For a big portion of the trans population, our teens and early twenties are when the first really big struggles with questions about our gender identity start to happen. Sure, most of us spend a lot of our childhood being vaguely (or not so vaguely) aware of something being “wrong” or different”, but puberty and sexual development seem to have a way of throwing a pretty harsh light on those feelings. It can be pretty lonely and confusing time, and it’s easy to feel completely lost and overwhelmed by the situation. After all, it’s not as though we’re likely to have a bunch of other friends struggling with these same sorts of issues to lean on, and I don’t think there are many other issues that shake the core of your identity quite like questioning your gender. Often, we’re terrified to admit these feelings to even ONE person (it took me until I was 20 to actually talk to someone about it). Back in those days (the early 2000s), internet information about being transgender/transsexual was pretty scant and stereotyped, and I remember not relating to a ton of it, which made me feel even more lost and confused.
These days, of course, trans people of all stripes are making their voices heard on the web. You have only to look at my extensive (yet not even remotely exhaustive) blogroll to get a sense of that. I wrote a while back about the importance of trans success stories, and why each of our voices is so important. But, as I approach my 1 year mark on HRT, I began to think about the sorts of things that would have been helpful to hear from someone when i was 20 and struggling to understand the mess of thoughts about my gender. Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that supporting a person struggling with gender dysphoria can also be a challenge, particularly if gender issues are something that are very new to you. It’s very easy to feel lost for words when trying to support trans people, especially if you aren’t trans yourself. So, in light of all that I came up with nine simple, but important thoughts that I believe are important for anyone (young or not-so-young) to hear if they’re dealing with gender dysphoria:
1. Feeling dysphoric about your gender does not mean you’re a sexual deviant or a pervert. Trans people often have to endure being labeled deviants by the transphobic public because of the uninformed (and flat-out WRONG) belief that cross-gender/gender-dysphoric feelings stem from “immoral” sexual desires. Nothing could be further from the truth- gender dysphoria stems from a mismatch between your physical body and your brain’s expectations. I think if most cis-folks took a minute to think about how they’d feel if they woke up one day in a body of the other sex (I’m guessing they’d be pretty damn freaked out), they’d understand the immensely stressful feelings we struggle with every day. A fair amount of good science also exists to support this brain/body mismatch. Sadly, the media has a tendency to portray us in a very unflattering light and pornography and trash television have only retrenched these horribly misguided stereotypes. But it’s important to understand that gender dysphoria is a very real medical/psychological issue! As a corollary, experiencing gender dysphoria does not mean you’re just “gay and confused” or anything else about your sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and gender identity are completely separate concepts, and trans people are gay, straight, and everything in between (and only you can decide where you fall on that spectrum).
2. Everyone’s pathway to understanding their gender identity is different. This one was perhaps one of the hardest things for me, personally. There’s an awful lot of literature floating around that says things like “you’re only a trans woman if you’ve felt X, Y and Z.” These are misleading and bordering on cruel. We’ weren’t all super-feminine children, nor are we all feminine now. Not all of us experience our dysphoria as a specific dislike for our genitals. The unifying experience is the discomfort with the sex we were assigned at birth…the rest is as unique as we are. Your path is your own, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
3. Everyone’s pathway to and through transition is different. This is a follow-on from #2, really. Some people are ready to start pursuing transition as soon as they’ve accepted that they’re trans. Some people aren’t. Some people live part-time or full-time in their preferred gender before starting medical transition. Some people are on hormones for a year or more before they venture out presenting as their preferred gender for the first time. Some people push through their social transition quickly, and others take a bit longer road. Some people choose to have surgery, and some do not. ALL of these things are normal and acceptable! Just because your path and progress differ from someone elses doesn’t make your trans experience or gender identity less legitimate.
4. Gender dysphoria has deeper effects on your emotional health than you realize. Living in a body that feels wrong is exhausting. You’ve been dealing with those feelings for a long time, so it’s easy to chalk them up to just “normal” life for you. But, there’s a good chance that your dysphoria is slowly and insidiously eating away at your mental stability. There’s anxiety associated with trying to “fit” or “pass” in a gender that doesn’t feel natural. There’s the self-esteem hit you might be taking from looking at a body that feels wrong, or maybe even ugly to you. And worst of all, there’s a constant, gnawing depression stemming from the stress and discomfort that dysphoria brings while your brain is being washed with the wrong hormones. Your subconscious is expending lots of energy dealing with these things, and that’s a recipe for some serious problems with your emotional stability Bringing the mind and body into alignment through transition does WONDERS for mental health, and you’ll be astounded by how much the anxiety and depression drops off as transition progresses. (That being said, transition is NOT a magic cure for all emotion problems, and there’s a decent chance that you’ll still have underlying issues to work through once the gender issues are taken care of.)
5. You are probably more attractive than you think. This is was one of my single largest mental roadblocks to transition. The image you see in the mirror every day conflicts with your own internal conception of what you SHOULD look like…that’s enough to screw with ANYONE’S self-esteem! Add to that the likelihood that you’re focusing on the traits that make your face/body feel too masculine/feminine for your brain-sex, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty harsh judgements about your appearance. Give yourself permission to explore, to find out what the preferred gender version of your face and body might look like. And even more so, give yourself permission to feel attractive. You probably are!
6. People who truly love and care about you will support you. Yes, there’s a risk in sharing your gender identity with people. It’s terrifying, and when you’re looking at those first few conversations, it feels like you’re risking everything! People might be shocked at first, or need a little time to process the situation. But if you come armed with information and resources, and you’re genuinely reaching out to someone with something this personal and important, chances are- if they’re a person who loves and cares about you- that they’ll become a supporter. And if you don’t have any friends you feel this way about, it’s time to make some. You’re going to need them over the course of transition. Admittedly, family (especially parents) can be a much more complex situation, and those don’t always go quite as smoothly. But, if you’ve chosen your friends well, they’ll stand by you during your journey. And if they don’t, well, they weren’t worth having around anyway. I’m constantly impressed by just how accepting the people in my life have been of my transition.
7. It’s really lonely in the closet. When you’re closeted about your gender identity, you’re hiding part of yourself from those around you. You’re putting up a false front so that you can survive in the world, hiding your true self deep inside. While this keeps us safe, it also means we’re essentially always alone- we’re never sharing all of our real selves with others. Embracing your gender identity and coming out helps you be more present in your relationships, both friendly and romantic, by letting go of the gap we tend to maintain between our true selves and the false front identities we construct to inhabit our assigned genders. It can actually be pretty overwhelming at first if you aren’t prepared for it! I didn’t realize just how much I kept other at a distance until I started transition.
8. Transition happens a lot faster than you think it will (once you get started). Standing at the opening of the metaphorical tunnel that is transition, it often looks daunting to the point of being overwhelming. It feels like it’s going to take FOREVER, and that you’re going to be stuck in that terrifying middle ground for longer than you can bear. It’s not true. If you set measurable goals and stick with them, and focus on making progress, you will flabbergasted at how quickly you’ll be standing on the other side going “Holy shit, did that really just happen?!”. Yes, some of those months of the process are going to suck, and you’re going to feel like it’s TAKING SO LONG, but things pick up speed quickly, and each step drives the next until one day you realize that there aren’t any more steps, and all that’s left is living the amazing, genuine life you’ve built for yourself.
9. It’s okay if you aren’t ready to transition (or if you’re never ready). Transition is a BIG step! There are lots of things you need to have in place. It’s financially burdensome, emotionally taxing, and it has far-reaching consequences for all kinds of scary real-world stuff like jobs, housing, and more. It can take a while (sometimes a long while) to have all things you feel you need lined up. That’s okay! You’re ready when YOU’RE ready. And for some people, transition just isn’t the right thing for them. That’s okay, too. You should still seek out counseling and do whatever it is you can to mitigate your dysphoria, but it certainly doesn’t invalidate the dysphoria you’re struggling with. Whatever it is that works for you is right FOR YOU!
As I mentioned, this list isn’t just for trans people- it’s for anyone who considers themselves an ally to the trans community. Pre-transition folks are often those who are in most need of love and support, and these nine things might be some of the most important things you can share with them as they try to find their path.