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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Why the Trans Community Needs to Ban the Word “Transtrender” for Good

An androgynous person stands at a gate, refusing entry to other trans people who stand, frustrated, outside the gate.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

The other day, I was called a “transtrender” by a trans woman who refused to acknowledge my gender identity because I have, up until this point, not hormonally transitioned.

Because the only thing that determines your gender identity is, you know, hormones (sarcasm).

A “transtrender” refers to a person who identifies as transgender because they think it’s cool to do so. This particular trans reader insisted that I was not a “true” trans person, and that I claim this identity only because it’s the trendy thing to do.

This isn’t the first time my transness has been called into question, but there’s something particularly sinister about this word that made me angry.

Here’s the funny (and sad) thing about a trans person calling me a transtrender: They aren’t just hurting me. They’re hurting our community, and undermining our cause.

There’s a lot of problematic implications that go with the term “transtrender.” It implies, for example, that a person’s gender identity is for outsiders to decide. It suggests that there is only one way to transition. It marginalizes a significant number of trans folks who cannot access or do not want to medically transition. And further, it closets trans people who may feel fearful of rejection by the community.

It says to cis and trans people alike, “Your gender identity is for me to decide, not you. And if I don’t like what I see, I don’t have to acknowledge your truth.”

Hm. Sound familiar?

This is funny to me because this the exact same thing that we, as trans folks, are fighting against. We’ve had gender, incorrectly, imposed upon us from birth. Aren’t we fighting for the ability to live our truth and express our (a)gender without outsiders forcing us into roles without our consent?

“Transtrender” is a perfect example of the hypocrisy that I’ve encountered in the trans community from time to time. We don’t want others to dictate what our gender identities are, but we’ll ostracize other trans people and invalidate them because they don’t fit into our newer, shinier boxes. We don’t want to be misgendered, but we’ll misgender other trans people because their transition looks different from ours.

We don’t want to be told our identity is a phase, a trend, or a lie, but we’ll turn to our trans siblings and tell them all of those things without batting an eye.

If trans liberation is just a duplication of the oppression I was facing before – being told to express my gender on someone else’s terms, to someone else’s specifications – I’ll pass, thanks.

If trans liberation is putting each other down and invalidating our identities because we don’t want hormones, we don’t need hormones, we can’t afford hormones, or we aren’t ready for hormones – I’ll pass, thanks.

If trans liberation is letting outsiders tell us what our gender is, creating new restrictive boxes instead of getting rid of the boxes altogether – I’ll pass, thanks.

If trans liberation is creating hierarchies in our community, measuring someone’s worth on the basis of what (often inaccessible) medical interventions they’ve accrued – I’ll pass, thanks.

If trans liberation is conforming to a certain idea of what gender should look like – yeah, I’ll pass, thank you very much.

And if trans liberation means excluding some trans people and including others, finding new ways to marginalize people who don’t fit into our idea of what transition should look like – you can take your liberation and shove it.

The trans community doesn’t need gatekeepers who get to decide who is “trans enough” and who is not. We are all trans enough, and our truths are for us to declare and decide.

If we, as a community, are asking the world to respect our identities, it is hypocritical to disrespect the identities of others in our community. And if we, as a community, are asking for the freedom to express our (a)gender in whatever way feels authentic, we must respect the journeys that our other trans siblings are on, regardless of how similar or dissimilar to our own they might look.

I don’t owe it to anyone to explain my reasons for not yet taking testosterone. I don’t owe it to anyone to justify my reasons for not pursuing surgery at this time. My transition is not a show or an exhibition that exists for the pleasure and satisfaction of other people.

My body is not public property – it’s not a public spectacle for people to objectify and misgender. It’s not a blueprint for you to impose your outdated ideas of what a transition should look like. And it’s not a lump of clay that you get to mold into something that makes you feel more comfortable.

My body is mine. And further, my legitimacy and validity as a trans person is not contingent on what my body looks like on any given day.

“Transtrender” is a word no person in this community should ever use or condone. Someone should douse it in gasoline, set it on fire, and let it burn (metaphorically, of course).

It is used, violently, to invalidate and undermine the identities of trans people. And when we invalidate the identities of our siblings, we give cis people permission to do the same to all of us.

My trans liberation looks like this: A community that welcomes, respects, validates, and uplifts everyone who finds a home there. And a world that, regardless of our bodies and regardless of our journeys, lets us reclaim ownership of our identities and our bodies.

Because if we tell our trans siblings that their identities do not belong to them, we perpetuate a culture where the naming and claiming of our identities belongs to someone else.

And I promise you, that is not liberation. That is not progress.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s where we started.

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