8 Hints for Getting Through the Tough Parts of Transition
I may have casually mentioned in a previous post that transition is awkward. Idk, did I? At some point, I'm sure. I mean really, who would've thought that decoupling your gender identity from your birth sex and then changing a bazillion things about how you present to the world would be awkward?
Nowadays—at a time when we're really only just breaking down gender and waking up to the reality that upholding the gender binary is actually the weird thing—people who transition away from the gender role traditionally associated with their birth sex face a lot of friction. I must've used this metaphor 3 dozen times over the course of my own transition:
A caterpillar disappears into its chrysalis until it emerges a beautiful butterfly.
Trans people go through their metamorphosis in full view, living day after day in the real world while they transform.
Every case is different and hugely affected by circumstances like geography, family values, access to quality care, and local LGBT+ community presence. But while they're on the rise, there are very few places on the planet today where a visibly TGNC (transgender/gender non-conforming) person is guaranteed to have as easy a time as a cisgender person, or a trans person who can fully pass.
Passing is the ability of a trans person, based on their observable expression, to register at a glance to others as the gender they identify with and/or express as. Just like undergoing transition itself to any extent, whether or not a person can pass has no bearing on whether or not they’re qualified for or deserving of their gender identity. It’s simply a goal for some that helps them to plot the course of their transition.
Not all TGNC people transition with the intent to pass as biologically male or female. People who identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, gender-nonconforming or non-binary are in my opinion some of the strongest people on Earth. While I'm in a lightspeed sprint to "complete" my physical transformation so that I pass in every scenario, these individuals often find their natural gender expression lies somewhere between society's two binary genders. In pursuit of their truth, of living authentically, they often choose to express exactly that way.
Their goal isn't to pass for anything other than their beautifully unique selves. Theirs is a truly powerful example of freedom and self love. And frankly, that's how it should be! A person shouldn't need to identify as a woman to wear makeup or heels, nor as a man to be accepted in basketball shorts with a shaved head (there's an enormous double standard here that I'll address in a future post).
After all, the dismantling of the gender binary is not a movement to allow people to go from one discreet gender to the other. It's about freedom of identity, expression and existence. A person shouldn't have to pass in order to be accepted or avoid conflict.
We'll get there, and soon. But while it's still tough, there are some things you can keep in mind to make the process easier, or to just get through the day when it's especially difficult. These truths helped me past my toughest moments, kept me upbeat when my patience and optimism was wearing thin, and many times gave me the strength to keep my head up even when my inner critic was screaming at me to shut myself in.
1. You'll be fine
Seriously, you will. I've traveled across the US and the world while trans, including spending 8 days on a predominantly conservative Muslim island in Southeast Asia (possibly my favorite leg of my trip), and nobody's attacked me simply for expressing differently to what they're used to. Yes, sadly there are still far too many cases of trans people—especially trans women of color—being attacked or worse. I am in no way suggesting that any trans person who’s been assaulted or murdered in any way brought it upon themselves or had any ability to control their situation. Their stories are horrendous atrocities, and it is absolutely critical to maintain good judgment and an awareness of your surroundings no matter what.
But with that in mind, assuming you’re sharp, respectful toward others, and don’t engage in conflict with strangers, you don’t need to constantly worry about your safety. Your sheer existence as TGNC just isn’t going to register as a hostile threat to random people while you're walking down the street or eating at a restaurant. While TGNC people do face a disproportionate risk of aggression, the odds that some random person attacks you out of nowhere is relatively in the ballpark of someone randomly attacking anyone else in those scenarios. They would have to be an absolute psychopath either way, and no matter what, you can’t mold your life around anomalies. So be careful, be aware, and be sharp, but don't be scared.
2. Confidence is the best makeup / umm... beard gel?
Yah I don't have a good parallel for man grooming... but oh how true this one is, and how understated. Walk down the street or into a room owning yourself completely, and the only looks you'll get will be of interest and admiration. A friend of mine who had recently found her groove as a confident trans woman told me that at times when she needed a boost, she would start her day off by saying, "Watch me not give a fuck" before walking out the door. That may sound defiant and perhaps a bit cynical to some, but when you're visibly trans and observant enough to notice the glances and even shamelessly prolonged stares on a daily basis for months or longer, that's exactly what you need sometimes. I love that it’s both a personal statement and a challenge, and I've personally used it countless times to start my day when I hadn’t been feeling 100% confident from the get-go.
3. Everything is temporary
When I was preparing to leave for 5 weeks of backpacking solo through Southeast Asia, I was just emerging from a very dark period I had fallen into early on in my transition. So before I left I gave myself a mental adjustment. I told myself,
"You're traveling to the other side of the planet. Nobody cares how you look, and this trip is about experience, not appearance. You are in flux between the presentation expected of your birth sex and the gender you associate with. Whatever you don't love about yourself now will fade away in the face of all the beautiful changes yet to come. If you believe you will be beautiful in the future, then you already are."
... or something like that.
I hoped that little seed would take to my mental soil and survive for the length of my trip so that I could feel good and focus on enjoying the beauty of these new places and cultures. I was grateful that it did, but what I wasn't expecting was for it to grow roots and remain even after I got back. I'm still in the clear mental place I created with that realization, and its unexpected permanence makes total sense to me now, because every word of it is damn true.
4. Small, slow steps = big results fast
Progress, progress, progress. How motivating and reassuring it can be. If you're working on yourself in one or more ways, feel good and rest easy. Whether it's practicing makeup, working out to mold your body (or you know, to be healthy, if you’re into that), booking medical appointments, experimenting with a new name or pronouns, finding a style of dress that finally excites you, or slowly coming out to friends or family, you're moving forward! It's amazing how quickly you may find yourself leaps and bounds from where you started when you were only questioning your trans-ness.
If you're motivated to chip away at more than one thing at a time, you may very well look back in only a couple of months and be shocked at how far you've come. For me, that’s happened every few weeks since about my 3rd month of transition. Sometimes the light will catch my mirror in a new way and I'll notice my face or body taking on a distinctive new shape, or I'll come across an old photo and be totally dumbfounded by how significantly different I look now. I remember talking to a cis girl over drinks in Phuket and showing her a photo of me when I was presenting as male. She and her friend were absolutely convinced masculine-presenting me was an entirely different person (hilariously, my boyfriend), and I was in a t-shirt and no makeup that night!
Believe me it was no single thing about me that caused that reaction. It's the whole package. There are a hundred different little things that tell our socially conditioned subconscious minds whether a human being is male or female. Chip away at them consistently and you'll start having moments like that, which feel absolutely thrilling. Remember, baby steps!
5. People will surprise you
Oooh I love this one. It's so uplifting and restorative! The people I was most worried about coming out to—mainly my heterosexual cisgender male friends from childhood—wound up being behind some of my most positive and encouraging experiences. I got the most genuine interest and respectfully indifferent acceptance from them. Most of them—even some of my friends who can sometimes be a bit challenging to open up to alternative perspectives—showed a genuinely constructive curiosity. I love the term "respectful indifference" because to me it implies a form of acceptance that comes easily to a person and doesn't change their entire mental view of you. What a lot of trans people want most is for their gender identity/expression to just not be a big deal. Of course we want to be accepted, but not in spite of our trans-ness. It's extremely relieving when a friend is accepting in a way that shows that your presentation isn't the highest thing on their list of what makes you you.
A perfect example of how people will surprise you is my experience coming out to my dad. He was definitely the person I was dreading telling the most. I actually thought he would have a heart attack. Yup, I was so scared of my true self that my brain had me convinced that being authentic would kill my parents. I can't even keep a straight face writing that now, but it was seriously heavy at the time. No, my dad didn't have a heart attack, and no, that doesn't mean it was the smoothest process, either. But 4 months later my dad became an absolute hawk for my new name and pronouns. I don't think he's slipped once. My mom is still getting used to the changes, and if he's around when she slips, he's faster to correct her than me!
This isn't to say that the negative version of this section's header won't necessarily be true in some cases, mind you. But the takeaway is this: most of your projection about a person's hypothetical response to you coming out to them is self-made. It's in your head. So just ignore it and give them the benefit of the doubt. Some of my happiest experiences early on came from the pleasant conversations I had with some of my close friends after I told them my truth. The anxiety that preceded it was understandable but in hindsight, totally unnecessary.
6. Small minds are always loudest
You may have already had some unfortunately negative experiences during transition. If you haven't, it's likely that you will at least once or twice to some degree. Maybe you'll pass by a group of young people in public and hear them start to chuckle after you make eye contact with one of them. Or maybe you'll be in a foreign country and despite not speaking the local language, notice the tone of a conversation change abruptly as you get closer (for some reason many non-English speakers assume that people who look foreign to them A. don't speak their language, and B. can't decipher what they're talking about from their tone, body language and other nonverbal cues). Or you could just be living your life, minding your own business and all of a sudden see a room full of eyes target you as you enter, followed by whispers.
None of that is fun, but it's nothing to feel bad about! Most judgment comes from fear and ignorance. Knowing that may not completely shield you from feeling a little hurt in the moment, but it's been super helpful to me to remember that it's the people that react negatively or have no problem disrespecting someone in public who I couldn't care less about winning over anyway. Do you really care what a transphobe thinks about you? Their ignorance is both the cause of their behavior and karma's preemptive balancing act.
They’re ignorant so they lash out at what they don’t understand, but wait, oh yeah, they're still ignorant.
See? Karma. Smile, keep your head up and move your confident ass forward.
7. Nobody really cares anyway
At the end of the day, people don't spend that much time thinking about other people unless they're super close with them. Even if you get a stare on the sidewalk or notice some heads turning while you're walking, those people aren't shifting gears to focus on judging you for the next 20 minutes, or even 2. People are pretty focused on themselves, and the moment you're out of sight, they're not thinking about you anymore. To me, that's a beautiful reality. Sure, you may feel uncomfortable at first noticing fleeting reactions from strangers, but who you are and how you express just doesn't register as significantly to them as we tend to allow ourselves to believe. You're forgotten in an instant, so forget about them too.
8. You're already there
What are your goals? Your passions? Your dreams? Have you ever gotten a glimpse of yourself in the future, at a point where you're incredibly happy and fulfilled? Can you imagine that? I bet you can. Close your eyes and envision yourself in that version of your life. Notice how you look, how you move, the expression on your face, your smile. How do you carry yourself in that version of your life? What does your future self’s confidence feel like? Who else is there with you? How do they see you? Can you place yourself there? Can you feel yourself as that version of you? Do you believe that you will one day arrive there?
If you can see yourself in that life, you should believe it. Because that's actually you now. Being able to extrapolate what you'll look like, how you'll act and what you'll sound like means that that future idea of you is actually a very real extension of your present self. If it’s part of you already, it is you already. There is no future to wait or wish for. The only difference between that projected version of yourself and your present self is fear. So if you believe that you will one day get there, and can visualize yourself as that person, then realize that's already you. Be proud of who you are every day and refuse to let fear restrain you from being your best self right now.
Someone I met during a very vulnerable time in my life said five simple words to me at the end of our time together that have stuck with me ever since:
Don't be scared. Love yourself.
March on, loves. You've got this.