Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

How Do People Know They’re Trans?

Well, how do you know you’re cis?

I think the simplest way I was ever asked to think about this question is by reading the question asked after the headline: How do you know you’re cis?

Sitting with that, lots of things came up for me: “I just know,” “normal,” natural.”

Simply put, the same is true for trans people.

Of course the experiences are different. But, despite the need for gender-affirming care, trans people understand themselves in the same way that cis people do, even when their truth may be more nuanced and may include more honest exploration.

To bring a little more light to this question, let’s talk about what Julia Serano calls subconscious sex.

In her book Whipping Girl, Serano takes issue with the idea of “gender identity,” particularly when teasing out a cis person’s curiosity around how trans people assigned one sex at birth come to know themselves as another.

Trans people being described as “identifying as …,” according to Serano, though I think we would all agree, speaks more to the idea of making conscious and deliberative choices around gender, as people do with, say, political affiliation or career choice, for example.

Serano explains:

“… the phrase ‘gender identity’ is problematic because it seems to describe two potentially different things: the gender we consciously choose to identify as, and the gender we subconsciously feel ourselves to be. To make things clearer, I will refer to the latter as subconscious sex.”

When talking about her own experience, Serano walks readers through why talking about how she knows herself to be a trans woman isn’t accurately described by saying she saw herself or knew herself to be female, or wished or wanted to be female, or felt female.

Instead, as Serano says:

“Perhaps the best way to describe how my subconscious sex feels to me is to say that it seems as if, on some level, my brain expects my body to be female.”

She goes on to explain some existing research that suggests our brains have an intrinsic understanding of what sex our bodies should be, supported by the example of numerous male infants who’d been reassigned female after botched circumcisions — raised, socialized and with female-appearing genitalia — but eventually came to understand themselves as male.

She says:

“The brain-hardwiring hypothesis can also account for why thinking of myself as female has always been beyond my conscious reach, why I was unable to repress it or rationalize it away no matter how hard I tried. A lot of people assume that trans people have an addict-like obsession with being the other sex: The more we think about it, the more we convince ourselves into believing it to be true. I have found that being trans is quite the opposite: The more I tried to ignore the thoughts of being female, the more persistently they pushed their way back into the forefront of my mind. In that way, they felt more like other subconscious feelings, such as hunger or thirst, where neglecting the urge only makes the feeling more intense with time.”

When I read Whipping Girl as I was figuring out how to be the best parent for my trans kid, the idea of subconscious sex made good sense to me, even as someone who never experienced a subconscious sex that did not align with my assigned sex at birth.

Especially when I read this:

“Let’s face it: If cissexuals didn’t have a subconscious sex, then sex reassignment would be far more common than it is. Women who wanted to succeed in the male-dominated business world would simply transition to male. Lesbians and gay men who were ashamed of their queerness would simply transition to the other sex. Gender studies grad students would transition for a few years to gather data for their theses. Actors playing transsexuals would go on hormones for a few months in order to make their portrayals more authentic. Criminals and spies would physically transition as a way of going undercover. And contestants on reality shows would be willing to change their sex in the hope of achieving fifteen minutes of fame.”

When I sat with the above, what I couldn’t stop thinking about is that even if these examples didn’t happen regularly, that they don’t happen at all is striking.

I wear my hair short and have some non-conforming mannerisms, but I have not ever seriously questioned that my gender/sex did not align with my assigned birth sex. That natural comfort means something to me, just as the natural comfort my son found means something to him.

NOTE: Some might suggest, “Great, let’s just do brain imaging to figure out who is trans and who isn’t!” That is not what these studies are suggesting or promoting. Trans people do not need to be further pathologized.

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