Sonja’s Guide to Gender Questioning
(Welcome, Questioner! Over the years I’ve encountered so many people on Reddit questioning their gender that I have developed this guide to the best resources I know of for helping people sort out their gender identity, along with a liberal dose of my own views on the subject. The contents of any links present here are the views and research of others, while the text in this document reflects the beliefs and opinions of this individual internet rando. Take it as you will.
This guide tries hard to stay neutral on whether you actually are trans or not. This is not a “how do I prove that I’m trans?” guide. While it’s true that many people who read this guide will turn out to be trans (because few cis people ever feel a need to question their gender at all), the goal of this guide is not to assume either answer, but to give you the tools you need to conduct a fair, balanced assessment of your own situation.
Up front, I will say that this guide is intended for people with binary gender identities: ones that are clearly male or clearly female. People with non-binary, genderfluid, agender, or other identities may well need different resources and guides than what I can provide. I am a pretty vanilla trans-femme person myself; I do not claim to have any competence when it comes to non-binary identities, and have made no attempt in this document even to try. I am staying very firmly in my binary lane, here.
Please be encouraged to share the link to this document with anyone else it may help.)
Framing the Question
Questioning your gender identity–i.e. figuring out what your true gender identity is–comes down to learning enough about how gender actually works (rather than just how everyone assumes it works) and about how it affects trans people so that you can make a coherent assessment about how gender identity is playing out in your own life.
The first thing to learn is that gender identity is not the same as gender expression. That is, how your “soul” feels about itself is not necessarily the same as how your body looks, when it comes to the gender categories we’re familiar with. For purposes of this document, “soul” means only the innermost part of your mind that is your identity as a person, with no implications or connections to any religious use of the word.
The resource for this is http://genderbread.org, which is an ELI5-level introduction to the concept that your identity is made of several individually identifiable parts, all of which are real and deserving of respect. Genderbread, however, attempts to cover physical and romantic attraction as well which (though important in life) are less important for questioning your gender. And I don’t feel that Genderbread goes deeply enough into the distinction between gender identity (soul) and gender expression (body).
In short: we grow up with a default cis-centric assumption that gender is one thing, that it is a monolithic phenomenon, dictated or governed by what kind of body you have. In actuality, gender is a dualistic phenomenon, composed of gender identity and gender expression, in which the inner gender identity is the part that determines whether you’re male or female irrespective of what kind of body you have.
Usually, for most people, the body matches the soul. Your soul feels male or female, and your body looks male or female to match, and all is well. This scenario is called being “cisgender”. But for reasons that are not well understood scientifically, sometimes your soul goes one way while your body goes the other way, and that’s called being “transgender”.
Being trans is fundamentally a mismatch between body and soul. And your soul is the part that matters. If you’re transgender, it is your body that is out of alignment, not your soul. Your soul is fine. It’s you. If your body isn’t living up to your soul’s needs, then it’s the body that needs to change. This is both true on a philosophical level (the soul should in some sense take priority over the body), a moral level (it’s not right to demand that a person change or hide their innermost self for any reason), and a practical level (all the evidence we have says that a person’s true, inner gender identity is immutable, and cannot be changed, while the body is readily changed through hormones and surgeries).
So that’s the first thing to understand: when you’re questioning your gender, you are really asking the question “does my body match my inner gender identity?” Affirm that you, as a soul, as an entity, are fine, but ask whether the meat-sack that carries you around is the right shape for your needs.
What Being Trans Is Like
The second thing to understand is that when the body doesn’t match the soul, it causes people to experience a host of psychological discomforts called “gender dysphoria.” Gender dysphoria is vast and complex, and reaches into practically every facet of a trans person’s life.
This matters because the best way we know of to tell if someone is trans is to determine whether they experience gender dysphoria. If you went to a therapist and asked them to help you sort it out, this is what they would do. However, this is something you can do perfectly well on your own. All it requires is learning about what gender dysphoria is, how it works, and how it manifests in actual trans people’s lives.
Every trans person is unique (you know, just like every person), and therefore each trans person experiences dysphoria differently. Nevertheless there are some clear trends and patterns. Learning about them is your key to figuring out whether any of those patterns apply in your own life, and the resource for doing that is the Gender Dysphoria Bible at https://genderdysphoria.fyi. In my opinion, while you read the GDB, the best thing to do is to pay attention to how you feel about the descriptions and examples of different forms of dysphoria.
If those descriptions and examples seem largely foreign to you–if they feel like interesting or potentially even fascinating concepts but nothing more–then you probably don’t have gender dysphoria. But if those descriptions and examples evoke memory after memory of similar experiences from your own life then you may well have gender dysphoria. Pay more attention to the overall “flavor” of what you’re reading and whether you recognize that flavor from first-hand experience than to the specifics.
Yeah, but am I Trans?
Again, if you went to a psychologist for help with that question, they’d assess your dysphoria levels but would ultimately rely on the clinical diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria. These are available many places online with minimal Googling, but the specific summary I refer to most often is here: https://www.news-medical.net/health/Diagnosis-of-Gender-Dysphoria.aspx
There are different criteria for children versus adults, though the two sets are similar. The individual criteria are written in very abstract, clinical language, and in my view are rather hard to understand in any useful way that lets you determine which criteria you may meet. However, since gender dysphoria is how we know someone is trans, the diagnostic criteria all relate back to dysphoria in one way or another, which is why it is so useful to go through the Gender Dysphoria Bible first: get your head around what dysphoria even is and how it might apply in your own life, and then you’ll have a much easier time determining which of the diagnostic criteria you do or don’t have.
A Word about Self-Determinism
Diagnostic criteria are all well and good (even reassuring), but ultimately no one but you can determine whether you are actually trans. Recall, being trans means that your body’s gender expression is out of alignment with your soul’s gender identity. And it’s the soul that matters. But making a definitive determination that these things are either in or out of alignment means comparing a visible thing (your body) with an invisible thing (your soul). Nobody else lives inside your head. Nobody else knows what it feels like to be you. Nobody can see your soul to tell whether your body matches it.
Except you. You, and only you, have the privileged viewpoint of being inside your own head. You and only you know what it feels like to be you. You and only you are capable of assessing your true gender identity. The GDB and the diagnostic criteria are invaluable tools for helping you assess whether it is likely that you are trans. But ultimately, you’re the only one who can say for sure.
This is critically important. Because if it turns out you are trans, you will encounter people who will reject your assertion of your own true identity. They will say you are confused, that you are influenced by the internet, that the devil is poisoning your mind, that they’ve known you since you were born, that you “can’t argue with biology”, and any number of other arguments I could list.
All of those arguments boil down to one thing: These people are observing the way your body looks, making an assumption about your soul on that basis, and are then claiming that they know you better than you know yourself.
Which they cannot. They can see your body, but only you can see your soul. And it’s the soul that matters. If, after examining yourself, you determine that your soul is best labeled as “female” or “male”, irrespective of how your body looks, then that’s what you are. Period.
If you are trans, standing up to claim your true identity will likely trigger resistance from some of those around you. It is therefore important that you understand exactly why you are quite literally the only person in the world who is, or even can be, an authority on your own identity.
But How Can I Be Sure?
Let’s suppose you have digested the GDB and assessed the diagnostic criteria and found that you are indeed likely to be trans, but you still have doubts. First, welcome to the club! Basically every trans person goes through a period of being unsure. This is unsurprising, especially if you are facing this question in your teens or later: the more life experience you have in your birth-assigned gender, the harder it becomes to change the lifelong belief that you are that gender. Even in the face of strong evidence, it’s not easy to accept that you’re actually female if you’ve gone through your whole life believing you’re male, or vice-versa.
The most insightful strategy for being sure that I have yet seen is Natalie Reed’s excellent essay The Null Hypothecis: https://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/04/17/the-null-hypothecis/
In this, Ms. Reed points out that when we question our gender, we are evaluating two different hypotheses: the “I’m cisgender” hypothesis vs. the “I’m transgender” hypothesis. Two competing viewpoints on who you might be. However, we grow up in a society with an extremely strong cisgender bias, and so we unconsciouly privelege the “I’m cisgender” hypothesis. We take it for granted, not demanding that it prove itself against the evidence of our lives, while subjecting the “I’m transgender” hypothesis to the most stringent and skeptical evaluation.
And yet, as Reed points out, there is no reason for this asymmetry. Both hypotheses should be evaluated with equal stringency. How can you be sure you’re trans? Well, how can you be sure you’re cis? If you’re not sure–and since you’re questioning your gender to begin with you already know you’re not–then the only right thing to do is to take the evidence your life offers you (in the form of your memories that relate to different types of gender dysphoria or to gender-coded experiences), and ask yourself which hypothesis does a better job of explaining all that evidence.
Speaking personally, this method of framing the uncertainty was exceptionally effective at helping me come to a clear and confident conclusion about my own gender identity. Because once evaluated in this light, it became abundantly clear to me that the “I’m cisgender” hypothesis really can’t explain my life at all. But the “I’m transgender” hypothesis does a shockingly, almost frighteningly, good job of explaining the parts of my life that were always the most painful, the most confusing, and the most detrimental to my own view of myself.
Going through the Null Hypothecis exercise, outlined in Reed’s essay so much better than I can do here, finally made my life make sense in a way that nothing else ever had. It gave me both the confidence and the comfort to say to myself “well, yes, then I truly am a woman,” regardless of what they assumed about me when I was born.
If you conclude that you’re trans, you may also conclude that you should “transition” to your actual gender instead of whatever they assigned you when you were born. Transitioning is the process of re-aligning your body and your life to match the needs of your soul. If you decide this is something you need, great!
However, this document is not a guide to how to transition from one gender expression to another. It is a guide for questioning your gender. Hence, I do not intend any of the following as medical advice. Do not take medical advice from internet randos.
That said, I assert that understanding the possibilities medical transitioning offers is genuinely helpful to the process of questioning your gender, because it enables you to examine your feelings about those treatments. It allows you to ask yourself how you’d feel about having or not having breasts, a penis, a vagina, facial hair, etc., from the perspective of knowing that you actually could have that sort of a body and what it would take. To treat those questions not as purely philosophical musings, but as real possibilities for you in your life.
Second, I offer these resources out of a sense of ethical obligation. For if someone reads this document and concludes that they are transgender, it would be cruel indeed to leave them in the bleak place of feeling stuck in their mismatch between soul and body. I will never tell anyone what they should do with their body, but I want to tell every trans person that they can and should have genuine hope for bringing their body into better alignment with their souls, if they choose to do so.
Being hit with the conclusion “Well, shit, I guess I’m trans” can feel like being diagnosed with a dire disease, which if not coupled with the hope of a treatment path, risks harming people’s mental health. I am not willing to risk that harm.
So with the lengthy caveat out of the way, and for its aid to your questioning and to your future hope, the best summary I know of as to what is medically possible in transitioning is the transgender healthcare presentation deck put together by Dr. Will Powers, of the Powers Family Medicine clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The latest full version of this is here:
Be warned, this presentation is written by a doctor, to help other doctors treat trans patients, and is therefore heavy with medical lingo. Nevertheless, while the details of hormone metabolism or whatever may escape me or any other non-medically-trained reader, the presentation’s broad strokes are easy enough to grasp.
Note that Dr. Powers has a subreddit, /r/DrWillPowers, which is a great place to go for a peek into the day-to-day medical realities that people face while transitioning. The sidebar of this subreddit will have a link to any updated versions of the presentation (as of this writing, there is a “leak” of an updated 7.0 version, though this is not yet final). The sidebar also has links to many other healthcare resources, including a wiki where you can find providers in your area that serve transgender healthcare needs.
While I will fully admit to being impressed by Dr. Powers’ work, I would be remiss not to state that Dr. Powers is a somewhat polarizing figure in transgender medicine. Dr. Powers’ patients seem to love him for his willingness to listen to what they want out of their transitions and to do his level best to find a hormone regimen that will achieve it for them. He has pioneered new dosing strategies and drug delivery methods for hormones that are well-grounded in science and seem both clinically safe and effective, and he is not shy about promoting what seems to work. On the flip side, given the rather sad state of academic research on medical transitioning and the politically-charged nature of such work today, none of Dr. Powers’ methods have received the kind of peer-reviewed scientific study that most medical treatments receive. Dr. Powers fully admits this and encourages that type of research, but regardless, such research has not yet validated his methods in properly controlled trials. So, full-disclosure: some people think he’s a saint, others a madman. I am of the view that his story speaks for itself, but you make up your own mind.
Some Other Useful Bits
The above are the big resources, but they are hardly the only ones. Other resources that have helped me or others along their journeys of questioning include:
Anne Vitale’s research paper on transgender identities:
Note: the link on Dr. Vitale’s site recently went stale when she revamped her website. While it looks like she intends this article to still be available, currently it is not, so here is a cached version from the Internet Archive)
This paper is rather old now, and its terminology is less “woke” than what we use here in 2022, but I still find its core observations to be extremely relevant. In it, Dr. Vitale surveys many trans people and attempts to create a set of broad classifications of trans people based on similar life experiences. I have shared this link with many others who have had the same reaction to it as I did: to have felt extremely seen and validated by recognizing themselves in one of Vitale’s groupings. To grow up trans is often to grow up feeling like you are a uniquely abnormal weirdo, a misfit among misfits. But instead, I find that I am a fairly ordinary and straightforward type of trans person. I am not weird or strange. There’s a whole bunch of other people out there just like me, enough that this researcher noticed us and gave us a label, and that is extraordinarily comforting.
Dara Hoffman Fox’s blog post on dysphoria types: https://darahoffmanfox.com/do-i-have-gender-dysphoria/
While parts of this will feel repetitive with the Gender Dysphoria Bible, Fox does present a useful grouping of the different broad types of dysphoria, and a methodology for quantifying how you experience each one. In some ways, I think Fox does a better job of systematizing dysphoria than the GDB does, while the GDB goes into far better depth. Read both, and let their respective strengths play off one another.
Although I said earlier that sexuality and romantic orientation were less important considerations when questioning one’s gender, only a fool would claim that there is no interaction between our gendered souls and the way we interact sexually or romantically with other human beings. One source of uncertainty many trans people feel about being trans (that is, another way they subconsciously privilege the “I’m cisgender” hypothesis), is by assuming that their feelings of dysphoria are instead some type of sexual fetish. This, too, is one of those “only you can decide for sure” things, but Amanda Roman has put together a fabulous piece exploring the dynamics of fetishism vs. trans identities that can help you sort out what’s what: https://medium.com/@kemenatan/its-just-a-fetish-right-91cb0a4e261
A cruel reality of gender dysphoria is that not all dysphorias are obvious. In many, many cases, specific types and instances of gender dysphoria do not feel, in the moment, like they are related to gender at all. But they are. Zinnia Jones covers these “indirect” forms of dysphoria in this next link. Again, much of this is touched on in the GDB, but Jones’s analysis is still very useful for expanding the scope of life experiences that you examine while questioning your gender, or for identifying dysphorias that would have escaped your notice otherwise. https://the-orbit.net/zinniajones/2013/09/that-was-dysphoria-8-signs-and-symptoms-of-indirect-gender-dysphoria/
I have largely stayed away from defining terms in this document except implicitly through their use in context. That said, I have also done my best to be consistent with the common usage in the trans community as to what terminology to use and how to use it.
Thankfully, I need not write all that down here, as some kind soul has done that for us:
Suggestions, corrections, comments, or other constructive feedback may be directed to /u/TooLateForMeTF on Reddit. Any and all troll responses will be met with swift deletion and a fleeting sense of pity for the sender, nothing more.
If you made it this far, congratulations! You are a trooper. I wish you clarity!