Some Boys Like Dolls: Deconstructing the (Trans)Gender Binary

"Boy plays with trucks, and girls play with dolls."

This interpretation of the gender binary surrounded me in my elementary school, when I went shopping with my mom in the toys department at Target, and whenever a television show cut to a commercial break when I was growing up. Traditionally, boys who play with dolls were scolded, stripped of their dolls and handed some trucks, their parents terrified of their son showing signs of femininity. Now, as transgender identities become more visible, select parents respond to their sons playing with dolls in a different way, assuming that their child's interest in traditionally feminine toys makes them transgender or qualifies them as a girl trapped in a boy's body. So-called progressive individuals are jumping on the "transgender bandwagon," without realizing that their tolerance (and even support) of what they perceive as "transgender" might actually be a destructive reinforcement of an arbitrary gender binary.

I call people anxious to pull the gender-binary trigger "pseudo-progressives." This term applies to people who accept trans identities as long as those identities do not confuse the pre-ordained "male" or "female" path that each human must take. This brand of pseudo-progressivism rejects queer identities and gender plurality by supporting transgender individuals only insomuch as they exchange a cookie-cutter definition of male for a cookie-cutter definition of female, or vice versa. As a transgender man (defined by my male identity and my interest in altering my female body to match my gender expression), the question on my mind is this: Can I ever fully extricate myself from my 21 years of life experience as a female to fit a cookie-cutter definition of male?

As a child, I really loved Legos, but I also had an extensive Barbie collection, a Barbie house and approximately three shoeboxes full of Barbie accessories. For pseudo-progressives, this is confusing. Many people would look at me now, passing in my everyday life as biologically male, and assume that as a child I was staunchly masculine. They might assume that my childhood was spent retaliating against my female body by only expressing my true masculine nature -- if I really was, indeed, a boy. Nonetheless, I both loved Barbies and felt extreme gender dysphoria about my perceived female identity.

My experience as a child, expressing many traditionally feminine qualities while also knowing that I was meant to be male-bodied, challenges conventional perceptions of transsexuality. As a society, we have started to understand that trans identities exist, but we see gender expression and biology as bound together. In order to understand a holistic view of gender and sex, we must disentangle gender expression, an individual's manifestation of femininity or masculinity, from biological sex. To exemplify this disentanglement, consider the pervasive stereotyping of transsexual women in society at large. Transsexual women are often associated with flamboyant and fashion-focused drag culture, which emphasizes hyperfemininity and rejects masculinity. But the majority of people seeking to transition physically from male-bodied to female-bodied do not express their gender using such a binary-based, hyperfeminine approach. In the context of children, many little boys may be perfectly comfortable with their male bodies but still have interest in presenting feminine gender expression at times. Other little boys might reject their male bodies or eventually transition, without rejecting traditional expressions of masculinity, like interest in sports or lack of interest in makeup.

As a man, I behave in a way that many people perceive as authentically masculine, yet I spent 21 years living as a completely functional female. So, really, I am never going to have the same experience as a person born male, and I am always going to know exactly what it feels like to be female-bodied. Though my gender expression is firmly situated on the masculine end of the spectrum, I can't hide that I have plenty of femininity mixed into my behavior. I experienced significant discomfort as a child, expressing myself as male in elementary school while also contending with my female body and female identity. However, I can imagine that I would have experienced as much discomfort had I been born with a male body simply because my feminine tendencies would have incited, at the very least, bullying and alienation from my peers. A little boy asking for a Barbie house for Christmas? No way would that have gone over well in Glendale, Ariz.

When we analyze our culture's obsession with the union of gender expression and biology, it becomes clear that there is not space made in society for people unwilling to live within this oppressive gender binary. Transgender identities have become more visible but are often accepted only when they comply with cookie-cutter definitions of "male" and "female." We assume that female-bodied people who want to be male must reject all of their femininity in order to become "authentic men," and that male-bodied people who want to be female must reject all of their masculinity to become "authentic women." As pseudo-progressive influence permeates our culture, we project restrictive definitions of transgender onto our children, desperate to make gender-bending children fit inside a neatly constructed box. In thinking about gender identity and expression in this context, it is necessary for parents, teachers and the general public to recognize that there are layers of gender, expression, sexuality and biology that must be approached with sensitivity and understood through the lens of individual experience, not the lens of cookie cutters.