From the A+ advice inbox:
“How do you differentiate between gender-expression feels and gender-itself feels? After a couple years of introspecting on this topic (and playing around with my presentation) I still can’t tell if I’m gender non-conforming, or non-binary, or just a butch-ish cis babe. Any tips to help me find my way?”
Hi friend! First, if I could tell everyone how to differentiate between gender expression feels and gender feels, I’d be Sovereign Ruler of Transness and maybe things would be easier, but probably also a lot less fun. So I can’t give you a 100% straightforward answer. But I do have a few tips on helping you figure out what brings you the most happiness in this world when it comes to a masculine gender presentation and, potentially, some sort of nonbinary gender identity situation (or hey, even some other gender identity situation because there are so many ways to be a human)! They’re things that have worked or not worked for me, so take what sounds good to you and leave the rest! Also, do know that I’m real new — I came out at the end of August 2017. I’m speaking from experience, but I am by no means an authority (if such a thing could even exist). These are all things I wish I’d known in the past two years or so.
First off, I’d recommend separating all of these words and taking them one at a time, picking each individual one up and seeing how you feel about them. First, take “butch.” What, if anything, about “butch” feels correct to you? Make a list of associations you have with the word—do those fit on your body? Do you like the word when it’s applied to you? Next, try the word “cis.” Grab your journal and write that definition down—identifying as the same gender you were assigned at birth. How does it feel to see that? What kinds of things come up for you when you apply it to you? Does it feel good to say it with your mouth? Bad? Just okay? Next try “woman,” something I notice you didn’t say in your question (you went with the word “babe” instead). While you’re at it, try “man” as well. Make lists and sentences for “gender non-conforming” and “non-binary,” taking each on its own terms. Circle all the things that feel correct to you, star them, use stickers and fun pens. Take as long as you need to do it. The reason I tell you to do this is that there’s nothing inherently butch about being transmasculine. I talked to a couple transmasculine nonbinary friends of mine, and many of them have never ever used the word butch to describe themselves. Dapper, sure. Fruity, hell yeah. Some folks who are non-binary identify strongly with the word “boy” (like me!) but don’t feel like “man” belongs anywhere near their body. One person said they were really more of a twink. The magic of this is that getting more specific, even though it can feel really hard, can help untangle things and let’s you pick and choose the things that feel good for you without necessitating choosing something that doesn’t, just because the two feel intertwined somehow. While you’re at it, try to come up with your own definition of gender. Look up a couple different ones—what do you agree with? Disagree with? Don’t simply take the word of the latest and greatest theorist—what do you think it means? What do you think it’s made out of? Because at the end of the day, the way you distinguish between presentation and gender is the way that matters. Not mine, not Judith Butler’s, not anyone else’s. Your gender is BESPOKE.
Don’t just experiment with presentation; people of all genders can look all ways. Grab a couple folks who are close to you and experiment with pronouns and names. Your fave rad trans folks are often real good friends to ask for this because they’ve been there and they know how vulnerable it can feel. A lot of people focus on avoiding dysphoria, which for me feels like a creeping discomfort that’s an icky cross between “I hate my body, no one let me see my body, no one look at my body, I am made of cotton candy and light don’t you dare tell me otherwise” and “I shouldn’t be here, something isn’t right, something bad feels like it’s about to happen” and, occasionally, results in a panic attack. That’s a valid way to go about experimentation! Like, oh, when I do this thing I have a panic attack and when I do this thing I don’t? Hell yeah, you’ve just learned something with that! But don’t forget — gender is fun, too. It isn’t a bleak hellscape of avoiding discomfort forever. So as you experiment, don’t only focus on steering clear of dysphoria. Find the things that bring you gender euphoria as well. If you don’t feel discomfort with she/her pronouns, but your heart rises when you’re called by they/them or he/him? Or hey, maybe you don’t care about pronouns but a neutral name and being called boy make you smile and blush? Those are all valid experiences of gender! And only know it if you try it. So try it all.
I want to prepare you for this experimentation feeling weird at first—I tried they/them pronouns years before I came out to myself and others, and all I felt was discomfort. I felt like people were seeing a part of myself I wasn’t ready for, that I didn’t even know about yet, like everyone was in on a secret about me except for me. Like all of a sudden all my skin had turned transparent and people were watching me digest my food. This might happen to you! And that’s okay. Take your time, and return to the experiment every so often, just to check in. There’s not a finish line to cross or a ticking clock.
I also want you to prepare for the possibility that when you ask someone to participate in this kind of experimentation with you, they might let you down. I had a lot of people let me down about this in some way or another. Letting you down doesn’t necessarily mean that person is bad or malicious or even someone you need to never speak to again. We’re all human and we all make mistakes. But it can, and forgive my language, fuck you up. Accept that and find the folks who will journey with you, sans judgement; keep those folks close to you. Thank them often. And if someone is being evil as you make yourself vulnerable and is engaged in disguised maliciousness? Well. Don’t give them the vulnerable parts of yourself anymore. Honestly, it’s okay not to give the vulnerable parts of yourself to people who are just bad at handling them, too. That’s also fine.
My next huge tip is to make community with trans people and listen to what they have to say. The number one thing that’s helped me sort out how I feel about my identity is talking it out with trans folks, and the community is also my favorite part of being trans. Everyone’s experiences are so different, but you might find yourself relating really hard to the way someone conceptualizes themself. Do their words make you feel seen and loved and like you belong? That’s something to think on. Do you love the words they use and would you like to apply them to your own gender and body? You can use those words too!
On top of making community with trans folks, read books and consume media written and created by trans folks. People are wading through this differentiation swamp every day; a lot of people have made really good art about it. You may find things that speak to your heart. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Page McBee and Daniel Mallory Ortberg. I also read a lot of my friends’ work here on Autostraddle — for great nonbinary writers, check out Audrey White and Al(aina) Monts. For great cartoonists, check out Cameron Glavin, A. Andrews and Archie Bongiovanni. All of our amazing creators here have been so impactful in helping me conceptualize what’s going on with my gender. I’m eternally grateful for their generosity in sharing their experiences.
As you strengthen your community of trans folks and engage in art made by trans folks, I want to prepare you for the possibility of some jealousy. That’s what I felt; every time someone booked top surgery, I’d wish for a reason to book mine (though please note, medical procedures are not necessary for nor necessarily an indication of trans identities!). Every time someone’s pronouns were recognized by the wider world, I’d inexplicably find a way to be sour and jealous about some other aspect of their life. Inevitably, though, these longings always lead me back to wishing I was recognized as trans in the ways they were. I felt mean, and I wish someone had told me it didn’t make me a bad person. Pay attention to where your longing (and your jealousies) lead you, and give yourself permission to try the things you see other people doing and saying that you want to do and say too.
If you have access to a therapist who specializes in this stuff or, at the very least, is trans-competent, I highly recommend taking advantage of that access. Talking things through with a therapist has been invaluable to me, and I wasn’t a person who went to therapy before all this started. If your therapist doesn’t know anything about gender or spouts anti-trans propaganda during your sessions, you should fire your therapist. That therapist isn’t the right one for you at this time.
My third piece of advice: Admitting you’re trans can be super scary because the world right now is super scary, so dig deep and really interrogate whether or not the confusion is masking a desire for safety. It might not be! It might be good ole confusion, and that’s okay! But my confusion was resistance. Every night for years, as I was falling asleep, I thought the fully-formed sentence “I am probably trans and I will never do anything about it.” And then I would promptly forget I had ever thought that sentence. I didn’t remember it until MONTHS after I’d come out, that this had been happening, that it was a pattern. Brains are amazing and we’re good at protecting ourselves. But what feels like safety will eventually become unsustainable, or at least that’s how it was for me. All the little ways I felt horrible as I moved through the world eventually added up and surpassed my threshold for what felt like safety. Is this happening to you as well?
And lastly: Remember that the way you relate to your gender identity and presentation might change during different eras of your life, and that’s okay! Gender isn’t something immutable and innate; humans make it up every day. That’s why what gender means changes based on culture and place. Often we argue for an innateness that doesn’t feel correct to all folks; we argue for it as a protection, as a way to explain to cis people why they should treat trans people like human beings (ugh, I sure wish we didn’t have to do that!). But that doesn’t mean that your gender is fixed. So take some of the pressure off yourself in trying to answer this question, and know that your answer to it will probably change. It’s okay to be in a state of flux; it’s as okay to be sure of something, and be sure of a different thing later. Do what makes you feel good; use the words that feel good to use. And you, my friend, will be just fine.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece included edits made after publication that attempted to widen the scope of the author’s response beyond their own experience to show a variety of viewpoints. The piece has since been republished as originally written by the author in order to accurately convey their own experience and opinions.