How Do I Know If I’m Trans?

This is not the final post. – N

“How do I know if I’m trans?”

This is, by far, the most common question I’ve gotten over the last year and a half, since I began blogging. I’ve gotten it in comments, e-mails, on Facebook, over twitter…sometimes even on dates with ostensibly cis men (which is annoying as fuck, by the way. I don’t go on dates for the sake of offering people free therapy and transgender life-coaching)… it’s a hard question. I want to help. I wish I could. Sometimes I try.

It’s so individual in nature, though. Everyone has their own reasoning and own denials, own sequence of events that have led to this point and rgwie own reasons for being scared and having doubts (despite how universal fear and doubt is to being confronted with this. Like, some of those fears and doubts are pretty consistent across everyone questioning this, but everyone’s got their own individual fears and doubts too). And in terms of the person asking that question, those individual experiences and even the unique context of where they’re at (emotionally, interpersonally, psychologically) when they ask it: Everyone wants or needs to hear a different thing, and it’s not uncommon for people to get SERIOUSLY pissed if you don’t say what they approached you to hear.

And more often than not, they’re not really looking for an answer to guide them, a response on which they’ll base their actions or reassess their thinking. Most of the time, they’re looking for affirmation of a very specific answer they’ve already decided upon, and just want to hear it from someone else they perceive as having some kind of authority (how anyone has that perception about someone as messed up as me is totally beyond me, though). Most of the time within that latter set of “most of the time”, if they don’t get that affirmation they wanted, they get kinda upset.

Especially if they’ve decided that, for some reason, they can’t make this choice and you remind them that they can. No matter how supportive you try to be about that, it’s still throwing their fears and conflict back in their face (which is not to say that reassuring denial is a better option).

Sometimes, though, the question is earnest. They’re scared. They’re in doubt. It’s a huge and terrifying thing to confront, with all kinds of implications, and they can’t cope with that on their own. They want or need someone who seems to know what they’re doing, or has at least been there, to let them know it’s okay, or help them figure this out, or help guide them towards the answer that’s right for them.

Of course they want guidance and help. No one wants to face something so terrifying and huge on their own. When you’re scared, sometimes you reach out for a hand to hold. That’s not cowardly, it’s just human (which is part of why I hate when people talk about how “brave” transitioning is… you have no idea how scared most of us are or were, and talking about this imaginary courage just erases and invalidates the fear we felt, rewrites our own stories… it makes the people who ARE still scared feel that much less secure in themselves, and it gives them more reason to doubt themselves and their feelings or choices despite how completely understandable it is to be afraid when facing this, no matter how “sure” you are).

So the question got asked, the comment got posted, and the e-mail or private message arrived in my inbox, over and over again:

“How do I know if I’m trans?”

I’m sorry, but the short answer is:

You don’t.

The long answer, though…

As said, it’s scary. And it’s huge. And that already makes it a hard decision to make, where you desperately want the security of some sense of certainty. Adding to that fear is the suffocating trans-misogyny and cissexism encoded into our culture as a whole… which in turn complicates its own oppressive nature by being positioned so thoroughly as a normativity: We assume that “cis” is the default state against which our identity needs to be defined, and our decision needs to be made.

I discussed this aspect in depth in an essay I once wrote (that, in contrast to the majority of thingies lurking in my archives, I’m still fairly proud of) called The Null HypotheCis. Basically, internalized cisnormativity leads us to assume that we need to PROVE that we’re trans to ourselves, but the being cis is simply taken as a given. Being cis isn’t held to anything even close to a comparable standard of “evidence”, and this skews us towards endlessly pursuing a “proof” that CAN’T ever be found.

If we work around this assumption of being cis as the default… like, for example, if we stop thinking about the fact that as an abstract, general question a random human being is much more likely to be cis than trans, and instead consider the question in terms of whether, given everything we observe in ourselves, and everything we feel, and how strong our feelings are about this question of gender, which (cis or trans) is more likely for us… if we consider “is it really all that likely that I’m just a cis person who has somehow managed to convince myself that I’m trans to the point that I’m having this kind of crisis?”… if we reframe it, then the question becomes something very different, and more manageable.

The question is still never easy.

One of our usual impulses to is to attempt an “objective” analysis of what’s indicated by our histories, and comparing and contrasting our own experiences and feelings to what we assume would be indicative of some kind of condition of transsexuality that would merit transition or hormones or surgery or whatever as the appropriate course of action. But as much as it feels like the best approach, and feels natural to how one generally approaches questions of identity, this is just as self-defeating an approach as to ask oneself for “proof” of being trans against an assumed cis default (you can’t “prove” the existence of a subjective experience to yourself if you won’t acknowledge the experience until it’s “proven”…example: “yeah, but how do I know that this coffee is actually as delicious it tastes?”).

The first problem is simply the impossibility of objective analysis of one’s own experiences, feelings and memories, and attempting to use them to answer a highly loaded, highly terrifying, highly personal question.

Even at the very best of times, under the very best conditions, peeps looking into their pasts and attempting to construct narratives out of them are prone to misremembering things, forgetting some things, and selectively editing which memories are recalled and which are forgotten or simply not brought to mind (like it’s actually straight up IMPOSSIBLE for someone to remember EVERYTHING, even if we restrict it to a category like “everything relevant to gender”… we HAVE to selectively approach what we remember and what we don’t, because that’s just how brains work. This means drawing upon memory is always going to be an edited pool of “data”, no matter how hard you try to be objective). We also distort things by constructing those memories into narrative “stories” with little chains of causal links that are more likely to fit in with our understanding of and assumptions about narrative, what feels like a story and makes sense as a story, even though we just straight can’t understand what the actual causal links were, and what was a consequence of what (life is all busy and jumbly like that. Sorry!).

Especially in light of our cultural conditioning towards narrative and stories and what those read like, we tend towards retroactively understanding our “life stories” as sequences in which, IN HINDSIGHT, everything makes sense and “led” somewhere, even though that process, that sequence of events and consequences, simply arrived where it did because it had to arrive SOMEWHERE, and we aren’t IN the alternate timeline where we’d look back and make a different conclusion about how we got there and how “everything happened for a reason”.

For example, if I look back and think “if I hadn’t decided to drop out of school, I wouldn’t have gotten my GED instead, a year earlier than I would have graduated, wouldn’t have been looking at affordable ‘alternative colleges’, wouldn’t have been investigating during the same time I got really into riot-grrl music, wouldn’t have picked Evergreen and moved to Olympia, wouldn’t have met Trent and Nova, wouldn’t have gotten into skag…”. However, if an entirely different sequence of events had played out, I’d be constructing a similar narrative anyway, “If I hadn’t decided to stay in school, I wouldn’t have met Teresa, who wouldn’t have broken up with me after she caught me cross-dressing and outed me to my friends, and I wouldn’t have been forced to confront my gender issues, and wouldn’t have decided to transition before heading off to college at UNC, and wouldn’t have decided to majour in anthropology with a focus on gender studies, and…”. The reason I look back and construct a narrative that led me to this point in my life is only because this is the point in my life I arrived at. I have to be somebody in order to be anybody, after all, have to be somewhere in order to be anywhere, and have to have a specific sequence of events in my life in order to look back and think about THAT specific sequence of events in my life (y’know… the one that actually happened, because I can’t look back on shit that didn’t).

Every narrative of our lives we look back upon that has led us to the question of gender is going to be a construct, and can’t be contrasted to a life that didn’t lead you there, because you haven’t led a life that didn’t lead you there. This is where you are, and this is the choice you have to worry about. The backstory doesn’t change that, and can’t really guide it either.

Our constructed narratives of our histories are further distorted by the “creeping determinism” of hindsight bias, wherein things “make sense” and suggest causal connections or a deterministic, fated path only because we’re looking at them in retrospect, after already having experienced the (at the time, unpredictable) consequences. Add to that the problems of apophenia (perceiving patterns that aren’t there just because you happen to be looking for patterns… and looking through our memories to find indications of gender is exactly that kind of pattern-seeking most likely to lead to apophenia, especially given the selective nature of memory), and “Texas Sharpshooter” thinking (where you use the same data set, like “I didn’t start seriously wanting to transition until around adolescence, when I began having ‘forced fem’ sissy fantasies” to both construct AND confirm a hypothesis, like “therefore my desire to transition is just some stupid kink thing, born out of submissive fantasies and sexual frustration”)… you end up with a situation where analysis of our past and our memories in light of our current confrontation with the question of our gender is exactly the least “objective” method possible.

But so long as we insistently approach the question through the model of trying to “figure out” if we “are” trans, it’s pretty much our only method. We don’t have brain-scanners to check for some neurobiological variable that tends to correlate with transgenderism, and even so, such a variable would not be predictive, deterministic, OR an essential quality of “transness”. It would, at best, be something to help neurologists understand some of the vague, material process that relate to how gender manifests the way it manifests. It would not be, and COULD not, be gender itself in a nice tidy grey-matter package.

Whether your brain had the “trans trait” or not, the decision would still be your own, and would have to be your own.

(what terrifies me more than anything else about research into such neurobiological predispositions is that, if we definitively identify and describe even just a vague, generalized set of those factors, people will probably begin to perceive them as a deterministic thing, or use them as a diagnostic criterion, and would try to have them do all the “sorting” and decision-making for us. That would be a disaster on so many levels, and lead to severe undermining of human rights in relation to gender variance, and the right to prioritize self-determination of gender above biological-determinism/essentialism and outwardly imposed assignment of gender).

But assuming we could delineate a personal history of gender, maybe cobbled together from both memories and discussions with family, friends… comparing your own memories to theirs, testing out different interpretations of what those things meant… would that even be useful? Against what would this history to be measured in order to determine its relative “trans-ness”?

This leads us to another majour problem in the question: that it assumes there is a “trans narrative” that can be described and is observably different from a cis narrative.

What would that narrative be? What would define it? What is the life story that indicates “transness” and the life story that doesn’t? The very act of asking this question is to buy into the heavily problematic assumption of a Trans Narrative, which others us, hems us in, circumscribes our vocabulary for asserting our own existence and giving it voice, defines us by experiences that we may not all share, and diminishes our capacity to assert an existence and life outside of assumptions imposed on us on the basis of sex or gender. And perhaps most tellingly, it assumes the same model of measuring the validity (or existence) of our identities, genders and lives that was constructed by the medical institutions and cissexist systems that were there to “explain” us, pathologize us, minimize our threat to the dominant concepts of gender (patriarchy), and sort out which of us were to be permitted the right to make these choices for ourselves and which of us weren’t… who was and wasn’t “really” trans, and deserved treatment.

It is to approach your own history, your own experiences, and your own right to make your own choices for your gender, your body and your life the same way the Gatekeeper approaches them. You do the Gatekeeper’s work for him, validate the cissexist consciousness, and self-select out of your own rights and own gender and own potential life before even giving anyone a chance to deny them.

It’s the same thing: you confess your experiences in a linear narrative while gatekeeper weighs them against some arbitrary, decontextualized checklist of “trans experiences”. Just in this case, you play both parts.

There is absolutely no history you may have that undermines your right to make this choice, would undermine the validity of that choice, or would undermine the gender you assert.

Scary as it may be, the individual responsibility that attends this right to self-determination is that there is absolutely no history you may have that will make the choice for you, or deterministically define you as an gender that’s essential and inherent and somehow outside of your own choices. There is no history that can give you a gender or “gender identity” that’s outside your subjective experience of it.

And while I sympathize with all the different ways we try to negotiate this, even the irrational ones we pursue because we’re not ready to deal with the reality of things, the idea that a “trans narrative” can be observably, objectively different from a “cis narrative” is kinda shitty to all those trans people who’ve lived their immense diversity of experiences. Not every trans woman, for example, experimentally cross-dressed. Some trans women, for instance, grew up in strictly gender-segregated communities where that kind of experimentation, however clandestine, would have been fucking impossible.

If you wouldn’t say that the presence or absence of a certain experience in another trans person’s history (like playing with dolls, or liking sports) invalidates or defines them, then why you say the same of yourself? Why define yourself by your narrative history when you accept others as they’ve defined themselves, in their present, asserting for themselves their new, potential narratives?

To seek out a means of identifying yourself as trans, figuring out if you are, is also to essentialize it. But gender is not a condition we can figure out about ourselves. Gender is a performance we choose to make. And being trans is to determine and assert a gender, an identity, a self-expression, a potential life, CHOSEN in contrast to what we were assigned or the expectations people had for us.

I’ll return to this in a bit, but what I’m trying to get at here is that there is no “not really trans” and there is no way to simply “think you’re trans” when you’re “not trans”. To think that you’re trans, to subjectively experience yourself as trans, is exactly what it is to be trans (please no Descartes jokes).

Likewise, to subjectively experience yourself as a man or a woman, or something in-between or apart from them, to “think you’re X”, to experience those concepts of gender as the ones that work best for understanding or defining yourself… that’s all that it ultimately really is to “be” that gender, and all that’s really required for an expression of yourself as such to be genuine. Your “gender identity” can’t be discerned, because it can’t pre-date the act of experiencing and expressing it. Gender has to be experienced, understood or performed to exist at all, and “gender identity” or “identifies as” are constructs we build from that to more directly explain it to people.

A really common idea that gets espoused all the time in trans space, parotted from gatekeepers and cissexism and diagnostic criteria, is that “you shouldn’t do it unless you’re absolutely sure”. This is totally bullshit. I feel pretty confident guessing that absolutely no one, ever, anywhere, has ever been absolutely sure about transition. Even all the secure, confident “community leaders” you meet or read or admire were scared and confused and grasping out for answers at some point.

This doesn’t stop people from telling themselves (and others) that they were certain, though. There’s all kinds of emotional currency that comes with feeling secure in one’s gender, and all kinds of psychological incentive for trans people to convince themselves their genders are essential, inherent, immutable and real. And sometimes that requires contrasting it to an “imaginary” version of being trans that ISN’T real; even if such a thing is, as said, completely by definition impossible.

Related to this is the idea of “cheerleaders”, allegedly toxic trans people who will “push” you into transition when you don’t “really” want it. Again, kinda bullshit. We live in an overwhelmingly cissexist, transphobic, trans-misogynistic, binarist, patriarchal culture with constant, ubiquitous, oppressive denigration of gender variance (it’s exactly this that helps fuel so many trans people being so committed to convincing themselves of the validity of their own identity at the expense of someone else’s). Nothing any small cadre of trans people says to encourage you in exploring these things (especially given how their perspective is devalued by exactly the same cultural mechanisms that teach you being trans is the worst thing you can ever possibly be) is going to outweigh that, let alone outweigh it enough to override your own sense of self and sense of your needs to the extent that it makes you do something you don’t really want to do.

And “transitioning” is fucking HARD. It also hurts… physically (zap zap, slice slice), and emotionally. Almost no one doesn’t lose someone. You don’t really get through this just thinking “well, this one trans person I know said I ought to, so…”.

Nor do you get through it just on the power of “sexual frustration”, or being a “self-hating lesbian / gay man”, or “hating your own identity”, or “just having a kink”, or “being trendy”, or “being aroused by the self-conception of yourself as a woman”, or whatever other stupid theory you or some shitty therapist or sexologist came up with to explain it away and fit it into the basic framework of cis/het-patriarchal sexuality (and thanks to Null HypotheCis, we never ask these theories to prove or substantiate themselves).

There are people who back out, and people who detransition, and that’s okay. But here’s the thing: it’s okay for that to be where your choices lead you as well. It’s okay for you to try this, and try to work through things, even if maybe they don’t work out, or maybe they just don’t quite feel right the first time, or you take a wrong turn or attempted to go about it the wrong way, or to have felt one aspect was wrong for you but didn’t notice that other aspects were working (like how lots of trans women think they have to be very femme and like guys to “transition”, or how lots of trans trans men think they have to be masculine and like girls, and then mistake their discomfort with those things for discomfort with everything, including whatever aspects that were actually working for them).

It’s okay to have a non-linear experience and/or narrative of gender. You don’t have to let fear of that prevent you from ever trying anything, even if you aren’t quite sure what to try. Deciding to take some steps into transition doesn’t mean you automatically commit “fully transitioning”, to genital surgery (even if you may have to lie to a doctor and say that you’re committed in order to get hormones or something else you want in the short-term), to top surgery, or to a lifetime of having to present a certain way and go by a certain name and certain pronouns. You can make more than one decision, at different times, as you find new understandings of yourself. You can even make decisions that seem to contradict the earlier ones, and that’s also okay, because different points in your life may have different contexts, or different needs, or different understandings of yourself.

Sometimes trans people on forums and stuff will talk up detransition into being some kind of gigantic bogeyman of The Regretioner (The Friend Of A Friend Who Totally Regretted It). A common version of this story is a trans woman going into transition and somehow making it through ALL the various hoops, having lower surgery, then after the catheter gets taken out, getting up in the middle of the night and going to the bathroom and suddenly realizing the immense reality of no longer having a penis, then GOING IRREPARABLY MAD FROM THE HORROR OF THEIR MISTAKE.

Bullshit. Life isn’t a fucking Twilight Zone episode.

(It’s also a comically phallocentric myth… it’s kind of amazing just how much people, including trans women, act like e’rrrrrything pertaining to gender, sex and sexuality revolves around dicks, and act like they’re The Biggest Most Serious Deal In The World So Don’t Take Anything Penis-Related Lightly! or you might go IRREPARABLY MAD!)

The Regretioner myth just isn’t the reality of how this stuff works. It’s not even the reality of how detransition works (way more often than not, detransition plays out as negotiating a different kind of non-normative gender, not just realizing you were totally a “normal” dude/girl all along, and way more often than not is related to an over-emphasis on a particular path of being trans, gender variant or genderqueer… the kind of over-emphasis that gets reinforced by The Regretioner myth itself). People will trump this Warning Myth up with suicide statistics and stuff, but poor outcomes and regret for HRT, genital surgery and other medical interventions for trans patients are actually RIDICULOUSLY rare. It’s one of the most consistently beneficial treatments in the entire world of contemporary medicine.

The Regretioner is just another construct of cissexist, binarist, essentialist, patriarchal frameworks of gender; reinforced by cis people, cos that’s what most cis ppl are like (cissexist, binarist and essentialist), and reinforced by trans people cos of that stuff I mentioned earlier about wanting to feel absolutely secure in their own genders, having a lot of the same insecurities and hang-ups as cis people do, and having a psychological incentive to contrast their own genders as “Realer” than others.

Hence: “BEWARE! I knew this one friend who had a friend who had a roommate at the hospital who killed herself because she wasn’t ready and rushed into it!”, “Be absolutely sure”, “Distrust cheerleaders” and “Are you sure you’re really really trans, like really for real realz… really?”

You’ll never be sure, but you’re always just as real as you assert yourself to be.

There are also weird inverse myths, like this one: “Just start taking hormones. Then you’ll know for sure. Cos they’re AWESOME! and if you have dypshoria / ‘a (fe)male brain’, it will respond well to them”. I used to espouse this advice myself a whole bunch. It preeeetty much works, but not for the reason people claim it does. Dysphoria and male or female “brains” are irrelevant to gender (as I’ve been saying a LOT in this essay, your gender is what you make it, regardless of anything anyone claims determines it, like narrative, behaviour, socialization, certainty, chromosomes, biology or neurobiology). What matters with hormones is that they redirect your experiences and questions from being about who or what you are and “am I trans?” and “what’s my gender identity”, towards questions of “how do I feel about this?” and “is this making me feel better?”. “Is this making me happy?”.

What gender you “are”, whether or not you “are” trans (or “really” trans), your “gender identity”, your “brain sex”, your socialization, your genitals, your chromosomes and your doubts can all go fuck themselves if they’re not making you happy.

Questions like these, about your feelings, of whether or not transition is right for you, and how to go about it… should you take hormones? Should you get surgery? Those are far more personal and variable and complex, but those are questions that can have answers. They don’t, like “how do I know if I’m trans?”, make the whole thing impossible just in the asking.

They’re just answers you need to look to yourself to find.

The issue of “dysphoria”, unhappiness, your subjective experience of gender and how you feel about your body are a lot more important than a surface-level appraisal of whether or not your history or behaviours are consistent with the diagnosis of a certain “gender identity”. This isn’t because looking at dysphoria can work similarly to the pursuit of “gender identity” through narrative, instead indicating some “neurobiological predisposition” or “bran sex” that would have a deterministic relationship to gender or what you should do regarding transition (already got into this a bit with the hypothetical “brain scan”)… it’s more important because these questions pertain to the specifics of what you can choose to do that might make you feel happier and more comfortable with your body.

Gender comes later… more as a way of just saying whatever you want to say to other people and have them understand about that stuff, like your body and feelings about it and how you want to be treated and how you experience your sexuality through your body and all that. It’s mostly just about expressing whatever you feel is important express, and important for other people to understand about you.

Those questions about your feelings about your body aren’t any less subjective than anything else, though.  And they’re bundled up in all kinds of distortions and shit that can be totally misleading and confusing and weird: what do you want to do because you want to experience your anatomy a certain way, what do you want because it would make you feel more yourself, what do you want because it might be more pleasurable or more in accordance with your sexuality, what do you want because you want to be pretty or beautiful or handsome, and what do you want because that’s what your cultural context has taught you someone of a given gender’s body is “supposed” to be? See: confusing as hell.

But at least they don’t imply a false objectivity. At least it’s about how you feel and about what you want, not about what you are.

What you are, or what people say makes you this thing or that thing or whatever, is the absolute last thing that should matter to this.

So where does that leave anything in regards to that original question, “how do I know if I’m trans?”… well like I said, you don’t. I’m sorry. And I can’t say anything concrete to guide you throw that.

But what I can confidently say is that when you’re asking, don’t simply assume that “cis” is the given and “trans” needs to be proven. Be careful about different theories that explain why you think you’re trans (those theories don’t even go away once you know that you are). Make sure to bear in mind the different kinds of motives people have in the way they think about gender and sex, ask yourself if they’re really able to see things any more clearly than you can, and consider what they might have to gain or lose by how they see (and understand) you and your gender. Remember that memory is fallible, and you can’t use your own history as an “objective” source. Be careful about comparing your history to the narratives of other trans people… remember that their interpretations of their own histories are just as distorted and subjective as yours, and that the version they tell others is going to be even further from the truth. And understand that finding any similarity or dissimilarity in your narrative and that of another trans person isn’t going to really tell you anything (especially the narrow range of trans narratives that find their way into bookstores)… remember how much potential there is in this to carve out a NEW narrative for yourself.

Don’t worry too much about “dysphoria” or “brain sex”, or anything else someone tells you makes someone trans, or makes them a certain gender… remember that nobody actually really knows all that much about this stuff. But remember that the subjective experience of things like “dysphoria” is real, and sometimes things people say like “hormones will give you a better idea of whether this is right for you” can, on the level of subjective experience, by helpful, even if the premise is a bit wonky. Try not to worry about the premises and theories all that much at first, no matter how obsessed everyone else seems to be about them, but do pay attention to your feelings and needs, especially about your body… clothes and make-up and sexual partners and pronouns and names and stuff can be switched around pretty easily, it’s your body and feelings about it and how you experience your sexuality through your body that are most important to take care of and try to understand.

Remember that what you are isn’t as important as what you feel and what will make you happy. Remember that you’re exactly as real as you assert yourself to be. And remember that gender isn’t a thing that you are or discover, it’s an expression and self-understanding that you assert. Remember you don’t have to commit to some big, pre-determined, standardized path of “transition” all at once… you can take things in steps, and not only can, but should, work out for yourself as you go which things you want to do and which things you don’t and how you want to do them. Remember that doubts are okay, mistakes are okay, non-linear processes of gender where you have false-starts or have to back-pedal or have to renegotiate things are okay; zigs and zags and sideways steps are okay and, if you end up in a place where you feel its needed, detransition is okay. And remember that your right to make your own choices about your own body involves the right to sometimes make the wrong ones.

Remember that being put in this position wasn’t your choice, but how you respond to it is your choice. And nothing out there can or will make that choice for you. For better and for worse, it’s YOURS. As scary as that is, try to remember how much freedom and empowerment there is in that.

But also remember that you’re not making this choice in a vacuum. However old or young you may be, you’ve been through a lifetime of people telling you what “man” and “women” mean, what they’re supposed to be and look like and what kinds of bodies they’re supposed to have, what trans means (and it’s usually not good), and what kind of choices people should and shouldn’t be “allowed” to make for themselves. Remember those things, because you’ve internalized at least some of that, and if you forget about it it’s going to have more power over you and how you think about yourself and your gender. Remember that you have agency, but it’s an agency that lives in a world that conditions it, and sometimes tries to extinguish it. Try your best to understand what influences your choices and perspectives so that they you can negotiate that, work around it, and let your choices be more your own. But remember you’ll never be able to get rid of those influences completely. You’re a social critter, and gender is a social thing.

Likewise, remember that gender, and your understanding of it, is cultural, and lives in a certain context. That’s going to mean gender will never be something wholly your own, and it also means that other people’s understanding or experience of it, even when using the same words and concepts and ideas, might be different. Remember that what it is for one person to be a woman or a man or genderqueer or bigender or agender might not be what it is for you. And negotiate yourself, understand them, and take whatever advice (or declarations about what you “are”) someone offers with that in mind and a grain of salt.

And speaking of the advice of others…

As you make your way through this, and inevitably go to ask someone else, talk to someone else, read something else (of course you’re not just going to take this essay to be the full truth. It isn’t, and CAN’T be)… please, please don’t trust anyone who claims they can answer this for you. Don’t take any quizzes or “gender tests”. Don’t fill out any self-diagnostics. Don’t let anyone go through your memories with a clipboard and a checklist. Don’t let anyone tell you what questions you’re supposed to be asking yourself, or what experiences you’re supposed to have had, or how you’re supposed to dress and present yourself, or how much “effort” you’re supposed to put into it, or how much you’re supposed to want a certain kind of treatment or body.

If you encounter a doctor you know to be a gatekeeper and know buys into outdated models of WPATH and stuff, don’t feel ashamed about having to lie or bend the truth to get the medical care you need, but don’t believe their criteria define you, or ever allow a diagnosis to contradict you and your choices and self-understanding.

Oh, yeah… and be on guard any time another trans person approaches you with “a little unsolicited advice”.

Don’t trust anyone who claims they can provide answers to this, or claims they understand, or can understand, your gender better than you do. Even if you don’t understand it at all all.

Maybe especially then.

There is no answer I or anyone could ever give you for the question “How do I know if I’m trans?”, or “What is my gender identity?”, or even “Should I transition”?. I’m sorry. I would take all that fear away if I could, and offer you that security and assurance. But I can’t, and I won’t hurt you by lying to you.

However, what I can tell you is that you’ve asked. And that itself has meaning… enough to at least offer you a trailhead for navigating your way through this.

Good luck! The end of this path is wherever you decide to begin another.


  1. CJ says

    Thank you for writing this. It helps me, as a man of medical trans experience who does not identify as trans, understand better the different perspectives of people in a community to which I do not belong and in which, as a “stealth” person, I am not welcome. Nevertheless, of course I care, and so I try to think about other perspectives. For me, it’s hard to understand asking the question. I always knew, and have never doubted for a moment. Oh, sure, I tried to cure myself with religion, but inside I was still the same and always knew it. I am lucky. It sounds like there’s a whole lot of pain when you can’t settle your mind. And I think your point that asking the question is at least indicative of the response ‘Well, that sounds like an important question to ask a gender therapist’ and perhaps if the person is a GOOD friend ‘Might I help you with finding one’. Otherwise, I regret that you have to have this one aspect of your life the fixation of everyone talking to you and become some kind of odd magical rune that just by getting near apparently causes them to break out in a case of the mystery transies. 🙂 Good work, well done, thanks again.

    • says

      I don’t think people ask me the question a lot because the people in my life obsessively focus on my transness. I mean, like almost EVERY trans woman who’s into guys, I occasionally go out on a date, or get involved in an exchange on OKC or whatever, that suddenly turns into me being asked to provide free therapy for my date/prospective-date’s gender-questioning, cross-dressing or desire to come out as trans, but no… the main reason I get asked this question a lot is because I’m a fairly well-known trans blogger. I’m publicly visible as a trans woman, googleable, and accessible to people who want to ask questions (I’ve got an e-mail addy right there in my “about the author” thingy).

      • CJ says

        Of course. I should have realized that, since I know those things, but again I was failing to grasp the differences between living openly as a person of trans* experience and being someone who does not identify as trans at all but has also had a trans* experience. I’m trying to learn more about the perspective of those in the light, since my invisibility means I have a great deal of privilege and only have to fear specific circumstances, such as dealing with healthcare workers, risking arrest for protest actions, and other times when my medical condition might be exposed. Anyway, I’m happy to have learned many things from your work. Thank you.

  2. CJ says

    “…I hate when people talk about how “brave” transitioning is… you have no idea how scared most of us are or were, and talking about this imaginary courage just erases and invalidates the fear we felt, rewrites our own stories… it makes the people who ARE still scared feel that much less secure in themselves, and it gives them more reason to doubt themselves.”

    SO MUCH WORD. Also to abuse/trauma survivors. I guess the ones who don’t make it just weren’t strong enough? I mean, what is that about? Everybody either fights to live or gives up and dies. That’s an instinct, it’s nothing to compliment. I see this “strength” business as a subtle way of Othering. “You’re Strong in a way humans aren’t!”

    • M says

      I agree. Disabled/chronically ill people are also talked about as being “brave” or “inspirational”, which others us instead of addressing our needs.

  3. M says

    I think this is a great post and I think also applies to sexual orientation. I mean I know I’m attracted to men, but many straight people are also attracted to the same gender in some degree. So the question I ask myself shouldn’t be whether or not I’m bi or whatever, but whether or not I’ll be happy expressing myself that way.

  4. deja says

    yep…. thanks so much for reminding me that anybody else’s opinion of my trans-ness or cis-ness or whatever-ness is only just so much bloviation… and it’s done to reinforce their own need to be an expert, a gatekeeper, an admired one. the whole cis/trans thing is really just another binary that i will gladly ignore,having sorta kinda maybe figured out that my own human-ness comes first with me (even though at one time i did seriously consider species change surgery to become a dolphin. it was the difficulty of that top-of-head blowhole thing that put the kibosh on that fantasy misstep).

  5. N says

    With regards to having fear, only a moron doesn’t have fear. You ARE brave, precisely because you WERE afraid. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to overcome fear no matter how great. Bravery is facing fear, not the absence of fear.

    Calling you brave does not serve to belittle and undermine your struggles. It serves to highlight them.

  6. great1american1satan says

    My test (imperfect I’m sure) – If there was a magical perfect transition switch – which could change you to a cisgendered person of the gender you desire, what gender would that be, would you hesitate, and would you ever switch back?

    My own answer – I’d switch back and forth for kicks and have no strong preference. Ergo, I’m not trans in the slightest. Maybe a genderqueer by a very generous definition of that, as I sit around looking completely cis to the universe and feeling OK about myself all the time.

    My favorite transgendered person’s answer – a strong preference opposite to that assigned at birth and never look back. That’s pretty convincing to me, even when he’s having doubts on a bad day.

    • CJ says

      I think what you’d do is what most humans would do given a completely open field where doing that was acceptable and normalized. I wonder now if someone like myself, whose gender identity is, always has been, and never stops being firmly clear, would in fact feel much less deeply rooted in that identity if I had grown up in a world where everyone could switch at will. Musings…thanks for the post.

  7. Lucy says

    Thank you Natalie, that’s about the most well-thought-through response to this whole question that I’ve ever seen. I’ll probably be pointing a few people towards this article, as I get asked the same question but haven’t been able to answer it as thoroughly and cogently as you just did.

  8. Paige says

    Thanks so much for this article! I have been fighting this since I was 4 years old. Now I’m 41 and can’t fight any more. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with this for too long – no mas. I’m out to my wife, and several health professionals. My primary caregiver is a psychiatrist gatekeeper of the old-school style. Rest assured I’ll do what it takes to get the access I need. Your article has so much sage and coherent advice. Thanks. Paige from Victoria, BC, Canada.

  9. tremault says

    you wrote this on my birthday. thank you.

    its not often I read such a long piece being dyslexic and all.
    this really helped me to gain some much needed perspective.
    I know what I need to do and thanks to you, I know that its OK.


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