You Need Help: You’re Not Sure If You’re a Boy and Gender Is Hard

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q:

I have a pressing, all-consuming need for advice! When I was younger, I always wished I was a boy. As I grew up, I came to realize that I didn’t necessarily need to be a boy to get what I wanted – I could be a lesbian! I could be butch, date women, do “man” stuff… everything I wanted. But as I’ve come into my Butch Identity, I’ve started realizing that maybe I do want to be a boy still. That maybe I am a boy. But I’m having a lot of trouble because I don’t know that I want to give up the lesbian community. I don’t know that I’m ready to give up being a woman either. Can I be both? A lesbian and a boy? Probably not, but it’d be cool if I could. I don’t know that they/them pronouns fit me, but I’m also not sure he/him fits me. Honestly, sometimes I feel like she/her only works for me because I’ve been socialized into liking that for the past 26 years. But honestly it’s hard to tell. I just don’t know what to do or who to talk to. I don’t want the lesbian community to ostracize me because I’m not sure I feel like a girl anymore, but I don’t yet feel comfortable in any other community. I’m also afraid of transitioning and still dating women, effecting looking like a straight couple everywhere we go. Ugh why is gender so hard?

A:

First of all, thank you for doing the most and reaching out. I know how hard it can be to ask for help, especially when you feel scared and confused, and I know gender is extremely hard; you’re not alone on that one.

It sounds like the spiral you’re having is because you’re looking into everything up close and also from far away. You’re freaking out about your own identity on a micro level, yourself, while also freaking out about your identity on the macro level of community and at the same time trying to predict how the future could look for you on a social level.

Everything you’re currently spiraling about is extremely real; I know how hard it can be to try to focus on your own identity when there’s a lot of history, internalized stuff, and a whole world out there judging everything. The good news is that nobody gets to define who you are, except for you; the bad news is that no matter how much energy you put into making sure everyone knows that, you cannot control everyone else or what they think.

For a minute, let’s take the world, gender at large, society, and community out of the picture; I know it’s hard, but it’s where you need to start if you want to start solving this puzzle for yourself.

I am someone who has always felt “like a boy,” but I truly couldn’t vocalize it until very recently. I grew up surrounded by girls. I have five sisters, I went to an all-girls Catholic school, 90% of my friends are queer and 60% of them identify as women. So I get how lonely you can feel about this.

I thought about being a boy every day of my life without necessarily thinking “am I boy?” In fact the word “boy” rarely made its way into my thoughts. The way that I thought or questioned my gender was always very passive; it was almost as if there was always a lingering thought, a fleeting feeling, a certain kind of grief, for a “what if?” and I was terrified to open that door.

Just like you, for most of my life I identified as butch, as gay. I formed every relationship in my universe around those facts. I honestly don’t think I ever said the word lesbian as a self-identifier, but people gave it to me and assumed it of me and I didn’t necessarily correct them because I also didn’t have an answer, so at the end of the day, that was my community. I dated mostly women, I hung out with people that were queer almost exclusively. I was too gay and too butch to belong anywhere else. Most queer people, that’s all we got, ourselves, so I understand how scared you are because for a long time I couldn’t ask myself the same question you’re asking yourself right now. I was also terrified to lose the only true family I had. For a long time I put whatever I thought their feelings were around my gender first, even if I didn’t know it.

Coming into a butch identity usually involves making a decision — not a decision to be butch necessarily, but rather to say “I am here, I am visible.” Think about approaching coming into your gender, even if that ends up being “a boy,” in the same way. You don’t have to have all the answers right away; no one expects you to. Self-discovery is great in that way; you can go as slow as you want, you can try some things, play it safe and little by little start putting the pieces together. You get to evolve and grow into it if that’s what works for you. And I get it, gender is confusing and so fucking vast it can seem wildly intimidating, but you’ve already started. Something that I’m picking up is that even though you might be a ways away from having all solid answers, you at least know that something is missing, and that something is probably not working right now.

A lot of the narrative about gender questioning at large is about tragedy, about what we lose. I encourage you (even though I know it’s challenging) to think about your gender from a different angle. What makes you feel affirmed? Instead of approaching this conversation with yourself focused on what you’re losing, maybe think about approaching it around what you’re gaining. It seems to me you’ve ignored a part of yourself that’s asking you for attention because you have been focused on everyone else in your sphere and their feelings about it.

For example, something that worked for me as I was questioning my own gender was to instead of evaluating everything that has hurt me or has made me feel sad and confused and dysphoric was to look back into the moments that made me feel euphoric about my gender: when someone would clock me as a boy in the street, being called sir randomly at a store, fitting into “men’s” jeans, even asking some partners to roleplay with me “as a boy.”

Once I singled out those moments it was as if the picture started to come together. Instead of waiting for moments like those to happen randomly I proactively started to look for more of them, dipping my feet into my relationship to myself. The moment that I stopped worrying about losing everything, and starting focusing on what I could gain by asking myself what I wanted, what I truly wanted outside of everyone else, things became a lot clearer.

In terms of pronouns, maybe start by asking someone to try other pronouns with you? One or two people you like and trust, until you figure out not just what feels “okay” but what feels good, what you actually like. You don’t have to announce it to the world either; you can start very small. Even though I’ve slowly moved towards he/him pronouns (honestly because they feel good, they feel mine) I still identify as a non binary boy; my gender identity is not defined by my pronouns but rather by who I am, who I feel I am, and the same can be said for you and everyone else. Your relationship to your gender is so intimate with yourself, and yourself only.

Start thinking about approaching the question of “am I boy?” from a place of expansion, of growth into yourself, whoever that happens to be. Instead of shutting it down because you’re trying to rush to the finish line and have everything figured out, start by walking, start by figuring out what you like and how you fit into your own skin. Once you embrace yourself people will also embrace you.

It seems to me a part of you is ready to stop settling for your current reality and to start growing into a place of happiness and comfort. I know you’re scared, but I promise that once you get to a spot where you feel good rather than “okay enough” you’ll start getting all the answers you’re looking for; you just have to keep moving.

In terms of dating, if you’re scared of people seeing you as a straight person, if you do decide to transition in the future — people are already getting the wrong assumption about you, it seems to me your gender is more complex than what people are assuming at the moment. Instead of jumping so far ahead, maybe focus in the now, one step at a time and try not to dwell on the idea that this might happen. Gender exploration and transition, if you decide to pursue it, look different for everyone, and also happen more incrementally than you are probably thinking.

I don’t know your current community but even though it’s true you might lose a lot, you will also gain a lot, especially with yourself. I hope that no matter how you start your journey towards self-discovery you put yourself first. Once you start trying things out, pushing through those fears to unpack these questions, and moving from a place of desire rather than a place of fear, the answers will come to you. And I hope that no matter where it takes you, you are able to find peace and happiness within yourself in the process.


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Mika is a venezuelan graphic designer, art director, artist, and recognized funny friend. He has previously worked as art director at Backroom Caracas, designer at the Walker Art Center (MPLS), 2x4 (NYC) and Rumors (PDX). He is a single father to a Cancer cat and a Gemini rabbit. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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22 Comments

  1. The moment that I stopped worrying about losing everything, and starting focusing on what I could gain by asking myself what I wanted, what I truly wanted outside of everyone else, things became a lot clearer.

    Oof. This is beautiful. Excellent advice for a lot of situations.

  2. I would encourage the writer to read Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues”. It isn’t the best book ever in terms of the actual writing, but it does an excellent job of talking about the intricacies of gender identity, how we come to those conclusions, what influences us in that journey, and what we do with those feelings or conclusions as we come to them.

  3. This is an interesting and helpful article. I’m not sure if I’m questioning my gender identity or not, but I feel very late to it, at 47. Certain things make me wonder about myself but not having anyone to discuss things with makes it super hard to know where to go.

    • Hi Andi, I see you! Almost your age myself and in a similar situation. Unlike the author of the question, I am sure I’m not a boy. But…female? Nonbinary? Genderfluid? Something something? Some days I wonder if my uncertainty about whether I am female is a result of internalized misogyny and I get very cranky at the idea that “woman” could have a narrow definition and I think, this is me and therefore it is possible for a woman to be like this and fuck off anyone who says otherwise. Other days I think yeah but gender has always just seemed irrelevant and annoying to me and just an excuse for stereotyping and let’s not forget all the times I have roleplayed characters who were male, agender or genderfluid and how I really liked the latter two. Gender-contrary? Gender-cranky? Gender-exasperated? 🙂

      • Thank you so much! So good to know I am not, in fact, alone in this. All my fantasies involve me imagining myself as a male character, yet I am not sure I want to be “a boy”. I still would love to be a pretty girl in a dress, though that seems impossible and yet I also hate wearing dresses and skirts.

        Then there’s the whole finding males and females attractive, but not wanting a relationship with either.

        It seems so hard learning these things about yourself past my mid-forties!

        • Yes.

          “Today I feel like wearing black wool pants with a belt, a solid-color long-sleeved button-down collared shirt, and maybe a vest or a v-neck sweater or a blazer, ’cause I wanna feel professional at work. Gah! Wait! I know darn well that kind of clothing is associated with ‘professional’ in my mind because it is more masculine. Grr. But there’s my supervisor’s sexism to consider, he definitely will think less of me if he perceives me as frivolous which in his mind means anything female-coded…Well maybe I just wanna dress this way because the clothes are practical and comfy and I like my shirts’ colors. Why can’t people just be all ‘oh look she is wearing a shirt and pants’ and not gender it?”

          “Today I feel like wearing a skirt ’cause it is cool and comfy and I like the colors and you can make it go swish and spin around in it, whee. And I feel safe doing this because I am not going to be around anyone I have to impress with my professionalism…oh FFS is misogyny impacting my choices today TOO?”

          OK, so, most of my gender-cranky is really misogyny-cranky. I just wanna wear whatever I wanna wear and be whoever I am without having to think about who might think badly of me for it. (Same logic applies to how I speak, walk, yada yada yada…y’all know.)

      • I relate to this so much. I’ve spent what feels like WAY too much time thinking about how much internalised misogyny may or may be contributing to my gender-exasperation…

        I strongly dislike femininity, when it’s applied to me personally, but it’s not the actual markers of femininity – long hair or skirts or whatever – that I dislike, so much as the connotations of frivolity, trying to be pretty, etc. which I find extremely grating and do not want to be associated with me. So if I am presenting myself in order to express myself, I cannot STAND to be feminine and encode those things. In a context where plain long hair means ‘hippie’ in a non-gender-specific way, for example, I feel no problem.
        I mostly feel like if this were a universe in which it was easy to just move through the world as agender, I would go for that, and put the whole mess aside. But alas, this is not that universe, and I am small and woman-shaped…
        I think identifying as a butch woman isn’t far off the mark, for me. I don’t have much positivity towards being physically female due to endometriosis, but I think my problem is mainly with unjustified/archaic/limiting social conceptions of femininity, and if it were possible to feel assured that those things were not going to be foisted upon me, maybe gender wouldn’t get on my nerves quite so much.

        • Rue! RUE. Are you me? I could have written nearly every word of this.

          I know for sure that my intense dislike of frilly stuff has nothing to do with the physical form of a ruffle or a piece of lace or something (I mean, I love math and patterns, I knit, lace is spiffy keen from those perspectives, ribbons have colors and ooooo do I like color) and everything to do with misogynistic assumptions of frivolity, silliness and incompetence in anyone who wears that kind of thing. (And frivolity and silliness are awesome anyway, when they’re not all mushed up with misogyny and used as excuses to denigrate.)

          So I have a question for our POC community members: do you experience ‘racism-cranky’ similar to the ‘misogyny-cranky’ this thread has been discussing? Our comments are reminding me of things I have heard/read from POC friends/authors but I don’t want to assume.

          Though I liked the term ‘gender-cranky’ when I came up with it above, I’m dropping it in favor of misogyny-cranky, because gender (or race) isn’t the problem, people’s attitudes about it are.

          Peace to everybody wrestling with any flavor of cranky due to other people’s BS. 🙂

  4. I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for me it goes a little like this:

    I am butch. My butchness is unconditional. When I am making things with powertools, or baking a cake, of twirling around a light pole in the rain, I am butch AF.

    also,

    I am a Woman. Unapologetically, unconditionally, I am a woman. When I speak up in meetings rather than knowing my place, when I am a mess and need to ask for help, when I subject visitors to my home with too much food because food is love, when I wear a suit to work, when I show up for the people in my life, when I sit alone staring into the trees. My womanhood roars though my blood and awakens my instincts like a protective mumma bear.

    AND!

    I am fiercely proud of my friends who I met as butches, and who now inhabit my life as a spectrum of gender identities. I love every aspect of their complexity, and would not change any part of their truth to better convenience myself. I am so honoured to have been trusted with their vulnerability. They too have borne witness to my vulnerability and complexity, and the bare bones of my soul strewn around in utter chaos.

    So, if you can, move towards joy (whatever that means to you), but give your friends a chance to come along for the ride, odds are that they need you too.

    • “So, if you can, move towards joy (whatever that means to you), but give your friends a chance to come along for the ride, odds are that they need you too.”

      love love love this, thank you

    • Max, I am imagining you constructing a cake, using power tools, while wearing a suit and twirling around a light pole in the rain. And then sitting alone staring into the trees for awhile because you need a little time to regroup from that peak of butchy awesomeness. Rrrrowwrrr! 😉 (I am teasing but seriously you sound pretty awesome.)

  5. Autostraddle, you never fail me.

    (I was legitimately having my daily tiny gender spiral of ‘what to do’ + getting a bit overwhelmed by the micro and the macro simultaneously when I opened the homepage and this popped up.)

    This is a great Q&A- and it’s given me some much needed optimism.

    Thank you very much xxx

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