Questions To Ask When Questioning Your Gender

Questioning your gender is an essential part of transition. In a real sense, transition begins the moment we break the great taboo and gives ourselves permission to wonder: Who am I, really? Who do I want to be? This is a road rarely traveled, and sometimes we get lost or stuck along the way. I thought I would share some of the questions I found most helpful during the years I spent investigating my gender. Some of these I asked myself, some others asked of me.

A caution–these questions cannot test your gender. An answer doesn’t have a definite meaning about your gender or what choices you should make. Rather, they raise possibilities, little windows through which you might catch a glimpse of yourself. How you feel and any images or associations that arise are likely to be as important as any answer you can put into words. Some questions may resonate with you, others, not so much.

Now, in no particular order…

  • If you lived alone on an island, how would you feel about your body and/or gender?
  • If you could make any wish about your gender, what would it be?
  • What would it feel like to be at peace with your gender (or your body)?
  • What is your gender in dreams?
  • What is the color, flavor, scent of your gender?
  • Who shares your gender?
  • What gender were you in your past life?
  • What will your gender be when you are old?
  • If you lived in a different culture or time period, how might you express your gender?
  • If you could snap your fingers and change anything about your body and/or gender, what would you change?
  • Who is most like you? Most different from you?
  • If your assigned sex were different, how might you express your gender?
  • If there were no risks and no costs involved, what would you do?

Please feel free to share your answers. Readers, what questions helped when you were uncertain about your gender?

The 3 Things That Saved My Life

Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”

How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?

1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.

2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too.  I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.

3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.

So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?

I wish that I knew.

Trans Legitimacy & Childhood Memory

Somebody recently found this blog searching for answers to the following question.

how can i be transgender if i don’t remember much from my childhood?

The question jumped out at me, a familiar confusion. Answers immediately began to bubble up in my mind. I thought I would share them in case they could be of help to anyone who’s wondering about this.

How can you be transgender if you don’t remember much from your childhood? Being trans is something you are now. If you experience gender dysphoria now, if you just can’t fit into the role of your assigned gender now, if you know yourself to be some other gender now–you are probably trans.

There is still a powerful narrative in our community that says some trans people are “real” while others are… what? Illegitimate? Imaginary? Imposters? The truth is, there are no true and false transsexuals. There are just transsexuals. Another other trans people. And cis people.

This narrative is a relic of the gatekeepers, cisgender “experts” who policed (and sometimes still police) our access to life-saving care. They policed us based on how (un)comfortable we made them. People who seemed likely to fit invisibly into cisheteronormative society were allowed to live. People who didn’t were left to die.

One of their favorite games was scrutinizing our childhood memories. They believed that “real” trans people are only those exceptional, precocious few who, before the age of 5, are able to cast off the weight of a whole society and proclaim their true gender for all to hear, in language that makes sense to adults. Those who didn’t–or didn’t remember–such dramatic, perfectly-worded proclamations were, again, left to die. This standard is strange and cruel and shows a reckless disregard for child development.

We don’t have to live and die like that. We can be more humane to ourselves than these death-doctors were, and indeed, we must.

So again, how can you be trans if you don’t remember much from your childhood? Easily. Their is no age requirement determining the value of an insight. Whether you were able to articulate your gender at 5, 15, 50 or 100 does not matter. You were taught that your existence is impossible. Cut yourself some slack.

That said, I suspect there is a deeper connection between being trans and this lack of memory. It is possible that you’ve got it backwards. It’s not that the fact you don’t remember much from childhood means you aren’t really trans; it’s that you don’t remember much precisely because you are trans, and a great violence was done to your psyche. As you continue on your path, you may find yourself remembering a great deal more than you thought.

A Man Lives By A Code

A man lives by a code, a quiet discipline of honor we learn first from our fathers and try to perfect for ourselves. We learn by example and by counterexample. I have studied the ways of my grandfather, who left, and my father, who stayed, and I have learned something about what it means to be an honorable man.

A reader asks, “What does it mean to ‘don the mantle of manhood’?” It means to deeply accept the responsibility of being a man.

To be responsible is to be one who answers what is asked of them. Responsibility is the practice of response, of making a reply to the conditions that meet us. The mantle of manhood is the emergent realities of life as a man, this man,  in a particular place and time; to don the mantle means to intentionally accept these realities, to embrace them, and to employ them for the repair of the world. To don the mantle of manhood means that, finding oneself a man, one responds to that condition. There is no one answer. The common denominator is the condition of being a man and making the choice to reply to that condition with honor.

This weight is unchosen, neither earned nor deserved; it simply is. I did not make it, yet it is I who must hoist it, for it is I alone who can. I am answering, for I have heard the question. I did not create the meanings assigned to manhood–I just stumble into them like everybody else. But it is I who decide for myself, given reality as I observe it, how I will respond.

The only difference between a man’s mantle and that of anyone of any other gender is the differences in our lives. Honor is in no way limited to men. I discuss it here through my lens as a man, because I think there are some important particulars of that experience, and because I believe it is the task of men to ask our brothers to do better. For this same reason–our different selves and circumstances–there is no one mantle of manhood, but a massive Venn diagram of overlapping and non-overlapping experiences.

For me, it’s like this. People move around me on the sidewalk. People turn and listen when I open my mouth. If I lose my temper and shout and stomp and punch a wall, people and animals cower in miserable fear, though I have never touched them in anger.

My code is not a series of answers, but a series of questions.

If my voice and my strength can easily scare women, men, children, dogs, how will I conduct myself?

If being a man means when I speak, others listen, what will I say?

If being a man means being strong, what will I carry? What will I defend?

If being a man means I could walk out on my family, what choice will I make?

If being a man means a capacity for violence, how will I behave?

It is written, “For who will eat, and who will enjoy, if not I?” (Ecclesiastes 2:25).

We could also ask, For who will feed, and who will increase enjoyment, if not I?

Be Good To Yourself

Be good to yourself
Miss no chance for kindness
Neglect no small favors

You alone are the guardian of this sensitive being
Of this loving heart, fragile form, and many aches
Do not prolong pain when it may be soothed

Do not belabor anguish when peace is waiting
Never go hungry when food is available
Never overwork when the work can wait

Enough misery to last a lifetime
Will find you of its own accord
Why invite more?

For the task of life, try this:
Add no more pain to the universe
Begin with yourself

Guys Are Clueless Because We Don’t Get Clues

Many have observed that men have a tendency towards social and emotional cluelessness. There are plenty of oblivious women and sensitive dudes out there, and nonbinary folks both unaware and keen. But overall, my own experience confirms the trend. In general, men are less perceptive and expressive when it comes to social cues and subtexts, emotions and relationships.

Why is this? Feminists often point to childhood socialization that emphasizes sociability and relationships in girls, while encouraging competition and toughness in boys. Other people believe that biology and human evolution explain the differences we observe. I’d like to point to a factor elided by these explanations. Quite simply, people just don’t tell guys very much.

I am the rare man who was raised as a girl. Like many trans people, I listened closely to the messages intended for my true (not assigned) gender, so I absorbed a lot of norms of masculinity. As a kid, I felt it was important not to cry and to fight with punches and kicks, not scratches. Still, I was encouraged to master the feminine art of relationships, and I had intensely expressive friendships with girls. I was just as perceptive, emotive, and socially astute as anyone else.

I have not become less open or perceptive since transition. Quite the opposite, actually. I find it much easier to cry and show other feelings, and I continue to enjoy deep, expressive conversations. I also find it easier to read and empathize with other people. I’m training to be a counselor right now–I am trying to talk about feelings and relationships all day long, for a living!

And yet, I find that I know far less about what friends and family members are feeling than I did before transition. Why is this? They don’t tell me. My own family members often communicate important feelings to me indirectly, by telling Alma. Nobody gossips to me, so I have no idea which of my friends are getting together and which are breaking up.

This was put into sharp relief by a recent conversation with Alma. She mentioned that she has a class with a friend’s roommate, let’s call him J. Alma said she was comfortable talking to him because she knows he has a girlfriend and is pretty serious about her. Here’s the thing: neither of us actually knows J. We’ve met him briefly and seen him at parties. Neither of us knows J’s girlfriend. But while I have nothing more than a vague image of J’s face, Alma knows his relationship status, the seriousness of said relationship, and even has a sense that he is a good boyfriend. How is this possible? Because our female friends told her. They know, because one of them knows the girlfriend, and she told them. It suddenly struck me what a massive quantity of social information is exchanged in all-female conversations. Meanwhile, when I talk with the guys in our social group, we talk about a lot of things…but we exchange almost zero of this type of information. J is a friend-of-a-friend to both of us, but while I’m not even completely sure I would recognize the dude, Alma knows a great deal about his life situation and his character.

This is just one example; the trend holds across many situations in our lives. This puts us at totally different starting places when it comes to social and emotional insight. Alma noted that when she interprets subtle social exchanges–like a glance or a tone–she is working from a lot of back-story, full of hints at what might be important and what that might mean.

Of course, this is very much connected to socialization and social norms. Friendships among men tend to look different from friendships among women. But I think it’s worth adding this into our analysis. It may not be so much a function of the perceptiveness, expressiveness and sociability of individual men, but rather of our social networks.

My Goal

My goal is to be present in my life.

My goal is not to be perfect.
My goal is not to avoid pain.
My goal is not to never make mistakes.
My goal is to be present in my life.

My goal is not to finish what I am doing.
My goal is not to have everything go as planned.
My goal is not to achieve goals.
My goal is to be present in my life.

My goal is not to be right.
My goal is not to be successful.
My goal is not to be comfortable.
My goal is to be present in my life.

My goal is not to change things.
My goal is not to solve problems.
My goal is not to get through the day.
My goal is to be present in my life.

My goal is not to do.
My goal is not to find.
My purpose is the purpose that is no purpose.
My goal is to be present in my life.

Since the purpose of life is to live, ask only, Am I alive?

Am I alive now?

5 Ways To Support The Trans Person In Your Life

So you have a transgender friend or family member. What’s the best way to show respect for this person? How can you be encouraging without making them uncomfortable or calling too much attention to their trans status? Here are a few simple ways to support the trans person in your life.

1. Use the correct name and pronouns–even when they’re not around. You already know how important it is to use preferred gender pronouns. If your friend is open about their gender, take your allyship to the next level by always using the right words, even when they are out of earshot. It can be tempting to go along with the wrong name/pronouns when other people do it and your trans loved one isn’t there. This is can especially be a problem in families, where people are trying to change very old habits. By using the right name and pronouns even in private, you help cement the change in everybody’s minds, pave the way for respectful language next time your friend is around, and show other friends and relatives that you take this person’s identity seriously.

2. Ask them how you should talk about their trans status. You should never, ever disclose someone’s trans status without their permission–it’s disrespectful as well as dangerous. That said, each trans person is different, and sometimes it’s helpful to spread the word. Maybe your coworker who transitioned a decade ago doesn’t want you to say anything, while your newly-out cousin would really appreciate it if you filled in some other members of the family, and your nonbinary friend would have a better time at the party if you gave other guests a heads-up about their pronouns. Ask your trans loved one about their preferences.

3. Celebrate their gender. Affirm your trans friend’s gender, and avoid imposing rigid gender norms on them (and everybody else, for the matter). If you and your trans friend have a similar gender expression, perhaps you can enjoy sharing “girly” activities or doing “guy stuff,” as defined by your community. Some trans people have been routinely denied these simple pleasures, so it means a lot when someone wants to share them with us. You can also celebrate things they do that aren’t stereotypical for their gender, showing them it’s cool to be a guy who loves baking or a woman who kicks ass at videogames. If the trans person is your life is nonbinary, celebrate whatever gender expressions are right for them, and don’t pigeonhole them based on one or two aspects of their gender (again, this really goes for everybody).

4. Put gender on the back burner. There’s a time to talk about your trans relative’s identity and transition, and there’s a time to put gender aside and just focus on other things. It can be exhausting to think about gender all the time, especially if your friend is in the middle of transition. Be open to talking whenever the trans person in your life needs to; also be ready to let trans topics recede into the background. For example, while it’s good to be comfortable bringing up trans-related issues, you don’t have to inform them every single time you hear something about a transgender person. Sometimes trans people just want to eat lunch, go to the movies, or weigh in on current events–just like everybody else. By putting gender on the back burner sometimes, you can give your trans friend a break and show that you see them as a whole person.

5. Treat them like everybody else. Trans folks are regular people, just trying to get by in life like everyone is. When your trans friend has milestones in their transition, share their joy like you would for any happy occasion. When your trans friend faces challenges or has a bad experience, offer your sympathy like you would for any struggle. Are you someone who sends cards, makes care packages, takes people out for drinks, congratulates or commiserates on social media, delivers soup, makes mix CDs, gives hugs or high-fives? Your best guide for supporting your trans friend is however you already show people that you care. It’ll be the perfect thing, because it really comes from you.

Readers–what is one thing friends and family could do to support you? Feel free to share experiences, add suggestions to this list, discuss what not to do, etc.

The Chance To Be A Boy

Feeling like a man. Many guys struggle with this elusive goal. For trans guys, the process can be even more fraught and confusing. How to grow into a man if you weren’t allowed to be a boy?

I say, before you are a man, be a boy. Let your boy-self emerge in the world. You won’t get to experience all the things most boys do. But you can have some kind of boyhood, perhaps a very queer boyhood, no matter your chronological age.

I was 21 when I really became a boy. I’d had an androgynous childhood in wild hair and overalls. I was raised in an open-minded household that didn’t impose strict gender norms. I developed a more and more masculine presence beginning in my teens. Still, I didn’t get to be a boy until later.

I was young when I transitioned, the last light of childhood still visible on the horizon. In retrospect, it was an amazing opportunity; I got to become a man at the same time as my peers. But for several years there, I felt distinctly behind. My friends were sporting new, fully-fledged beards; I was waiting for my voice to drop. I badly needed the chance to be a boy.

My first intentional forays into masculinity were burdened with an excessive weight of fledgling manliness. It’s no coincidence they were also my first attempts at being an adult. I was 18 and suddenly noticed my friends were growing into young men and women. I realized I didn’t want to be an androgynous teenager in messy dyed hair and a hoodie forever. I felt an enormous pressure to assimilate to the extreme gender binary of the adult world. So I started shaving and combing my hair. I took out the five studs that decorated my ears. I searched thrift-stores for tweed coats. I learned to tie a tie. It was an awkward time.

A few years later, when I started testosterone, I became a boy in earnest. I stopped trying to be a “real man.” I got a mohawk and traded my polos for undershirts. I was very much a boy-version of myself as a teenager. I reveled in the frenetic energy of boyhood. I listened to loud music and I bitched about the system. I sharpied heart-shaped anarchy symbols on desks and walls. My attitude was irreverent and carefree. Alma and I had just gotten together, and the energy of the experiences fed one another. We rode that crazy wave through the first year of our relationship, staying up all night, smoking cigarettes on the way to the bus-stop.

It lasted a couple of years. Then that frenzied boy energy began giving way to the solidity of manhood. Now I inhabit a cool, steady masculinity. I am a young man.

I couldn’t have gotten here without my sojourn as a boy. It was brief and it was wholehearted. It was what I needed. I let myself off the hook for awhile. The length and the timing don’t matter. What matters is that I was my own boy-self, for awhile. I treasure all that I learned in that fleeting time when colors were brighter, rules were suspended, and so much was possible for the first time.

It wasn’t easy to allow myself to be a boy. It was embarrassing and strange. But if I hadn’t done it, if I’d just brushed by boyhood, I would have have been doubly betrayed. First denied a boyhood by my family and community; then denied a boyhood by myself. Transition created a strange portal in which the ordinary laws of time, space and society receded. A kind of spiritual boyhood became possible. By allowing myself to be a boy, I healed some of the great rift of being trans.

This may look really different depending on your age and your life situation. But I think we can give ourselves the gift of boyhood at any time. You can give yourself permission to be a boy, and discover who that boy is. You can embody your own boy-energy. You can inhabit masculinities that are youthful, new, emerging.

Of course, if you feel no need to be a boy, that is perfectly fine. I only urge you not to refuse yourself the chance, if any part of you wants it. That way, when you are ready, you will don the mantle of manhood with confidence, bathed in the glow of endless summers, secure in the happy knowledge that you were a boy once.