As a kid, I didn’t know that I could be a boy. I didn’t want to be a boy, particularly, but I wanted to do ‘boyish’ things and dress in ‘boyish’ clothes. My gender presentation and expression were ‘boyish’, but my gender identity was ‘girl’. I was a tomboy.
I was poor and I grew up without TV, which meant that I mostly sat around and read old hand-me-down books. One of my favourite series’ was The Famous Five by Enid Blyton and I wanted to be George (see featured image!). For anyone who doesn’t know: George is the cool, brave, tough tomboy who consistently proves that girls can do the same things as boys.
In my early teens I tried to be feminine, and in my mid teens I rebelled against it. For a while, my family were increasingly uncomfortable with the way that I dressed and were clearly afraid that I ‘was trying to be/look like a boy’. I still didn’t know that being trans was possible, and I was pretty offended when people criticised what I saw as cool, butch style and told me that I ‘looked like a boy’. I didn’t want to look like a boy, I didn’t even want to look butch, I simply wanted to be boyish.
As a late teen, and subsequently adult, I found out that I could become a boy if I wanted to and for five years, I debated it. It started with a video about a non-binary, transmasculine person and, after that, meeting other trans people. I looked at them and related their story to my own, the similarities were uncanny but I tried to push the idea away, it seemed too complicated. I endlessly watched videos on transmasculine & ftm things to try and discern if I was trans too, was this the community that I belonged to?
That all brings me to this last six months. Around half a year ago I decided it was time to try things out in a social setting. I figured that I would never know if I was trans &/ non-binary until I trialled it in real life- it’s one thing to internalise your identity and it’s another thing entirely to live it. And oh my goodness, it has definitely been another thing to live it. Initially, it was a little awkward, then for a while I tried not to think about it too much (I often do this as I’m afraid of standing out or dealing with confrontation). While at work, I felt trapped and confused, I wasn’t sure who I was. In the LGBT+ community I felt pressured and that I needed to be ‘more trans’ or else I needed to provide everyone I met from now on with a full explanation of my gender. Some people pressured me to use he/him pronouns and told me that I was ‘classic FtM’. As a response to this, I experimented with a purely masculine name and found that it didn’t fit- it was uncomfortable, it didn’t feel like me. People expected me to be a boy because if I wasn’t quite ‘a girl’, then what else could I be? I found that I would either be supported as a binary trans man, or written off as the person I actually was (& am). I felt disillusioned.
Recently, someone told me, ‘hey- you look just like George from The Famous Five with your short curly hair!’ and my past came flooding back. I realised, this is it- exactly who I am. Suddenly and all at once, the intersection between my gender expression and gender identity made sense.
At what point does it stop being okay for someone to be a tomboy? At what point are people expected to adhere to gender roles, gender presentation and gender expectations? And if they don’t do those things, if they don’t adhere, are they automatically trans?
We expect kids to ‘grow into’ their gender. We see the ‘tomboy’ as a phase of childhood rebellion which, if refusing to fade in adulthood, becomes a ‘condition of gender’ or a signifier of transness. In some spaces within the LGBT+ community there is pressure to conflate ‘tomboy’ with ‘transmasculine’ despite these labels being wholly different ideals, centred on different concepts and different aspects of gender (for instance, ‘tomboy’ is related to gender expression while ‘transmasculine’ is related to gender identity).
Not all tomboys turn out to be trans but some tomboys do- both are equally valid. If you’re a tomboy and you’re exploring your gender identity, I would fully encourage you to do so! Exploring my gender identity allowed me to realise that I’m not trans, at least, not by my own definitions. Let me know your experience with gender expression and gender identity in comments.- AB