Good news: we are living in a world where people in the LGBTQI community are finding a voice and are becoming more and more accepted in our society. We are living in a time when resources and information about LGBTQI issues are abundant and at our fingertips. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult, confusing, and scary. I want to acknowledge that I am a cisgender man, so I have not struggled with my own gender identity but through my training in transgender issues and my work with trans clients, especially adolescents, I have found that there are some early concepts that have been helpful to discuss and explore. In this post, I will give you some background to get started on this gender identity journey and give you some good first steps to take as well as some important things to consider.
First, let’s talk about the differences between Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sexual Orientation.
Gender identity is your inner sense of being male, female, neither, or both. In thinking about your gender identity, remember that our society really likes categories; we like putting people in nice, neat buckets. But, you don’t have to identify as simply male or female. You might be more comfortable with an identity of gender non-binary, where you feel like you don’t quite fully identify with either male or female. Maybe gender fluid is a better term to describe your gender identity where your gender isn’t consistent. Maybe one of these terms fits your gender identity better: gender ambiguous, pangender, neutrois, gender expansive, masculine of center, femine of center, androgyne. The point is, your gender identity is a part of you and getting to a place where you understand your own internal sense of gender identity is a good first step in your gender journey.
Gender expression refers to the external ways people show their gender. This can be your behavior, your voice, your clothing, your haircut, etc. What ways of expressing your gender feel good to you? Do you feel more comfortable in certain clothing? Do you wish your hair was longer or shorter? Are there parts of your body you want to accentuate or not accentuate? Does your gender expression change? Maybe one day you feel like wearing a dress and fishnet tights and the next you want to wear torn up jeans and a baseball cap. Take some time to think about the ways you express yourself externally and what this message means to you as well as how you want the rest of the world to see you.
Sexual Orientation relates to romantic and sexual attraction and is unrelated to gender identity and expression. This is about who you find attractive; who you are drawn to. This is another category that our society has historically felt should follow strict rules: boys like girls, girls like boys. But, you don’t have to fit in these buckets. Are you attracted to people of the same gender identity as you? People with the opposite gender identity? Both? Or maybe you’re pansexual and are potentially attracted to anyone, regardless of their gender identity.
So considering these three concepts is important work toward crafting a world in which you are happy, open, and free. You might consider finding books to help you investigate these things within you (see references at the end of this post). But, once you feel confident in your gender identity, your gender expression, and your sexual orientation, what next?
Telling others about your gender identity can be one of the scariest parts of your journey. Before coming out to others, you may want to talk to a neutral person, like a therapist or school counselor. You may also want to find books that help you prepare for coming out (see references). In thinking about coming out, make a list of all the people who are most important to you, this may be parents, friends, siblings, teachers. Next, start thinking about how these people are likely to react. Begin by telling people you believe are most likely to accept you and be by your side on this journey. Always consider your safety. Find a safe environment and safe people as you begin coming out. It’s a good idea to plan these conversations ahead of time. Practice what you want to say and be ready to answer some of the typical questions you might get. You also want to be mentally prepared in case you get a more negative reaction than you anticipate. Remember, you don’t have to come out to everybody, but it’s a good idea to come out to some people close to you so you can have a support team in this journey.
One possible step on your transgender journey is transitioning. When we hear transitioning, we often think about medical transitioning, but it’s also important to consider social transitioning. Social transitioning is about your gender expression, your name, your gender pronouns and other aspects that are reversible. Before thinking about medical transitioning, think about your concept of gender and gender expression in our world. We have all been shaped by the ways our society believes men and women traditionally act and look: men are into sports, women are creative; men have short hair, women have long hair. What fits for you? Don’t let yourself get caught in thinking that because you are transitioning to a certain gender identity, you have to fit society’s rules around how that gender acts and expresses itself. And what name do you want to use? What pronouns? Part of social transitioning is putting these changes into place; asking others to start calling you a new name and using new pronouns.
Medical transitioning is a broad-reaching topic with many considerations, so I’ll keep it short. Find a good doctor. If you are young, find a pediatric endocrinologist who can help you figure out what to do in terms of puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy. If you are an adult, an endocrinologist can help you get started, especially with hormones, but do your research first. Search for a “trans-friendly doctor” near you or use LGBTQI provider directories. (See references for a list of provider directories). Sometimes it is helpful to find someone, like a therapist, who specializes in working with transitioning clients and can help you navigate the medical system through transition.
This post just barely starts to talk about this complicated gender journey you are on. Please check out the references below for books and other resources to help you make this journey as smooth as possible.
UCSF Transgender Care discussion of terminology and pronouns. https://transcare.ucsf.edu/guidelines/gender-nonconforming
Hoffman-Fox, D. (2017). You and your gender identity. A guide to discovery. Skyhorse.
Lev, A. I. (2004). Transgender emergence. Routledge.
OutCare provider directory. https://www.outcarehealth.org/
Rainess, S. J. (2015). Real talk for teens. Jump start guide to gender transitioning and beyond. Harbor View Press
World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) provider directory search. https://www.wpath.org/provider/search
–Matt Todd MA, LCMHCA
Matt Todd, MA, LCMHCA is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate in North Carolina, and is currently accruing hours toward full licensure. To schedule an appointment with Matt or any of the therapists at Carolina Sexual Wellness Center, call 919-297-8322.