"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.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

How Can We Include Non-Binary People in Gendered Spaces?

nbmeme

This meme is basically my life.

I think it’s interesting to be writing about my gender transition so publicly. I am not always given the luxury of uncertainty or ambiguity.

But truthfully, I am still getting to know who I am and, by extension, how my gender manifests in the world.

I’ve used a lot of words to describe myself: Genderqueer, non-binary, transmasculine, genderfluid, genderweird, androgynous, agender, even bigender to name a handful. I’ve used ze/hir pronouns, e/em pronouns, they/them pronouns, he/him pronouns.

I think of these labels as hats that I’ve tried on at different points in my life, searching for what fits, what suits me.

I’ve made no effort to hide the fact that I’m a gender explorer. I haven’t settled anywhere just yet – and I am comfortable in that fluid space. I dabble in femininity, masculinity, androgyny, and agender expressions and I’ve found happiness in liberating myself from prescribed boxes and letting myself roam.

I’m still figuring it out. This is why I most often refer to myself as “non-binary” – I am holding that space as I learn more and more about myself.

Recently, though, I realized that not everyone is willing to hold that space for non-binary people.

Last week, I was banned from an online group of femme and non-binary writers. A cisgender moderator determined that because I’d used the word “transmasculine” in the past and used he/him pronouns, I was not, in fact, “non-binary.”

I was booted without discussion or question, labelled a “misogynist” for taking up space as a “trans man,” and slandered in writing circles that I had previously held in high respect.

I debated if I would talk publicly about what happened. But I think this is a prime example of the many fundamental misunderstandings of non-binary people and their experiences, and raises two really important questions:

What is the place of non-binary and genderfluid people in explicitly gendered spaces? And how can we be inclusive of non-binary people in spaces like these?

So I’m going to talk about this.

First, I think we should pinpoint what it means to be non-binary. Non-binary refers to experiences of gender that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. It’s an umbrella of experiences.

I have identified as non-binary for five years. This is because my experience of gender is fluid – I have a fluid expression that I am still exploring, and I don’t identify as a man or a woman.

I use he/him pronouns not because I am a trans man or because I’m exclusively masculine. I actually respond to both “they” AND “him” (and if you’ll notice, many interviews and talks I’ve given have used these interchangeably).

However, “he” is easiest and my preference is not particularly strong, so I have defaulted to “he” overtime.

It’s also worth noting here that pronouns are also not necessarily linked to one’s gender. Pronouns are words first and foremost, and they can have deeply personal meanings to each individual.

Some of us use binary pronouns to keep us safe, to adapt in the face of trauma, or because the pronouns we desire are simply not accepted in a binary world.

This is why it’s really best not to assume someone’s identity on the basis of pronouns – it could be much more complicated than you realize.

This particular group, though, consisting almost exclusively of cisgender people made the assumption that “he” meant I could not be non-binary and consequently misgendered me as a “trans man.”

No questions asked, I was banned because I did not use the language that cisgender people wanted me to.

But here’s the thing: At the end of the day, it’s not up to cisgender people to decide the language non-binary people should use to describe themselves. It is not your experience nor your place.

It’s arrogant to assume that, as a binary person, you could possibly advise or understand. And if you are trying to build a space that is inclusive of non-binary people, it is your place to listen – not to assume, impose, or erase.

This kind of smug, violent assumption – that cisgender people somehow know what it means to be non-binary better than we do – is why many non-binary people do not feel welcome in these spaces in the first place.

It’s this bullshit that makes non-binary people feel silenced and excluded. Even when we try to articulate our experiences, so many cisgender people reject them and instead, take their binary framework of the world and impose it onto us.

I’ve said I am not a man. I’ve never called myself a man. So why call me one? Because you don’t believe me or because you are unwilling to hear me out on my experiences?

Transphobia. This is transphobia, plain and simple.

And this is erasure: Being so unwilling to tune in when we are talking about our experiences that you simply deny our identities altogether.

I think another fundamental misunderstanding of gender that came up during this situation was the idea that gender is somehow static.

When we create gendered spaces – spaces that are exclusively for folks of a certain expression or experience – it immediately assumes that all people have a fixed understanding of their gender.

This is patently untrue.

As non-binary, I fluidly move between expressions. There are countless bi/trigender and genderfluid people who do not occupy a fixed point on the spectrum.

And if we do not hold space for folks who are more fluid, how can we claim to be inclusive?

This group could not imagine a scenario in which a non-binary person might dabble in masculinity and still call themselves non-binary. They couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a non-binary person’s identity was not fixed like theirs.

Not only that, but they didn’t feel it was relevant or important to actually ask me how I experience my gender or believe me when I said I didn’t identify as a man or woman.

If you are looking to hold space for “non-binary people” without qualification, that means all non-binary people – even those who are questioning, even those who are fluid, even those who occupy multiple spaces simultaneously.

I think this comes back to the idea that many spaces that claim to be inclusive of non-binary people are actually just offering lip service.

They don’t bother to educate themselves, they don’t consult NB people when creating these spaces, and they don’t care to know about our lived experiences.

As a non-binary person who writes for femme-centric magazines and holds space in communities that are femme-centric, my rule of thumb is to always ask who the spaces are intended for, and only enter into these spaces when I am invited.

It’s something that I hope all non-binary people do when weighing whether or not to be part of a particular community.

But I take serious issue with spaces that applaud themselves for being inclusive of non-binary people, but make no intentional effort to ensure that we are not erased.

NB folks often feel so grateful to be included and do not want to derail the focus of these groups that we feel helpless to advocate for ourselves. These spaces receive no pushback or accountability because NB people feel disempowered in spaces that are not designed with them in mind.

We are invited in word only, but never engaged with on a meaningful level. We’re not asked if we feel included; we are there as tokens and tokens only.

So as a non-binary person who is ridiculously fed up with spaces exploiting my community – by using us as props to hold up as proof of their “inclusiveness” – I want to offer some advice to communities, online and off, who are genuinely committed to holding space for non-binary people:

  1. Realize that not all non-binary people are cut from the same cloth. Some of us are mostly masculine with a femme edge; some of us are utterly androgynous or void of gender; some of us are demiboys or demigirls; some of us are genderfluid or gender-questioning or gender nonconforming. We are not a monolith. Don’t treat us like one.
  2. Be specific about who your space is for. If you want a group for feminine-of-center people, say so. If you want a group for masculine-of-center people, say so. NB people have varied experiences of power and privilege, so it’s important to qualify where needed. Don’t lump us all together and expect us to understand who your space is for.
  3. Believe us. Do not call into question what our gender is. Do not assume what our gender is. It is transphobic to disregard someone’s stated identity because they do not express themselves or articulate their experiences the way that you would prefer. Non-binary people don’t exist for your comfort and our genders are for us, and us alone, to declare.
  4. Let us speak for ourselves. Do not impose your narratives onto us. Do not try to place us within a binary framework to make it “easier” for you. We can discuss our experiences for ourselves. We are not men unless we say so. We are not women unless we say so. We are only what we say we are – so ask us if you’re unclear on what that means.
  5. Hold space for non-binary people to be uncertain. Recognize that because there are so few visible narratives or scripts for us to follow, we may still be in the process of questioning or trying to articulate our experiences. We may still be sorting this out. Keep this in mind if you are inviting us into your space.
  6. Do not make judgments on whether or not we belong based on our appearance. Non-binary people can express themselves in varied ways and may be expressing themselves a particular way for our own safety. This does not mean we are “faking” being non-binary.
  7. Do not use gendered language to refer to everyone in the space. This is a no-brainer – don’t invite non-binary people into your space and then refer to everyone as women or men.
  8. Don’t include us if you don’t plan on doing the work. If you aren’t committed to listening, educating yourself, and creating policies that ensure we are safe in your space, don’t bother. We do not want to be props in your social justice credibility game.

 

The conversation around non-binary inclusion is an important one. What happened to me is not uncommon – NB people are routinely erased or even banned from spaces by cis and trans folks alike who do not understand their experiences.

I write this not because being banned from this group was the end of the world (there are plenty of spaces that are designed with me in mind, spaces that I am infinitely grateful for), but because there are bigger questions at play here.

I write this because what happened to me exposes a serious systemic issue that exists in many social justice spaces – how non-binary people are “invited” to the table, but are driven away through erasure and transphobia the second they arrive.

If you are more interested in applauding yourself for inviting us instead of doing the work to include us, you are not socially just – you are simply the oppressors under another name.

If you claim to be a space that is inclusive of non-binary people, deliver on what you promise. Because we are done being your footnotes or afterthoughts.

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I Didn’t Want to be Transgender

testosterone

I remember that field and that body and my undeniable ecstasy before waking.

I was ashamed.

I was so ashamed of being transgender that I held out for years, thinking if I waited long enough, this part of myself would retreat into the dark spot of my mind – the trapdoor where all the bad memories fall in and disappear.

When the gender therapist asks me why I waited until now to start testosterone, I want so badly to explain that I didn’t think I would need it – I had the headstone picked out, the flowers – because I believed that this part of me would die quietly if I was good, if I was patient, if I was persistent.

With my hands over my ears, I shook my head when friends used to ask, “But can you imagine if things stayed the same?”

I threw blankets over mirrors, I kept my eyes fixed on the wall, I tried to forget my body the way we try to forget bad dreams.

Maybe the secret can be found at the bottom of a bottle, I said, or maybe it’s underneath my skin. But drinking didn’t destroy my queerness – just my liver – and not a single drop of blood could tell me where else to look.

I want to say I’m sorry now, sorry to everyone that was afraid for me. You remember and I do, too: Sprawled out on the floor of my childhood bedroom, hysterical because I had dreamt for the hundredth time that I was running through a field in a different body.

That was the night I said that I would wake up tomorrow and be cisgender or I wouldn’t wake up at all.

When the gender therapist asks me what I am looking forward to, I remember that field and that body and my undeniable ecstasy before waking. I remember the way the sunshine fell on my back and my beautifully broad shoulders. I remember feeling so light.

I tell him that I’m looking forward to being able to carry things. Testosterone gives you more muscle, I say with a dreamy smile.

Maybe I’ll be able to lift the heavy things (I think of moving last summer, how my knees buckled as I tried to carry my belongings up two flights of stairs) or the heavier things (like the years of denial and the lies I told my family).

I have a running fantasy.

It goes like this: I gather up every lie about my gender that I’ve ever heard, starting with birth. I return to the field. I plant every mishap – every “she,” “ma’am,” “her” – and I bury them like seeds. When I say my chosen name, its rich and deep resonance is like an incantation. Flowers, flowers as far as the eye can see, burst from the ground, opening up to face me.

They cannot hurt me now.

The gender therapist asks me when I realized that testosterone was necessary. May 1st, 2015, I say. Why that day, he asks. I tell him the truth: It was the day I became afraid to look at my own face and too embarrassed to leave my house.

Do you know what it’s like to feel naked even when you’re not? I ask. I think better of the question. I don’t wait for a response. I tell him that one feels naked all the time when their body is betraying them.

The gender therapist says he’s honored to be a part of my journey. I wonder if he says this to everyone he sees. I wonder if he means it; I decide that he does and I tell him that I’m glad, too.

I hold the consent letter in my hands and I run my fingers along the edges. My body is trembling. I walk downstairs and I let the clinic take five vials of my blood. December 7th, they tell me, and I whisper that date under my breath a thousand times as I step out into the cold autumn rain.

I’ve waited for this. Even when I was afraid, I was always waiting.

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Transphobia, Instagram, and Why I’m Done Hiding

Confession: While I am out and proud as a transgender person, I’ve been afraid of what it means to be truly visible.

As a transgender writer and activist, I’m not difficult to find on the web – I tweet my love for Taco Bell and LUSH (we got married once, I think), I post thought-provoking content on LQTU’s Facebook page and my own personal page.

Hell, I have this blog. I’m definitely not a private person.

But many readers have pointed out that unlike many public figures, I am not particularly prolific when it comes to posting photos of myself. While many of my social justice heroes are reveling in their selfies and building entire communities around their Instagram shenanigans, it’s rare that I share my face with my audience.

More than once, I’ve been asked that if I believe visibility for our community is so important, why am I so invisible when it comes to photo and video content? And why is my Instagram – which many of you were clever enough to find – private and restricted while every other platform is easily accessible?

Transphobia. That’s why.

#TransLooksLike me, in this body, in this moment.

#TransLooksLike me, in this body, in this moment.

Secretly I was hoping that, when I finally get on hormones, when I finally “look” and “sound” like a trans person, I could emerge like a butterfly from the cocoon and finally share my life in this way.

Because I was afraid that, as a trans person who is in the beginning stages of their medical transition, I would be rejected as “not trans enough” if I dared to be too visible.

It’s rich, isn’t it? Because I talk a lot about how I am trans enough, exactly as I am (I was published in a fucking fantastic book saying this EXACT THING). But I’m still terrified that I’ll be labeled a fraud if people could actually see me.

I turned down speaking engagements and podcasts for this reason. I postponed the launch of my YouTube series for this reason. I ignored requests for phone interviews because I grew tired of hearing people call and say, “Is this Sam Dylan Finch? …really?”

I apologized so many times for not looking the way that I “should,” sounding the way that I “should,” and reasoned that if I just waited until testosterone “fixed me,” I could finally live as visibly and joyfully as I wanted to.

I’ve already been subject to so much criticism (especially and almost exclusively from other trans people), saying that I don’t deserve to be visible because I’m not “actually trans.” There are entire conspiracy theories online that state that I’m doing this to “become famous” and that, in my real life, I don’t actually live as an out trans person (a hurtful and malicious lie).

They reason that I don’t post photos very often because I’m an imposter, a transtrender, a fake. They’ve actually contacted my readers before through social media and, while misgendering me, stated that this is all a publicity stunt that “she” is doing for attention.

I would be lying if I said this kind of harassment didn’t affect me.

The criticism convinced me that it was better to wait for the hormones, better to wait until I was valid in the eyes of a transphobic society, than to share myself with my readers and take up opportunities that could make a real difference in my community and in my own happiness.

This kind of bullshit keeps so many transgender people closeted, because they fear that no one will believe them. This kind of bullshit is violence against transgender people who, for whatever their personal reasons are, cannot or do not want to medically transition. And this kind of bullshit creates a hierarchy of trans people, suggesting that some of us are more valid, more beautiful, more acceptable than others.

This kind of bullshit has to stop.

Today, I created a public Instagram profile and ditched the private profile once and for all.

Because I’m not going to let transphobia dictate how I live my life. I’m not going to let transphobia keep me closeted. I’m not going to let transphobia keep me from being visible as the curvy, queer, non-binary badass that I am.

And most of all, I’m done hiding because all trans people are valid. Each and every one of us – regardless of circumstances, regardless of our choices, regardless of our bodies – are valid and real and authentic in every sense.

No more of this “you’re not trans because you haven’t taken X hormone or gotten Y surgery.” No more of this “you’re not really non-binary because the only non-binary people are white, thin, able-bodied, Ruby-rose-esque.” Enough with the rules, the restrictions, the oppressive norms. Enough with these impossible ideals that keep people down and lead to violence.

Instagram might seem like a small thing, but being visible in this way has always terrified me and it’s a huge step in my self-love and self-acceptance. I don’t want to let transphobia rule my life. I don’t want to wait until the day when I’m finally deemed “acceptable.” My body does not determine whether or not I am transgender – I do.

#TransLooksLike me, with my awkward and unintentional bowl cut, my big glasses, my round goofy face, my big unapologetic smile.

#TransLooksLike you, no matter the skin you’re in, no matter the body you have, curves or no curves and every shape in-between.

#TransLooksLike all of us, in our diverse beauty, with the collective energy and power that we bring to our communities and our world.

I’m not going to hide to make other people more comfortable. This is what #TransLooksLike – yesterday, today, always.

I’m transgender because I say I am. Not because I look a certain way, not because I act a certain way, not because I follow some prescribed set of rules or expectations.

And I’m going to post so many damn selfies, y’all. Try and stop me.

I encourage you – especially if you know how it feels to be told you’re not valid, you’re not trans enough, you’re an imposter, you’re not binary enough, you’re not acceptable – to join me as we flood the internet with our gorgeous faces.

Tag me in your photos (/samdylanfinch on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and use the hashtag #TransLooksLike. Let’s revel in how fucking beautiful we are. Let’s show the world what transgender really looks like.

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I was ashamed of being transgender. This is my story.

Originally posted at Everyday Feminism. Content warning for trans/homophobia.

Me, back in the earlier days of my transition.

Me, back in the earlier days of my transition.

 My first packer was made out of a sock, and it sat in my dresser for weeks before I even contemplated wearing it.

I was 19.

I knew that if I gave in to my curiosity, any chance I had at being cisgender would be dissolved. That if I let myself dabble, there would be no going back. I thought if I held out, if I was patient, I could thwart this queer urge and be “normal.”

Then one night, while lying around in my bedroom after everyone had gone to sleep, I told myself, Maybe it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched, maybe if I do this thing once, maybe if I let myself wear it, that will be enough.

What a silly thing to tell myself.

What they don’t tell you about being transgender is that sometimes, the transphobe is you.

Denial

My hand traced around it, slowly and deliberately, but never quite touching it. For that first night, after I put it into place, I wouldn’t let myself actually touch it, look at it, or acknowledge that that part was there.

Instead, I stared at the wall in front of me and whispered under my breath, “Faggot. Faggot. Faggot. Faggot.”

I thought that if I punished myself, I wouldn’t want to be this way anymore. If I demonized my transness – if I were cruel enough and I was patient – I could chase it away and it would never come back.

What they don’t tell you about being transgender is that, sometimes, it doesn’t begin as a glorious epiphany, a relief, a moment of clarity.

For me, it began in the darkest part of the closet, not quite believing that it was possible to be happy and to be trans.

That night, I didn’t sleep. I had worn a packer. And there was a very real part of me, underneath the guilt and disgust, that enjoyed it.

That night, I had woken up a sleeping beast.

Over the course of the next few months, I could feel my gender kicking and screaming whenever I looked in the mirror. It made demands and held me hostage: my gender wanted shorter hair, and my gender wanted me to bind my breasts, and my gender wanted me to wear the packer again.

I dissociated from it because I didn’t want to believe that the urge to transition was my own. It was a circus of denial, of finding new ways to invalidate my queerness or remove myself from it.

“I’m… I’m just confused.”

“It’s an androgynous phase. It’s fine.”

The packer’s presence in the top left drawer of my dresser was like a siren song, and despite my disgust, I kept finding myself going back to it.

It was the sweetest kind of torture, where you both desperately want and intensely despise something – a contradiction that I found myself repeating every night.

Guilt

The denial waxed and waned until it gave way to guilt.

As I crafted makeshift binders, cut my hair, and stole shirts from my older brother, the person who stared back at me in the mirror started to resemble my father in ways that scared me.

I thought about what he might think, now that this person he called his daughter looked more like his son, like the spitting image of him in his reckless teenage years.

I thought about what the people I loved might think if they knew what I was doing late at night, if they knew I was—well, in their words—a “cross-dresser.”

I thought back to the time when the world stood still, when my worst fear was confirmed, when I knew my parents couldn’t accept me as trans. I had made a careless joke, a really innocent joke – I was asking for seconds at dinner, and I called myself a “growing lad.”

I remembered my father dropping his silverware, his face turning bright red.

My mother’s voice, “Excuse me?”

I told them it was a joke. I told them it was harmless. I back-pedaled as hard and as fast as I could.

My father, standing up now, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are not a boy. You will never be a boy. Do you understand? You will never, ever be a boy.”

Yet, here in front of the mirror, I was all boy, every bit of me.

And when I imagined their disappointment, my body began to tremble. I pulled my shoulders back, puffed out my chest, and tried to appear larger than I actually was – the way that you’re supposed to take up as much space as possible when confronted with a bear or a lion or a monster.

Those days – 19 and under my parents’ roof – I was so, so small.

Those days, the only words I knew how to say were, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

They never tell you that being transgender can sometimes feel like a run-on string of apologies – I’m sorry for being here, I’m sorry for being this way, I’m sorry for disappointing you, I’m sorry for your expectations, and I’m sorry for mine.

And I’m sorry, Dad, but you’re wrong.

Negotiation

When my tongue grew tired of apologies, and my heart grew tired of pretending, I tried to negotiate – I tried to find ways of being trans at a more convenient time, in a less committal way.

After the denial and after the guilt, I tried bargaining – because what they don’t tell you about being trans is that it’s all the stages of grief, sometimes all at once. You’re losing who you were told to be to become what you really are, and sometimes that hurts – they won’t tell you this, but sometimes it really hurts.

Sam, I said, Sam, if you just pack at night, can that be enough? (No.)

Sam, I’ll buy you this binder, but you have to promise me you’ll only wear it when you’re out with friends. (A promise I won’t keep.)

Sam, we can buy the nice packer, the one that’s like a real dick, but you can only wear it alone, no one can see it, no one can know. (This didn’t last long.)

Sam, you can try out new pronouns, but please don’t get attached. (I got attached.)

Sam, you can be transgender, but it can only be our secret. It has to be a secret. (Does it?)

And when you keep your queerness a secret, every “she” and every “her” and every “daughter” is a reminder that you are only the sum of the lies that you tell, and that you’ve all but disappeared.

Depression

There is a kind of depression I never knew until I clipped my own wings because I was afraid of being seen.

What they don’t tell you about being trans is that sometimes we are our own destroyers, we are our own killers, we are our own mutilators – sometimes we cause ourselves more pain than anybody else, because from the time that we were young we were told, sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly, that we weren’t meant to exist this way.

At first, I only knew how to hurt because I thought that people like me were supposed to hurt.

When you exist in a society that tells you that who you are is wrong, the violence enacted on you is a song and dance you know by heart, and at first, it feels perfectly natural to hate yourself because you were groomed for this stage, for this act, for this spectacle.

More times than I care to admit, I said to myself, “You’re disgusting, you’re wrong, you’re fucked up.” And I could hear the applause rattling in my brain, because while I knew that this was a terrible thing to say, it was the only way I knew how to communicate with myself.

But it’s tiring to keep fighting someone who won’t fight back; it’s tiring to keep kicking someone while they’re already down. I sucker punched my own reflection so many times but my face never cracked.

Could it be any worse than this – bruised knuckles and hoarse screams – if I just stopped fighting? If I laid down my arms, if I embraced the truth?

So I did.

Acceptance

When I was 21, I made a plan. I started gathering up my most prized possessions and giving them to friends.

Slowly but surely, I emptied out my room. My violin, my laptop, my favorite volumes of poetry, my Buddha statue, my teapot collection, my stuffed animals.

I told my friends that I’d be back, that they should keep those things safe.

After a week of quietly moving my things, I told my parents that I was moving away. My mother cried, not understanding why I would go. My father’s eyes glazed over in disbelief.

I watched as they moved through denial (you can’t leave), guilt (was it something I did?), negotiation (we’ll give you a later curfew), depression (empty stares and trembling hands), and finally, handing me a box full of towels and toiletries and quietly saying, “If you need anything, just call us.”

I wanted to tell them that I was transgender right then, tell them that I couldn’t be who I was meant to be until I had the space to figure out who exactly that was.

I wanted to tell them about the chest binder, the overwhelming joy I felt when my breasts disappeared under my shirt.

I wanted to tell them that it wasn’t their fault, that I just couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in their eyes as I transitioned.

I wanted to tell them that I was sorry for being a coward, for running away instead of telling them the truth.

I wanted to remind them of that day they told me I could never be a boy – that they were right, in a sense, because it wasn’t safe to be one in that house, in those walls.

But I didn’t give them that explanation. I didn’t come out, not then, and I left them behind. Because I wasn’t ready yet.

Because I needed the words to explain who I was before I could ever explain it to them. And I needed to love myself first, before I could teach others how I wanted to be loved.

The binder, the androgynous clothes, and yes, the packer were all shoved into a duffel bag, slung over my shoulder, as I walked out of my old life.

And even as I said my goodbyes, I didn’t look behind me.

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Why I’m “Out” as a Person with Mental Illness

Content notice: suicide. This piece was originally published at The Body Is Not An Apology.

The image features the author, SDF, smilling at the camera. He is an androgynous white person wearing large, round glasses and a striped t-shirt.

Out and proud!

Far and away, the most frequently asked question I receive as a writer with bipolar and anxiety is, “How did you get to a place where you could be this open about your struggles?”

It’s usually followed with a question like, “Aren’t you scared?”

I used to be terrified. Like many folks with a mental illness, one of the first things we’re told is to keep it to ourselves. At times, I existed in a cloud of shame that followed me around wherever I went.

But that’s just it – that’s exactly why I came out and became such a vocal advocate for my community. It’s because of that shame that I started talking about what I had been through. I was tired of feeling afraid, tired of feeling ashamed, and tired of seeing the stories of my community being told by people who just didn’t get it.

I wanted to tell my own story and to reach people like me who needed to know, without a doubt, that they were not alone.

Yes, it’s scary to put yourself out there and tell the whole world – let alone family or friends – about what can be the darkest, most vulnerable part of our journeys. There are real risks involved, too, that people need to weigh when deciding who to tell about their illness(es) and when.

Our safety, our security, our housing, and our jobs can all be at stake because mental illness, unfortunately, is a highly stigmatized status to hold in our society.

But when I weighed all of these risks, and I thought about my fourteen-year-old self, who was contemplating suicide because he felt utterly alone, I knew that I had an obligation to speak up. For me, if I could help make someone’s burden a little bit lighter by being outspoken about my illnesses, the benefits far outweighed the risks.

I remember that the first place I looked for help as a teen was not a guidance counselor, not a parent or guardian, not a friend. Instead, I turned to Google. I searched for things like, “Help, I want to die” and “I’m depressed and I don’t know what to do.” I remember, vividly, scouring the search results, looking for some kind of affirmation or something to hold onto.

The reality is that the stigma around mental health keeps us so silent that we’d rather ask Google what to do than ask our friends or family. We go it alone because we’re ashamed, we’re afraid, we’re confused, we’re overwhelmed, and we think that our struggles make us too much of a burden for others to deal with.

There was a time when Google knew more about my mental illnesses than my best friend did.

After spending too many years feeling isolated, disconnected, and self-hating, I began to write about what I had been through. And, with time, that writing ceased to be a private exercise and instead, became the beginnings of a blog. That blog, which came to be known as Let’s Queer Things Up!, helped bring into sharp focus all of the reasons why being out as someone with bipolar and anxiety was the right decision for me.

Why am I out?

Because I want to build community around mental illness, especially for those who, like myself, are transgender and also grapple with these illnesses.

Because, too many times, I’ve received emails that said, “You’re genderqueer and bipolar? I thought I was the only one.”

Because too many people think of folks with mental illness as anything but people – as criminals, or “psychos,” or burdens on society rather than fully human and deserving of every bit of compassion, respect, and dignity that all people should be afforded.

Because, when you take away the rights of people with mental illnesses – when you vote against important legislation or elect a politician who wants to strip us of the resources and support that we need – I want you to remember my face and remember my words.

Because visibility matters, and because I want teens to grow up in a world where, when they are searching for people who have lived through what they’re going through, they can find them.

Because a teenager sent me a letter that said, “I found you through Google. I’m trans and I have bipolar. I didn’t think I could be successful, but I look at everything you’re doing, and you make me believe in something.”

Because I want to create a safe space for others to use their voices, too, so that together, the collective vibration of our voices will be an undeniable force.

Because you cannot deny our personhood, our worth, our brilliance, or our power when we work together.

Because teens would rather tell me they’re suicidal through my Tumblr ask box than pick up the phone and call a hotline or a friend.

Because an article I wrote asking people not to ridicule someone with a mental illness was read in over 180 countries by millions of people around the world.

Because it was an article I never should have had to write in the first place.

Because no one with a mental illness should ever feel alone.

Because there is enough shame surrounding mental illness that we have to even consider whether or not to “come out.”

Because we shouldn’t wait to have our stories told for us. They are ours to tell.

Telling the world that I have bipolar disorder (and later, anxiety) was not an easy choice to make. Friends and family expressed concern, asking me whether I was sure I would want the word “bipolar” forever attached to my name for anyone in the world to see. Others told me it would be a career-ruining move that would haunt me for the rest of my professional life.

But in order for other people with mental illness to have a life – to have careers, to have a future – they first need to know, unequivocally, that they are not alone, and that others now thrive with these same illnesses that threatened to pull them under.

When seeing is believing, visibility is everything. If living visibly means that I give someone with a mental illness the chance to keep going, I will keep the word “bipolar” forever, and I will proudly do the work that I’m doing, even if it means that a lousy potential employer puts my resume in the garbage.

There’s something poetic about the fact that Google was the first place that I found people like me, and nowadays, I am the person that people are finding when they search for help. The tables really have turned.

Even on the days when I feel afraid and question my decision to go public with my disorders, I remember what it felt like to turn the internet upside-down as a teen, looking for someone, anyone, who knew how I felt. If I can be that person for someone else — the link that opens up their world and keeps them going — it’s all been worth it.

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If I’m a Stranger Now, I Will Be a Stranger Forever (Reflections on Testosterone)

A cursive lettered tattoo that reads,

My favorite tattoo and my simplest one, too. A reminder.

I was at a poetry reading when an older butch woman sat down next to me and started to talk to me about her experiences in the lesbian communities of San Francisco.

Typical Bay Area. Queers chatting up queers. And for a little while, it was just an ordinary conversation for two gays in the Bay.

But then I looked at her. I mean, really looked at her. I saw the creases in the corners of her eyes, the years settling into her smile, her pixie cut graying.

“I wonder who I’ll be when I’m her age,” I innocently thought to myself. “I wonder how I’ll look…”

That’s when I panicked. I faked an important text message, pretending that some urgent situation had suddenly arisen. I picked up my things, said a hurried goodbye, and took a long, solitary walk on a hiking trail nearby.

It wasn’t getting older that scared me, per se, but the thought that I might spend the rest of my life being seen as a woman, as something I was not. It was the idea that I would be trapped in a body that felt alien to me well into old age, and with it, bearing a lifetime of misgendering, dysphoria, and invisibility.

I had a tendency to only think of my life in terms of the here and now – something of a survival skill I’d perfected after years of living with bipolar disorder.

But the thought that I would endure this kind of pain for life, the pain of being alien to oneself and misgendered by everyone else, made me realize that my transition wasn’t just about the here and now.

I could survive in this body today, but what about five years from now? Ten years from now? Twenty?

Could I really do that? When I reach the end of the line, counting down the days in my old age, when I look in the mirror, who do I want to see staring back at me?

And while I could nurse my wounds each time I heard “she,” and I could pick myself up when my dysphoria knocked me down, and I could swallow my pain and shelve it for a more convenient time, it finally occurred to me that it was not something I could keep doing for the rest of my life.

Today, maybe. Tomorrow, maybe. But all the tomorrows to come, all of the days I have left?

As adamant as I was about staying put, fear shackling me in place, I’d forgotten how the world still moves forward, with or without me.

And it was there in the woods, the smell of eucalyptus hanging in the air around me and my heart pounding through my bound chest, that I promised myself that I would put the gears into motion.

I promised myself I would get on testosterone.

/

Transition is not always simple, and not always certain.

Sometimes transition is guesswork – discarding what you are not to get closer and closer to what you are. Sometimes transition is not precise, just in the way that the beautiful pictures in our minds are never quite as beautiful when we manifest them on the page.

Being non-binary, neither a man nor a woman, is something like that. It’s knowing what I am not, and creating new spaces, new expressions, new ways of being to get closer to what I am.

I avoided testosterone for a long time. I thought, “Why should I have to choose? Can’t I just be?” It took years before I understood that not taking testosterone was just as much a choice.

There is risk in not acting. There is risk in staying the same.

Just because it isn’t precise, that doesn’t make the endeavor less worthwhile.

So I take another step. I throw another dart with the hopes it’ll strike near the target. I pick up the brush and let it kiss the canvas.

Gender has always been intangible. And when dealing with the intangible, we use what tools we have to articulate our truth – the closest approximation.

/

This September, I am starting testosterone.

I know, I know. I’m genderqueer. “If you’re not a man and you’re not a woman, what’s the difference?” they might ask. “Why do this?”

Because standing still and wishing away the pain will not douse the fire.

Because if I’m a stranger now, I will be a stranger forever.

Because all I can do is stumble my way through and hope that, on the other side of this, there is a reflection staring back that no longer scares me.

Because they will not bury me with breasts. Because they will not bury me under a false name like they did to Leelah. Because they will not mistake me for a woman at my funeral. Because they will not bury me in someone else’s body when I die.

Because of all the tomorrows that are coming.

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