With a doozy of a name like Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Abigail Shrier’s debut work of nonfiction is bound to generate much talk, little of which is likely to move beyond its dubious synopsis, its brutally insensitive cover, or its author’s increasingly hostile social media antics. Shrier’s screed is yet another attempt by a straight cisgender woman to frame trans people as the perpetrators of society’s ills, including but not limited to violence against women, the fracturing of the American nuclear family, and, inexplicably, even the purported dissolution of the First Amendment. The 276-page text basks in its endless misgendering and crass descriptions of the intimate process of transitioning in young adulthood, as though Shrier hopes disgust will somehow propagate solidarity among her presumably cisgender readers.
As an apprehensive cisgender lesbian reader of Irreversible Damage, I experienced more repulsion toward the author than I ever will toward my trans brothers or sisters. Still, the book takes glee in weakly attempting to pit worldly dykes like me against gender-nonconforming and transmasculine individuals. In one of the book’s handful of “case studies” about transgender youth and the supposed havoc they wreak upon familial stability and freedom of speech (all myopically told through the perspective of the parents, never the children), Shrier interviews a lesbian mother of one such transmasculine child. “None of our friends are gay or lesbian,” the mother, Sally, tells the author. “So our friends are normal,” she continues before bursting into laughter.
The lesbian who prides herself on being “normal,” whatever that means, is the latest recruit of women like Shrier. In this new wave of anti-trans activism that was first fomented in the United Kingdom and now spreads across the U.S. more violently than a post-holiday COVID-19 spike, some lesbians — historically estranged from feminist activism and thought, never mind custody rights and even property ownership — can finally find a sense of belonging and empowerment. All they need to do is annihilate the vital T in the LGBTQ+ acronym by painting it as a threat to the L.
To that end, in her book, Shrier cites little-known yet vocal anti-trans personalities in the lesbian community whose rants about “lesbian extinction” are used as a cudgel against trans folks. Working from that notion pushed by a minority of lesbians, Shrier doubles down on the “‘new idea’…that lesbians do not exist: girls with more masculine presentation are ‘really’ boys.” She pushes further, implying that women who shirk gender norms are now obsolete. “There is no such thing as a ‘tomboy’ anymore, as any teenage girl will tell you. In its place is an endless litany of sexual and gender identities — public, rigid, and confining.”
In reality, the only “litany of sexual and gender identities” that are “public, rigid, and confining” are those architected within our society well before my birth or even Shrier’s. They are the reason our first lady is still expected to decorate the White House each year and why we suffer women’s bathroom lines twice as long as men’s when we could simply be using the same lavatories. More directly, these three truly limiting sexual and gender identities — male, female, and heterosexual — are why women make around 82 cents to every man’s dollar and why men still struggle in our court systems to secure custody of their children. It is clear who has manufactured these restraints, and it was certainly not trans people, let alone trans kids.
Naturally, the assertion of Shrier that lesbians, tomboys, and lesbian tomboys are going the way of the dodo bird seeks to create pandemonium among queer girls who identify as such. And Irreversible Damage dares to inflict this very damage at a critical moment when lesbian social spaces that weren’t already shuttered are suffering due to national lockdown, and our community’s women — sociable, tactful, and independent of others’ transitions — are left to their own devices. Perhaps Shrier’s wettest dream is not that of trans genocide but of lesbian existential crisis and red-pilling; she seeks to manufacture the equivalent of an incels’ forum thread, where people can find solace and community in the misery of others. Shrier knows how poorly girls can behave when we feel alone in the world; her book, if nothing else, is the literal manifestation of such moods.
As a lesbian reader of sound gender, I still find it enormously unpleasant to be repeatedly told that I do not exist or that my gender and sexuality will inevitably shift, all because of a societal trend and its societal pressures; it is all too reminiscent of the comments foisted upon many of us by heterosexuals upon coming out. Fortunately, Shrier lacks two pieces of vital information. First, the lesbian is the mistress of silently and confidently auditing her own gender. She continues to exist because she abides by no one’s stringent rules. As Minnie Bruce Pratt, the lesbian feminist activist and life partner to trans author and activist Leslie Feinberg, famously cautioned, “Our imaginations are in thrall to the institutions of oppression.” We are well-advised to buck the norm. In some instances, the lesbian might not even be a “she” or “cis.” The more the merrier.
Second, the tomboy is not simply an antiquated archetype of classic literature. She extends well beyond Scout Finch and Harriet M. Welsch (Harriet the Spy). A cursory glance at the hashtag #tomboy on Instagram turns up thousands upon thousands of photos of people who identify as such, many of whom are young, diverse, and very free of the heteronormative paradigm to which Shrier wishes they would cleave. Several summers ago, you could not enter a nightlife establishment in New York City without hearing Princess Nokia’s banger “Tomboy,” its lyrics shaking the venue’s walls like a gender-subverting mushroom cloud: “Who that is, hoe? That girl is a tomboy.” Prior to that, in 2011, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma released Tomboy, a minimalist portrait of a young girl who begins a tender exploration of gender. The film brought home awards from the Berlinale, Frameline, and Odessa festivals as well as GLAAD. Roger Ebert praised the film for being “tender and affectionate” — two admirable emotions in which Shrier is egregiously unversed, at least where our community is concerned.
We are hardly obsolete. If anything, we are just getting started. Our first mission? Disavowing Irreversible Damage. Our second? Taking care of our trans siblings. Our third? Reversing the damage that Shrier has done to lesbian reputation. The fourth? I do not know, but I hope it involves dancing and queers of every stripe, imagined and yet to be.
Sarah Tom Fonseca is a self-taught writer from the Georgia foothills residing in New York City. Her work has been published in Evergreen Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She welcomes discourse @girlsinmitsouko on Twitter.