You Need Help: Everyone Thinks I’m Lying To Myself About My Gender

Q:

Lately, I’ve finally started dressing/acting like myself, and that’s meant dressing more butch and cutting my hair. If you were to ask me my gender, I’d say “lesbian.” I dislike my curves and long for narrow hips and to be taller, but I also like the category of woman, especially “lesbian,” and feel comfortable with its heritage. If I were younger maybe I’d ID as non-binary but feel pretty settled in my she/her “my gender is dyke” life.

The problem is people in my life will not stop asking me if I’m nonbinary or trans. Everyone keeps asking if I have new pronouns. I’ve gone on two different dates where my (trans) date has asked me if I’m sure I’m not actually a trans guy. My friends keep wink-winking me when I say I use she/her. It drives me crazy, but I’m afraid that that “drives me crazy” feeling is transphobia… like, why does this annoy me so much? Is that bigotry? Why am I so resistant to IDing as nonbinary when according to everyone in my life I “obviously am”? I really want to unpack this — I don’t know if I’m allowed to be annoyed or if that annoyance is something ugly that I need to address.

Also…if I basically just want to look like Tig Notaro…what is going on with my gender? Can lesbian be a gender?

A:

Fuck yes lesbian can be a gender and your gender can be dyke— a lot of people feel that way, including me, that something about that term and the shared history and community around it and its opposition to patriarchy feels situated in a real deep truth about not just sexuality, but gender as well. I know many of our readers feel the same way, and you’re definitely not alone in that category!

So that’s one thing — yes, you can feel that way about your gender. Yes, you can be a woman and still be masculine and have short hair. You can aspire to be Tig Notaro, who is handsome and incredibly aspirational. If that’s where you feel settled and comfortable at this point in your life then there’s no need to change yourself or how you identify to please others.

Then there’s the other question: is your reaction indicative of internalized transphobia or transphobia in general? Are you okay to be annoyed or is there something ugly about your reaction to it?

I think there’s a few things going on here. The first is your friends being really rude! Maybe they’re well-meaning, but it’s also, I think, objectively mean for friends or dates to make suggestive or joking comments to you that imply they know you better than you know yourself, or to misgender you. Especially someone you’ve literally just met. Unless you are a politician actively working to pass legislation that harms trans people, the proper moment for them to share their personal opinions about your gender would be the moment you invite them to do so. You say you’re resistant to identifying as nonbinary “when according to everyone in [your] life you ‘obviously are'” but what everyone else thinks you are doesn’t matter. (Cue a montage of people telling femme-presenting lesbians that they absolutely must be straight based on how they present.) 

It sounds like you are feeling especially affirmed and free in the way you’ve chosen to present yourself — that your clothing and haircut finally reflect the way you see yourself, and that’s a major step forward for you. It totally checks out that after making that step towards affirmation and self-assurance, you’d be frustrated by people who are telling you that you’re still denying your true self. You want them to see you, and they’re telling you that you’re actually still hiding.

They’re also playing into annoying tropes that masculinity = nonbinary or man and that masculinity cannot possibly be embraced by someone who identifies as a woman. Masculinity is not a one way road to being non-binary or a trans man, and there are plenty of femme non-binary people and trans men. There is no single way for a trans man or a non-binary person to dress or act or cut their hair or wear makeup or walk or talk or live. It’s also okay to have feelings about your gender or presentation that are similar to feelings had by trans people, and still identify as whatever makes you comfortable. It’s okay to feel gender agnostic and just roll through life as you are. There is no one way to be a woman, and it’s misogynistic for them to insist you can’t possibly be a woman just because you do present in a masculine way. (We get enough of that attitude from straight cishet people.) And if later in your life you do realize that you’re nonbinary or a trans man, that’s okay too! There’s no one way to do any of this. For now, this is who you know that you are, and they should respect that.

Is it possible that your reaction is rooted in internalized transphobia? Sure. Often we react most aggressively to being seen when it’s a way we’re not ready to see ourselves yet. It’s also possible that your reaction is rooted in simple transphobia — that you aren’t trans yourself, but that you have some bias or negative associations in your mind with transness that are worth unpacking. Digging deep to figure that out is a valuable exercise regardless, you know? But honestly… that doesn’t feel to me like what is happening here.

I’ve known so many people who’ve been in your situation, friends and exes, who’ve talked with me about having the same experiences you’re having now — presenting/identifying as a masculine lesbian and dealing with assumptions from queer people and cis allies that they must use they/them pronouns or being challenged by dates and well-meaning colleagues and even medical professionals. And to be honest, many of those people did end up eventually coming out as non-binary or as trans men. Others still identify as women. One just started rolling with whatever people project onto her, pronoun-wise, because she feels “too old to care.”

So anecdotally, there’s absolutely some correlation between “feeling annoyed by being assumed to be trans” and “actually being trans.”

But there’s also a correlation between feeling annoyed by it simply because it’s annoying!

Nobody should be misgendering you, making assumptions about you and refusing to see you for who you are telling them that you are, and you shouldn’t feel badly about saying so when it happens. Shore up that confidence, if you can — as Tig Notaro herself once said, “I feel comfortable with who I am. I know what I am. You can call me a choo-choo train — it doesn’t matter.”


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3178 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I really relate to the letter writer. And from what’s written, I really don’t think this comes from transphobia, but from being disbelieved about our identity and experiences. As someone who also leans into butch presentation, the whole world likes to tell me I’m doing womanhood wrong. Women are expected to be pretty and feminine and quiet, very different from the bold, dykey image I want to present. I therefore am “excluded” from conventional womanhood by society because I don’t play by the rules. And when you get the same message from the queer community, it really sucks. Like, I don’t think being momentarily mistaken for a trans person or having friends gently suggest you explore identity is always a bad thing, but the insistence definitely is. Because at the end of the day, they’re saying the same thing: we don’t follow the proper rules of womanhood so we don’t get to be respected as women, no matter what we say. Other queer people just find a “woke” way to deny us our gender identity.

    In a lot of ways, these experiences make me feel deep community with my trans women sisters, we are all denied our womanhood for various, shitty reasons. Lesbian, butch, dyke, and woman are all my identity, and you can prey them from my cold dead hands.

  2. As a she/her butch who has previously identified as nonbinary and trans, this is so extremely real and I’m sorry people refuse to take you seriously. I met some incredible butch friends (mostly– like me– she/her, woman identified, non transitioning) through a butch group in my city. It’s defunct now but something similar may exist near you on meetup or Facebook or Lex if you search! If I didn’t have friends who got it (butches predominately but femmes too!) I would have had a much harder time being confident in myself and standing up to the “are you sure? are you reeeeeeeally sure?” type comments. Best of luck navigating all of this. It’s hard enough getting shit from the world for being butch but getting it from your friends and possible dates is salt in the wound.

    • A very relatable post, and solid advice. I went through a lot of the “are you sure you’re not non-binary/genderqueer” questions, and spent a long time mulling over and considering those identities for myself.

      Where I landed: I use she/her (but will respond to any pronouns) and my gender is butch. While I feel pretty neutral about being a woman, I feel empowered by making “womanhood” a big enough label to contain my masculinity. Gender is an inherently squishy concept, and we in the queer community should celebrate and encourage each other to make labels work for us, not to force labels on one another.

  3. I’ve had similar experiences. as a gender non-conforming lady I also constantly get misgendered, often by people who already know my pronouns (which is the one that really bothers me).

    in my experience this bothers me because I am BEING MISGENDERED! it’s not because I’m secretly trans or am transphobic – I’ve thought through both of those pretty thoroughly, I’m a woman and I like being a woman, a good chunk of my close friends are trans (and would absolutely call me out for transphobia).

    I sort of agree with the advice (it’s always good to examine your feelings for biases and bigotry), but I also think it’s kind of overcomplicating things, and the most likely explanation is that being misgendered is extremely disrespectful and also just a shitty experience.

    I’d hope no one needs to have it explained why respecting a trans person’s pronouns is important. and I don’t understand why people can make a big deal out of respecting someone’s pronouns then immediately turn around and dismiss mine. (I mean, I do understand, I just think it’s bullshit.)

    being a GNC woman has always been hard and it remains hard. in my opinion/experience a lot of the “are you sure you aren’t trans” is just really the same old shit that’s been repackaged so people can express their discomfort at GNC women for existing, while feeling #supportive or #queerally or #expandingheartsandminds or whatever.

    “are you sure you aren’t trans” is the new “are you sure you just haven’t met the right man,” at least in my experience. it’s really just a smokescreen for people being uncomfortable with my gender expression.

    also, in an alternative universe where I was trans – this would still be disrespectful as hell! pushing a trans person to come out before they choose to is really not ok, and your friends are assholes.

    anyway, OP, you sound very clear about what your gender is! you’ve expressed it well and I don’t think you’re confused at all. “my gender is dyke” is completely valid and also really common and normal for GNC lesbians. the only problem you actually have is your friends are assholes.

    so it’s time to set a boundary, if you haven’t already. I like to write scripts for what to say, and here is how I would ideally like to respond in this situation:

    “you’ve brought up me being trans and using the wrong pronouns for me a lot. I’m not going to have this discussion again: my pronouns are she/her [or whatever your pronouns are] and I need you to use my correct pronouns and to stop asking me about this. is that something you can do?”

    and see what they say. if they keep trying to wink wink you about it:

    “this isn’t cute or funny for me, I’m very frustrated. I’m happy with my identity and you constantly questioning it is extremely upsetting. are you able to leave this topic behind and use my correct pronouns from now on?”

    if they say it’s not a big deal:

    “I’m glad you don’t think it’s a big deal! then it won’t be a problem for you to use the right pronouns for me.”

    if they completely don’t listen, I’d suggest taking a break from those friends. remember that when you’re enforcing a boundary, you can’t force people to behave themselves around you, but you can remove yourself from the situation. it can also be helpful to remember that this doesn’t always need to be permanent and people can change their behavior if they want to. leaving the conversation every time they bring this up can be a pretty effective way to communicate when someone won’t listen to words.

    the other thing I like to remember about boundaries is that it can take people a bit of time to adjust, even with the best of intentions. so if you get the sense that they’re genuinely trying, slipping up with a “they” every so often at the start could mean just giving them a reminder and moving on. it really depends on your judgement of the situation.

    just remember that you deserve to have your identity respected as much as anyone else does! I hope this was helpful if you see it.

  4. As a trans woman (with a partner whose gender is “lesbian”…!) I completely agree with Riese and the other comments. No-one has the right to tell you anyone else what their gender is, or to insist that someone is trans simply because they don’t conform to gender stereotypes. I think it’s gross that anyone might tell a butch woman or a lesbian that they are wrong about their own life experience. Some trans people love to try and identify eggs and I really do get the impulse, but it’s not cool to project onto other people. Queer people and dykes are beautiful in the diversity of our experiences and I hope we can celebrate that together.

  5. In a way this is hysterically funny (not your experiences of course), because some 25 years ago it was the other way around. People constantly questioning if someone was reaaaally trans male and not butch.
    This flipping from one extreme to the other is very typical for the lesbian/feminist/queer/etc context. A similar thing happened with bdsm, which was first a nono, and then suddenly everybody had to practise bdsm, or else… Now it is trans or non binary. It’s so tiring, and would be ridiculous, if it wouldnt actually mess with people.
    The core problem behind it is not gender but an essential conformity in the lesbian/feminist/queer/transmasc/nonbinary communities. People are basically controlling each other and can’t let it go until everybody is the same. It’s really unhealthy and annoying, and clearly the same mechanism as girls policing each others looks etc.
    I’ve been waiting for this to change since more than 3 decades, but it never does.
    This is clearly an area where feminism failed, in the sense that it did not stop this kind of learned/collective destructive pattern in faab people (for lack of better word), and letting them be more individual.

  6. Honestly, I think the fact that something similar happens all the time with transmasculine people is a pretty good sign that society as a whole just isn’t okay with any kind of gender-nonconformity.

    Trans men and non-binary/genderqueer people get told all the time “have you tried living as a butch woman? Are you sure you’re not just a lesbian?” as if we know what being transgender is but not what butch lesbians are (I say, as someone who got this reaction from my mum when I first came out as genderqueer). But you know that if that transmasculine person WERE to cave to that social pressure and live as a butch lesbian, people would go “well, you’re so masculine…you SURE you’re not trans?” There’s no winning, because what they want, at the end of the day, is for afab people to be feminine.

    The end goal isn’t to encourage people to “find their true selves” – it’s to punish and berate afab people for being masculine, in whatever form that masculinity takes. The person who wrote in probably won’t hear the end of it unless she either keeps standing up for herself, or femmes up and stopped being butch, and that’s just so disgusting to me.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!