Trans Summer School: So I Think I Might Be Trans. Now What?
But how do you know?
It’s a big question without an easy answer — some trans people just do, and others may find themselves exploring their gender for months, years or even decades before coming to an understanding that they’re trans. For many, the realization comes in fits and starts, not all at once. You don’t actually levitate in a shower of sparkles one morning! (Usually.) There’s no right way to be trans, so it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what trans looks or feels like for you.
Here are some hints that you may have a complicated relationship with gender: Gendered pronouns make you uncomfortable; you dislike your name because of its gendered nature; your genitals or other body parts feel wrong and inconsistent with your identity; you don’t really relate to social aspects of your assigned sex or gender; you feel very uneasy being grouped by gender and having to select your assigned sex on forms, bathroom doors, and anywhere else. Experiencing one or more of these things doesn’t necessarily mean you’re transgender or otherwise gender nonconforming, but it could be a strong hint.
On the other hand, some cis people don’t necessarily adhere to or fit in with stereotyped gender norms either, but they’re definitely still cis. You could be butch or femme and anything between, and while these forms of expression can definitely take on aspects of gender play, you can remain firmly cisgender. Similarly, some cross-dressers (drag queens and kings) are definitely cis, but like playing with their gender expression.
—Amy Dentata, 34
If you’re just starting to explore the possibility that you might be trans or otherwise gender nonconforming, don’t feel like you need to dive in head first! You can take some baby steps to figure out whether your assigned sex and actual gender match — if you were assigned female at birth but dresses and skirts make you violently uncomfortable, for example, you could be transmasculine...or you could just be a girl who doesn’t like dresses and skirts. By exploring your gender in small, safe ways as you start out, you can give yourself a chance to adjust and figure out where you fit. And, like our staffer Mo here says, it's okay to be unsure!
You might find it helpful to start hanging out with trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people. Depending on how supportive your family is and where you live, you may find groups and organizations that hold meetings or just have a safe space to hang out in — an LGBQTIA group at school, for example, or a coffeehouse known for being friendly to the trans community. Even hitting the library and checking out some gender theory, memoirs, and fiction can be eye-opening — we like Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl, but there’s tons of stuff out there, including Beyond Magenta and Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.
There are also oodles of online avenues for support. Many of the trans youth we talked to while working on this series expressed appreciation for the community on Tumblr, which features a broad spectrum of diverse trans and otherwise gender nonconforming youth. Our own message boards are another great resource!
Starting out as an observer can give you a sense of what’s happening in the trans community and how other people relate to gender. But eventually, you’re going to have to get into the nitty gritty and find some trans mentors. Mentors can talk to you about their own gender journeys and experiences, point you in the direction of resources, offer survival tips specific to your situation, and act as useful sounding boards while you think things out. Think of them like big siblings — they’re been where you are, and they’re happy to share knowledge with you.
These networks are incredibly valuable, and while it can be scary at first to reach out to the trans and otherwise gender nonconforming community, it’s so worth it. Many communities are very welcoming, and some explicitly create space for people who are starting to rethink their relationship to gender. If you don’t feel comfortable in a given community, that’s on them, not you — seek out another one where you feel more welcomed and affirmed.
Some tips: If anyone starts acting like the gender police, get out of dodge. You don’t need to perform gender in a certain way, or transition, or do anything else to be “trans enough.” Gender looks completely different on everyone, and in a community where people are purists about what “trans” means, you may not be very safe. You should also be aware that some communities are aimed more at the crossdressing community, and not the trans and otherwise gender nonconforming community. While there can be some overlap between the two, you might not find everything you’re looking for in those environments.
Other communities may tolerate “chasers” — people who claim to be sexually attracted to the idea of trans people. You may also hear chasers refer to themselves as "admirers." They tend to pursue transgender women more than anyone else, but people of any gender can be targeted. Chasers may tell you that no one else will find you attractive, that they “understand” gender issues better than other partners, and that only they can truly appreciate you. If that sounds creepy and unhealthy and weird to you, that's because it is, and when you encounter chasers, you really should run in the other direction. Definitely report them to moderators or community leaders, and if people don’t share your concerns, that community is not a safe space for you. As you spend more time in the trans community, your trans siblings may point out people known to engage in this kind of behavior to you so you can avoid chasers. You’re awesome and beautiful and sexy and great just as you are, and as you move through life, all sorts of people from all walks of life are going to see that!
As you start to get more confident, you can start playing with gender expression: we have a beginner's guide to locating gender expression gear right over here.
If something makes you feel uncomfortable, you can always roll it back! Changing the clothes you wear, playing with your hairstyle, and exploring makeup can all be components of a start. You can also explore things like asking to be excused from activities targeted at people who share the sex you were assigned at birth. For example, if your school has a “women’s circle” that female students attend to talk about gender issues and you know you’re not a girl, you can request an alternate activity, even if it's just hanging out in the library reading gender theory.
Lots of trans people have YouTube channels where they discuss gender expression and what it looks like for them. You might find it helpful to check out their channels for ideas — YouTube is also super helpful for makeup tutorials. These include tutorials by trans makeup vloggers with tips on how to feminize or masculinize your face, in addition to basic makeup skills to help you learn how to apply makeup like an old hand. When it comes to trans vloggers, we’re big fans of Kat Blaque and Alex Bertie, but that’s just the start!
You can also start playing around with names and pronouns, if you aren't’t already. Maybe that means having a separate name and set of pronouns you use online, for example, or asking friends and/or family to use a different name and pronoun set in private. If you start to feel more and more comfortable, like you’you've finally figured out what your right name is, you can expand the settings where you use it.
Gender means something different to everyone. Part of playing with your gender expression can mean learning more about what it means to you. And if you enjoy gendered activities that are commonly associated with the sex and gender you were assigned at birth, that doesn’t mean you’re not trans or that your gender nonconformity is invalid. Lots of ladies like monster trucks. Agender people love going to the ballet. Men love knitting.
Gender isn't about what you do; it's about who you are.
If you’re in a situation where open transition of any kind would be dangerous, or where people are expected to stick to rigid rules of gender conformity, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck living under the wrong gender until you can escape at 18!
—Jay B, 21
Instead, you can do subtle things — like wearing shirts designed for women, or sticking with pants instead of dresses and skirts, or adopting fun underwear, or pushing boundaries with your hair. Maybe you can get away with cutting your hair a little shorter, for example, passing it off as a pixie cut when you need to and styling it in a more masculine way in safer spaces. Many trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people like to explore media and pop culture images of gender expression from the rigid to the totally wild, and these can serve as inspiration. Thanks to the rising acceptability of androgyny, you could also express yourself in a more androgynous fashion. It might not be ideal, because it doesn't’t reflect your true gender, but it can at least get you out of the rigid box they stuck you in when you were born, and it’s a stepping stone to the future — a bit closer to the feminine, or the masculine, or something else entirely, depending on how you work with it.
Many trans and gender nonconforming people find that the more they explore gender and start to settle into their real identities, the more difficult it becomes to fold themselves back up again and live under the rules of their assigned sex. That’s generally a pretty good sign that it’s time to start thinking about coming out...and that’s what’s coming up next!
Previously on Trans Summer School: What's the Deal With Gender?
Coming up next time: Let Bust Out of This Closet!