You Need Help: How Do I Tell If I’m a Butch Cis Woman or a Trans Non-Binary Person?

From the A+ advice inbox:

Q:

“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?”

A:

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.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

69 Comments

  1. As someone who has been confused around these issues, thank you for the clear explanation and helpful suggestions. I feel like I have so many sides to who I am and don’t know how to find and recognise them all. I question the validity of some of the aspects of my identity often, but have to remind myself that this is how I feel in the moment and that it’s OK to feel that way.

    TL:DR thanks for some great advice! ♥

  2. Thank you, question asker, and thank you, A.E.! I’m currently woman-identified but have been tentatively dipping my pinky toe into the gender identity questioning pool for a little while, and…haven’t gotten anywhere yet. But some of the advice about thinking about how different words and labels feel, and about seeking euphoria in addition to avoiding dysphoria, might be helpful if/when I decide to try again.

  3. I swear Autostraddle can see into my heart and soul this week, between this and Heather’s essay yesterday, the universe is just like here is exactly what you need right now. Thank you for this lovely advice.

  4. I cherish the experience and A.E.’s work a lot. While the question seems open-ended to me, this article feels like advocating for and favoring trans a lot. But being butch and cis are equally valid!
    Roughly related, it reminded me of what KaeLyn once stated on Remi doing “girls stuff”: this is a-ok, too!

    • Completely agree! I understand that’s the writer’s lived experience, but this might have been in a good time to bring in someone else, as well, who had the opposite experience.

      I really want to thank the editors for adding writers that are butch cis women, when A.E. seemed to forget to add them! I really appreciate that.

      • Also Ophelia I’m not sure when you read the post originally but after reading it when I woke up yesterday morning (probably five or more hours post-publication) I felt the same way and made as many edits as I could to make it more balanced to either option (and I added the note with cis butch writers) but didn’t want to do too much bc AE wasn’t here yesterday for me to run it by. But they and the editors are aware that I didn’t feel this gave both identities equal weight as possibilities and will have that in mind going forward. AE speaks so eloquently and with such compassion and grace about their own identity and struggles and i didn’t want to erase that. But If I’d known about this post I think I would’ve suggested having two ppl answer it, an nb person and a cis butch woman, but I’ve been absent a lot lately bc of camp and EOY accounting.

        I feel like within the queer community there’s been almost an overcompensation for the erasure and rejection of trans and non binary identities by the world at large (and by their families, partners etc) to where it’s almost become harder within queer circles for masc women to id as women than as non binary. Or that any discomfort u have with your body vis a vis gender means u must not be that gender. I rarely feel in touch with my gender assigned at birth but nobody ever pegs me as non binary, yet they always assume my butch girlfriends to be. Go figure! We are at a very weird crossroads rn!

        • I appreciate how thoughtful you are about this, Riese! Good edits, I think, in addition to A.E.’s lovely advice. And I say this as a MOC/genderqueer/soft butch cisgender woman. So if you ever need one of those to weigh in on this sort of thing, too, don’t hesitate to hit me up. 😉

        • I originally read it before the edits 🙂 And later I promptly followed your link to the Leslie-Feinberg-roundtable etc.

          I agree with you a ton and can only imagine how hard it is to navigate meeting everyone’s needs in the community today, where I sometimes indeed feel some overcompensation, too
          (even re my tiny comment: I was hesitant to post it, because it’s such a sensitive topic. I did not want to seem like I dismissed an important personal experience — while at the same time I did not want to see erased other valid experiences)

          Thank you for your and the team’s work!!!

        • “I feel like within the queer community there’s been almost an overcompensation for the erasure and rejection of trans and non binary identities by the world at large (and by their families, partners etc) to where it’s almost become harder within queer circles for masc women to id as women than as non binary. Or that any discomfort u have with your body vis a vis gender means u must not be that gender.”

          Yes.

    • I agree. Also, this write-up makes it sound like it has to be an either/or proposition, but it is possible to be both butch and NB. I know a lot of lesbians to whom that applies- they’re woman-aligned NB people, but they also consider themselves butch lesbians. It’s not especially uncommon, in my experience (not least because I myself fall into that category). It was a little upsetting, honestly, to see the butch side of the coin get such short shrift here, although I understand that that’s not the author’s background, and I really appreciate the subsequent edits to try and add more butch-specific stuff.

  5. Thank you for this, it was really great! I’m recently starting to realize that I am in control of all of the words that are used for my identity and my body, beyond just using non-binary and they/them pronouns. Panic attacks and dysphoria still happen, but it’s better than avoiding it all forever and ever.

  6. Thank you A. E. – as someone else who spent a lot of time in my 20s wondering the same thing once I knew there *were* non-binary gender identities that belonged to people who had a lot in common with me… That word-association task is a good one for people who are finding that the language they and others use to talk about their gender matters to them but aren’t quite sure what language matters *most* yet. (I spent a lot of time asking myself ‘What *does* feel wrong?’ and ‘Are there any labels I just feel indifferent about?’ – even the *intensity* of how much we identify with or outside gender categories can vary between people tbh!)

    Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker’s ‘How to Understand Your Gender: a Practical Guide for Exploring Who You Are’ is really good for more thinking exercises like that, if you can get hold of it – and in the same kind of spirit as ‘Do what makes you feel good; use the words that feel good to use’, and recognising that how we each think about our gender can change at different times in our lives and that’s OK, as this post….

  7. How do we make the initial exercise required for all genders and identities?

    Sit quietly with yourself. Hold this descriptor in your hand. See how it feels, and maybe ask why that might be.

    Introspection and curiosity about yourself. Imagine.

  8. i’m pretty comfortably a cis butch woman, but i’ve had people wonder at my gender for me, like a person in Portland who was like, “oh, your pronouns are she/her? i’m just so used to calling everyone who looks like you ‘they'”

    • this is a phenomenon that drives me nuts! on a-camp feedback surveys, people use “they” pronouns for masc or butch women who actually use she/her and i think it’s super problematic and needs to stop. it’s telling women that if they don’t look a certain way, they must not be women at all, and that’s… not true

        • Yes. I believe this is one of the conflicts the queer community comes up against in relation to radical feminists, who believe that gender is oppressive and needs to be ended. There are a lot of masculine women in both communities, and they need to be recognized for who they are.

          • The queer community, as evidenced by this very article and comments section, is capable of having a productive, nuanced and considerate discussion about this issue without throwing another marginalized demographic under the bus. The queer community at large also does not condone dictating people’s identity under any circumstances.

          • People within the queer community sometimes do do that, as also evidenced by the experiences butch women have spoken about. That includes the segment from Nanette that someone else brought up. This is why I said I am glad this discussion is happening.

          • There are individuals within any community who do and say shitty things, that does not equate them to that community as a whole, and in fact this particular shitty thing is not even a common or predominating attitude of the queer community. Your comment above seemed to imply otherwise. Suggesting that the queer community in general doesn’t recognize masculine women, and that this is the source of conflict with “radical feminists” (meanwhile queer communities can also be both radical and feminist) is inaccurate. This discussion that is happening is not an anomaly, it’s the way things are commonly approached here.

          • I’m a butch lesbian. I’m commenting that I’ve experienced the phenomenon wherein my perceived masculinity is taken to be synonymous with actually being a man. Others have said similar things. This is not an indictment of a community. This is an observation of a pattern that has emerged within the last few years.

          • When I say radical feminism, I am referring to the wave of feminism that prioritizes class analysis over one’s internal sense of identity. This does not mean I am suggesting that self-identity is unimportant.

          • I don’t deny that you or any of the other people who have shared stories here have had those experiences, but the way you worded your comment, especially considering the context of the actual ideological conflicts between the queer community and certain factions of radical feminists, struck me as disingenuous. If I misinterpreted your implications then I do apologize.

          • No. I am being sincere, especially when I say I’m glad for this discussion. I do find it different from what I’ve seen lately. I also find value in a radical feminist analysis of gender, and that does not carry with it any intent to harm anyone, but rather to increase my understanding of what gender is all about.

        • Right. If I don’t know someone’s pronouns (and am not in a position to ask), I tend to default to “they.” But there’s a difference between doing that and what Molly described in her initial comment—which is basically saying, “Oh, you don’t look X enough to use that pronoun, I think you’re wrong about your own identity, and I’m going to tell you as much.”

          I’m not sure what the solution is.

          • I think the solution is to stop attaching meaning to pronouns. Most of the time, pronoun use is related to a person’s observed sex, nothing more. If the person asks you to use a different term, then fine.

      • God, thank you for saying this. This is such a huge issue for so many butch women that I know- it comes up in butch-centric Facebook groups that I’m in constantly, and I think it creates a massive amount of self-doubt and angst about gender identity that is probably not what the (presumably) well-intentioned people trying to be “woke” are intending to spread around when they do this. A lot of us are already struggling to untangle our gender feels and carve out our own identities, particularly given that a lot of LGBT spaces really lean hard on the whole “predatory butch”/”butches have male/masc privilege” thing. We’ll let you know what we want to be called, you don’t need to advise us of our own gender identities. It’s so invasive and unhelpful.

  9. I like to think about gender the way I’ve learned to think about fashion, learn all the rules, sure, get to know everything. Then throw out all the things you don’t need, not all the things you THINK you don’t need, or the things anyone has TOLD you you don’t need. Absolutely everything that you’ve hung up in your closet for six months and never actually worn. CHUCK IT! Whatever’s left is probably pretty good.

  10. Thank you for this! I can relate: I thought I was genderfluid or non-binary at one point. I was sure, because I like masculine and feminine things, I don’t necessarily feel a particular attraction to the word “female” (though I do over anything else), and I much prefer it when I have a more androgynous body. Also because I was actually a lesbian and didn’t get it yet. But I’m cis. I sat down and I feel comfortable being a woman. I’m not stereotypically female, and that’s where I had problems. I don’t have to be! I can be me! I don’t have to be non-binary to enjoy masculine and feminine things! I can like having a flat chest and no curves and *still* be a cis woman! I wish I had read this when I was struggling. I really hope it helps other people feel comfortable with themselves. <3

    • This is what I wanted to say but didn’t know how to say it! I felt absolutely no connection to being a woman when I was around 18-20 and thought I must be something else. But then I learned that there’s so many ways to be a woman and I don’t have to like or do any stereotypically female things to be a woman.

      • When I was 12 at band camp a friend asked why I didn’t shave or wear a bra (my parents were hippies) and I remember thinking but not being able to articulate that I was happy being a girl and being female, and I liked my body just the way it was. Girls and women do grow hair on their legs and armpits and not denying that was just another way of being a girl for me.

    • Exactly. Liking stuff deemed “masculine” or “feminine” has no bearing on one’s sex. It seems we once knew that, and then it all got jumbled up in the scramble for “wokeness” or something.

  11. ahh, thanks for this, bookmarking it for those times when I feel my uncertainty reaching an intrusive threshold.
    I also frequently go back to this interview with Alison Bechdel in 2015 where she says (in response to breathtaking presumption and other glib statements from the interviewer) how she likes being an “unusual woman”. it has brought me great comfort at times and I hope someone else finds it helpful too. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/magazine/alison-bechdel-misses-feeling-special.html

  12. OP are you me? One thing that’s helped me is the idea that all these identities don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The fact that gender is bespoke (I love that way of putting it!) means that you can totally be nonbinary and a woman, or nonbinary and a lesbian, all, both, neither, none. Whatever has meaning for you, helps you connect with people, and lets you live your life.

    When I came out as nonbinary, it allowed me to get up every morning without having to have an answer to “are you a boy or a girl”, and that worked well, but after a while I started feeling like I needed to do a thing, or be a thing, BECAUSE I was nonbinary or to prove that I was. But that’s the tail wagging the dog.

    Find what brings you that joy, or euphoria, or peace, and use words and labels to shape your life to include as much of it as possible.

  13. Thank you for writing this. There is a lot of wisdom in here (particularly that third piece of advice, ouch). One thing that I found particularly helpful in the early stages of questioning my gender was to just talk to cis women about how they identified. Basically, how did you figure out that you were cis?! Their answers were illuminating. People had a wide range of experiences, some very similar to mine, but there were enough key, core differences to push me in the “You really need to explore this more actively” direction. There are a million ways to be a woman, just as there are a million ways to be a trans nonbinary person. Sometimes they overlap. That’s OK, because what matters is how you self identify.

    I am just starting to dip my toes into the trans community, which is both exhilarating (because: yes, this is right) and terrifying (because: oh shit shit shit, this is right). I wish I could send to my past self, but I’ll be keeping it in my metaphorical pocket for the future.

  14. This is such good, clear, nuanced, joyful advice – A.E., thank YOU for your words.

    I’m 37 years old and I’m still on the journey of exploring and discovering different parts of my identity. It’s not that I feel lost or unsettled, either – I feel more like myself than ever! And that’s largely in thanks to exploring much of what’s suggested above (though there are some new ideas to embrace as well – wee!).

    I want to highlight the bit about how folks who identify as cis can also feel dysphoria. This took me until very, very recently to even recognize in myself. Since I was very young, I have sometimes experienced this intense feeling of what I can best describe as deep ickiness and dread in my body, mostly related to wearing certain clothing or being in certain moments/emotions/experiences. I could never name it, though, never really nail down what it was or even always identify what caused it. I don’t feel it as often anymore, but it still sometimes blindsides me even now.

    Only recently, after really immersing myself in reading about and talking with other queer folks of all stripes, have I finally named it as a kind of dysphoria. But it’s not the kind that, as I understand it, someone who identifies as trans feels. I feel very at home in my AFAB body, and in being “woman.” I care less about when people mis-gender me these days, but “she/her/woman” is what makes my heart feel most at home. Even still, there are things related to gender expression and gender expectations that definitely trigger the feeling in me. I don’t identify deeply with *all* people who call themselves “woman,” for sure. I’ve had to create my own definition.

    I also want to lift up those things that trigger what A.E. described as gender euphoria! Which was an equally important discovery. There really is something to “do what feels right.” We just have a lot of socially-imposed guilt and other garbage to wade through before we can even feel good about what makes us feel good. COMPLICATED.

    Anyway long story short I so appreciate hearing these insights and ideas from more and more people. If there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure, it’s this: “Your gender is BESPOKE.” We all do it a little, or a lot, differently. And that’s awesome.

  15. “…people of all genders can look all ways. It’s unfortunate that people often assume a masculine gender presentation on an afab person represents a non-binary identity, when there is no actual link between the two.”

    louder for the people in the back!!!

  16. When I was figuring out my identity, I would imagine myself as a woman several times a week and also thinking “I would probably be happier as a woman.” It took three years of that to realize I was trans, and then the first time I read someone else’s story it described me perfectly. Part of it is because I didn’t think my girlfriend or family would accept me, so I pushed it down. It can definitely be weird how the brain dances around stuff that we feel is very important and maybe we should have gotten a memo about.

  17. I’d also want to hold space for those who experience gender primarily as a system of oppression. You don’t have to identify with a gender. You can even refer to yourself in a certain way without *identifying* that way. It’s possible that the idea that “your gender is bespoke” just conflicts with your experience of gender on a deep level.

    That’s not my approach (I’m a non-binary, transfeminine person), but I think it’s a valid option. It’s possible to support trans people and at the same time refuse to identify with a gender yourself.

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