boy but isn’t hyper-masculine, and this post describes a “tomboy trans girl”. I do wonder, though, where we have ended up when a five-year-old who wears dresses every single day and prefers tea-sets to trucks but has lots of physical energy and likes to swordfight with sticks can be described as a tomboy, or a child who likes romantic comedies, small dogs and elaborate hairstyles, who prefers hip-hop dancing to sports and who wrestles with male friends and plays Barbies with female friends is deemed, at the tender age of seven, unmasculine.

Gender roles for kids are in some ways more restrictive than they were when I was coming up. Remember teenage girls in the mid-90s, all baggy jeans and flannel? And Lego, as many have remarked, isn’t for everyone anymore: there’s boy Lego and girl Lego (Lego Friends).

I’ve watched some video footage of child trans activist Avery Jackson, who appeared on the cover of National Geographic. I am not in the least qualified to diagnose Asperger’s, and even people who are cannot of course do so on the basis of a few minutes of video, but the way she talks does remind me a bit of some of the ‘Aspies’ I know. The documentary Kids on the Edge: The Gender Clinic, about trans kids being treated at the Tavistock Clinic in London mentions that about half of the kids seen at the clinic show “autistic traits”. That can, of course, mean many things. It can mean “this child is somewhat socially awkward and quite obsessive but is within the normal range of personality and behaviour and doing fine”. It can mean “this child is really struggling and becoming increasingly unhappy and it’s obvious to everyone that they are on the autism spectrum and desperately in need of the help a diagnosis would bring, but the money-starved public services are dragging their feet on diagnosis, so we have to say ‘traits’ for now”. Then again, it can mean “this child has a lot of symptoms of different conditions that tend, as these neurodevelopmental things do, to co-occur and overlap, and they might get an ASD diagnosis or they might not, but right now we’re focusing on the dyslexia and dyscalculia/the Tourette’s/[etc.], because that’s what’s causing the worst problems”. Trans Research has an Asperger’s/Autism subsection.

The 1997 book FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Canadian researcher Holly, now Aaron, Devor contains some interesting information on child sexuality. Several of the men interviewed recalled the sexual things they’d done as girls: one started masturbating as a girl of three or four; another’s first partnered sexual experience occurred when he, then she*, was twelve, and involved ‘heavy petting’ with another twelve-year-old girl; a third was having penis-in-vagina sex with adult men beginning when he, then she, was a girl of fourteen. Heartwarmingly, one met his soul mate at school when they were girls of twelve. They were inseparable at once, and at the time of the interview they’d been together ever since — over two decades.

Finally, two more articles I like, and recommend: S/He and What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?

*Sorry about all this he-then-she stuff, trans readers. I know it isn’t the most up-to-date or respectful terminology but it’s what Devor uses in the book.