Ask the Expert: How do I know if I’m transgender?

Question: How do I decide if I am transgender or not?

Sometimes, I feel like I‘m too much like a boy-like to fit into this box labeled “GIRL.” I don’t feel trapped, and I want to accept myself as I was born—and am—even if that makes me a tomboy.

I don’t relate to most of my girl-pause-friends and relate better to a lot of my guy friends.

But also, I feel really alone now, because most of the transgendered  people I hear about are guys-to-girls. I do know one personally. Almost all the girls I know are more feminine than I am. One of them likes to brag about her double-D size boobs and repeatedly points out that I’m only a 34. It’s so weird, though, because I feel almost proud that I look flat-chested in sweaters. And I HATE how girls complain/talk about their periods all the time. Especially my mom—she acts like she and I are in some little “club” together, and I don’t want to be part of the Period Club!

But I grew up as a girl. There are certain things that I’m used to and familiar with. I’m not afraid of having a penis or anything, just used to going to the girls’ bathroom and the girls’ locker room, shopping for girls’ shoes. Around my guy friends, I do appear more feminine and have grown used to how they behave around me.

So I’m right on the fence, where I’ve been stuck for a couple of years. Before that, I didn’t even realize why I was so angry at the world. But now, the future I’ve envisioned for myself simply doesn’t fit a guy. If I were a guy, there are people I can think of—teachers, friends, family—who I wouldn’t want to be around. There’d be something missing, a kind of familiarity I can’t describe. Plus, I am deathly afraid of hospitals, doctors, needles, blood (anoher reason I hate periods), and all that RX whatnot. Transsurgery is never nearly as good as the real deal, and there could be all sorts of complications.

I value the idea of accepting yourself as who you are—but I need to define who I am. I just want to accept myself as a girl without all the bad connotations and baggage that come with it (fluttery; self-absorbed; hour-glass shaped; long hair “good” and short hair “bad”; makeup required). So I wonder if it’s possible to be happy on the fence.

   —Gender Fencing

Dear Gender Fencing,

 I’ll start by answering your last sentence, YES! It is absolutely possible to be happy on the fence. These days, you have the opportunity to express yourself any way you like. The only thing to consider is where and when you do so, given that many environments may not be very accepting, much less tolerant, of anything except mainstream expressions of gender and sexuality.

You don’t sound stuck. To me, you sound grounded—right where you should be—and happy with the individual you are.

You use the term “transgender,” which is actually an umbrella word for people with a wide variety of experiences and an entire spectrum of ways to express their gender roles. I’m well aware that the language about gender expression and gender transition is far from being fully accurate and continues to evolve.

It also varies from region to region—and some terms are more acceptable in certain places than in others. In Los Angeles, for example, it’s not very acceptable to call someone “queer” or “a slut.” But up in San Francisco, those same words can be taken as compliments!

 That said, if you want to find some label to help define yourself today, right now, you sound the most like someone who’s “gender queer.” That’s the up-to-date 2st-century term to describe people like yourself who feel they fall somewhere between the traditional gender roles and don’t believe in being crammed into the binary either/or dichotomy.

You, as a unique individual, should feel entitled to define yourself as “gender queer,” or you may prefer “gender variant” or “outside the box.” No matter how you slice the cake, there’s nothing unusual about this. Those terms are commonly accepted ways presentation in many cities, but I just know exactly where you’re from—or where you hope to live.

 Also, many people whose bodies appeared female at birth seek top surgery. They do not consider themselves to be male, or as “transmen.” Of course, some do go on to identify as a transman and make a full transition. Others are content with the top surgery alone. In a parallel way, many who were male-bodied at birth seek breast implants, but keep their male genitalia. They don’t consider themselves men or “transwomen.” 

If the thought of hospitals and surgery bothers you, then you should definitely avoid that route for now. This could or could not change. Instead, go ahead and claim whatever gender role works for you now, helping you feel whole and authentic.  But at the same time, allow yourself the freedom not to trap yourself in any one gender-defined slot.

I think about Chaz Bono who originally started out thinking she was straight, then came out as a lesbian and now recognizes that he is male and has a live-in-girlfriend. The wonderful thing about Chaz’s journey is that he did not stay stuck and was able to allow his identity to be fluid and followed it as it went along without forcing it.

In short, I hope you realize that my answer—and whatever answers you chose to try out—are not set in stone. Growing up and forging an identity have a great deal to do with defining what you are—but also, what you are not. I’ve tried to suggest some of the fulfilling avenues that lie open to you, while recognizing that most—even all—won’t appeal to you.  These are just some thoughts, but use them as stepping stones to new concepts of your own.

As you seek to define your identity, here are some questions I have, which you can consider: You say that you don’t fit into the “girl category”—but in what way, exactly? Is that mainly your own judgment, as opposed to other people’s? Do you feel any need or desire to fit into a specific category? If so, why? And remember your motives are sure to change!

 It sounds like you’ve already begun to form a less restrictive, looser, more fluid gender identity for yourself. To achieve a perfect “fit,” you may want to explore different roles—but always in a safe and supportive environment, just as you’d try on different-style jeans in a secure dressing room. And to continue that metaphor, make sure your “mirrors”—those you associate with—give you a fair, accurate reflection of yourself. Some of the unhappiest clients I know are those who have let their families or peer groups dictate what kind of person they “should” (or should not!) be.

Remember, too, there’s a lot of hate and gender-bashing out there. Simply by being yourself, you pose a threat—and a lightning rod—to those who haven’t been honest with themselves. You deserve to discover your own way—but safely.

 Joe Kort, Ph.D. is a doctor of clinical sexology and a licensed clinical social worker. He is a published author and national speaker.