I’m glad that there are transgender people who knew who they were from the time they were very young. I’m just… not one of them.
As a kid, I honestly didn’t give much thought to gender. I did find myself confused from time to time as to why gender roles existed — in my mind, I didn’t perceive myself as being any different from my older brother, so there were moments when imposed expectations felt grating.
But gender wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to. It didn’t feel especially present in my early life.
As someone who struggles with mental illness, my teen years were largely defined by my difficulties with complex trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I didn’t have the luxury of contemplating who I really was. Gender seemed to be an avenue to desirability and outside approval. It was a role that I was cast for, rather than an identity I could consider. So I played the part, reluctantly. What else was I supposed to do?
My first conscious questioning of gender was when I was watching television as a freshman in college. I saw an androgynous person on television, and I remember thinking to myself, “That seems like it would be so much better… no expectations, just being.” It planted a seed for me. I didn’t know what “transgender” meant at that time. I just knew that I was drawn to this idea of gender ambiguity, for reasons I couldn’t quite place.
I remember going to my boyfriend at the time, telling him that I was thinking about cutting my hair off and maybe changing up the clothes I wore. This possibility excited me, but it repulsed him. “I don’t think I’d be attracted to you anymore,” he explained. “I think your femininity is what makes you attractive.” Fearful that I would be rejected by those close to me, I pushed my gender questioning to the very darkest corner of my mind.
I grew up very sheltered. My world was tiny, all things considered. And while some transgender folks know immediately and intuitively who they are, I spent many years living the life I was told I should be living. My way of coping with trauma and mental illness was to mirror the expectations people had of me, with the hopes of avoiding further harm. The more I could blend in, the more protected I felt.
In a world that deliberately pushes us into very restrictive gender roles, questioning those roles can feel deeply unsafe. A delayed timeline doesn’t make us impostors; it’s an expected consequence of living in such a cisnormative world.
It shouldn’t surprise us that so many people more readily repress their gender questioning before embracing it. For trans folks who already feel unsafe, we often can’t access the questions we need to in order to become who we’re meant to be. Many of us still lack possibility models, information, and safety, all of which can delay those important realizations that push us forward.
Repressing the desire to question or explore gender can be a very important and valid form of self-protection. That was definitely true for me.
My life ultimately changed when I met another transgender person in university. They were living the life that I had imagined when I first saw that androgynous character on television — they were completely gender-ambiguous, occupying an in-between space that I’d only pictured in my mind. I immediately felt drawn to them, and as I got to know them, I found the courage to begin exploring my own gender, too.
Family and friends that had known me for a long time were shocked. I didn’t really know what to say, other than to reply, “Hey, I’m surprised, too.”
Because in many ways, I was. With every step of my transition, I worried that I was making some kind of mistake. Shouldn’t I have realized this sooner? Could this really be a weird phase? Why now? Why this?
But with each change — clothes, pronouns, hormones, and most recently, surgery — I became a happier, more confident and self-assured person. The knots that had been in my stomach for as long as I could remember came undone; my social anxiety and agoraphobia started to melt away. I found an inner peace that I never knew was possible for myself.
I came alive. And… well, it really did surprise me.
And while I can look back at my history and see how this path makes sense (the video game characters I identified most strongly with are… pretty telling, honestly), that realization only comes in hindsight. While I never enthusiastically or even explicitly identified as a girl or woman, I didn’t exactly imagine an alternative until I was much older.
I’m not alone. In my time as a public figure in the community, I’ve found this to be a totally normal experience for many of the transgender folks that I’ve talked with.
I know plenty of trans people who are similarly surprised to be transgender. And why shouldn’t we be? Society tells us in a thousand different ways that trans people are rare oddities, terrible mistakes, or worse, simply don’t exist at all.
When I got surgery a couple weeks ago, I remember being wheeled into the operating room and thinking, “Am I seriously doing this?” I knew that this was what I needed, and yet I was still floored that this was something I had to endure. Yet when I woke up, the relief I felt was immediate and palpable. My first thought was, “Why didn’t I do this ten years ago?”
Being a particularly effeminate trans man, I think my process took much longer because society is so limited still in its understanding of gender. It took a lot to reconcile the fact that I could be especially feminine but still need transition and move through the world being perceived as a man.
Being seen as a feminine woman made me profoundly uncomfortable, and yet somehow, being seen as a queer, feminine man feels authentic and empowering. This is something I’ve simply learned about myself with time, kind of in the same way I’ve learned anything else about who I am. Trying new things, seeing what feels right, and going with my gut.
One thing I continually hear from loved ones of trans people is some iteration of, “I had no idea. Why didn’t I see it?” What these folks fail to realize is that, chances are, their transgender loved one didn’t necessarily see it right away, either.
Some of us take years, even decades to arrive at a safe place to explore our gender. I try to imagine telling teenage Sam that he was, in fact, a boy — and that he’d eventually transition medically to live his most authentic life — and it’s laughable to me. It would’ve been as foreign to me then as it was to most of my loved ones when I came out.
“Trans… gender?” I likely would’ve asked. “What the heck do you mean?”
I do wonder what my process would’ve looked like in a society that is more encouraging of questioning and exploring gender. I like to think that the realization would’ve happened for me much sooner, though I can’t know for sure.
For now, though, I find some comfort in creating space for trans people to be surprised. We absolutely deserve the space to be shocked, particularly in a society that often interrogates trans people’s identities before accepting them. Of course we’re surprised. When cis is presented as the only option, it can be shocking to realize we could be anything else.
Our genders are valid, even if our process has shocked us, confused us, or evaded us.
I’m transgender, and most days, it still surprises me. But being surprised doesn’t change who I am. In fact, it’s one of the best surprises my life has given me.
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