When I began gender transition, like many other folks, I assumed I wanted to be the opposite gender from the one assigned to me at birth. I had spent so long feeling trapped by everything male that escaping it was my paramount concern. I declared to all who knew me “I am a woman!” and began seeking the sage advice of the transexual people who had come before me. As I absorbed their stories and ideas I was struck by one concept in particular and found myself so bowled over by it that it became my only goal in transition. I was moving away from assumptions and toward authenticity. I was leaving my maleness behind and becoming me. My transition was about one word, one embodiment of gender that had always held me in its grasp, from the instant I first heard it at five or six years old. Tomboy. I was becoming my true self, a trans tomboy.
All my life up until not too long ago the world was busy telling me what boys don’t do. I was a person of don’ts. Hemmed in and dying on the inside, constantly checking my every second against the norm and endlessly correcting myself. I was exhausted, fed up and depressed. So I accepted and declared my trans nature and began to face the opposite chorus that told me what women don’t do. The world still told me “no” but my life was becoming “yes!” The people I had looked to all along, through all of my years, who seemed to have the best grasp on their identities were this multifaceted gang of cis women who called themselves “tomboys”. They expressed a wide variety of styles, gender expressions and activities. Some were simply less conventionality feminine and others were outright masculine and every combination of those two expressions. They were every sexuality too. They were asexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual and lesbian. The one common denominator was this deceleration of “no!” If there was a feminine or masculine role or expectation that agreed with them, they embraced it but if something didn’t fit, they rejected it. They were all so cool. I saw too that as a group they seemed to encompass the largest swath of women and girls.
During my first year of transition I have walked in many people’s shoes. I began 2015 being seen and treated by the world as a man. I had a shaved head, stubble on my face and dark utilitarian clothing. I was addressed as “sir, man” and “bro”. Then I slowly discarded my male clothing and replaced it with women’s clothes, I began to let my head hair grow out and shaved my face clean. I was becoming a queer man in the world’s eyes and I received the abuse reserved for them. I became a “faggot” or I was called “sir” in the most sarcastic tones. I began hormone replacement therapy and electrolysis on my facial hair and my body began to shift with my ever more feminine presentation. To the world I became an open ended question. I was stared at, mocked openly, jaws hung open at me, double takes were taken and fingers pointed while faces laughed. The world had no words for me. As my body shifted again I became feminine enough in appearance that the world began to see a woman or maybe a man, a perverse deceiver, this brought an end to my male privilege and I was threatened on the street. Attempted physical assault was followed by demonization. I was told that I was going to “burn in hell”. Next came the absolute assumption that I was either a very butch woman or a trans man. I was called “bitch, homo, buddy” and “dyke”. The epithets had returned. A month or two later and the hateful began to see an object of desire, a woman for them to own. I was gawped at by men and they tried to coral me and my attention. I was “ma’am, miss” and “girl”. When I ignored the cat calls I was again just some “bitch”. I realized too that all of those stages of humanity I had passed through could fit under the umbrella of tomboy. Effeminate men, androgynous folks, butch women and trans folk of every stripe embodied this concept. The word tomboy was central to so many of the stories of the people I had found empathetic siblinghood with.
Eventually I was a woman to the world. And I found myself hemmed in by that too. My body had changed but the way I walk and talk was still basically the same. The clothes I put on when I turned my back on maleness were the same ones I was still wearing. I was loving being able to express my femininity and I was finally able to embrace my masculinity. Nail polish on calloused hands. Having it presumed that I was a cis woman irked me though. I had been through a lot in my life and I wanted the world to recognize that and celebrate it with me. So I began to head back to a more androgynous style of dress. I began to enjoy when someone called me “sir” and then “ma’am” in the same breath. I wanted to be that obstinate question mark, that tomboy. I decided too that my birth name was too important for me to relinquish. Publicly I am Chris Jen but legally, and privately, I am still Christopher. I never did have legal dysphoria. I have too little respect for authority to care how I am seen by those who believe they have power. I saw at that point too that not only was my gender expression tomboyish but my gender identity was trans tomboy and that until my gender marker on legal documents could be changed to reflect that (a T perhaps) it did not matter if the system saw me as M or F. It gave me power too, which is something I have never really had. Sure, I was once offered the power of a white athletic man, but that felt so wrong on me it was no privilege, it felt like a burden. Now in the world I am seen as a woman, perhaps a questionable woman but a woman nonetheless. When I need to use a debit card or show some form of identification I get to find out who is a bigot and who is not. The cool folks shorten Christopher down to Chris without me asking. Some folks enter into conversations about gender with me and I get to learn from them and they sometimes learn from me. The bigots call me “sir” and refuse to look at me or speak to me. I have successfully challenged their assumptions and disrupted their view of the world forever. I have created change.
To me that is what being a tomboy is all about. Yes, there are the two binary genders. The girly girls in their hobbling footwear, skimpy clothes, caked in makeup basking in their weakness. There are the macho men too. All stubble, dirt and funk. Reveling in their power and prowess, dominating all comers. Those are well and good. They are reference points for the rest of us, the bulk of humanity. They help us define and explain our endless variations, subtractions and combinations of gender identities and expressions. Cis, genderqueer and trans. Binary and non-binary. Those who say “this is what I am” or “also this” and those who prefer to say “this is what I am not” The multitudes of different bodies and minds that experience the world in a way that no one else can. The tomboys.