I’m Transgender. But Trust Me, I’m Just As Surprised As You Are.

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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In 2018, let’s stop pretending cis women are the only ones having periods. Seriously.

Recently on Twitter I saw, yet again, claims being made that trans people who menstruate will eventually no longer have a menstrual cycle because of testosterone… and therefore, trans inclusivity when we’re talking about periods is a moot point.

Holy cisnormativity, batman.

This irks me. Because not only have I been on testosterone for two freakin’ years and am still #blessed with a monthly, but it’s also a wildly incorrect assumption that every trans person with a uterus is going to end up on testosterone in the first place.

There are transgender people who menstruate. Let me say it again to make sure we’re all on the same page here: THERE ARE TRANS PEOPLE WHO HAVE PERIODS.

And whether they identify as non-binary, as trans men, or anything else in the gender universe, one thing is clear to me: We need gender inclusivity when we’re talking about menstruation.

For me, that week or so of bleeding is when my gender dysphoria is at its peak. It is a continual reminder of body parts that are alien to me. It’s a reminder of all the barriers in front of me as I try to medically transition. I panic about being outed as trans whenever I get supplies at the drugstore. And not only that, but I am forced to directly interact with a part of my body that horrifies me — multiple times throughout the day.

Don’t get me wrong, periods suck for everyone. But when you’re transgender, it can be a particularly miserable experience.

So when the world is trying to tell you that this difficult thing you go through every month isn’t actually happening, it’s infuriating. It’s worse, too, when every product is stereotypically marketed to women, a continual reminder that you apparently don’t exist.

Spaces for cis women to commiserate about menstruation are valuable spaces that I have no interest in interfering with. But just the same, we could be doing so much better to make sure that trans folks aren’t erased in the process — and that there are products, spaces, and conversations that trans folks can have access to as well.

Where to begin? It starts with busting the myths.

No, testosterone doesn’t always stop someone’s period. No, not every trans person who has a menstrual cycle will opt for medical interventions that stop it. No, menstrual products are not “feminine hygiene” products. And for the love of all that is good, periods are not just a “woman’s issue” (and not all women have periods, either!).

Which means that when we’re talking about issues that affect people who menstruate, we need to be thoughtful about how we talk about it. People of any gender can have a period, because periods have to do with anatomy, not gender.

Is your mind blown yet? (Hopefully not, actually, it’d be cool if this were common knowledge by now.)

Beyond how we talk about it, we need to design products that are more inclusive. And it’s happening, slowly but surely!

One thing that has given me a lot of hope recently are the new products I’m seeing that actually are gender-inclusive. My favorite example of this, which yes, is totally worth the plug, is the Keela Cup.

It’s brilliant because it’s created with disabled folks in mind, and it’s founded by a disabled person who keeps the marketing gender neutral — a gal after my own heart, really. It’s a menstrual cup that has a pull string (why didn’t someone think of this sooner?!), so it’s more user-friendly for marginalized folks for whom traditional products just aren’t cutting it.

Its potential to decrease gender dysphoria because of the ease with which it could be used makes it personally appealing to me. But beyond that, smarts products like these matter for disabled folks, trans folks, and survivors of sexual violence — or really, anyone who struggles with their period and the demands it places on us.

For anyone who struggles to interact with their bodies during their period, especially in ways they might not be physically able to or find it triggering to do so, having products like these out in the world is seriously important.

The fact that it’s only now coming into existence means we have a long, long way to go.

If we keep pretending that menstruation is just a nondisabled cis woman’s experience, we’re going to keep getting commercials with ladies in long skirts twirling around like periods are one big funfest, and products that, frankly, suck for everyone and especially for marginalized people.

Trans people can have periods. And everyone, regardless of gender or ability, deserves access to conversations, products, and spaces that make that experience as painless as possible.

So in 2018? Let’s make a resolution to be more inclusive when we talk about periods, demand better for the folks who are often neglected in these conversations, and yes, applaud and back the folks who are working hard to create better products that serve us.

Because seriously, it’s about damn time.

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For The Mentally Ill Folks Who Didn’t Think They’d Make It This Year

The year had only just begun when I heard my psychiatrist, his voice quiet on the other end of the phone, telling me to go to the emergency room. “Will you go?” he asked me.

And I remember in that moment feeling like my cells were crawling and clawing in my body. The mere state of “being” was painful. I wanted to ask that doctor if he knew what he was asking me to do. How could he ask me to stay when everything hurt this much?

Last January, I couldn’t think of one good reason not to jump in front of the next train.

It’s December.

There were a million reasons not to.

Here’s what I would have missed: Trying my first veggie burger at Burger King. Learning I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Eating sushi for the first time. Getting the first job that I’ve ever loved. Finding the best therapist I’ve ever had. Adopting a cat named Pancake that makes my heart so much fuller. Discovering how much I love yoga and learning more about astrology.

Buying the best pair of boots I’ve ever owned. Listening to Lorde’s best album and witnessing Kesha’s… everything.

Holding a dear friend’s hand while they waited for an ambulance. Crying with my partner when their father died. Learning a best friend’s new name. Trying out the word “no” for the first time. Looking in the mirror at my body and feeling gender euphoria for the first time. Figuring out (finally) that I actually am an introvert. Remembering what it feels like to believe in magic (and making a little magic of my own).

All the times I picked up the phone when someone needed me. All the times I said the right thing to someone that needed to hear it. All the times my being here made someone else feel like they should stay. All the times I said “I love you” and had the honor of hearing back, “I love you, too.”

All of the many, many moments this year when I woke up and thought, “I’m so glad I’m still here.”

It wasn’t easy. I relapsed spectacularly. I had to leave (what I thought was) my dream job. I almost lost my apartment along with it, and came within inch of losing everything else. I had to watch Trump celebrate his inauguration on a flickering screen in a psych ward, next to a poster from 1995 with “stress-busting” tips like, “Stop worrying so much.”

I was in that hospital for a week. In the last two days, it rained so hard that my ceiling leaked, drenching my group therapy handouts on the shelf below. You know, the handouts that were supposed to teach me how to be well again. And for a moment, I remember being flustered, thinking that maybe I should just throw them away.

I laid them out carefully to dry.

When I was discharged, I brought them home with me. And I started to rebuild, day by day.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say it wasn’t easy for you this year, either. I won’t presume to know why and I won’t tell you how to feel. But from one survivor to another, there were a couple things I wanted to shout out into the big internet void, hoping maybe the right person will read them.

Because you and I? We got through it. And the mere act of being here is a tremendous thing.

1. You are remarkably strong.

How do I know that? I guess I don’t exactly. But I have a hunch. Because it takes real strength to keep yourself alive, especially when your brain isn’t cooperating. You’ve had years now to throw in the towel, and yet, here we both are.

And yes, I suspect there were setbacks and close calls and tantrums, even, and all of that is valid. There was rage and grief, because if life is anything, it’s definitely not fair. I don’t doubt that it took everything in you, maybe even things you aren’t proud of, to keep going. And looking at where you are now, you may feel scared that you don’t have what it takes to rebuild.

But you’re here. Holy shit. You’re still here. And of all the jobs you have, staying alive is the most important one. You had the guts and resilience it took to survive this year. That was you.

Sometimes it was recklessly running into battle because, fuck it, what do I have to lose? Sometimes it was having an impulse, and choosing the less destructive one instead. And sometimes it was swallowing the pills you didn’t want to take, dragging yourself out of the bed you didn’t want to leave, or slowly sipping that nutritional shake to make sure your body had something, anything to sustain itself.

Whatever you had to do, you did it. And you should be so, so proud of that.

2. You belong here.

There have been more moments than I can count when I wondered if I ever should’ve been born. If there was really a place for me in this world. If someone like me could exist someplace like this.

That’s been an open wound from the moment I realized I wasn’t like most people (though, to be truthful, I have to wonder if there was ever a time I didn’t feel that way). I was queer, I was transgender, I was traumatized, I was sensitive, and by most accounts, I was crazy.

I certainly wasn’t the kid my parents were expecting. And I was never going to be the kind of person this world was built for.

I was lucky to find people, though, who taught me that while this world wasn’t built for us, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for us here.

And we might be a little rough around the edges. We might be a little wild, a little unsteady, and a little weird. But we find ways to grow no matter where we’re planted. Some of us make art, create zines, speak in poems. Some of us throw our bodies on the line for shit that matters. We speak truth to power, we stare down our fears and our demons, we exist despite everything that tells us we should not.

We show up for one another. We take up space. And we keep trying, knowing that there are kids like us growing up in the world that are going to need us to look up to.

We keep trying for them, the way we wished someone had been there for us.

…one of them was probably born, just now. (Let’s hope they find themselves a little faster than it took for us to find ourselves.)

This is the legacy we’re here to build, the legacy we’ll someday hand down to them.

3. Please be gentle with yourself.

Be gentle. Be soft.

There is an inner child within all of us, I think. Someone who’s doing their best in a scary world they were never prepared to enter. Someone who, every day, is hanging on tight as life does what it does best — changes.

And just when we think it’s settled, it changes some more. Sometimes for the best, but often for the hell of it, and almost never in the ways that we expect.

You are allowed to make mistakes. You are allowed to be messy, emotional, unsure. You are allowed to be afraid (in fact, I’d be surprised if you weren’t). And being human in all of these ways? That doesn’t make you “too much,” no matter what anyone else says.

You deserve compassion. You deserve patience, understanding. You deserve all the space and support you require to grow.

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It’s easy to ruminate on what you wish you’d done, or the ways in which you disappointed yourself or someone else. That’s a feeling I know all too well; I think everyone, especially folks with mental health struggles, knows how that feels (which isn’t exactly comforting, but hey, at least you’re in good company).

I hope that when you find yourself going there, you remember what I’m telling you now: You are worthy of kindness and care. And whenever you can, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to receive it.

4. You aren’t alone.

I don’t say this to you as an empty platitude or promise. I say this because it’s the truth.

Mental illness and trauma can so easily cut us off from our connection to the outside world, making everything and everyone feel like it’s a million miles away.

But feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. And I can almost guarantee you that someone out there has walked in those same shoes before — or at least wears the same size.

This year, I was finally diagnosed with “pure obsessional,” a very difficult form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I spent a lot of years with painful and confusing obsessions that I couldn’t control — and it convinced me that I was some kind of monster, the sort of monster that no one could ever understand.

When I got my diagnosis, a whole new world slowly opened up to me. I started to learn just how many people in the world were a lot like me, even people that I knew and talked to every day.

Shame and stigma are like a fog sometimes. We can see ourselves and our struggles so clearly, but it’s difficult to see anybody else. But that doesn’t mean other folks aren’t out there.

And if you keep searching, keep reaching out, the figures in the distance will become clearer. There is someone that’s been waiting for your story.

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I know it’s terrifying to venture out into that fog, not knowing who’s out there. I know it’s scary to be vulnerable, to ask for help, or to share a piece of yourself with someone else. More than once, I’ve wished I could gather up the words I just said and shove them all back into my mouth.

But then someone says those words — “I thought I was the only one,” “You feel that way, too?” or my personal favorite, “YES!” with a bunch of frantic hand motions or snapping — and it suddenly feels worth it. Or at the very least, it gives us just enough courage to keep venturing out.

So here’s to this year and everything it took for us to survive it.

And the next one, too, whatever it may bring. Here’s to another year of stumbling through the fog. Here’s to all the people who waved their flashlights, giving us something to follow; here’s to all the shoulders we cried on, and the right words that came at the right time.

For what it’s worth — and I really hope it’s worth something — some very tender boy in California (hello, that’s me!) sends his love. You survived. And I, for one, am so glad that you did.

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Maybe being transgender wasn’t a mistake.

This article previously appeared at Ravishly, republished here.

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I’ve been on testosterone for two months now. And while I do not believe in fate or in some kind of intelligent design, nothing in my life has felt closer to fate than this.

I find myself saying, “This was supposed to happen to me.” When I meet myself in the mirror, and I feel this electric and palpable ecstasy that travels across my body, I am convinced that this is the truth – my truth.

I have never savored something, loved something quite so deeply as this: The hairs on my hands, the contours of my face, the shapes and the smells and the erotic energy that swirl around in my brain.

“This is right,” I find myself saying, and my friends look at me, bewildered and happy, as if I’ve said the most obvious thing that could ever be said, and they tell me each and every time, “We know, Sam. We know.”

Two months on testosterone – while it may not have been fate, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

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Do you know the feeling of falling in love?

Where suddenly your world is bigger, brighter, beautiful in a way that it never was before?

Transition has been a slow, steady fall. Every day I see myself more clearly and I feel love in ways I haven’t loved before; I find flowers growing where they never grew before.

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When I was a college student, I wrote a research paper on the idea of “lucid dying” in Tibetan Buddhism – the notion that, if we were enlightened enough, we could be aware as we came undone and transitioned from life to death.

My transition, not of death but of gender, has given me a kind of clarity of mind. I feel aware of every inch of my body. I swear, sometimes I can feel the choreography of my cells as they shift and grow and divide.

And I start to wonder if my body was never wrong. Maybe this transition is somehow a gift. The gift of lucidity, maybe. A kind of connection between body and mind that is so rare that some of us go our entire lives without feeling it.

Maybe the pain of being transgender is not random chaos in the universe, not my shame nor my mistake, but instead, the pangs of a deeper awareness.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m enlightened, but I am wide awake.

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A hairdresser mistook me for a woman the other day and I laughed.

I laughed.

I’d never laughed about being misgendered before. But somehow, when she made the mistake, I found it funny because I thought, does she not see that I’m glowing? Does she not feel what I feel?

Because I could’ve sworn that this light that I’m carrying inside of me could be seen from outer space.

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No, Cis People, Being Trans Is Not a Self-Esteem Issue

“I have a lot of sympathy for transgender people,” someone once told me. “I know a little something about what it’s like to hate yourself, to hate your body.”

I can appreciate when cis folks (who haven’t lived the trans experience) try to create bridges of understanding and empathy with trans people. I think flexing those muscles and building on your compassion is an important part of solidarity.

However, when those attempts miss the point – and ultimately uphold stereotypes that harm trans people – it warrants a serious discussion about how exactly cis people have come to understand trans people.

The “self-hating trans person” trope is widely used as a point of reference for cis people and fuels a lot of misunderstanding around the trans experience. In a nutshell, it’s assumed that what makes a person transgender is that they hate themselves, hate the bodies they inhabit, and thus transition because they don’t like themselves.

Simply put, the idea that being transgender is a “self-esteem” problem just isn’t true.

Which isn’t to say that self-hatred isn’t an experience for some trans people.

Struggles with mental health are a staggering reality for us. But this narrative around the “self-hating trans person” is a false one. It oversimplifies and misrepresents the experiences of most trans people.

I want to unpack, in more detail, exactly why this trope is so harmful.

Here are four reasons why this myth needs to be put to rest – and the real harm it does when we perpetuate it.

1. It Ignores the Impact of Systemic Oppression

A lot of the pain that trans folks suffer is at the hands of an oppressive system, and it has nothing to do with the feelings we have about ourselves personally.

When we diminish the struggles of trans people as a personal problem, we completely neglect the systemic forces that cause immense suffering.

The state of transgender folks’ mental health is dire, but it’s not necessarily because we’re transgender.

When we’re hated by the culture at large, have our rights routinely denied, face the looming threat of violence and even death, struggle to access adequate healthcare, and are ostracized by our communities, how can we be expected to feel positively about our transitions and ourselves?

The transgender struggle is not just one of self-hatred – it’s one of trans-antagonism, and existing in a world that doesn’t recognize our humanity. Too often, that dehumanization becomes an internalized struggle, and we begin to hate ourselves not because we’re transgender, but because we’re taught from a young age to relate to ourselves in a violent way.

However, if you equate being transgender with being self-hating, as if it’s a natural condition of our lives, you overwrite the systemic origins of our suffering.

And in doing so, there is no accountability to create a world that is safe and affirming for trans people. It’s reduced to a personal issue with us, rather than a systemic issue that cisgender people must take responsibility for.

Instead of assuming that all trans people are self-hating, the better question to consider is what kind of world we’ve created in which this kind of suffering is permitted and even expected.

2. It Imposes One Narrative onto All Trans People

This trope is a fallacy because there are plenty of trans people who don’t hate themselves. Full stop.

Our community is layered, complex. We have a variety of feelings about our identities, our bodies, and our transitions. To condense those experiences into a singular narrative and emotion does us a huge disservice: It completely erases the diverse experiences that exist within our community.

Some trans people hate their bodies, and some don’t. Some trans people hate being trans, and some take pride in it. Some trans people wish they’d been born cis, but others are glad to be trans.

There is no right or wrong way to be trans – but it’s problematic to assume all trans people share the same narrative and experience.

For me, personally, I don’t feel self-hatred in the way that cis people assume I do. I hate the ways that society has forced me to pretend to be something I’m not, and sometimes I even hate the body that obscures my truth. But I never hate myself as trans or otherwise.

I have a deep compassion and appreciation for myself and everything I’ve survived. Many trans people do.

The best way to build empathy for a trans person is to tune in when they share their experiences, and believe them when they do. Instead of relying on tropes and looking for misguided shortcuts to understand us, seek out trans people (plural!) who are willing to give you the benefit of their lived experience.

3. It Fundamentally Misunderstands Gender

Being transgender is not a self-esteem issue.

This implies that if trans people saw a therapist and worked out their feelings, their gender would somehow change, and they would magically become cis.

This just isn’t true.

When you say that transgender people just hate themselves, you overlook how truly complex gender is – and you assume that cisgender people are “right” and neutral, while transgender people are “wrong” and broken.

The trope of the “self-hating trans person” relies on one huge (and very wrong) assumption: namely, that being cis is the natural state of being that we reject out of disdain, instead of cis and trans folks’ genders being equally valid and authentic.

This completely undermines the sincerity and legitimacy of transgender experiences.

Claiming a transgender identity isn’t about rejecting the gender we were somehow meant to have because our self-esteem is too low. It’s about rejecting who we were wrongly said to be.

Being transgender is about embracing and manifesting who we actually are in a society that invalidates us, marginalizes us, and rejects us as trans. We can hate the (often violent) imposition of gender upon us without actually hating ourselves.

Gender is a deeply personal identity that we come to know throughout our lives. It’s who we are and how we relate to the world, to our bodies, to our culture, and to ourselves. The way that trans people arrive at that understanding is often very different from cis people, but it’s not inherently better or worse, and it’s certainly not flawed.

Asking to be recognized as we actually are is not an act of hatred – in fact, it’s one of the purest gestures of self-love that I know.

4. It Creates a False Parallel Between Cis and Trans Experiences

You don’t actually have to put yourselves in our shoes to have compassion for trans people.

In fact, you may never arrive at a point when you fully understand what it means to be transgender. And the sooner you can acknowledge this, the better your relationship with trans people will be.

What I dislike most about the “self-hating trans person” trope is that it assumes cis people who have struggled with their self-esteem or their bodies can understand what it feels like to be transgender. But I disagree vehemently with that conclusion.

The particular experience of being (wrongly) assigned a gender in a cisnormative, trans-hating society just isn’t the same as a cis person struggling to like certain things about themselves.

I’ve disliked my body. I’ve struggled with my self-esteem. I’ve dealt with a whole slew of negative emotions around who I am and what I look like. But those experiences, while they were difficult and raw and real, had very few (if any) similarities with my experience moving through this world as transgender.

For one, they were transient experiences that I could work through and even hide if needed. But being transgender is immutable. It doesn’t just affect how I feel on a day-to-day basis, but it impacts my access to power, safety, and resources.

It’s an inherent and complex thing about myself that extends beyond my self-esteem – it’s steeped in biological, sociological, psychological, and even spiritual understandings of myself.

When something is so deeply rooted and significant, a surface-level analysis will not suffice if you’re trying to find ways to relate and understand. The reality here is that when cisgender people are distracted by halfhearted attempts at empathy, they fail to see that being able to relate isn’t a prerequisite for solidarity, but listening is.

Cisgender people who diminish the trans experience by naming it as a simple emotion (self-hatred) – rather than acknowledging that embodied experiences of gender are much more complex – are participating in the erasure and oversimplification of the trans experience.

This trope, when employed by cisgender people, is trans-antagonistic – and perhaps in the most selfish way – because it’s about satisfying the curiosities of cis people with an easy-to-digest answer, rather than letting trans people speak their own truth, even if that truth might be more nuanced and require more effort to understand.

This article, then, is a deeper calling – demanding that cis people do the work and believe trans people when we share who we are and what we feel. Our emotional realities and lived experiences are diverse, painful, complicated, and even beautiful.

Cis people need to hold the space for all of this and more. And that starts with tuning in.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

4 Things the Queer Folks in My Life Taught Me About Resisting Toxic Masculinity

I’m standing outside of a club with friends.

We’re standing in a circle, laughing and chatting and enjoying ourselves. Intermittently, we touch each other’s hair, we put an arm around the other, we kiss each other on the cheek, and we yell above the noise, “I love you so, so much.”

Gender stereotypes and norms might tell you that we’re a group of women.

But we aren’t. We’re a group of queer folks, all with different relationships to masculinity, flaunting a total disregard of gender norms.

When I made the decision to transition – changing my gender presentation and pursuing hormones – I knew that testosterone in particular would come with a host of expectations around performing masculinity.

And as a genderqueer, femme trans boy evaluating my relationship to masculinity, I didn’t know exactly how comfortable I was with that – especially since so many aspects of masculinity can be toxic.

While I would benefit from gaining numerous privileges associated with masculinity, I would also have to contend with the gender norms that harm so many men and masculine-identified people.

But when I fell into a community of queer folks – some transgender, some gender non-conforming, all navigating the expectations of “masc” together – I found a very different kind of masculinity. While they are by no means the norm, what I learned from them was transformative.

This community taught me not only what toxic masculinity demands of men and masculine people, but also the possibilities that exist outside of it.

In the process, I came to realize the kind of masculinity that I could be comfortable inhabiting.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned from them.

1. Masculinity Doesn’t Mean Denying Each Other Physical Affection

Men aren’t often seen hugging each other in this society. If they touch each other, even in a platonic way, it’s considered too “gay” or effeminate. As a result, we have men who seldom share physical affection, affirmation, or closeness.

While everyone’s personal boundaries are different, masculine-identified folks are never given the freedom to set their own boundaries. There’s one boundary and one boundary only, and it’s that men shouldn’t share physical closeness. This isn’t just limiting. This can be painful.

What I appreciate so much about the community of queer folks that I’ve fallen into is that we love on each other.

In my community of queers, we greet each other with warm embraces. We lean on each other and hold each other through difficult moments. We aren’t afraid to touch each other and express our affection for each other just because society says that men and masculine-identified folks shouldn’t do so.

Just imagine what friendships between masculine-identified people could look like if we felt encouraged to express our affection for each other in whatever ways felt comfortable for everyone involved.

Imagine the closeness, the reassurance, the comfort, the support, the vulnerability – these are very healthy experiences that are encouraged in female friendships, but never permitted for men and masculine-identified people.

Denying men and masculine-identified people a full spectrum of intimacy with their friends is one of many ways toxic masculinity hurts us. And rediscovering this intimacy with my friends has been profound.

For me, having this kind of consensual physical closeness has been healing. So much of toxic masculinity relies on the idea that men and masculine people must keep others at a distance.

But why should we?

From a simple mental health perspective, I know that this kind of shared affection between friends can help us feel connected to each other and creates a sense of safety within our community.

2. Masculinity Can And Should Involve Emotional Vulnerability

Men shouldn’t cry. Men shouldn’t be emotional. Men should deal with their shit on their own time.

When I began my transition, I was fearful that I would feel pressured not to express myself or my feelings. And in the beginning, this was absolutely true.

If you browse through my Instagram, for example, you’ll see that prior to testosterone, I took many selfies while smiling – but when I started testosterone, I took pictures with more serious and standoffish faces, thinking that they made me “look more masculine.”

I didn’t even notice at first.

This insidious idea that men shouldn’t have emotions had impacted even the ways in which I took photographs of myself. I had internalized this idea that masculinity was about distance and suppressing my emotions – even joyful ones.

Encouraging men to not be emotionally vulnerable is enormously harmful.

Expecting us to push down our feelings can eat us alive, deny us valuable resources and support that we need, and often puts the emotional labor onto other folks of marginalized gender (primarily femmes) who are put into caretaking roles.

I would even venture to say that the epidemic of violence coming from primarily white men in the United States can be connected to the suppression, hostility, and aggression that is expected of them as the only legitimate avenues to asserting their masculinity.

Finding a community of queer folks that are very expressive, share their feelings and their struggles, and support one another through them has been so important in pushing back against toxic masculinity that encourages us to isolate ourselves and lash out.

I feel empowered to be around people who aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and encourage one another to reach out during difficult times.

Their sensitivity, warmth, and compassion fly in the face of everything that hegemonic masculinity has told us to be.

3. Masculinity Isn’t About Rejecting What’s Deemed ‘Feminine’

The first people to comment on my sparkly, beautiful nails were the queer men in my life. Some of them applauded how rad they looked. Some of them remarked on how they, too, needed to get theirs done.

And none of them shamed me or questioned the choice.

I once wrote an entire article about how I was fearful that being on testosterone would take away some of my favorite, more “femme” parts of who I am – and how I was determined to hold onto these things.

Toxic masculinity greatly limits the emotional range that men and masculine people can have, and it also limits our gender expression as well. At the root of this is misogyny, which privileges what we associate with masculinity over what we associate with femininity.

Often times, men and masculine people can fall into the trap of rejecting what is considered “feminine” because they feel it will affirm or legitimize their masculinity in the eyes of other people.

But well into my transition now, I am still rocking the nails, blathering on about my passion for interior design and stylish clothes, singing pop music at the top of my lungs, and crying over romantic comedies.

I don’t reject any stereotypically “feminine” aspect of myself just to cater to patriarchy. I am flipping the bird to a gender binary that says masculinity and femininity are these dual, opposing forces that, upon ever mingling, the universe will implode.

Thankfully, the universe has yet to implode from my queer, femme masculinity.

In reality, they don’t need to be in opposition, nor should one be valued over the other. In fact, femininity, masculinity, and even androgyny can be ingredients to each of our own individual, unique recipes that make up who we are and what we feel empowered by.

Or, you know… we can just ditch the binary thinking altogether and let people live.

I wouldn’t have felt like I could really be myself until I saw other queer men embodying this – a gender fluidity in which the limiting norms and rules of masculinity no longer apply – and embracing their whole selves, femininity unapologetically included.

They have rejected this binary way of thinking, refusing the “either/or” ultimatum of the gender binary (some of them, like me, even identifying as non-binary).

Seeing other men who are unafraid to fuck with gender has made me feel empowered to do the same.

4. Pushing Back Against Toxic Masculinity Means Acknowledging Our Privileges

Often times, women and other gender minorities take on the emotional burden and labor of educating men, in particular, about privilege.

It’s an unfair burden, to be sure, as folks who are on the receiving end of oppression should never be obligated to educate their oppressors, nor should privileged people feel entitled to their labor and energies.

What I’ve found so promising about the community that I’m surrounded by is that the men in my life have taken the initiative not only to have these conversations among themselves, but to act as interrupters and to educate other men and masculine people about their privilege.

One of the most eye-opening parts of transition has been seeing the ways in which I am treated differently as I move through public spaces. And in community with other queer and trans men, this has opened up many conversations about power, privilege, and interruption.

An essential part of dismantling toxic masculinity is men taking ownership over their own education around systemic inequality, and taking on the labor of educating other men about it as well.

It’s also about interrupting the manifestations of patriarchy when we see it. It’s about ensuring that marginalized folks feel safe in our spaces. It’s about being cognizant of the space that we, ourselves, take up. It’s about utilizing our power to amplify the voices of marginalized folks within our community.

It’s about tuning in when marginalized folks take the time to call us in, apologizing when we’ve fucked up, and taking ownership over our position of privilege.

And it’s definitely – definitely – about holding one another to a higher standard, calling in other men and being willing to be called in when mistakes are made. This is especially critical so that this labor is not left to people of marginalized gender who must endure microaggressions and harm to call us in.

When I identified as a cis woman long, long ago, I can remember feeling extraordinarily unsafe in groups of men, to the point where I wouldn’t be in those spaces at all.

Identifying now as a non-binary person with masculine privilege, I want to create the kinds of spaces where gender minorities can choose to be in community with me, knowing that the burden doesn’t rest on them to maintain the safety of our space.

I’m grateful that I exist in community with other folks who feel the same way.

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When I first embarked on my gender transition, I was scared of masculinity. I was scared of all that it had come to represent. I was scared of all of the toxic expectations that would fall on my shoulders.

Unpacking those expectations and doing better as a person of privilege will be an ongoing process for the rest of my life. But I’m grateful to say that in community with other queer and trans men, I’ve found a space to do this processing in a healthy way.

Surrounded by queer men who push back against hegemonic masculinity, I’ve also been able to carve out a new kind of femme masculinity for myself – one that I feel is both healing and empowering, allowing me to be my authentic and most honest self.

Communities like these, however small they may be, give me hope that a new kind of masculinity is possible – one that is nurturing, sensitive, vulnerable, self-aware, and even radical.

Knowing that it’s possible, I am committed to resisting this paradigm until it finally collapses under the weight of itself.

Because when masculinity is toxic – when it actively harms not only those who are marginalized but the oppressors themselves – it can never be sustainable.

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A version of this piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

Trans People Too Often Harm Their Own. So Can We Talk About How to Do Better?

A lot of the time, we talk about the ways that cisgender people harm us. And yes, those are critical conversations. But right now, I want to talk about trans people harming other trans people.

Because at the moment, I’m seeing an awful lot of it.

I think it’s time we had a heart-to-heart about the ways that we treat each other.

Whether it’s telling other trans people how they should or shouldn’t transition, criticizing the language folks use to self-describe, centering ourselves and stepping out of our lane, or simply not believing each other when we come out, we can be our own worst enemies.

But we can do something about this.

We can renew our commitment to this community and to each other. We can be mindful of the ways that we’re upholding one another’s oppression, we can self-reflect, and we can call each other in.

Because in this moment, in a world that is so hostile towards and dangerous for trans people, the last thing I want to see is us hurting one another.

We need to show up for each other. We need to protect each other. In so many ways, we’re all we’ve got.

So where do we start? Here are five ways we can better support one another.

1. Believe Trans People

I remember when I found a slew of tweets in my inbox from other trans people, accusing me of lying about being transgender.

They misgendered me, hurled unfair accusations towards me, and they began a concentrated online campaign to discredit me in this movement.

They reached out to a number of my Twitter followers, calling me a cis woman and saying that I was only pretending to be trans in order to get “Internet famous.”

Why? Because I hadn’t yet started testosterone, and in their minds, the only valid transgender people were those who were medically transitioning.

There is a lot of gatekeeping in the trans community, and it’s really heartbreaking to see. There are countless trans folks who feel that they can decide who is and isn’t transgender, and they exclude other trans people based on their own assumptions.

Sometimes, like in my case, this escalates into harassment and even violence.

I’ve experienced it firsthand many, many times. And it has hurt more than I could possibly express.

When that online campaign to discredit me began to take hold on Twitter, the timing couldn’t have been worse. As someone who had been struggling to come out to my family and was unable to access hormones, it was a painful time in my life.

Being bullied because I wasn’t on testosterone – something I desperately wanted, but couldn’t access – made an already difficult time in my life even more agonizing.

Why were hormones even relevant in the first place? Since when do they know my gender better than I do?

I often wonder: If we want to convey to the world that misgendering someone is an act of violence and that gender is a deeply personal thing that belongs to each individual, why do we do this to each other?

Why are we such hypocrites when it comes to others in our own community? Why do we ask for our gender identities to be respected, and then completely disrespect the identities of others in our community?

Rather than attacking each other and attempting to ostracize one another, we should be investing that energy into advocacy and supporting one another – not tearing each other down.

2. Don’t Place Judgments on How Other Trans People Choose to Transition (Or Not)

The reality is that transgender people are incredibly diverse and no two journeys will look exactly alike. We all have to decide, as individuals who know ourselves and our genders, what decisions are best for us and our happiness.

We also get to decide the timeline in which we make those decisions.

Some of us will pursue hormones. Some of us will not. Some of us will socially transition. Others won’t. Some of us need surgery or multiple surgeries. Others do not.

It isn’t anyone’s business but our own what we do with our bodies. And we are not more or less transgender because of our choices – because being transgender is not about the bodies that we inhabit, but rather, our sense of self and our identities.

It took five years of identifying as transgender before I finally pursued hormones. Five years. This was largely due to a lot of internalized self-hatred that made it difficult to accept that I needed to medically transition.

With everything I was going through, I still endured a lot of judgment from other trans people who questioned my authenticity because I didn’t make the same choices that they did within the expected time frame.

Can we just let other trans people make decisions about their bodies without judgment?

3. Hold Space for Trans People Who Are Non-Binary, Non-Conforming, or Questioning

Alternatively, this could be called “not being an asshole,” but I want to dive a little deeper than that for a moment.

Not all transgender people are binary. Some of us have carved out our own unique identities and our own expressions. It doesn’t make our oppression less painful. It doesn’t make our dysphoria (if we have it) any less real. It doesn’t make our gender any less valid.

Please don’t exclude us or ostracize us from the community because we don’t conform to your arbitrary rules. Instead, support us, include us, and celebrate us.

Not all transgender people are even sure of what their gender really looks like or how it manifests in the world. Some of us are still exploring this. Some of us aren’t sure what we need. Some of us have more questions than we do answers.

Please don’t push us to the margins because we aren’t so sure. Hold us in compassion, support us, and give us the room to figure out who we are without judgment.

Sometimes trans people can be very protective over the idea of what it means to be transgender. But this needs to be said: It is oppressive to deny people the right to self-identify. It is oppressive to exclude people because they do not fit your idea of what transness should be.

And it is a real waste of energy and effort to marginalize other trans people when we could, instead, collectively endeavor towards our liberation.

4. Be Mindful of Centering Yourself and Advocate for All Trans People

Trans folks of privilege – those who are white, able-bodied, or have class privilege, for example – may feel tempted to place their experiences and needs at the center of this movement. But in doing so, they fail to uplift all trans people.

This often happens when transgender people who have privilege assume that their narratives are representative of all trans people, or they fail to include diverse voices in their organizing.

Trans women of color, for example, feel the compounded effects of transphobia, misogyny, and racism. They face higher rates of violence, harassment, poverty, incarceration, suicide, and endure countless obstacles in their transitions.

Ignoring this reality and prioritizing the voices and experiences of white trans people only serves to further marginalize trans people of color, whose needs are arguably most urgent and life-threatening.

Giving more visibility and resources to trans folks of privilege does not liberate all trans people – it only upholds other systems of power that already benefit those with more privilege, and it serves only a small part of our larger community.

This is why it is crucial that trans folks who have privilege be constantly mindful of the ways that their privilege operates both within the community and outside of it.

I know in the work that I’m doing, I’m constantly assessing and reassessing where my lane is and how to stay in it. And truthfully, I don’t always get it right.

But self-reflection and self-criticism need to be an intrinsic part of the work. We keep working at it, because we care about one another and we want to liberate everyone, and not just ourselves.

We must acknowledge difference rather than assuming that our community is a monolith in which we are all the same. We must work collectively to ensure that the voices of all trans people – especially those who are most marginalized – can be amplified and given a platform in our movement.

A movement that only aims to benefit those who already have privilege simply replicates existing oppressions. And that? That’s not justice.

5. Call Other Trans People In

This is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. When we see other people in our community engaging in problematic or oppressive behaviors, it is important to call them in.

When I was being attacked by other trans folks for not being “trans enough,” there was a shocking amount of silence from others in the community who would privately console me, but make no attempt to stand up for me.

The harassment continued for some time because very few people stepped in and made it clear that this kind of behavior wasn’t tolerated in our community.

I’ve seen trans people engage in vicious gatekeeping, followed by radio silence from the folks around them because they’re afraid to call in one of their own.

I’ve seen trans people find out that someone in the community is an abuser, followed by complete inaction because they aren’t willing to show up for survivors.

I’ve seen white trans people observe racist behavior, followed by complacency because they didn’t want to make things “awkward.”

I’ve seen trans people speculating about the authenticity of other trans people’s identities (“but are they really trans?”), followed by, you guessed it, no willingness to challenge that kind of behavior.

When someone in our own community is doing harm, we are arguably in the best position to engage. Our ties to one another and shared struggles mean that we can call each other in skillfully, if we’re willing to step up.

I know this is difficult work, because we share very intimate spaces with one another, spaces in which we can’t avoid each other. And obviously, when our safety is at stake, it can get more complicated.

But how many opportunities have we missed to make this community safer and more affirming because we were unwilling to make ourselves uncomfortable?

And I’m not exempt from this, by the way. I’ve missed a lot of opportunities, too, when I reflect back.

Our connections and ties to one another position us to do really transformative, healing work with each other. I think it’s worthwhile work to be doing. And I want to see our community embrace that, especially those of us that already have access to power and have the least at stake when they engage.

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If we don’t believe each other, support each other, uplift each other, how can we begin to create a world in which transgender people are thriving?

If we continue to hurt each other in these ways, where will trans people go to find a safe space? If we don’t have each other in this struggle, who can we count on?

The transgender community has shown up for me in so many ways, ways I will never forget.

It was a small community of trans people in Lansing, Michigan that embraced and affirmed me when I first used the word “transgender” to describe myself. That’s a moment I will never forget — that room was filled to the brim with validation and care.

It was a trans man that opened up his home to me when I first moved to the Bay Area, when I knew literally no one here. Total strangers helped me get my bearings, find housing, find community, and find my way thousands of miles away from the life I’d left behind, only knowing that I was trans and believing that this made us family.

Hell, when I was psychiatrically hospitalized and at the end of my rope, who visited me in the hospital? Who sent me books? Who wrote me? (A lot of you did, trans readers, and while hospital staff misgendered me and while I came undone, your emails reminded me that my life had real value and importance, that I always had a community to come back to, a community that truly saw me.)

I would not be who I am today without the love and support of transgender people.

That’s why I’m so passionate about trans people supporting other trans people – not because I want to pick apart our community, but because I see the difference that this support makes in each of our lives.

I believe in the power of our community. And that’s exactly why I believe it’s important that we are accountable to each other and that we strive to be a safe and supportive space for all trans people.

It’s my hope that we can and will do better. It starts with each and every one of us. And it must begin now.

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An earlier version of this piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.