Transgender folks spend a lot of time explaining our identities to other people, and a lot more time being asked to explain how we knew we were trans. But, for myself and my trans friends I’ve talked about this with, we’re baffled by the idea of knowing that the gender you were assigned at birth matches, at least closely enough, the gender you identify as. To experience gender in this way baffles us just as much as I imagine transgender experience confuses cisgender folks.
I was talking about this with my friend Finn who gave me the idea for this post. It used to be that the question, “How do you know you’re not gay?” was a sarcastic retort. Now, a lot (though certainly not all) of straight kids can actually answer this question. I’d love to move to a place where the same is true with gender.
So I’m asking cisgender folks, that is people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth: how do you know you’re not trans?
Here’s why I think it’s a question that needs asking: everyone should get the chance to figure out their own gender identity on their own terms. Right now this important process is something folks go through because we have to, because our experience of gender doesn’t match up with what our culture is telling us. But everyone should be presented the opportunity to explore, experiment with, and claim their own gender identity.
To start out the conversation I asked some friends, including Feministing writers, to share their answers. You can read their thoughts below. Thanks so much to everyone who shared their own experiences of gender. Please share your own thoughts in the comments.
I was told I was a girl in all sorts of little ways–subtle and not so subtle–since the time I was a tiny human, of course. Even if my super feminist family, I remember lots of differentiation between my big brother and I. Our personalities fell along traditional gender stereotypes–he was rambunctious and outspoken, while I was shy and demure. But I think that the first time I really knew I was cisgendered, as a more personal knowing, was when I was in middle school and I felt so connected to my developing female body and all that it meant in the world, quite suddenly, to be a woman. I knew, then and there, that my biology and my identity were female–for better and worse.
You asked how I know I’m not trans. The short answer is…I don’t. The long[er] answer is that because of the discrimination I’ve seen trans people face throughout my lifetime, and because of the privilege afforded to cis-gendered people that I’ve directly benefited from, cis-gendered has become a sort of “neutral default” identity for me- the “easy” choice, something to stray from only if I somehow felt I had to [which I haven't felt thus far]. I don’t feel I ever chose to identify as a cis-gendered female, rather, it feels like it was taught to me and ingrained in me and I would have to actively feel uncomfortable and unsatisfied with it on a daily basis to be inspired to rebel against that and identify as anything else. So as someone who hasn’t actively and consciously thought a lot about my gender identity [yet], I end up “picking” the one that I was assigned at birth by default. I get the sense this is the experience of a lot of cis-gendered people. But the fact that I don’t feel like I ever got to consciously choose- that’s fucking sad, man. It’s a level of myself I’m not in touch with, and it’s just one of the ways that transphobia, gender binaries, and strict unyielding gender norms oppress us all, not just trans-identified people.
I was born physically male, and I identify as male. The issue of my gender identity is generally not something that I’ve had to debate with myself. I feel like my insides match my outsides, and I have no conflicting feelings when I see or experience my body. It feels as it should. When I go out into the world, I don’t feel like I’m wearing a mask, or that I’m being misrepresented by my physical form. I like the shape of my body. I like my beard. If anything, the one thing that tells me my physical gender and my gender identity are well aligned is that I don’t have to think about it. Sure, there are some traits regarding my body that I feel uncomfortable about. I have scoliosis, and a bit of a potbelly due to 7 months of working a sedentary desk job. But being a boy is generally something that just comes naturally.
I’ve actually thought about my gender identity quite a bit. I identify as high, high femme. When I think about how I know I am queer and how I know I am femme, I cannot give some solidly intellectual answer. It is my gut and my heart and my soul. It is how I interact with lovers, friends, and the world at large. It is where I derive my power. I am female and feminine to my core, I just happen to be born in a body that matches.
-Rebecca aka Professor Foxy
I identify as femme, but not high femme, more like kinda butch femme. I have a lot of testosterone which is why I have a deep voice and I grow a lot of facial hair, which I think is partially ethnic/racial, but also because I have a lot of testosterone. It is something I have only recently come to terms with, and sometimes I grow out my facial hair and I enjoy playing with it, but just like my leg hair, I get rid of it, generally if I have a hot date, relying ultimately on what my perceived/privileged gender is. I am also generally drawn to women with more testosterone and men with less, at least sexually.
I have often felt that maybe my gender doesn’t match the body I was born in, but really depending on the time in my life, and I have vacillated from being butch to super duper femme and then settling back to who I am now, which is a femme with some masculine tendencies…especially with regard to my sexuality. I benefit from cis-privilege but I have also had people be shocked and surprised to find out that I am more “tomboyish,” like I hid it from them and sprung it on them (from behind, HAR HAR), but you know what I mean! And being a person of color and a big girl I have never felt like I lived up to white standards of beauty, and after working to shed off the pain of internalized racism and fat hate, I came to a place where I had to accept who I am for who I am. Being femme almost helped me come to terms with being beautiful on my own terms since I knew I was always living outside of societies dictates of normative beauty for women. *queue* koombayah *queue*
It’s definitely never been a question for me – beyond what I think is perfectly normal discussion with myself “How do I know if I’m gay? Maybe I am?” (which I realize is a different question but I think it’s ok if I use that as an example of my own self-examination as that’s the closest I ever came to thinking of anything like being trans)
Maybe I’m just ‘a follower’ but I think I always looked forward to being a ‘man’. Couldn’t wait to grow body hair of any type – to finally be a guy and not a kid. Of course I think it’s “normal” (yes, tricky wording, don’t forget that I think questioning/trans/homosexual feelings are “normal” for children too) to grow up modeling after societal norms, and I don’t think I was overly influenced by them. I was given freedom to express my inner self – no matter how it came out. My mother always would talk about my future “wife, or husband, or maybe you won’t even want to marry anyone”. But I quite comfortably gravitated towards heterosexual male.
When I learned about intersex, and how common it was for doctors to just choose one sex/gender and go with it, I briefly wondered if maybe that had happened to me, but I think that was more about the paranoia that comes with self individualization that comes with all growing up. I also used to wonder if I was an alien or a robot and everyone else was a human, or if I was the only human in a big alien or robot experiment to see how I react to life scenarios that they would make happen.