I Haven’t Always Known I Was Transgender
And that’s okay for a transgender woman to admit
I was 24 when I realized I was transgender. You might expect most transgender people to give a different answer to that question. Until recently, I assumed that all transgender people had always known. The more transgender people I meet today, however, the more the complicated the answers seem.
Maybe I have, in some convoluted way, always known. I certainly felt something was off for most of my life. I had felt that I was different, but I didn’t have the words to translate this gut feeling into something intelligible until much later in my life.
This post is more personal than my previous posts. It’s the answer to a question I kept asking myself while coming to terms with my gender identity: why didn’t I know my entire life that I was a girl?
If you’re not transgender, I hope you’ll keep reading. Chances are you know someone. Maybe you have asked this question genuinely. Of yourself, or to others:
How long have you known?
If you consider yourself transgender like me, I also hope you’ll find comfort in stories like mine. I did a lot of processing to figure out why I didn’t know my entire life. I want other transgender people to know that their lived experiences aren’t wrong just because they don’t conform to the “standard” coming out story.
In the beginning of this journey, my knowledge of transgender people was limited. They were primarily white, transgender women who have known their entire lives. Who then had surgery and came out to the world. And because I didn’t feel like them, I felt wrong. If you ever felt invalidated in your gender because your story doesn’t match the stories of other transgender people (like Caitlyn, or Jazz, or Chris), you’re not alone.
I hope my story contributes to normalizing transgender people like me. Those who were clueless about their gender identity for most of their life (thus far). I hope it provides comfort to those who might be struggling to understand their own gender identity “later” in life. It’s okay.
Growing Up Genderless
I think part of me has always known that I am a girl, but without knowing a name for it, I’ve only ever described it as angst or anxiety … It felt like years of signs, hints, and subtleties finally pressed up into my consciousness and screamed: DON’T YOU SEE? YOU’RE A GIRL!
— My journal, sometime 2015
When I think back through my life, I’m positive that should I have been asked the question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I would have answered, ‘boy.” This confession doesn’t threaten my identity as a transgender woman. In fact, it’s a story that’s thematic among many transgender people. I was raised as a boy. My parents introduced me to the world as their son. They did so because the doctor told them so. The doctor came to that conclusion because of how an infant’s genitals appeared to him. How could he have known my brain chemistry? How could he have known my chromosomal makeup? My soul? How could he have known me? Like Janet Mock,
I was born in what doctor’s proclaim is a boy’s body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth.
For most people the sex your parents’ doctor writes on your birth certificate matches the gender you identify with for the rest of your life. It’s suggested that there are only about 700,000 to 1 million transgender people in the United States. The rest are cisgender, meaning their gender agrees with that letter given to them at birth.
In addition to being assigned the letter M, I was assigned a name, a weight, a length, and a birthdate (the only one of those things that can’t change). I never thought about gender growing up because I didn’t have to. Those who took care of me me called me son, so I lived up to that title.
I remember thinking about my gender only a few times in my childhood. It was usually by defining my relationship to the rest of my family. I knew that I was my sister’s brother, for instance. My siblings called me bubba (for brother) when we were little.
I didn’t think about gender again until I started elementary school. My mom bought a visual encyclopedia for our home classroom. I was fascinated by its breadth from evolution to engineering to history. But I frequented one section more than others: human anatomy. It’s difficult in retrospect to not make too much of childhood events. But I am convinced that the either-or distinction that book made between the bodies of men and women seeped into my mind. The dichotomy it made between male and female taught me to compare myself. But instead of comparing myself to the male figure, I became acutely aware of how different I was to the female one.
I know that if my mother had been given the information, empowerment, and resources to understand gender identity when I was a child, I would have come out a long time ago. The roadblock for her, me, and for others was cultural and religious.
Growing Up Godly
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
I don’t remember a time in my childhood not influenced by church. My earliest memories with my family happen within the walls of many kinds: Church of God, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, etc. Within these buildings the cultural binary of “men do this” and “girls do this” began to permeate my life.
Once you’ve removed yourself from contemporary Christian evangelicalism, it’s frighteningly easy to see how manipulative the church can be at enforcing this binary. As soon as I entered the church as a child, stereotypes and rigorous frameworks for gender and gender presentation were instructed. I was fine being a called son or boy in my parent’s household. They didn’t force anything on me in ways the church did.
It was religion that dictated boys be separate from girls. In the divided classrooms I learned how to be a man. Be strong. Don’t lust. Protect. Provide. Be the head of women (that is, be better than). Pastors quoted Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor to appeal to us guys. Churches hosted “Wild Game Nights” to eat meat and be manly. Not only did these stereotypes not apply to me, they further exacerbated the toxic masculinity that already underlies our culture.
At middle school purity retreats, the pastors told the boys not to lust. That we should simply avert our eyes. That even thinking about female bodies would be a slippery slope into sexual sin (the worst kind, I learned). I understood what lust was, I was attracted to girls. But I began to think I must have had something else wrong too. I would ask my guy friends, “Do you ever lust after a girl so badly that you wish you could just be them? Like, have their body [as your own]?”
Never have blank, staring faces so quickly answered a question for me. The answer was obvious.
I didn’t talk about thoughts like these to others anymore. At the time I thought of it as a weird quirk. I wasn’t given the framework through which to play with gender and sexuality. I had never heard the word transgender until college. I only saw the word homosexual in quoted bible verses printed on pamphlets. My entire worldview concerning human gender and sexuality was narrow and restrictive.
Men are like waffles; women are like spaghetti. At first this may seem silly, even juvenile, but stay with us. It is a picture that works and men “get it” (because it involves food).
— Focus on the Family
Take my word for it: it is both silly and juvenile. Teachings such as this filled my middle school and high school years at church and private school. Strict (and false) binaries such as these can create discomfort for those who don’t fit into this neat system. I have found that the more femininity and masculinity are allowed to overlap, the more free we feel. Even cisgender and straight people can feel trapped by these stringent “rules.” Rules that dictate what you should wear, how you should talk, and what you should do. In it’s groundbreaking gender-focused issue last year (2017), National Geographic gave one explanation as to why the binary system prevails:
The vast majority of people — more than 99 percent, it seems safe to say — put themselves at one end of the gender spectrum or the other. Being part of the gender binary simplifies the either-or of daily life: clothes shopping, sports teams, passports, the way a bartender asks for your order.
I’m especially thankful to my mother who never forced these false stereotypes onto me. I was never forced to play sports. She encouraged me to cry. That it was okay to not fit in. And I learned later, your worldview can change. Your favorite things to do, read, and write can change. And, I wish I knew this then, your gender can change too.
Growing Up Girl
I struggled with my identity issue well into college. I made every decision by answering the question, “What would God, my family, or my friends want me to do?”
I was a biblical studies major. I was the lead resident assistant in my all-male dorm. I was the Greek teaching assistant and tutor. My goal was to be a bible teacher. Throughout my time at Bryan College and after, I tried to define what was wrong with me. I would eventually discover the word for it (gender dysphoria). Until then, I tried everything else to mask it. I changed denominations many times. I tried self-diagnosing myself in psychology class. I sought answers in philosophy lectures. I lost weight. I cried and prayed.
This physical and mental toll took me from hyper-reformed theology to atheism. Then to something in-between, until I was stripped of all outside terminology to describe me.
If I’m not a christian, who am I?
If I’m not a teacher, who am I?
If I’m not a good husband, who am I?
If I’m not happy, who am I?
I am Cait premiered the summer I realized I was transgender. While she certainly has her shortcomings as a default representation of the transgender community, I’m thankful Caitlyn Jenner told her story when she did. For my sake. I had finally begun to see transgender people in my life, but I still didn’t make the connection.
I was free from the shackles the church left on me concerning my gender. I had questioned everything and was ready to be told who I was. I was open to finding meaning in life elsewhere. When careers, relationships, and hobbies couldn’t give me meaning, I went to therapy. And I looked within. I eventually asked my therapist, “What’s the thing called where you know most of your problems would be solved if you were a girl?”
For the second time in my life, a blank stare told me the answer before the words did.
When I heard my mind ask those words, I knew. That’s when I knew I was a girl. I knew in my heart. The dusty corners of my brain holding tucked-away memories were brought to light because I flipped on the switch. That’s why I was jealous of my high school friend John* accidentally getting an F on his driver’s license. That’s why I was jealous of Anne’s* hair in middle school. That’s why I jokingly told my summer camp kids my name was Ashley.
That’s why I had always been a girl. That’s what gender is — who you tell yourself you are. That’s what is meant by gender being innate. I always knew I was a girl, but the always had to be defined in retrospect. The deepest part of me knew. And I was finally free enough to believe it.
This post was originally published on Medium March 16, 2018