At the beginning, when I knew I had to transition, I was afraid.
Every phone call to the hospital to set up my initial interview spiked my anxiety. When I went out with eyeliner — or even the time I swallowed hard and walked into a bar with a dress on — I scanned every passing glance for judgement. I was taking something very fragile and exposing it to the air of a conservative state that was only just starting to address electoshock torture and “conversion therapy” of queer people.
But it wasn’t so much the glares of the religious that I feared. I worried that I’d made a huge life choice only to be called illegitimate.
I knew I had to change, but I didn’t have an end-goal in mind. In fact, I actively resisted it. At the start, sitting in the sterile doctor’s office for my pre-hormone replacement therapy interview, my biggest worry was that my dysphoria would be deemed insufficient, or non-existent, because I didn’t feel it with my whole body.
For months leading up to that first appointment, as I worked to piece my life back together in my basement Salt Lake City apartment, I fixated on the parts of myself I didn’t like. My chest felt wrong without breasts. I hated the angles of my face. And I knew for years that the wispy hairs on my chest and abdomen had to go.
While I waited for medical approval for hormones, that’s where I started. With my torso. I usually shaved off those weed-like hairs, anyway, and even if I changed my mind I knew I’d be happier with them gone. The pain was awful — worse than most of my tattoos — but when I ran my hand over the new smoothness, I knew I was moving in the right direction. I became anxious for more change.
My chest was where I wanted it most. When I’d shower, I’d touch the places where I wanted more fat. I’d look down and try to visualize the kind of body I wanted. I thought my legs were fine. I always had a good butt. I could go either way on my pelvic genitals, the question of what to do about them — if anything — set aside for some future time.
If I drew a map, I could have pinpointed the dysphoria hotspots on my body. Maybe I should have, because I know I’m not alone in how I feel about my anatomical landscape.
The sentence almost starts like this. “I’m not trans, but…” And what follows is usually some expression of “if I could snap my fingers and change this part of myself, I would.”
There are all sorts of reasons we might wish parts of our bodies to be different. Cultural expectations, psychological trauma, and any number of influences affect how we feel about ourselves. But when these desires for change edge up to trans identities, the conversation sometimes engenders more anxiety than reassurance. That if you like most of your body, but wish your genitals were like those of another sex, for example, that’s somehow impinging on trans territory. Or that wishing for change in this or that part of our bodies or expressions means we are trans and have Shit To Deal With that feels too imposing.
Don’t be scared. Letting those voices be heard won’t hurt you.
I used to say things like “I’m not trans, but, if I could snap my fingers and wake up a woman, I would.” I didn’t feel like the way I felt was real or worthy enough. The process of transitioning seemed incredibly intimidating, and I had no idea why I had that feeling. I just did. It took me years to codify how I felt about my body and why.
But even if I didn’t start HRT or ponder surgical changes, it’d be totally okay to say that I would prefer some parts of my body to change while keeping others as they are. Dysphoria doesn’t need to be a whole-body experience or require fundamental and sweeping change to be real and deeply-felt.
We’re still learning to talk about all this. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that gender dysphoria was considered a pathology. We’re still suffering under the weight of the negative model, which dictates that we can only change if we’re in pain. The idea that we can change if those alterations actively make us happy — gender euphoria — hasn’t synced up with medical protocol yet.
If we go another level down, the spate of transformative possibilities span the physical and the social — and they don’t always overlap. It’s not wrong to feel like a man and want breasts, or identify as a woman and want to have a phallus. Those are legitimate feelings and they don’t require the label of transgender unless you want it. Being part of a culture is you choosing it as it chooses you back — active participation and not something simply assigned to you by an authority.
I’m not the first person to express this, not by a longshot. But I think the message bears repeating. Especially given that so much of what the cisgender world thinks of trans people revolves around sweeping physical change. How many of us, every single day, are asked about what we’re going to do with our genitals? How much pressure we face to pass, even if that’s not something we want, because the world still expects us to follow binary identities? We are still fighting to gain acceptance for the notion that bodily and gender autonomy celebrates variation, and that there is no “right way” to be trans or gender nonconforming.
You don’t need a whole-body overhaul to be transgender. And you don’t need to take on the label of trans just because there is part of yourself that you wish took a different form along the sex or gender spectrum. All I can tell you is to give those whispers a little air, let them simply be and consider them on your own terms. Your body is yours, the only one you’re ever going to get. When you choose what you want it to be, you choose yourself.