Gender identity can be a complex part of yourself to figure out; consistent for some, and mercurial for others. Either way, it’s easy to get in the weeds with gender any time you try and approach it from a new angle. It can overwhelm you, and consume far too much of your precious brain. When it gets to that point, it may be time to find an outlet.
Not everyone has access to things like transgender support groups, or other people in their lives willing to lend an ear. This has especially been the case for many over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemic or not, it’s beneficial to be able to count on yourself for help working through a gender impasse. Journaling has been an incredibly helpful tool I’ve discovered in my own gender journey. Maybe it could help you, too?
I want to share some of my personal experience about journaling to support my gender journey, along with some tips for your own gender journal.
I've identified as a trans man or trans masculine for years, starting in my teens. As soon as I turned 18, I started testosterone hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and legally changed my name to the more masculine one that I had adopted. I identified as strictly gay for a time, gushing over male action stars and crushing on baristas with rainbow tattoos. A couple of sincere (and sincerely misguided) girl crushes later, and I was identifying as bi, as I had when I was first exploring LGBTQ identities. At the end of 2019, I described having a crush on a man as “feeling like my organs are shutting down,” while my crushes on women and nonbinary people tended to be more comfortable. Me and my two best friends had a laugh about how we all turned out preferring women as adults, and for a few months, I put it out of my mind.
I was a college student in March of 2020. I’d made the big step of asserting my use of singular “they” in addition to “he” to my professors at the beginning of the semester, and was happily churning out queer little stories for my creative writing course until Spring Break came. Then it was extended.
Shelter-in-place orders were received. I shut down too.
I did my best to busy myself with school once my courses went remote, but I was floundering mentally. Left to my own devices, my mind tends to race, and without the long-winded information offloads I do with my friends when we see each other, the thoughts become powerful, clinging obsessions that I can’t pry from the surface of my brain. I was also without a therapist for the first time in a while after mine stepped back from her work to homeschool her own kids, so I was in desperate need of an outlet.
When the thoughts and questions about my gender and sexual orientation began to morph into obsessions, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I needed to bust out the barnacle scraper and get to work.
The Language Lists
I started by making lists. My first was a list of some different gender identities: cisgender female, trans masculine, and nonbinary. I set aside some time and put down about a paragraph of things I liked and disliked about those terms for myself. I feel that this is a good first step to the gender journaling process, as it gives you an idea of where you currently stand. The words were laid out like puzzle pieces beneath my fingertips, waiting to be rearranged into something that made sense to me. Typing the words “cisgender female” in relation to myself felt blasphemous. I went through an intense “not like other girls” phase as a kid, but it was undeniable that being socialized as a woman colored much of how I saw the world. As an adult, I had grown more comfortable expressing myself femininely, which was a big step. However, I’d been holding tightly to the handle of the trans umbrella since I was a teen, and the idea of letting go and exposing myself to the deluge terrified me.
However, I found that while the trans masculine experience had once dominated a large portion of my sense of self, most of my positive feelings towards that identity in relation to myself were a thing of the past. I didn’t fully regret transitioning to male, but being read unanimously as a man to others was something I was no longer affirmed by. Still, I gained a lot of community by being openly trans masculine, and I felt some guilt at the thought of removing that connection to some people I still really cared about.
Nonbinary is a vast label, encompassing many different identities and experiences. I find comfort in that. While nonbinary people are definitely stereotyped as looking a certain way (typically thin, white, and androgynous), it feels less restrictive to me than the intense standards imposed upon binary trans people to look and behave as their cis analogs. Despite the fear and uncertainty I felt at the thought of eschewing binary gender, especially after clinging to masculinity for my entire young adulthood, there was an undercurrent of excitement that came along with it. Adopting a new gender also came with a shiny new orientation. After much research, I landed on lesbian. I was a nonbinary lesbian.
I felt immensely proud of myself for managing to connect some of the dots. I came out publicly at the end of Pride Month of 2021, when I was 23. I announced that I was no longer accepting any masculine language or terminology for myself. Neutral was preferred, but some feminine words were acceptable, too. I think that going so long denying myself femininity had me wondering what it would be like to step back into it. I figured I’d give it a go, just to see how it felt. I never would have thought to try, if it hadn’t been for the time I took to sort through my feelings. Everyone took my announcement well, much to my surprise. I began to wean off of testosterone with the help of my doctor. When I broached the topic of stopping testosterone at a Telehealth appointment, she said to me, “You know, your body is going to start to look and behave like a woman’s as it readjusts to running on estrogen, and you’ve never had to move through the world as an adult woman. I hope you’re prepared for that.” I responded that I was up for the challenge, but her words, truthfully, chilled me.
In the following months, I began to present more on what I experience as the feminine end of androgynous. Once my testosterone levels had lowered, I began to feel more secure expressing myself in that manner. I grew more diligent about shaving my face, I began waxing my legs, and I even bought skirts and dresses. I dug all of my weird girl jewelry out of storage and wore it proudly. What really tipped it over the edge was investing in bras, which I hadn’t worn in years. That was what got me read more consistently as feminine, and the euphoria even caused me to reconsider top surgery, which I’d wanted for years.
By December of 2021, I had grown uncomfortable again. I wanted so badly to get those feelings out, but I felt guilty when I tried to tell anyone how unsure I felt, mere months after my big declaration. I turned instead to journaling. Any time I had a gender-related thought that I was beginning to agonize over, I’d take a pause to write it down in a special spot. That month, I wrote about feeling out of step with the female role people had returned me to.
I’ve been using “she” in addition to “they” for the past few months, and I don’t like it as much as I did at first, when it was new. I like looking feminine and feeling pretty, and I do identify with femaleness to an extent, but being unilaterally thought of as a girl is bothering me more and more. I feel pretty divorced from female language in reference to myself. My parents default to “girl” and “daughter” for me now, and are even trying to convince me to go by my birth name again.
I was dismayed that looking feminine automatically signaled cis femaleness to others, both familiar and foreign. I also loathed the thought of being read as straight, something that hadn’t changed since I first started identifying as some stripe of queer. Something that had changed, however, were my transition goals.
I began to think about top surgery. As my estrogen levels increased, my discomfort in my body did, too, both mentally and physically. Hormonal fluctuations made my breasts ache, and it was very hard to bear. It felt like it’d be easier if they were just gone.
I’m pretty sure I want top surgery. I don’t wanna have to worry about choosing clothes based around hiding a bra or binder. I don’t want to be constantly aware that I have breasts that I need to hide. I’ve been having breast pain since going off testosterone. I feel so hyper aware of them and it makes me uncomfortable, in body and soul.
The glaring issue with top surgery that stuck out to me was its incongruity with my presentation. I was enjoying dressing femme, but I worried that having a flat chest would make me instantly clockable and put me at risk of violence or public harassment.
One of the only things I worry about is reactions from others. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to fly under the radar as easily with a totally flat chest. I’ve been passing as female and using women’s restrooms and I’m worried about that going away. I really like presenting femininely. If I could do it without being paranoid about being outed, that’d be wonderful.
Later in the month, I journaled a realization.
It has dawned on me that I only use my breasts to look attractive and not necessarily to feel good for me. Always about other people finding me attractive than feeling attractive for myself. I think I’d be better off with a flat chest. I could feel hot in a way that also makes ME comfortable.
Spring Into Summer
Spring came and went without an entry. All the while, I’d grown immensely stressed and confused about my gender again.I kick myself now for not documenting those feelings, as I’m sure it would’ve eased my mind a bit. I remembered the previous year, when I’d quickly dismissed the uncomfortable thought that I could be a cisgender woman. I’d never identified with my assigned sex, even as a child. I was the girl who thought wearing sneakers and big hoodies made her “not like other girls.” I was the one who wore a dress to middle school at my mother’s insistence and was immediately made to pose for pictures by my incredulous friends. Identifying as trans felt like the obvious conclusion, but what if I was wrong?
In June, I wrote:
Do I want to be a girl? I don’t know. I like the idea of being a gender nonconforming girl, who can effortlessly switch between feminine and masculine as she pleases. There’s something stopping me. I feel too old for this. I feel like I was on hormones for too long. I take a selfie, there’s stubble. I take off my shirt, my stomach and chest are coated in hair. I feel so ridiculous swinging back and forth like this.
At around this time, I briefly considered seeing a gender therapist. That idea was impeded in part by finances, but also by fear of what I could discover. My partner (also a nonbinary lesbian) and I always joked that we’re too old to be discovering new things about ourselves. This obviously isn’t true. It’s as possible to discover yourself at 12 as it is at 70. There’s no age limit on epiphanies. Nonetheless, I felt ashamed.
Unable to see a therapist, I resolved to dig back into myself and journal more extensively. I wanted to regain control. The rest of the month was jam-packed. I mused over surgery, pronouns, and gender envy.
The other day, I was wondering if I’d be better off with a breast reduction to make me a little flatter, rather than full-on top surgery. Some of my clothing would need to go, but I’d have to wear a bra less often and could more easily look androgynous, depending on the outfit. I could be both.
I’m iffy on she/her pronouns for myself. Sometimes I feel slightly off when people use they/them for me, like I want my femininity to be more “acknowledged.” I think that could be because I went so long suppressing all of my feminine attributes, and now I want to express them openly. I feel bad going back and forth on this. I still consider myself nonbinary, I think, but more girl than previously thought. When I’m referred to as my parents’ daughter or my sibling’s sister in front of people I don’t know well, I feel afraid. Too visible, like I’ve been outed. Those words are somewhat affirming, but given my current appearance and voice, they make me feel unsafe. Once those words are said, I have to try extra hard to perform cisgender femaleness, which I don’t know exactly how to do.
Outside of some male celebrities, most of my gender envy is targeted towards female characters and public figures. If I’m going to perform femininity, I want to do it in a weird way. I’ve always been drawn to people like that, and it makes me so jealous. I feel like I was too young, with parents too strict to look like the kind of girl I wanted to when I was younger. Maybe I want that now. I love goth girl characters and badass female rockstars. It feels unattainable though. I don’t know. I’m tired.
August was a big month.
I think I’m genderfluid. I either feel female-adjacent or like nothing at all. I think I may have finally found an answer. I’m weirdly hopeful.
I also continued to obsess over top surgery, especially after giving binding another go.
I wore a binder for the first time in months while trying on clothes today, and I think I love it. I kept marveling at my profile in the mirror and touching my flat chest through my sweater. It gave me chills. I didn’t wanna take it off. I saw a post recently where someone said that when thinking about top surgery, you should consider how you feel about your chest when you’re alone, and when it’s bare. When I bound today, alone in my room, I felt so happy. Euphoric, even. It felt right. I don’t know if I have strong feelings about my bare chest. At best, it’s just kinda there, and at worst, my breasts look incorrect on the rest of my body. I feel like they were lazily glued onto my body, with no regard for whether they looked right.
I imagine what it would be like to get top surgery a lot. Every time I wear a button-down, I imagine puttering around my house with bandages or scar tape on under my half-buttoned shirt. I’d be stuck in bed a lot during recovery, but every so often, I’d get a peek at my post-op chest when changing dressings and the like. This feels noteworthy, so I’m noting it.
My daydreams of being post-op continued into September, but I received a bit of a reality check.
I still am imagining what it’d be like to get top surgery, to be in recovery. I’ve bound for the past two outings I’ve had. When out with my friends, nothing of real note happened other than a little back pain. When out with my partner, I was gendered as female by our server at dinner, and as male by an employee at the bowling alley we went to after. Both instances made me feel very raw and exposed, but I didn’t vocalize this at the time. Female felt a little more correct, but I was scared of being “found out” if I spoke wrong or if the server noticed my flat chest. Male felt embarrassing and uncomfortable, and made me second guess binding in public again. I do not enjoy being gendered male, but I still find joy in having a flat chest. I just hate that that joy can be undercut by being misgendered. I’m scared of making the wrong decision.
October to December 2022
From October to December, I experienced a steady swing from feeling more masculine to feeling more feminine, which brought much dysphoria and dysmorphia with it.
In October, I wrote:
Caught sight of my profile in the mirror today when I sat up to get out of bed. I was very dissatisfied with the way my chest looked in its natural state, no bra or binder. I tried sitting up fully, posing, and smoothing out my t-shirt, but I still felt meh at best.
In November, the dissatisfaction continued.
When I wear my favorite shirts with a bra instead of a binder, they don’t match how I envisioned them fitting when I planned the outfit. Maybe because I bound exclusively for so long. I’ve also been frustrated that my breasts make some things fit really strangely, like my favorite suit vest and some of my men’s flannels.
When I got ready for bed tonight, I looked at myself in my sports bra, boyshorts, and flannel, and tried to force myself to feel something positive. I thought to myself, “this is how a 25-year-old girl is supposed to look,” but it didn’t look like me. I felt like I was wearing the costume of a sexy, cool girlfriend in a movie from the 2000s about a guy with no redeeming qualities, but who magically has women falling at his feet. I tried instead to imagine a scarred, flattish chest beneath my open shirt. Maybe imperfect to some, but a lot more like a body I’d like to be in.
At the end of 2022, December saw me trying to accommodate incoming feelings of femininity in my current body. I struggled.
I keep thinking that maybe if I were just a little curvier I could be happy being more traditionally feminine. I bought a new padded bra after ordering my new binder today. Just to see.
I’ve worn my new bra a grand total of once since receiving it in the mail. It’s a little too big, and it also just feels odd to see myself with prominent breasts. I can’t tell if that’s from wearing compression garments for a long time, or actual dysphoria.
In the new year, I’ve grappled with similar feelings, but my outlook has changed. A new year may not erase whatever you went through in the last one, but it can offer a clarity as you reassess.
In mid-January, I turned a big corner.
I bound yesterday, and today I’m all strapped into my real-person bra for the first time in a bit. I enjoyed the smoothness of my silhouette yesterday, and was startled today by the fact that I do indeed have some boob. It seems like it always goes this way, doesn’t it? I’m trying to get more okay with being genderfluid. More accepting of the fluctuations in feelings and presentation that I have day to day, week to week, month to month. Recently, I’ve been wanting to lean into the nonsense of it all and really mix up the masculine and feminine. I can bind and wear big shirts, with a pleated skirt and thick-soled boots. Maybe I can finally learn how to do my own makeup, even if it means looking like a glittery, hungover raccoon.
As I play around more, though, I’m thinking of reaccepting “she/her” into my roster of pronouns. “They/them” is still my preference, I think, but I feel like I want my feminine side to be recognized and validated, even when I’m butching it up. I need to accept that sometimes I may want to use other pronouns. That’s just something that happens to me, and it’s getting a little silly to resist it. I do feel a level of pressure from others to pick a spot and stay there, but that isn’t who I am. There’s some stigma towards people who use multiple sets of pronouns, which I’ve experienced firsthand, but it’s about whatever’s comfortable to the individual. Using more than one pronoun doesn’t make me less nonbinary or less trans than anyone else with those identities, and I’m tired of feeling like it does. It shouldn’t be a huge deal to anyone, and I gonna try not to let it be a huge deal for me either.
My gender journey is not done by any means, but allowing myself to explore, express, and process via journaling has been a giant help in the past handful of years. While I do have a bigger support system now than I did when I first started writing things down, it’s been a boon for getting out the feelings that I worry about being “too much” for one text conversation with a friend. It’s given me a mindfulness that I haven’t always possessed, as I’m forced to carefully consider each emotion as I put it down in words. It helps that I’m the only one seeing them. Until now!
Some tips for journaling about your gender or orientation that I can pass along are:
- Note your feelings when you begin your journal. It’s beneficial to have a starting place that you can refer back to, as your feelings may change over the course of your journaling. If you’re unsure of where you stand in your identities when you sit down to write, that’s a perfectly acceptable starting point!
- Have a dedicated space for these specific thoughts. When I tried journaling in the past, it was always very sporadic, and the entries would be spread across my notebooks, phone, and computer. Having one spot to do your writing every time gives you previous thoughts to refer back to, and follow up or expand upon. If you’re in an unsafe living situation, it may be wise to keep your journaling somewhere that no one else can access it.
- Feel your feelings. For most of you, your journal will likely stay private. That means that you have the space to get anything out that you need to, without judgement. This also means that you don’t need to be polished! Misspell things, “scream” in all caps, write in shorthand. Whatever it takes to let loose the thoughts that need to run free.
Journaling isn't for everyone. Identity is complex, and frequently comes with some hefty baggage to unpack. It can be daunting to sit with your feelings as you convert them into the written word. Regardless, it’s a potentially valuable outlet for anyone in dire need of one. May it offer you some peace of mind!