By KC Clements
A few months ago at the cafe where I work, we hired a genderqueer trans friend of mine who was newly on testosterone. In between our work engaging with customers and slinging pastries and lattes right and left, we often turn to the subject of physically transitioning, and how it has impacted both of our senses of self and gender identity.
Though my friend and my conversations at work are often frustratingly fragmented by the frenetic nature of our jobs, being able to share insights and feelings about the process of transition with them has been an important opportunity for me as well. I have been able to recall my own archive of experiences, to reflect, advise, and develop a clearer sense of the arc of my own transition.
In light of these conversations, I wanted to share five pieces of advice I have for non-binary and gender-nonconforming folks like myself who are considering or are in the process of physical transition.
1. Don’t feel pressure to medically transition.
Though the increased visibility and positive representations of trans people have been helpful in some ways, in other ways it has further limited our narratives and our possibilities.
While these visible models of transgender folks in the media give attention to what transitions can look like to those who may be less aware of issues concerning trans identity, too often they perpetuate a more narrow perspective of what it “means” to be trans. (Hint: there are many, many meanings.) From my perspective, it seems there has been an increasing pressure for folks who do not identify with their gender assigned at birth to take steps towards medical transition, even if that’s not what feels right for them. It’s as if the idea of being “trans” means you must necessarily transition within the binary, from one definitive endpoint to another.
What’s important is to separate out these pressures from what you deeply feel is right for you. Medical transition isn’t the marker of whether you are truly trans or trans “enough” especially in a world where access to medical transition is still challenging and, for some, impossible.
And, in fact, physical transition can involve much more than just hormones and surgery; changing your attire, your hair, your workout routines and more are equally valid means of physically transitioning. If you feel coerced or pressured into taking steps to medically transition, take a step back and try to feel out whether it’s what you really want and need to be happy.
2. But don’t feel pressure to not medically transition.
On the opposite side is the argument that you must identify within the binary in order to medically transition or that medical transition negates your non-normative, queer, or non-binary gender identity. Many medical professionals have denied, and continue to deny, folks the right to transition based on these outdated standards—that you must be “MTF” (male-to-female) or “FTM” (female-to-male) to “warrant” hormones and/or surgery.
But, just as our assigned sex has little or nothing to do with our lived and felt gender expression, our bodies in transition can be a related but separate component of our gender identity. Your gender identity does not have to line up neatly with society’s expectations based on your physical appearance.
You should never have to explain or justify your choice to physically transition or how that choice relates to your gender identity and expression. Feeling like you want or need to pursue any aspect of physical transition is justification enough.
3. In fact, feeling comfortable in your body can allow you to more freely explore and express your non-normative gender identity.
Unfortunately, our physical bodies are the first thing most people use to try to determine our gender. If you feel dysphoria (a strong sense of discomfort with your physical body) about having certain body parts or about how you are treated based on being perceived as having those body parts, constant misgendering by others can be a source of deep frustration and anxiety.
Dysphoria and anxiety take a huge amount of emotional and even physical energy; it can be downright exhausting to feel that you’re not being read as the gender you feel you are inside. And on top of it all, expressing a non-normative identity can be especially difficult.
However, once you feel comfortable in your body and your presentation, regardless of whether that involves physical transition, you may find that you have more space and more energy to explore your gender possibilities. Indeed, changing your body or your presentation may turn out to be a crucial part of your non-binary identity. The most important thing is that you honor your own process of exploration.
4. Still, navigating a world where falling within the binary is the norm will not always be easy.
Although trans folks have earned a certain amount of respect and visibility recently, often attention has been directed towards more binary-identified people. Our society still struggles to accept and to honor gender expressions that fall outside of the categories man and woman. You may sometimes find yourself in situations where, in order to ensure your safety and comfort, you have to behave or present yourself in ways that are at odds with your personal sense of identity.
Or, you may find that presenting yourself as you want to the world all the time means being regularly questioned about your identity, being misgendered, and being concerned for your safety and well-being. We all have to figure out the easiest and safest ways to navigate this society, whether that means being out and proud all the time or tailoring your gender expression to suit different situations. But, doing the work of navigating this binary, cisnormative world doesn’t make your gender identity any less real or authentic.
5. Lastly, you are the only person who gets to determine how you see yourself and who you want to be.
The beauty of our modern society is that, independent of social pressures, we have an unprecedented opportunity to pick and choose which aspects of social, physical, and medical transition will allow us to be our most authentic selves.
For some that might mean short-term or low-dose hormone use. For some that might mean having certain surgeries without using hormones. For others still, it might mean simply viewing yourself and your gender identity in a new light.
The key is self-determination, the process of deeply considering what feels right for you based on how you see yourself. Sure, there are social pressures that continue to limit the scope of truly free gender self-determination. But, ultimately it is still your choice, your decisions, and your sense of self that really matter above all else.