How Do I Know If I’m Trans?

Thoughts on gender identity and transition informed by my own experience.
03/24/2017 01:58 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2017
Jessica Lia via Getty Images
Mattie Lents

Recently a few strangers have reached out to me on social media to disclose that they are or might be transgender. They’ve asked for advice. Awash in my own struggles with identity, these requests for guidance have challenged me. How can I help? How can I disentangle my own struggles from theirs in order to be objective? I haven’t even read any Judith Butler yet. And I’m not a licensed therapist.

But I have dug hard into my own psyche, made mistakes, faced down scary realities, and ultimately made some choices that fundamentally shifted my experience of life for the better.

So. I’m writing this for folks who feel confused or even upset by the very idea of trans people. I’m writing it for the friends, families, and allies looking for a way to better provide support. I’m writing it for trans people looking for another reflection on our reality. But most importantly I’m writing it for those who are feeling confused about their own gender, and seek guidance.

First off, some background on my story. I was born male in 1987 on my mother’s birthday in Houston Texas. The first signs that my gender was unusual showed up when I was only two. I said that when I grew up I was going to be a mom, not a dad. I would sneak into my sister’s room to try on her dress-up clothes. Walk around with a tea towel on my head asking for my hair to be brushed.

I was a bouncy restless kid and the first time my mom said she ever saw me go still and give my full attention was at the ballet. But when I brought my sister’s tutu to show and tell and danced in it for the class, my pre-school requested that I be sent to a psychiatrist. This was not acceptable behavior from a boy. They were concerned because I only seemed to make friends with girls. This could turn into a problem.

This was not acceptable behavior from a boy. They were concerned because I only seemed to make friends with girls. This could turn into a problem.

I remember sitting in the psychiatrist’s office as he asked me about my life at school. I told him about how I felt different from other kids. How I wanted to play house but was sometimes pushed away, was scared by the games boys played, and how I sometimes fantasized about killing myself. He escorted me out, brought my mom into the room, and advised her that I was in serious trouble. I would certainly need further treatment, likely medication, and possibly some form of hospitalization.

My mom was shocked. After much deliberation, she and my stepfather decided that the course of diagnosis and treatment might lead to more harm than good. We put the psych visit behind us and never went back. To this day I’m deeply grateful for that decision, fearing what might have happened in 1990s Texas to a trans kid being treated for mental illness.

To this day I’m deeply grateful for that decision, fearing what might have happened in 1990s Texas to a trans kid being treated for mental illness.

This isn’t the right context to tell my whole story. But I wanted to tell the beginning of it because it sheds light on how early untraditional gender patterns can arise, and because it’s difficult for many skeptics to judge a 2-year-old for loving dolls, dresses, and the ballet.

My parents struggled  —  and in some ways still do  —  between the desire to let me do what made me happy and the urge to shape my behavior into that of a traditional male so I might be safe and socially accepted. That conflict they experienced informs my guidance for those who are trying to navigate these challenges:

Embrace the sometimes contradictory pulls of self and society.

When we first recognize that our sense of identity is not in alignment with our culture’s gender norms, facing the rising tide of both hostility and celebration surrounding the trans revolution, we can become overly focused on the question “Am I transgender? Or is this something else?”

That question is often bursting with emotion — fear, excitement, confusion. But the impulse to attach an identifier onto our experience can be motivated by concepts of gender still boxed-in by rigid ideas that don’t reflect reality. What I’m trying to say is, before you consider adopting the word trans as your own, look as hard as you can at the phenomenon of gender itself.

Before you consider adopting the word trans as your own, look as hard as you can at the phenomenon of gender itself.

This exploration is important because it will protect you from taking on aspects of gender which you in fact have no affinity with. If you believe that there are only two genders  —  men and women  —  then you will expect you have to choose between one or the other in your social presentation. But you don’t. Gender is widely variant and endlessly complex. There are as many ways to be a man as there are men, and as many to be a woman as women.

Even the seemingly-clear dichotomy of biological sexes breaks down upon further investigation. For example, people who are born intersex — having both male and female anatomy — are far more common than most people think. They are an estimated 1.7 percent of the population — about as common as folks with red hair. People are born with vaginas on the outside and testicles in place of ovaries. With enlarged clitorises and partially or fully closed vaginal openings.

I know a handsome cisgender man who was harassed in high-school because his body grew breasts which he later chose to remove. I know a cisgender woman who took hormone therapy because the high levels of testosterone in her body at puberty were causing her to develop masculine features. The story of binary biological sex is largely a fiction, sustained by the repression and even elimination of all variance.

As to gender, it is even more so a product of social forces than sex. We divide children into two parallel cultures which shape them in contrasting ways to strengthen the narrative of fundamental difference between men and women. In fact, nobody is from Mars or Venus. We’re all from Earth. And much of the dissimilarity between genders we see around us was created as a tool for social organization. It was the original form of specialization. A division of labor shaped by the physical realities of pregnancy, birth, and nursing  —  the demands of bodies which grew and fed children vs those for which muscular strength and physical dominance were most advantageous.

Sex and gender variance is not some contemporary phenomenon. It has been around for as long as human culture has existed, and shows itself not only in the human animal but species of all kinds.

There are as many ways to be a man as there are men, and as many to be a woman as women.

Once again I fear I’m getting off track. I would like to provide some concrete, easy to understand guidance. But the study of gender as a phenomenon is extremely relevant  —  even necessary  —  to the evaluation of one’s own gender, or the understanding of someone else’s. And it’s only after you dive into that question that I think you’re ready to take on the highly difficult road of transitioning.

So I tell people to put the question of transition on the back burner for a while. To start by embodying specifically those aspects of gender which they personally identify with.

What is it about living as a male that excites you? Do you want more muscularity and physical strength? Then lift weights! Get your food right  —  go beast-mode on protein. You like short hair? Go to a cool barber, get that part and fade you’ve been wanting. Are you tired of being spoken over because you’re perceived as feminine? I know I am. It’s troubling how the more I appear female the more my opinion is deemed of less value in serious conversation while suddenly it’s like I’ve dropped my invisibility cloak at the bar. To all voices who have been disregarded, speak up!

Conversely, what about living as a woman excites you? Were you raised to push your voice down into an expressionless monotone and are sick of it? Let your voice be a song! Do you love to treat the gardening, care, and presentation of your own body like an art? Learn about makeup and try a little at a time. Experiment with your clothing... after all what constitutes a short tank dress vs a super long sleeveless tee anyway? And that said... if you wanna go all out with makeup and heels GO! Do you wanna grow your hair? YES! Do you delight in caring for and nurturing people? Volunteer. Make someone a delicious meal. Say I love you. Rebel against a culture that equates the expression of emotions other than anger with weakness.

Those possibilities are just iceberg-tip of exploring how we want to live in the world. And if you reside in a place where doing some of those things might put you in danger, be careful and safe. Seek out environments where you can be your whole self. And by the way  —  if you are a cis woman who finds those ideas of womanhood infuriating  —  rock on! They are only constructs which we are free to pick up or throw away. Same goes for a cis man  —  if you hate the gym and love taking care of kids that doesn’t need to change your gender identity. We all are free to create these roles for ourselves.

Now, for those who have spent time exploring these questions  —  who have ventured bravely in defying all restrictive concepts of gender but still feel a profound sting of pain every time they look in the mirror or hear others speak of them with a certain pronoun  —  I recommend you seek out counseling with someone who affirms gender variant identities.

Therapy was vital to my journey in transitioning. Reject the stigma around it. It doesn’t mean you’re sick, it means you’re a human who is looking to live their truth in a society still consumed by false ideas. If you are concerned about money, seek out free or group counseling. If there’s nothing near you, look for online therapy. The world is full of beautiful people ready to extend a hand if you’ll only ask for help.

And if in the course of working with your therapist you become increasingly sure that the only way for you to move forward is to pursue medical changes, know that it is valid. Cast aside the judgement of those who don’t understand. I would suggest that you take things slowly and mindfully. Start with things that are less invasive first and see if you feel the relief you were looking for. For example, I started by growing my hair long and getting laser facial hair removal.

For a long time I believed that getting gender reassignment surgery was necessary to my finding peace. I know some people for whom that was true  —  who experienced intense discomfort with their sex organs to the point of being unwilling to have them touched in any way and went to extreme measures to avoid seeing or even thinking about them.

For now, when I put aside fears of what other people think, and of whether or not a spouse could ever cherish my body, I find that I am capable of loving my physical self as it is, and that is all I need. By changing my hormonal levels, accentuating those features which are in alignment with my gender identity, and transitioning socially I have found a peace and excitement with myself that I only dreamed possible before.

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on your journey, I encourage you to dig deep. I urge you to find compassion for those who are different from you. And I celebrate all those who express their endlessly variant genders with freedom and joy. Your very being is a revelation, and gift to us all.

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