What Lisa Selin Davis Got So Wrong In Her New York Times Essay About Her “Tomboy” Daughter

For starters, the pressure to conform to gender roles is not trans' peoples fault.

A few days ago, The New York Times opinion page published a hilarious satire about cisgender anxiety. At least, this was my initial impression. If you’ve ever been a trans child (I have) the piece is just laughable. If you’ve ever been a trans child, reading an editorial like this makes you wonder whether its author has ever encountered a trans kid at all. It seems a lot more like she took 16 tabs of acid, watched an episode of I Am Jazz, and spent 72 hours in a sensory deprivation tank tripping balls.

Further examination revealed it was actually a totally sincere statement by young adult novelist Lisa Selin Davis (Lost Stars, Belly). Davis has an uber-butch 7-year-old daughter. Her kid, who sounds fantastic, is basically Small Allison from Fun Home—you can practically hear “Ring of Keys” playing in your head when Davis describes her. But Davis just wants everyone to know that the kid definitely is not trans. She’s just a tomboy. She says so herself! Nothing suspicious here.

Davis begins by describing how a teacher asked whether her kid was trans: This foolish teacher drank the trans Kool Aid! She is now unable to conceive of a butch little girl who doesn’t need a shot of puberty blockers straight to the jugular. And it’s not just the teacher: Once you take that much acid and watch that much I Am Jazz, life is apparently full of Doctor Moreau-esque grown-ups who work for a transsexual cabal. This cabal cannot reproduce, must recruit, and is determined to create transsexuals.

Davis goes on to describe how a bunch of other grown-ups asked her kid whether she’s transgender. The family pediatrician did, for example. And that’s kind of nice, Davis allows. After all, if her kid were trans—which she definitely is not_she’d be fine with that. But clearly she’s not trans, and never will be, because one’s relationship to gender never shifts after the age of 7, nor is its expression ever impacted by the Times-amplified anxiety of your parents.

But adults have asked the question too many times, Davis explains, and this is actually very bad. It’s sending her daughter the message that girls can’t be butch. You might think that the patriarchy—which is not notoriously fond of trans people—was responsible, but you would apparently be wrong. You might think that checking in with kids repeatedly about their feelings over time would be healthy. But far as gender identity goes, you would be wrong there, too.

Of all things in this world that demean a butch girl, affirmation of trans kids is backed by perhaps the least amount of structural power. Davis places the onus of the complex problems facing butch girls strictly on trans people, perhaps because the affirmation of trans kids makes her so personally anxious. So she’s decided it’s important enough to complain about in the Times. Or she couldn’t make it into the Times to promote her new YA novel without exploiting how topical her definitely-not-trans kid is. Why not both? Two great tastes.

Many queers who’ve been engaged with this conversation for a long time must be sighing deeply right now. Every time a new wave of straight people find out that trans men are a thing, we have to do this again. The butch/FTM border wars were already boring in the ’90s. How long will there need to still be butch dykes before people calm down? Interestingly, although Davis’s piece inevitably indexes this (unfortunately) ongoing conversation, not once does she say the words “butch” or “gay.” This makes her seem like a tourist in a conversation where she attempts to stake a tremendous claim.

Here’s the plot twist, ladies, gentlemen, and misogyny victims tragically brainwashed by my kind: Three years ago, Lisa Selin Davis did not have a novel to promote, so I guess she had a different agent. She was playing smaller rooms. Namely, Parenting magazine, where she wrote what many trans people I know might call a “brutal self-read”: She details her little girl’s butch tendencies—like her rowdiness and her Spider-Man Halloween costume. Then, she candidly informs us that she’s worried, because her daughter keeps saying she’s a boy, “in ways both subtle and direct.”

Where’s that proud cisgender girl she describes in the Times—the one fighting off adults recruiting for the trans cabal?

In the Parenting piece, Davis said her daughter’s tomboyish ways made her think, “How great is she!” Well, it made 90% of her think that. “The other 10% thought, ’uh-oh,'” she wrote. “As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like ‘Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?’ the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.”

As we all know, the thought of one’s child being transgender is just absolutely heartbreaking.

The piece makes it impossible to buy the claim that Davis would be just fine with a trans kid. It evacuates essay of all meaning beyond, “Trans children existing makes me feel very anxious.” The intensity of that anxiety is palpable when she writes in the Times about already having researched puberty blockers and hormones. What exactly Davis means by “ways both subtle and direct,” is unclear. Who knows and who cares, really. This kid seems to have enough adults in her life inclined to pick over the bones of her gender. I couldn’t care less about it as long as that sweet Times money buys her more cute light-up sneakers. One hopes it will also eventually pay her therapy bills.

Stephen Ira is a writer and a founding co-editor of "Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry and Poetics."
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