Gender Desire vs. Gender Identity
There’s a question I often get from people after revealing my transgender status. They ask it expecting a simple answer, just trying to make polite conversation, but I always struggle with it.
So how long have you known?
It’s difficult because buried inside that question is an assumption — that I somehow knew I was a woman and transitioned so I could live according to that identity. But that isn’t always true. I, like so many other trans people, grew up experiencing gender not as an identity so much as a desire.
As a child, I knew with unwavering conviction that I was a boy. I had boy parts, I did boy things, and everyone treated me like a boy. There was never any doubt or distress about my gender. I may not have fit in well with the other boys, but there were lots of other reasons for that. I still knew I was one of them.
At the same time, I would often fantasize about becoming a girl. I was envious of them. I wanted to dress like them, act like them, and be friends with them. I was very confused whenever they were treated as a separate class of people, something other and lesser, not to be emulated. It seemed like everything about being a girl was better than being a boy.
Unable to recognize the growing cognitive dissonance, I proceeded to spend my adolescence and adulthood believing wholeheartedly that I was a man while secretly wishing to be a woman. And that was exactly how it felt — like a wish — a childish fantasy as absurd and wonderful as being able to fly. I was too old for such nonsense, so I tried my best to ignore it and moved on with my life. Then, gradually and with much trepidation, I allowed that fantasy to reveal a deep truth about myself.
So when did I know? Well, it’s complicated. I’ve always known what I wanted, but only recently did I learn who I was.
Of course, that’s not the narrative normally associated with trans people. It’s too messy. The 4-year-old who declares their gender and knows exactly what is wrong with their body is much tidier and more readily garners sympathy, so that’s the story we hear. And it is indeed a real experience many trans people have, whether they transition as children or adults.
But it wasn’t my experience. To me, gender was a longing, not an identity.
In the years before realizing I was trans, my therapist and I would often debate the meaning of gender identity. I insisted I didn’t have one. She strongly suspected otherwise. Sure, I’d researched the effects of feminizing hormone therapy and loved everything about it, but that didn’t mean I was a woman. Yes, I’d been using a female persona online ever since the days of dial-up chat rooms, but again, that didn’t mean I was one. It was just a fantasy. Cross-dressing was just a fantasy. Wanting to be a woman does not make you a woman, I insisted. Trans women believe they are women; I believed I was a man. Therefore, I could not be trans.
In retrospect, refusing to begin a gender transition because I didn’t already feel like a woman was like refusing to take flying lessons because I didn’t already feel like a pilot.
Using the language of identity and feeling when discussing gender can be counter-productive. It leads to debates about whether someone can feel like something without ever having been that thing (i.e. attack helicopters), and it places doubt in the minds of people like me who think they need to identify as a gender before transitioning to it.
But gender is no different than any other identity. Sometimes we’re born into it and know intuitively who we are, and sometimes we know who we want to be and must work to make that desire into reality.
So when does desire become identity?
In my case, It took over a year of therapy and starting hormone treatment before I was able to admit I was transgender. It then took another 2 years, including about 6 months of living full-time as a woman, before I was able to admit to myself that I was in fact a woman.
And of course, that was not a sudden revelation. It came in small increments. I started off as curious, then questioning, then not-cisgender, then questioning again, then transfeminine, then a trans woman, and finally a woman. At each step I refused to believe I was anything more, only to later realize I was simply afraid to apply a label to the experience I was already living.
My gender identity began as gender desire. Being a woman began as a desire to have a feminine body and to be seen and treated as a woman.
Desire might seem like a frivolous word, but if it’s strong enough, it can define a person. How often have you heard someone who deeply desires something but is unable to achieve it described as “a ___ at heart”? The struggling artist, the would-be mother, the injured athlete. These people define themselves by their dreams, however impossible they may seem, and we recognize that as part of their identity. Is gender really so different?
For some of us, thinking of gender as an option to pursue rather than a deeply-held sense of self can be very freeing. It gives us permission to move forward rather than remain stuck in our own heads, wondering if we’re “trans enough”, whether our suffering is great enough to justify seeking treatment.
Transitioning is hardly a frivolous decision, and it should be approached cautiously, but too often it gets framed as a last resort — a literal life or death decision — as a way to fend off accusations that we’re simply making a lifestyle choice. As if doing something because we think it will make us happier isn’t a good enough reason.
If you want to fly, maybe you should be a pilot. Sometimes chasing a dream is how we discover who we really are.