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Non-Binary Transition - Part 2: What is Transition?
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Non-Binary Transition - Part 2: What is Transition?

by Micah at

Welcome to Part 2 of Non-Binary Transition presented at the Gender Odyssey Professional Conference in Seattle, August 2015.

Recordings are on YouTube, or follow along at your own pace with these slides containing speaker notes, essentially a transcription of the presentation, minus the audience. The workshop is 90 mins long, so it’s split into 3 parts.

All parts can be found here:

You are definitely encouraged to share with your provider, as well as family or friends, or yourself.  I only ask that you include  attribution or acknowledgement; the best way to credit me is linking to my site.

If you find value in this work, please consider a small contribution.

Hint: To get the most out of this, on the parts that say INTERACT, actually stop and give yourself a minute to silently provide an answer.

Ok, we’ve defined gender, we’ve defined transgender, and we’ve defined non-binary. (Recap at Part 1: What is Gender?)

Let’s move on to the second word in the title of the workshop.

What is transition?

Here are a few words that attempt to capture the sentiment behind transition.

In reality, transition - like gender - is somewhat indescribable.

But let’s give it a shot…

We can think of gender as having two major components:

Public Gender 

is what everyone sees. It’s how you are perceived by others.

It’s a social gender, and extends beyond yourself.

Private Gender

is an inner feeling, an internal experience.

Mostly indescribable, abstract, you just “know” it. It may be fuzzy and unclear, and indescribable even to yourself.

Nobody else can know or feel this but you.

INTERACT: Let’s do a quick exercise.

A) How many of you have worn an outfit, and everyone tells you that you look great, but you don’t feel great?

  • When that happens, what do you feel like doing?
  • Do you obsess about it, can’t stop thinking about it?

INTERACT: Thinking of this outfit that you’re not comfortable in...

B) Usually, you want to go home and change your outfit, regardless of how great others say you look.

You want to fix this internal discomfort, so that you not only look good to others, but you feel good, you look good to yourself.

That’s a very small taste of what dysphoria is like.

Dysphoria is a mismatch between others see and what you feel.

It can be quite unsettling, leading to extreme anxiety or depression.

As you saw in the exercise, it does not necessarily have to be about your body parts (physical), but can also be about how people see you (social).

So what is transition?

Transition is about aligning an internal feeling with what others see, so they are as close as possible.

It’s about finding comfort.

INTERACT: It’s being comfortable in your Gender Outfit.

It’s about being able to put on your gender outfit and go about your day without giving it a second thought, much less worrying about it all day.

But what about non-binary transition?

What is unique about transition, in particular for someone whose gender is outside of male or female?

We understand transgender traditionally to mean that if you are assigned female, you transition to male; and if you are assigned male, you transition to female.

These are all concepts we can understand.

But what does a non-binary person transition to?

Our public gender does not exist: in forms, in fitting rooms, in bathrooms, in clothing stores and vitamins and love stories, we’re invisible.

Nobody is going to see me and know how I identify.

INTERACT: Do you know what my gender is?

This presents unique challenges for non-binary transition.

A non-binary public gender does not exist in society. 

Therefore, no matter what how much a non-binary person transitions, they will never be able to be completely affirmed in their identity during every part of their day.

So what’s the point of non-binary transition then?

To get closer to comfortable.

Because there are steps we can take that bring us peace, that reduce the dysphoria, and bring us closer to being ourselves. Close enough to make life livable. So close so that we may be able to forget about our gender outfit, for the most part, and just live.

INTERACT: Think about…

  • What does transition look like for a non-binary person?
  • What is or could be different about a non-binary transition from what we think of as a “typical” transition?

As you think about this, I’m going to quiz you.

INTERACT: What’s the first step in transition?

Now, let’s imagine transition is kind of like baking chocolate chip cookies.

At first glance, it may seem quite straightforward, like following a recipe.

Like chocolate chip cookies, gender has a lot of components.

So does transition. There are many parts - dry ingredients, wet ingredients, toppings, leavening, sweeteners, spices. Each part is:

  • separate
  • influences each other
  • may conflict with one another
  • of different importance to each individual

But baking cookies is more than just the ingredients. There’s the kitchen counter, the measuring cups, the sifter and rolling pin and other oddball instruments, the oven, the cook, and maybe the cook’s helpers.

Transition is holistic and multifaceted:

  • an emotional and mental journey behind each decision
  • process often invisible
  • extends beyond individual to relationships, family, community

Transition can happen in any order.

But there’s more to baking cookies than just mixing in butter and sugar and plopping them into the oven.

There’s a lot that goes into the Process.


Are you making chocolate chip, or peanut butter?

First, you have to pick between thousands of recipes.

Lots of tiny decisions

You’re grocery shopping for ingredients. Do you get milk chocolate chips, dark chocolate chips, semi-sweet chocolate chips, organic semi-sweet, 69% cacao semi-sweet? What’s the difference between all of these? Let’s not forget the milk, or the butter. Was it oil or shortening?

It can get overwhelming fast.

Trial and error

How do you know you’re going to like them? Maybe you’ve made this recipe before, or tried a similar kind of cookie. Do you dare try a new flavor? What if it tastes terrible? Or worse, what if you end up baking the best cookies ever, and now you’re addicted?

At best, you can make an educated guess and courageously move forth with your decision.

There’s also Growth.

How will the cookies taste? How many should you make? What’s the ideal oven temperature?

Unless you’ve tried every single ingredient in all the possible combinations, it’s impossible to know.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine yourself 50 steps in the future before you’ve taken the next 2.

Growth means as you learn new information, you’re better able to make future decisions.

Even though there are certain common elements - steps and ingredients - it’s wrong to assume there is a set sequence or formula, whether it’s cookies or transition.

As we saw, the process of baking cookies is more than just the recipe.

Some examples related to transition:

  • When someone is ready to come out, but unsure about transitioning physically
  • When someone gets surgery without coming out or telling anyone

Both of these are scenarios based on true stories, but quite distinct in the elements and order and components involved.

Lots of Combinations

What kind of cookie you end up baking depends not only on which ingredients you put in, the proportion of the ingredients, the type of ingredient, the baking order, how hard you mix the batter, and many other variables.

The particular gender you end up with depends on the ingredients you put into your transition.

Even similar ingredients can yield different results in their individual application.

Transition is essentially a buffet of options.

Some are like a base layer, fairly universal.

Other options are like flavored toppings: diverse, one or two or many or none, infinite combinations.

The end result will be an extremely personalized version of gender.

Transition is not all or nothing.

        Just like you can bake 500 dozens of cookies, you can make a single-serving 1-minute cookie.

This is crucial for non-binary people transition: you don’t necessarily have to buy the “whole package” to take any one step.

        (It actually applies to anyone transitioning.)

Time is the most essential ingredient.

        Sometimes you might feel you don’t have enough of it - you need some more time to think.

        Sometimes you’ll feel there’s too much - you want change to have happened yesterday!

A lot of stuff happens in this “magical cooking” period. It’s a process, and there’s a lot of Processing.

        Emotionally and mentally making sense of new information, integrating it back into the self, and on with the cycle.

        Sometimes you have to let a particular step or decision “cook” a little while longer before it’s ready.

Are you sure you want to bake cookies?

After all, we could bake cupcakes instead!

Transition can be a tumultuous period, with lots of uncertainty about where to begin, how to proceed, and whether the options we are considering are even the right options to be considering at all.

It’s important to take a step back and evaluate what is driving a lot of these decisions, go back to the roots and reasons for seeking transition.

Which bring us to another important question to ask during transition.

What do you want to achieve? What’s your goal?

        Behind every step, there is a powerful reason to take it.

Let’s pack up our cookies and head out on a trip.

Where are we going, and why?

Goals are Unique.

I think we’ve covered how diversity and gender and transition are so individualized.

Goals can be Uncertain.

As non-binary people, our public gender does not exist, which can make it very difficult to imagine what we’ll look like, or even what we want to look like. So it’s normal to have no idea what your final destination will be, at any point in the journey.

Sometimes all the options are shitty, either actually impossible or simply not within our reach. It’s hard to choose among the least worst.

It’s confusing to figure out how your gender fits into a world where it doesn’t exist. Confusion hurts self-confidence, leads to indecision. This is a perfectly normal part of the process; but being hesitant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it.

Transition is Dynamic. 

Remember growth? Goals change.

Each new piece is a discovery at some point. There are probably a lot of things you haven’t discovered, so you can’t make a decision on them yet. New information - about yourself, about transition - will change what the next steps will be.

Getting used to change is also a process. Once you are accustomed to something - say, wearing dresses - it’s seems easier to do other things you never thought possible - like, wearing heels.

“I’m not necessarily going from point A to point B. All I know is, I left point A.”

The journey for non-binary people is usually different because we don’t have a clear destination.

Although it’s very clear that we are not male/female, the rest may not be.

However, not having a destination doesn’t mean you can’t address the discomfort that you’re very clearly currently experiencing.

You can prepare for an unknown destination, and there are steps you can take to move forward.

Think of our trip: we might not know where we’ll end up, but we probably know we’ll need a few essentials before we set off: a backpack, clean underwear, food and water (and chocolate chip cookies), a toothbrush, our teddy bear.

A map can only tell you where you are, but not where you’re going.  

Non-Binary Identity / Transition: Stepping Stone or Destination?

This is a common question, top FAQ.

Sometimes a non-binary identity is a stepping stone - just a temporary layover on the way to man or woman.

Sometimes it is the destination.

Usually there’s no way to know beforehand what the final destination will be. So we must honor the place we’re at in this moment.

This matter is irrelevant to any transition steps you take right now.

You can still transition without knowing, and set up camp wherever you feel comfortable.

If you later discover there’s more to travel, then pack up and keep walking.

Sometimes different people will arrive at the what seems to be the same place, but they took wildly different paths.

The way they got there was unique: 

personalized goals and expectations and motivations driving each step, different order of steps, different timeline.

Generally the steps non-binary people go through are similar to any typical, binary transition: buying clothes, coming out, surgery, hormones, changing your name.

Two people might even look the same on the surface. (You might not be able to differentiate between one non-binary trans masculine person and a trans man.)

However, the mental and emotional process for these two individuals looks very different,

because their starting point was different: one identified as a man from the start, and the other didn’t, doesn’t, and may never identify as a man.

Their identity shaped their journey.

A non-binary person will have a different journey.


There is not right or wrong way to be trans or to transition

I cannot stress this enough — to providers, to non-binary people, to those who love them.

Each individual will have a very unique gender, with unique goals, and a unique approach to their transition.

There are conventions, there are commonalities, but it’s ultimately a very personal journey.

As a provider, what should your goals be in helping your patient?

Help understand your client's’ goals.

What each step means to their identity, how it fits into their goals

Informing them of the different options

Help the non-binary client work through the compromises

As we said, sometimes the available options are un-ideal.

Work with uncertainty

It’s a process riddled with fear, anxiety, and no clear answers.

INTERACT: What other goals should you have?

Now that we’ve defined Gender (part 1), we’ve defined Non-Binary gender, and we’ve defined Transition (part 2), we’re going to move on to the actual parts of transition (part 3).

The three parts are: Social, Medical, and Legal.

I’ll present a basic overview of the components in each part, so that you get a sense of everything that can go into transition.                 

Afterwards, you should go on to do more detailed research, depending on your needs.

I’ll also focus on the challenges that arise in each component specifically for non-binary transition.

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