How Do People Know Their Gender?

A reader writes,

How do people know what gender they really are? What does gender feel like?

Thanks for the interesting questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.

How do people know what gender they really are? The short answer is, it depends. Most people never wonder–they’re raised as a girl or boy and never give it much thought. The trouble arises when a person senses some kind of mismatch from the gender they were assigned. This opens up a lot of questions: Am I trans? Am I the “opposite” gender? Am I a nonbinary gender? Am I uncomfortable with my assigned gender for some other reason?

There is no formula for finding an answer. Each person has to walk their own journey. There are some things one can do to facilitate that journey.

  1.  Be curious. There is a great deal of stigma against gender variance, so just asking these questions can be terrifying and laden with shame. On the other hand, when you ask the questions, you are opening up the possibility of new kinds of happiness, peace and self-knowledge. That is pretty awesome! Can you get in touch with the part of you that is curious about your true gender?
  2. Experiment. Try on elements of different roles. Describe yourself with different words. Change your clothing or your haircut. As you experiment, listen carefully to the feedback you get from yourself. Notice thoughts, emotions, sensations, the way your body feels, the way you behave. When do you feel the worst? The best? When do you feel most like yourself? By trying things out and observing how you feel, you can find what is right for you.
  3. Be pragmatic. Find what works and do it. You don’t have to know why, have the perfect label, or fall inside a certain box. You don’t have to have all the answers. All you have to do is be good to yourself and others.
  4. Have hope. This may be the most important thing. Believing that things can get better, even a little bit better, is essential. Figuring out your gender issues is possible. Living a life you love is possible. You can do this.

I turned a corner in my gender journey when I was able to approach it with curiosity, pragmatism, and a willingness to experiment. I knew I was unhappy in a female role. I had a sense that I wanted to express masculinity. But I had no idea what that would mean in real terms. I was able to acknowledge this to myself and feel hopeful. I thought I might never be really comfortable, but there had to be something I could do to make things better. I thought to myself, I am going to hack the gender system.

Then, I tried things, and I noticed how they made me feel. I slowly cultivated a more and more masculine presentation. The more I expressed my masculinity, the better I felt. I felt happier, more comfortable, more confident, more myself. I continued to follow that thread. I eventually made the choice to transition to male.

What does gender feel like? This is a much trickier question. Gender is social–I know I’m a man because it feels right when I interact with others as a man. Gender is spiritual–I perceive that I have masculine essence, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Gender is psychological–my sense of myself as male is deeply rooted in my mind.

But maybe those answers obscure more than they reveal. The truth is, I don’t really know what gender feels like, in and of itself. It’s an experience and a mystery, shifting across times, places, situations.

I do know what authenticity feels like. I know what health feels like. I know what peace feels like. I know, through trial and error, I feel authentic, healthy and peaceful living my life as a man.

I hope this answers your questions.

Ask me a question.


  1. WeaverGrace

    What awesome, gentle suggestions you offer. I love the experiments that you list. This kind of wisdom can be generalized to anyone who is wondering about any aspect of identity.

    I hope you will consider reading my latest post (about gender identity) and joining the conversation.

  2. Pingback: Sunday links, 5/4/14 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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