"IMG_0866.JPG" by Aimee Ardell is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

5 Totally Normal Questions Transgender People May Be Afraid to Ask, Answered

One of my favorite concepts that I’ve encountered as an activist is the idea of “holding space.”

To break it down further, “holding space” is about making room for certain experiences, feelings, or perspectives to be acknowledged and affirmed that may otherwise be pushed aside or invalidated.

Holding space can be powerful. I’m a big believer in giving people the space to open up – and in doing so, building greater understandings of where someone is coming from. A little affirmation can go a long way in making someone feel whole.

And one thing that I’ve noticed as a transgender person is that people hold very little space for us.

Society at large has a very particular idea of what the trans experience is – and it doesn’t give us room to have honest, real conversations about what we’re going through, especially when it contradicts this narrative.

This leads us to struggling internally with some big questions that we’re afraid to ask – because in asking them, we’re fearful that it undermines our identity or will lead others to question our authenticity.

So today, I want to hold a lot of space for the complicated feelings that sometimes arise when we’re coming to accept ourselves as transgender.

Because what we’re told is that we’re born with a crystal-clear understanding of our gender, embark on binary medical transition, and achieve ultimate happiness and certainty. Right? But what I know from experience is that, for many of us, it’s much more complex than that.

So let’s talk – and I mean really talk – about some of the questions many transgender people are thinking about, but might be afraid to ask. And together, let’s hold space for all of the complicated feelings that arise as we explore them.

1. Am I Really Trans? What If I’m Making This Up?

Confession: I ask myself this a lot.

“Wait, Sam,” you might be saying. “You write publicly about your identity! You’re active in the community! You’re even taking hormones! And you mean to tell me that you’re unsure if you’re trans?”

Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying.

In fact, I can assure you from firsthand experience that many, many transgender people grapple with this question – even years into their transition.

And I have some theories as to why, too – if it helps.

If someone told you your whole life that you were a terrible dancer and suddenly you received a first prize trophy for a dance competition, you’d probably feel like an imposter, right? Similarly, when society tells us we’re cisgender (and that being cis is the only option), it can take years and years before we feel secure in ourselves as trans.

Not only that, but trans people are often called into question for not being “trans enough,” are accused of “faking it” for dubious reasons, and are met with disbelief when we first come out.

There’s this culture of interrogation around transness – namely, that trans people have to prove that they’re trans (to get respect, to get healthcare, to find support).

We constantly have our validity called into question by cis and trans people alike. It leads us to internalize this voice of doubt and to intensely question ourselves as society at large does to us.

Feeling invalid or like an imposter is actually a totally normal thing to feel as transgender. It can be difficult to believe in ourselves when people seldom believe in us.

Getting past that hurdle can take time (look at me, I’m still trying), but it’s good to keep this in perspective and remember that feeling this way does not undermine who you are or make you any less “trans” than someone else.

2. Is It Okay If I Wasn’t Always Like This?

The short answer: YES! That’s absolutely okay!

Unless you screamed, “I’m queer and I’m here!” as you exited the womb, it seems like society is dissatisfied with trans people when they come into consciousness at a later age (it’s actually a double-edged sword: We’re too young to actually know, or we’re too old and we’re supposed to know sooner – we can’t win!).

The dominant narrative says that transgender people are expected to have always known – on some deep, intrinsic level – that we were destined to identify with a gender other than what we were assigned at birth.

But we all have reasons for when we came to terms with being transgender.

For me, it was trauma that delayed my realizations around my gender. For others, they didn’t know “transgender” was even a thing and never thought to question their assigned gender. And for some, their safety was at stake if they tried to explore their gender.

Whatever the reason, people come to terms with being trans at different places in their lives.

And there’s no “right time” or “correct way” to arrive at that conclusion – whenever you discovered your gender identity, you are completely valid, and it doesn’t mean you are more or less trans.

Identity in general is very complex – and everyone, trans or otherwise, will grow and learn about themselves at their own pace. Figuring out who we are doesn’t happen in a day. It’s okay to take your time.

Instead of viewing it as a race in which other trans people are your competitors, try viewing it as a journey that is for you and you alone. It’s my hope that the trans community will be beside you, cheering you on.

3. What If I Regret My Medical Transition?

So it’s important to first say that not all transgender people will medically transition. That’s a completely valid choice; medical interventions do not make someone more or less trans.

But for those of us who do pursue some form of medical transition, it’s unbelievably common to worry about regret.

Because our validity as trans people is always coming under fire, it doesn’t surprise me that we question our choices – especially when these choices involve some form of permanent or semi-permanent change.

Lots of transgender people worry about transition regret for different reasons.

For some, they may not feel ready to make such a big change because of other issues they’re grappling with. They may not feel prepared to come out to family, which medical transition can require (showing up to a family reunion with a deeper voice and beard without forewarning is apparently frowned upon).

Fears around transition regret can also come from a lack of knowledge – whether it’s myths about surgical regret (often pushed by anti-trans activists) or an “all or nothing” understanding of hormones (for example, the misconception that non-binary people cannot hormonally transition).

For me, I resisted medical transition because I was actually deeply ashamed of being trans (which I’ll talk more about later in the article).

I think if you’re having questions about medical transition, it’s a great idea to seek out a support group, community center, or gender therapist to help you figure out why you have these hesitations.

Fear is a normal part of transition – but confronting those fears can be a major part of healing.

4. What If I Don’t Know Exactly What My Gender Is?

Hey, welcome to the club! Here’s your official badge. Let me teach you the secret handshake and anthem.

Seriously though, I think the world would be a much better place if we stopped putting pressure on people to know their gender identity and, instead, encouraged people to explore their gender identity and expression.

Because while it may seem that most people are incredibly sure of themselves, I’m betting there is a huge number of people who are actually really unsure. And I’m baffled as to why this has to be a problem.

Uncertainty can be unsettling, but it’s also an opportunity to explore who you are and give yourself permission to step out of your comfort zone.

Uncertainty is not, however, proof that you are not transgender or an indication that you are “less than” other trans people.

I feel like my understanding of my gender changes by the day, sometimes even by the hour.

Uncertainty can often mean that you’re on the right track – that you’re moving away from what felt safe to open yourself up to the possibility of something more honest and fulfilling.

So I say embrace the uncertainty! It’s not at all a bad thing – and I, as well as many other trans people, know it well.

5. If This Is My Truth, Why Do I Feel So Ashamed?

The hardest thing about being trans, for me, has been coming face-to-face with the fact that I deal with shame and guilt around being transgender.

When you grow up with the idea that there’s a “right” and “wrong” way to do gender, it’s a perfectly reasonable response to suppress or resist who we are or who we want to be in favor of what feels safer or more socially acceptable.

We’re taught, in subtle and overt ways, that straying outside of “gender norms” is wrong, disgusting, embarrassing, or even immoral. It’s normal and even expected to feel ashamed in a society that teaches us to be ashamed if we are not perfectly cisnormative.

In this way, being proud of being transgender and being ashamed are not even mutually exclusive – you can be proud of your identity but also grapple with the shame that comes with claiming it, and they’re both valid emotions and experiences.

My shame around being trans led me to grapple with every question on this list.

Shame convinced me that I was “making up” being trans because I couldn’t deal with the truth. Shame made me question if my journey was valid because it felt like I was doing it “wrong.” Shame made me fearful of medically transitioning because I feared my own happiness. Shame left me suppressing my identity and making it difficult to ever feel secure in myself.

I’ve written before that I didn’t even want to be transgender and compared being trans to the stages of grief (if you’re dealing with shame, I encourage you to read them or bookmark for later). The responses that I got to these articles pointed overwhelmingly to the fact that shame is a common part of the trans experience.

I talk about shame not because I want to discourage people from being trans – it’s because I want us to be honest and to validate the very difficult emotions that come with being trans in a transphobic society.

If you feel ashamed, you aren’t alone.

To deal with my own shame, I’ve found it helpful to talk about what I’m going through with other trans people, to seek out support groups (online or offline), to find a trans-competent therapist, and to journal about my transition so I can be aware of these feelings as they come up.

The important thing to remember is that shame does not have to make your decisions for you. It doesn’t have to hold you back. And feeling shame does not make your truth any less real or your identity any less valid.

***

There’s one last feeling I want to hold space for. If you read this article and found yourself saying, “Wow, this is me,” I want you to take a moment to sit with that feeling.

The feeling of being validated, seen, recognized.

I want you to remember this moment the next time you’re struggling with these questions, and to know, always, that you are not the first person to ask these questions and that you aren’t alone in what you’re feeling.

Too often, we’re afraid to be honest about our experiences because we fear that being this vulnerable opens us up to be ridiculed, interrogated, and questioned. As trans people, we already face this kind of interrogation in our daily lives – so it makes sense that we hold back on what we’re struggling with.

But I want to encourage you to open up.

At the very least, I want you to acknowledge the weight that you’ve been carrying around in trying to shoulder this alone. I know that weight well. That weight has kept me down for a long, long time.

It’s time to chip away at that heaviness. Let’s start here: I want you to know that your fears, questions, and doubts do not undermine your truth or your identity.

You are enough. And what you’re going through and the feelings that come with it deserve validation and respect.

You, my friend, deserve validation and respect. And I hope that this article is just the beginning of all the space you’ll hold not only for your own struggles, but for the struggles of others in our community as well.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

Maybe My Mental Illness Does Define Me. And?

Every so often, I’ll get an email from a reader that says something like, “Sam, you can’t let your mental illness define you! You are so much more than that!”

(Has anyone else noticed how this is a distinct theme in my life? Since when does everyone know me better than I do? But OK.)

What if I told you that my mental illness does define me? And what if I also told you that I am much more than that? That these two realities are not mutually exclusive?

I know, it’s mind-blowing.

Fun fact: I have early onset bipolar disorder, along with generalized anxiety and OCPD. Which means, for most of my life (if not all of it), mental illness has shaped and impacted my lived experiences.

It is the filter through which I have seen the world. It’s as ubiquitous as the air around me.

The ways that I struggled to adapt in the face of this trauma has taught me so much about who I am and where my values lie. It has taught me resilience, persistence, and optimism; I’ve also glimpsed a kind of darkness and despair that has undoubtedly left its mark on me.

So when someone tells me that mental illness doesn’t “define” me, I’m totally perplexed.

How could something that I’ve grappled with for my entire life — something that has not only impacted and contextualized my experiences, but also helped to reveal the character and values that I embody — have no bearing on what defines me?

People will go ahead and define themselves based on the weirdest things, like their taste in movies or their passion for knitting or their sailing hobby (no judgment here, you do you). But I can’t say that my experiences with mental illness are a major part of who I am?

I think what I find particularly annoying about this suggestion is that the person who says it to me is basically saying that they are in a position to determine what does and does not define me.

And, you know, it’s almost always someone who has no experience with mental illness.

Which begs the question: Why are people of privilege always trying to overwrite the narratives of folks who are marginalized? Why do they not trust us to tell our own stories, to name our own identities?

As a transgender person with mental illness, this is especially frustrating. Everyone has an opinion on my identity and how I should (or shouldn’t) talk about it. They know my gender better than I do. They know my illness better than I do.

Apparently everyone but me is an authority on my life.

So many people of privilege have heard me articulate my truth, but instead of accepting it as I’ve written it, they insist on squeezing me into a framework that they prefer — whether it’s misgendering me or asking me to separate who I am from my disorders, the implication is that my identity does not belong to me and that my lived experiences are invalid.

The simple truth is that I do not know who I am without mental illness because I’ve never lived a life without it. 

Does that make me a “perpetual victim”? Does that mean, while I wallow in my past trauma, I’ll never be able to find happiness because I’ll be stuck in the past?

Uh, no. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.

But it’s weird how many people write me to suggest that I won’t be happy if I keep talking about what I’ve been through. They seem to have missed the memo — I am happy. Being silent about what I was going through was one of the major sources of my unhappiness, actually.

Coming face-to-face with what I’ve been through, writing about it publicly, and integrating it into my identity has been super empowering for me. I’ve let go of the shame and sadness and, instead, begun to do the important work of healing by no longer attempting to outrun my past.

I’ve found community, too, in being honest about my struggles. That community has been essential in affirming my experiences and feeling whole again.

I’m not a big believer in pretending that my trauma never happened. I actually believe in confronting the scary shit so that I can begin to heal. If that makes me a victim, I don’t really care. By all means, call me a victim if it helps you sleep at night.

Honestly, though, even if I chose to label myself a victim and described my experiences that way, that would also be my prerogative. I can choose to engage with and process my suffering however I damn well please.

This obsession with telling people they shouldn’t call themselves victims or identify with their struggles — as if there’s anything wrong with affirming what we’ve been through — seems to imply that we should ignore the realities of our lives and, instead, pretend that our pain does not exist.

This whole conversation around not defining ourselves based on our struggles (or otherwise taking on a role of “victim”) looks to me like a really shitty attempt at erasing and overwriting the experiences of folks with trauma and/or disabilities.

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand the impulse to tell me how I should and shouldn’t identify, but what I will say is this: Until you’ve lived my life, it’s probably safe to say that I have a much better idea of who I am than you, Reader-Of-One-Article-I-Wrote-Six-Months-Ago.

(Do you go up to someone you’ve just met and say, “I know your whole life story”? Because, if not…)

And really, let’s be honest for a quick sec. Before you tell me that being a “professional victim” will never make me happy, it might be better to work on your own insecurities first — starting with why me being honest about my trauma is so damn threatening to you.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!