Although the questions tend to be many and far-reaching, the one that comes up the most seems to be:
“So how does someone know if they are transgender?”
The more I thought about it the more I realized this isn’t just a small-talk question that’s asked of me at BBQ’s, counseling conferences, or family reunions. It’s asked time after time in my office by the parents and partners of those who are transitioning. And it’s something that most of my transgender clients have even asked themselves. Especially at the beginning of their journey when they first find out that there’s such a word that exists, and that it just might help explain how they’ve been feeling all of their life.
The Story of “David” and His Dad
To quickly get to the heart of this question I want to share a story of a session I had with a 19-year-old who was transitioning to male (we’ll call him David) and his father.
Note: I’ll be using the pronoun “she” in this example when quoting David’s dad. He said he wasn’t ready to address David as “he” yet, something David said he could understand and was okay with giving him time to adjust to.
The questions and concerns that David’s father expressed are ones that I’ve heard repeatedly from parents who are new to the world of what it means to be transgender, as well as those who are fully aware of what it means to be trans but have the expected “parental concern” kick in.
“But she never seemed all that ‘guy-ish’ when she was growing up. Where did this come from?”
“Maybe she’s really just a lesbian?”
“What if she starts hormone therapy and it turns out she was wrong? Can everything be reversed?”
“I’ve heard that the brain doesn’t develop fully until a person turns twenty-five. So doesn’t that mean she can’t know yet if this is truly what she wants?”
“She’s tried on so many other identities. Isn’t this just another one?”
David’s answers were similar to what I’ve heard from other clients as well.
“Going through puberty was awful, because I was developing in the wrong direction. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I tried extra hard to become that since that’s what everyone else was doing. I was hoping my feelings would change over time, but they didn’t.”
“I wondered if I was a lesbian too, so I identified as that for a while so I could get away with dressing and acting more ‘butchy.’ But that didn’t feel right to me either.”
“The percentage of people who begin hormone therapy and then decide to reverse it is extremely small. This isn’t something I want to do ‘just for fun,’ it’s the step I need to take to resolve my Gender Dysphoria.”
“This has been a part of me as long as I can remember, since I was a kid. So my mind has always been like this, it’s not going to change when I’m twenty-five.”
“I know I changed identities a lot, I think that’s normal for teens. The reason I know this isn’t one that I’m going to ‘change my mind’ about is because I didn’t decide or chose to be male – this is who I am. I am deciding to do something about it.”
We go back and forth for a while with the questions and comments from dad and the responses from David. The feelings on both parts range from awkwardness to frustration, disappointment to hurt.
Eventually I posed this question to David: “Knowing that your dad will more than likely never be able to truly understand what it is that you are experiencing, what is it that he can do?”
David said to his dad, “I want you to trust me.”
Trusting One’s Self First
This is what it all boils down to. Taking the word of someone who is transgender when they say they do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Don’t you think they’ve asked themselves, “How can I really know?” more than a few times before being able to trust their own selves that the answer is, “Because I know”?
As humans we are given the gift of intuition, and yet we’re also taught to doubt it. So we seek evidence to prove that what we are sensing about ourselves is true – to prove it to ourselves first, and then to everyone else next.
I remember spending seven years, from ages 23 to 30, trying to decide whether or not I was gay. I finally had to put aside logic and reason and, when I went with what my gut had been telling me, I realized that this is how I had felt since I was eight years old.
The process someone goes through to come to the realization that they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual tend to be the classic examples of these sorts of discoveries. This is due to it being so “not okay” in our society to be these things and therefore these truths about one’s self are repressed for any number of years (we could add being polyamorous, kinky, or trans* to this list as well).
However, I am going to bet that every person who reads this blog has had an experience like this or, if you haven’t yet, you will.
That Sneaky Suspicion…
Have you ever started in one career field and realized you were meant for another? Did you marry someone and get divorced? Did you find someone else who was a better fit for you? Have you ever joined a group, organization, or church and eventually realize that you didn’t truly belong there? Have you ever found yourself pretending to be someone else, without even knowing it until later? Have you taken on a role in your life that didn’t end up fitting who you really are?
Think about what it was like when you began to have that sneaky suspicion that you should be doing something else, that you should be somewhere else, or that you should even be someone else than you’d been taught to believe you should be. Did you have doubts? Were you afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed to let others know what you were thinking about? Did you have to lose something in the process of being true to yourself? Did you feel the relief that eventually comes from breaking free of something that doesn’t suit you, and moving more towards what feels “right?”
If you can answer yes to any of these questions it means you can relate to what someone goes through who is trying to figure out if they are transgender. We always encounter resistance as we venture on the journey to discover our authentic selves. It’s part of the adventure and should be expected.
However, we can all do our part in reducing a large portion of the external resistance those who are transgender encounter during their journey. It’s hard enough to realize that you do not identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. To then have a society which doubts, fears, and condemns you for being this way is inexcusable.
Increase your compassion for those who are transgender by reflecting on the questions presented above. Come up with one or two examples of times in your life when someone has asked you, “How do you know you want to do such and such?” and you have responded, “Because I know. Trust me.” Remember that this is the same experience someone who is transgender is going through – having to learn to trust themselves, and then asking those around them to trust them as well.
Further reading: “Gender is Different” by Julia Serano