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.”
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.