(Not) Knowing You're Trans
People like to ask, “When did you realize you were trans?” I never know how to answer. The short answer is: January 15th, 2021, the first time I ever put my hair up and felt like a new future had suddenly opened up for me. But as nice of a story as it is, it would be dishonest to tell you that from that point on, I just knew I was trans. Even that night, I had some doubt about what my excitement really meant. In the following months, I went back and forth about whether I was really, truly trans. If I had to honestly answer the question, and if we had enough time, I’d tell you that, well, I realized I was trans a lot of times, and I realized I wasn’t trans a lot of times.
This long and painful period of doubting is common to a lot of the trans people I know, but certainly isn’t ubiquitous. There are a lot of reasons for it, I think. For one, realizing you’ve been living as the wrong gender for most of your life is a lot to wrap your head around. Additionally, long periods of pacing in and out of your shell seem to be somewhat of a white phenomenon, as for many white people (myself included), realizing we’re trans is the first time our identity really conflicts with the status quo, the first time it’s really a “problem.” But these explanations are far from the entire reason I took so long to decide that I was a girl. The biggest obstacle I faced in the early months of transition was the compulsion to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was trans.
It’s a hard thing to prove. When people ask, “How did you realize you were trans?” there’s a rather long answer to that question (this article), but the short answer is “Well, it’s inductive. You just try a bunch of stuff, names and pronouns, clothing, shaving constantly or never shaving again, and see how you like it.” But what I want to suggest is that being trans isn’t something you have to prove. There’s the cliché that trans people are always writing up lists of reasons why they’re definitely trans, and I have fallen victim to this habit, but writing a list is, actually, one of the worst things you can do. Every time I finished writing a list, I’d look at it and think, “That’s conclusive enough,” but the next day I’d look at it and shake my head. It’s the same cycle that people talk about with anxiety: you come up with reasons for something, those reasons eventually lose their novelty, and you’re back to square one trying to think of another reason. So if you’re a trans person, especially an anxious one like I am, being asked to prove that you’re trans is a self-defeating prophecy. I never felt confident enough, and the only way to complete the cycle was to break free from it and ask myself, “Why should I have to prove this in the first place? Why not just get on hormones and see how I feel?”
That’s the problem, though. When you see a doctor to get on hormones, the first thing they’ll do is ask you to prove that you’re trans. As Jules Gill-Peterson demonstrates in her book Histories of the Transgender Child, this type of medical gatekeeping has plagued the trans community for a long, long time. So long that it’s distorted our own stories about ourselves. Doctors have things they want to hear: I’ve known since I was a kid, I’ve always hated my body and genitals, I cry whenever I look in the mirror, Oh, and I’ll definitely be a Good, Heterosexual, Normal Transexual. “Exaggerate and lie” was the advice I was given before my HRT consult. And so these are the stories trans people have learned to tell their doctors, so many doctors still believe we’re all like this, so these stories keep getting perpetuated to the point that trans people become convinced we’re not trans because we don’t cry every time we look in the mirror.
Unfortunately, it’s not just doctors who make us feel like we have to prove ourselves. Sometimes it comes from within the community. One of the first resources I discovered after beginning to question my gender was the Gender Dysphoria Bible, which I found in the pins of a Discord server (you’re allowed to laugh at me here). It was a pleasant resource, containing some of the most lucid descriptions of trans feelings I’d ever encountered up to that point, such as:
An AMAB trans person may find themselves very uncomfortable in groups of men. They may feel out of place and struggle to fit in among their male peers. Masculine social interactions don’t come naturally to them, and trying to emulate their male friends feels awkward. They may feel themselves drawn more to friendships with women, but become frustrated at the social and heterosexual dynamics that come into play.
Many trans people come to realize after transition that they had never actually dated like a cis person of their assigned gender, instead always having romantic relationships that fit their true orientation. . . . Men relate differently to men than they do to women, and women to women differently than they do to men, even when they don’t know they are men or women.
However, despite the comfort and even euphoria that reading these explanations gave me, the Gender Dysphoria Bible was one of the biggest hurdles to my transition, because in between all of these helpful observations, you’ll find paragraphs like this:
If your brain is wired for one gonadal hormones (such as testosterone) and your body produces the other hormone (such as estradiol), this can result in a biochemical malfunction within your brain chemistry. This produces a sort of brain fog, a reduction in mental capacity, and a general state of anxiety and unease.
Suddenly, after reading this, I went from wanting to get gender-affirming clothing to wanting to get a brain scan. Of course, there was no source provided for the claim that your brain is wired for a certain hormone, and to this day, there is still no source provided for this claim, but in my mind, they’d been trans for longer than me, they’d seen some shit, done some reading, certainly this was true. And so I suddenly became convinced that, as much as I wanted to be trans, there was still a chance that hormones wouldn’t “work” on me. If I ended up taking hormones that my brain wasn’t wired for, it would feel “like pouring sugar into the gas tank of [my] brain,” as stated by a tweet included alongside the main content of the page. It made me think that I could so deeply want to be trans without being trans. And because whether or not I was trans was no longer about whether or not I wanted to be, I went back to curating lists of all the feminine things I did as a child.
So where does this claim come from? It’s fairly common for trans people to talk about how hormones instantly made them feel better, how they could suddenly see the world in full color, how the fog quickly lifted, et cetera, and from there they reason that this must have been a neurochemical circuit finally being completed. But are there not other reasons someone might feel joyful after starting hormones? Reasons other than finally being on the “right hormone for your brain wiring,” such as, I don’t know, being glad you’re on the stuff you want now. I did not have this feeling of instant euphoria, and many of the trans people I know also did not have this feeling. I did feel a little better knowing that I was no longer on a hormone that I considered to be irreversibly damaging my body, but that’s all it was, relief. I don’t think estrogen completed a neurochemical circuit, I don’t think my brain is wired for one hormone or another, and I don’t think that the fact that I’m a woman has been hiding in my brain all along. Estrogen, after giving it some time, has made me happier than ever, but not because my brain is wired for it, because I want to be a woman, that’s all.
And what a lot of trans people don’t seem to notice is that the idea that your brain can be wired for one hormone or another, and that’s what makes you trans, is a form of essentialism. We all disavow certain essentialisms: that being XY makes you a man, that menstruating makes you a woman, et cetera; but other essentialisms still slip through the cracks. The Gender Dysphoria Bible seems to be parroting the old (extremely discredited and extremely essentialist) view that all females have female brains and all males have male brains, only modifying it to instead claim that all men have male brains and all women have female brains, and this is what makes us men or women. And from what I’ve seen on various corners of Twitter and Reddit, this view is not at all uncommon in the trans community. It sometimes seems that we’ve forgotten that “woman’s brain in a man’s body” is really just a useful metaphor for getting cis people to shut up, not a literal description of how things are. Once a far more experienced trans woman told me that there’s really no evidence that our brains are wired for a certain hormone or that there’s a trans gene or something, and that gender is social, and that what really matters is how we feel, the world started feeling a lot more open, and the desire to prove myself largely dissipated.
So how do I know if I’m trans? I think it’s a bad question. A more useful question, in my opinion, is, “Do I want to transition?” It’s really the same question, because for all I care, if you want to transition, you’re trans (though this only goes one way—being trans doesn’t necessarily require that you want to transition), but it’s a lot easier to answer and a lot more specific. If you asked me the night I “realized I was trans” if I were trans, I wouldn’t know what to tell you, but if you asked me if I wanted to transition, I would say, probably, yeah.
Then what makes us trans? I don’t really care. I’m not interested in a definition of transness that makes recourse to some kind of neurobiological answer. Sure, there are those studies about how the brains of trans people tend to be a certain way, but all these studies can tell us is that some trans people have a certain brain structure, not that this brain structure is what makes you trans. There’s probably a lot of different things that make us trans, but the question just doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it’s something we should be worrying about on top of a gender crisis.
And sometimes, you just don’t know if you’re trans or not. I doubted for months, then I came out to my parents, which made me doubt again, because what if I’m wrong? I kept doubting, and then I got to my HRT consult, and I was still doubting, and then suddenly I was two months on estrogen, happy, but still unsure. These days, eight months on estrogen, I’m happier, and I know it was the right decision, and yet the other day I briefly had another “Am I really trans?” moment. Sometimes it just doesn’t go away, sometimes we just don’t know if we’re trans, and sometimes we don’t know what we want at all. But as Torrey Peters writes in Detransition, Baby,
Wasn’t that the big lesson of transition, of detransition? That you’ll never know all the angles, that delay is a form of hiding from reality. That you just figure out what you want and do it? And maybe, if you don’t know what you want, you just do something anyway, and everything will change, and then maybe that will reveal what you really want.
So do something.