Trauma and Transness: Why I Didn’t ‘Always Know’ I Was Transgender

There are a number of transgender people who have known, from a very young age, that they were a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Their stories are encouraging , interesting, and important. Their stories are also not mine.

I knew as a child that I was different – but not because of my gender. I knew this because I had early onset bipolar disorder. My life, in so many ways, was consumed as I struggled to keep my head above water. While other children my age contemplated their place in the world, I contemplated hurting myself for reasons I couldn’t explain.

This disorder derailed my life – impacting my relationships, my self-esteem, and of course, my stability – until I finally started getting treatment for it when I was eighteen years old.

It’s not a coincidence that when I started receiving treatment for bipolar disorder (and anxiety, a later diagnosis), questions about my gender began bubbling to the surface. The only person who didn’t seem surprised was my therapist at the time.

“You might have had to suppress or avoid questions about your gender to focus on your survival,” she told me. “Bipolar disorder might have required all of your attention. Now it doesn’t.”

Bingo.

While every trans person with mental illness has a different story, I think that I was put in a sort of auto-pilot because of my trauma. There was no room to contemplate gender identity. I assumed the role and took the validation that came with it. I put my mental and emotional resources into surviving bipolar disorder and weathering the damage it did on a daily basis.

It’s hardly surprising that when my mental health began to rebound, I started to consider the possibility that I might be trans. As therapy and medication helped me to cope more effectively, I began to interrogate my assigned gender in ways I never had the space to before.

In this way, it’s impossible to talk about my trans identity without talking about my struggles with mental illness.

I believe that, in the face of trauma, I was unable to contemplate or comprehend my own truth (and not just about gender – mental illness made me feel less like a person and more like a body moving through physical space, aching).

There was no room to consider gender for a long time. It was deemed “non-essential” by the part of my brain that determined what I could and could not handle.

And honestly? I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes I do wish I’d started testosterone sooner, or understood my gender a little earlier on, or embarked on this journey at a younger age. But then I ask myself: Was that really possible?

I think about how much pain I suffered through earlier on in my life. I try to imagine if I could have handled a transition at the same time – the upheaval in my family, navigating social pressures and even societal violence, trying to advocate for myself and find resources in my small Midwestern suburb… all during a time when trans people were scarcely visible.

Could I have done this when I was in the throes of a mood disorder, being pulled into suicidal lows and manic highs?

I say that I’m “grateful” because I started to come into my own as a trans person at a time when my life was beginning to stabilize. It was a time when I had social support, a time when I could find other queer people, a time when I had more agency than I did as a kid. I was ready.

Not all trans people realize they are trans at a time that they’re ready to – they simply are, and they have to navigate that whether they are prepared to or not. And while I’m not suggesting that trauma is a privilege, I will say that my journey as trans could have been more difficult than it has been.

In some ways, I feel lucky that I came to know myself as transgender at a time when it was safer for me to come out. My transition could have put my mental health in further jeopardy had I begun at a time when I wasn’t mentally healthy or supported. Instead, it happened when I had full autonomy over myself and had a community rallying behind me.

When people ask me how I “knew” I was trans, the answer is much more complicated than they realize. Because while I could sift through my past and find moments that seemed to indicate the kind of discomfort or confusion they might expect, the truth is that it was the furthest thing from my conscious mind for most of my life.

Keeping myself alive in the face of mental illness was the only thing I knew for the first eighteen years. It was the only context for my pain. I had no concept of who I was or any future ahead of me – I only knew the turmoil of bipolar disorder and the trauma that I had lived through.

I’ve often said that I didn’t feel like my life truly began until I was 20 years old. Which, not-so-coincidentally, is both when my medications began to work and my transition began in earnest.

Trans people with mental illness are not a monolith, either, and I imagine many of us have different stories and trajectories. We’re all affected by our illnesses differently.

But for me, I was only able to see myself clearly when my recovery began. And I don’t think being a “late bloomer” in some respects makes me any less trans.

To say that gender is an objective, static truth that we all intrinsically understand from the moment we are born – as if it is untouched or unaffected by our trauma – erases the journeys that many trans people have been on.

It’s impossible to say who or where we would be without our trauma. But what I do know is that who I am now – both as a trans person and as bipolar – is at this intersection of everything I have endured.

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25 thoughts on “Trauma and Transness: Why I Didn’t ‘Always Know’ I Was Transgender

  1. bobcabkings says:

    This is true. Confronted with trauma and any serious mental illness, simple survival, getting through the hour, day, week, and so on can crowd out any other question. An important story well told.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ivy Willow says:

    What a read sunshine! I also have bipolar disorder and enough anxiety problems to choke an elephant, along with being a trans woman! Hurray! I am one that always knew. It was hell to go through, I didn’t know what trans was, I just knew I wasn’t right, up until I was 15 or 16, and I still didn’t start transition until 21. It lead to me picking a name that I absolutely hate (during a mania) and just… yeah. It sucked.
    As I was reading it, in a way, I was glad that you were able to deal with the two separately. I think from the way you were writing, you will understand what I mean. I’m glad that you are in a better space now, and able to take hold of your life. I got onto meds for the first time at almost 27 (I’m 28 now), and as such, my life has been… delayed, shall we say for ten years or so.
    It’s so hard to work through, and you seem to be doing a damn good job navigating all of this. I’m proud of you Sam. Take good and gentle care of yourself sunshine ^.^ And thank you for writing this. Another good read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. CassandraToday says:

    I am SO GLAD I subscribed to your blog. Every time, you get me in the feels, or make me think, or both. This post is no exception. I shared it on Facebook with this comment:

    “This sheds a huge amount of light on my gender story. While some of my details are different, the overarching theme of starting to sort out being trans almost as soon as I started treatment for mental illness is something I’ve thought about a lot in the 10 years since. People are so individual that ultimately, all of the binaries turn out to be generalizations that can’t quite fit any one person’s story, whether it’s the female/male binary, trans/non-trans, mentally ill/mentally healthy, even knowing/not knowing.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hart says:

    Thank you for posting this. I too am a ‘late bloomer’ at the age of 38 I only discovered this about myself several years ago. Of course I also didn’t discover I was Bipolar until I was 32, it wasn’t until I experienced some stability in my life that I was able to identify that my gender was different than what I had been taught it should be. It’s good to know I’m not alone. So thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. eagoodlife says:

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    “Not all trans people realize they are trans at a time that they’re ready to – they simply are, and they have to navigate that whether they are prepared to or not. And while I’m not suggesting that trauma is a privilege, I will say that my journey as trans could have been more difficult than it has been.”
    Thanks to Sam for these thoughts and revelations and the ideas on trauma.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. concertinaqueer says:

    This rings true with me on a different level– as I’m dealing with old trauma that (up until now) I wasn’t safe enough to deal with. All things only come when we have the capacity to deal with them, I think. Thank you for this good read!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Luka says:

    I feel this so much! I have a tumour disease and spent most time in hospital when I was between 12-17. Classmates started to think about their sexual and romantic orientations and I just thought “Who cares?” I had to focus on surviving. Iny middle twenties I recovered enough to ask me those questions. Been told I was just a tomboy and that I will grow out of it. So I tried to fit their expectations, but it wasn’t me. All my life I knew I was different. I thought I might have a mental illness. And last year I got diagnosed with autism. But that wasn’t all. It kinda happens same time that I found out I was trans and got diagnosed with autism. I also wished I’d known earlier, that I was trans and autistic. But it wasn’t possible. I wasn’t in the shape to deal with it. I had to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pax Ahimsa Gethen says:

    The narrative that you’re only legit trans if you knew since early childhood is really harmful, especially to folks like myself who transitioned in middle age. Though I’ve suffered from lifelong clinical depression, I can’t peg that as the reason I didn’t discover my authentic self sooner.
    Transitioning hasn’t “cured” my depression, but getting the correct hormones into my body was necessary to avoid an even worse mental state.

    I’ve seen lots of dismissive, ableist comments that genderqueer folks are all mentally ill or autistic teenagers on Tumblr, but the fact is that social media has helped people discover that non-binary gender identities are legitimate. Social media didn’t exist when I was young; trans women were the only representation of gender variance I knew. (Still to this day, to many US-Americans, all trans people are Caitlyn Jenner. But I digress… )

    Regardless, no one needs to justify why, when, or how they knew they were trans. No one can define, deny, confirm, or invalidate anyone else’s gender identity. Thanks for writing your truth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Your comments are always spot-on. Absolutely no one needs to justify it. And I’m hopeful that writing MY truth can challenge the dominant script and hold space for more and more of us to own our truths. That’s ultimately why I started blogging in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. ZEM says:

    Thank you for putting into words the very same reasons my gender questionings started when they did. The anxiety, depression, and ptsd had to be reigned in and I had to escape the bad circumstances of my early life before I could possibly invest energy in something as non-essential to survival as gender. Your post resonates very strongly with me and I will almost certainly use your post as a reference to help answer how and why I found myself when I did.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Elain Corrine Moria says:

    My story is somewhat similar except I knew I was trans at four. Even asked my mom why I had boy parts when I was a girl at five. The beating I got for that encouraged me to suppress that part of me for decades. There was a great deal of trauma involved in my childhood as well. I was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder, anxiety, and half a dozen other mental illnesses. It wasn’t till I hit 50 and finally stopped running from myself that I accepted I was trans. 50 years of misery that could have been avoided or at least drastically reduced. 50 years of medications I didn’t actually need as since starting HRT and moving forward with transition, nearly all of my diagnosed ‘mental illnesses’ have all but vanished. The anxiety is still there. And the fight with the desire to die every day is till there, but the rest? Poof. Gone.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ginger McMurray says:

    Thank you, Sam. Until this I’d known these things about myself but couldn’t put them into words. I feel like I could have written this myself apart from the obvious gender differences (I’m a transwoman). I’ve always felt a little out of place in a world of transgender men and women who can talk about their childhood clarity. This makes so much sense that it brought me to joyful tears.

    Needless to say, blog subscription started. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Yesssss, we don’t all have that clarity and we are valid just the same. I’m happy that you could have those joyful tears and I’m glad that you subscribed, welcome to the community. ❤

      Like

  12. Corvus says:

    This is so familiar and validating. I have severe past trauma that is likely part of what led me to not consider transness until my mid 20s and not go on T until my 30s. I never had the narrative that I was x since age 3 and always knew I was x. I was too busy navigating abuse, active addiction, and other pain and trauma for it to register. I also didn’t have access to non normative radical queer ideas. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Kaylee says:

    Thank you so much for this. I didn’t start transitioning until 33 and felt odd because I didn’t have the “standard trans narrative”. I didn’t know from way back, likely because I was abused by a number of people up until I was in my early twenties. I didn’t know a thing about who I was for quite some time, so of course I had no idea what my gender was. Thank you for sharing this so we know we’re not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. sidkatten says:

    Honestly, thank you so much. I really needed to hear that phrase about being a late bloomer not making me any less trans. I was caught early by depression, and then began battling addiction, which in turn made the mental health situation go from bad to unbearable. Only after being in rehab for almost six months did I have the clarity in mind to really think about my gender identity, and what possibilities there really are for me. Your honesty touches me, thank you for sharing. Hugs from Norwegian kitten Sid

    Liked by 1 person

  15. sidkatten says:

    Honestly, thank you so much. I really needed to hear that phrase about being a late bloomer not making me any less trans. I was caught early by depression, and then began battling addiction, which in turn made the mental health situation go from bad to unbearable. Only after being in rehab for almost six months did I have the clarity in mind to really think about my gender identity, and what possibilities there really are for me. Your honesty touches me, thank you for sharing.
    Hugs from Norwegian kitten Sid

    Like

  16. The T.C. says:

    I had similar problems with my life, having to take care of my little brother while our parents were trying to get us against each other, having to move almost every year, getting put with the criminal school for missing a month from depression, being thrown in jail by breaking probation because I put my hat on as exiting the school…

    While I vaguely remember wanting to do more girl stuff as a kid, I never really had time to think about myself until I started to become an adult. Though another part of it was I never took my desires to become pregnant seriously because it was impossible, learning that it no longer is impossible forced me to confront myself.

    I dunno if I’m better off or not because my anxiety prevents me from getting a job, and I’m not popular enough to make it as an artist… so I can’t medically or socially transition since those cost money.

    Doesn’t help I’m in Texas, where they’d rather let you die than take care of you in hospitals…

    Like

  17. godofslaughter says:

    Thanks so much for this, dude. Another trans man here, and I didn’t figure it out fully until recently (mid twenties). I was abused as a child and have PTSD from it. I’m finally in a safe enough place to process not only my trauma but also my dysphoria. I look back and put the pieces together and see the signs of dysphoria, but the main issue was the abusive environment that I dealt with every single day.

    I feel like I’m finding not only myself, but my people. Much love. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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