Second Guessing my Gender Identity
September 26, 2016 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm 27 years old, designated male at birth. I recently recalled a bunch of gender dysphoria from when I was in middle school/high school, and I'm trying to work out if it matters, and what exactly I am. A part of me worries that it might just be a rational response to toxic masculinity rather than anything to do with me myself.

Executive summary of my life: I was born with low muscle tone and jaundice. I am no longer yellow, so one of those healed. When I was little, I wouldn't say I had many strong preferences gender-wise. I was never really cool with overly aggressive or war-themed toys, nor did I beg to wear dresses or makeup. I was diagnosed with mild Aspergers' pretty young, and never really had many friends of either gender. My elementary and earlier years are honestly a blur. My father, a non-smoking runner who spent a lot of time at work, was diagnosed with a rare lung cancer that nonsmokers get. He passed away when I was 12.

In middle school, I'd say my sexual awakening was pretty tinged with shame. For one thing, I was a faithful Presbyterian, and didn't really get what masturbation or sex was in the context of my faith. So I felt really guilty about the times I masturbated. And I also realized I have a paraphilia I'm still not comfortable with (feederism, which I'd much rather keep as a fantasy than a real life thing because it seems unhealthy and dangerous), but was especially disturbed by then. I became curious about the idea of myself as a woman, and kind of had thoughts (I don't know if ideation is the right word) of castrating myself. I don't know if that was more shame, normal puberty mental exploration, or what. I have no frame of reference.

In high school, I developed some mild and undiagnosed depression. I thought depression was sadness, so the crushing apathy didn't mean anything to my mother or myself when I described it and how it made it hard for me to do much beyond the minimum schoolwork. I graduated with good grades, but I think it's mainly because honors and AP courses at my school were surprisingly forgiving and easy. I think the teachers just didn't want to deal with helicopter parents so long as a student was turning in enough work, even if it was done poorly.

I got into a selective "public ivy" college, and had an emotional breakdown shortly before going to campus. I felt extreme anxiety and sadness, and then dissociated to an extreme amount. My mom later confided to me she thought I wasn't ready, but didn't know what else to do. I had trouble making friends, and the depression made schoolwork near impossible. My mom finally realized something was wrong and got me with therapists, but because she had heard from autism groups that asperger's and depression are comorbid, she took that as a sign I should go to therapy for aspergers. I ended up getting a lot of lectures about time management and executive functioning, and felt like nobody was taking me or my confusion or pain seriously.

By sophomore year, I was holed up in my room and not going to class. I flunked out. Eventually, my mom found me a psychiatrist. A regular psychiatrist, who doesn't focus on Aspergers and pretend everything will work itself out if I get told to write to-do lists and check the clock more often. I tried anti-depressants and found a set that worked for me. I'm on an SNRI and Welbutrin. I started running, and began feeling better. I got my associates in Comp Sci, and I'm now in my senior year at a public university. I met my fiancee and moved in with her. The college is a bit more of a safety school, but I honestly feel way more welcome and happy here. I was never super-competitive.

My mood is in a good? place. I've been reading "The Windup Bird Chronicle" by Murakami, and Creta Kano's sensation of pain being very strong and unbearable, then completely gone (dissociation), and then back in a healthier amount reminds me of my journey with depression. These days, I find myself not feeling much anxiety or sadness, or much bliss. It's more than when I dissociated, I felt near nothing except a sterile kind of sadness, and now I can enjoy things or get excited about them in the future, but I go back to my baseline apathy really fast.

Me, Physically: I'm 27 years old, white, slightly overweight by BMI and appearance. I used to weigh a lot more before I started running. I naturally grow a good amount of white hair. I don't have much upper-body muscle, and my legs don't naturally show much muscle unless I flex for some reason. I don't like the idea of becoming more muscular. I have a beard, but mainly because my fiancee likes how I look with a beard. I have a minor issue with compulsive hair pulling when I'm stressed, so I find a beard a bit of a liability there. Appearance and fashion-wise, I'm not too into male aesthetics, so I mostly just ask my fiancee what she likes. I tend to wear H&M stuff and baby it so I don't have to buy more fast-fashion junk that wears out after a few washes.

Me, Sexually: I tend to fantasize about curvier or fat female partners. When I view porn, it tends to be softcore or lesbian porn. I find the framing of heterosexual porn ("BRATTY ITALIAN SLUT DESTROYED BY MONSTER COCK") weirdly violent and ultimately gross. If I masturbate without pornography, I tend to not actually insert myself into the fantasy, or imagine my partner paying attention to my nipples. Penetration is an aspect, but I think mainly because that's the most analogous thing to what I'm doing with my hands? I've tried picturing myself as a woman and found it nice, but not really a game-changer. My fiancee, who I love dearly and find amazingly hot, is going through a bit of a dry-spell libido-wise. She's bisexual, and also extremely concerned about what me and others think about her. She once confided in me that she thinks it's boring when I have sex with her in the missionary position, but she never wants to try any other position, and it's hard to get her to want to have sex more than once a month or so. And she felt to guilty to say missionary sex was boring, that when I pressed her for more, she felt really guilty and refused to talk about it more. So that's an issue perhaps not entirely parallel to what's going on in my head.

Me, Socially: I have a pathetic number of friends. It's my fiancee, and one friend from my first shot at college, and a bunch of acquaintances I'm not that close to at all. I'm not great at making friends. Hobbywise, I like crafts. I like cooking and baking. I'm into crochet and knitting, I'd like to sew were it not for the expense/tools/space issue. I never really got into sports, probably largely because I'm clumsy. I like running because it's non-competitive and gives me some time to be alone and focus.

Me, and Masculinity: I generally find toxic masculinity antiquated and depressing. To me, it looks like men posturing as dumber and more violent than they are, for a fragile sense of safety from either outsiders or other men. It feels like middle school bullshit carried over into adulthood. Living in an age of police, guns, and standing armies, it seems really weird to link strength and deterrent force to a person's genitalia. A woman with a gun is just as capable of harming someone as a man with a gun. I don't really see a lot of masculine alternatives to it that really feel so much like masculinity as "not being an asshole."

Me, feeling guilty: I don't honestly know if I could transition, even if I were convinced/deduced beyond a shadow of a doubt I'm 100% trans and not just depressed about the patriarchy. It reminds me of how I once wanted to quit caffeine to see if it'd help my mood, but realized quitting caffeine would probably be more inconvenient and likely to get me depressed than my mood would actually change. This is a facile comparison, but I'm bad with words and kind of ranting at this point. Also, considering this isn't a problem that makes me feel in pain (like, I worry dysphoria might be too strong a word when I really just have no love for being a man), sometimes I wonder if I'm just jealous of trans people knowing so much who they want to be after I've been and remain somewhat aimless. But that gets to be a catch 22, because if I hated my body to the point I wanted to harm myself, I'm of the mindset I'd worry about that far more than this kind of soul searching.

I'm not really sure I've made any kind of sturdy point. I guess I'm just dumping a bunch of words about what's been casually bothering me. If anyone has any thoughts, I appreciate them. Thanks.
posted by MuppetNavy to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
To me you sound depressed, lonely, and frustrated, but I don't see anything in particular that strongly suggests to me that you're trans. Of course, just the fact that you're asking the question means it's worth considering, but to a certain degree I think you might be feeling this way because you feel like you don't "count" as a man if you enjoy the types of things you enjoy. But that isn't the case.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2016 [17 favorites]

Also: if you WERE trans, then that would be a concrete project you could tackle. There's probably something appealing about that idea. It would be something to pin all your past struggles on (it wasn't X or Y or Z, it was the fact that I'm trans!), it would be something to occupy your time, it would be something that would seem like a solution to all of your problems at once. It would be a kind of escape.

The coffee thing, I think, is a great comparison, because I've been in a place like that before. Oh, I'll go on this specific diet, or take up this physical activity, or start using this dating app, or cut down on my internet use, and then Everything Will Be Ok, because I will have fixed The Thing That Is Wrong With Me. But the thing that is actually wrong with me is depression, anxiety, and executive function disorder, and as shitty as it is, the only things that can actually help me with that stuff are therapy and meds. Everything else is secondary.

Again, I want to stress that you could absolutely be trans (or genderqueer, which you may want to read up on), but purely based on the information in this question, that is not the sense I personally get.

You're in my thoughts though. Living with any one of the things you mention in this question sucks, and all of them at once must be overwhelming sometimes.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:32 AM on September 26, 2016 [17 favorites]

"sometimes I wonder if I'm just jealous of trans people knowing so much who they want to be after I've been and remain somewhat aimless."

I think you hit the nail on the head here.

Also, you're 27. Welcome to that stage of life that is very WTF. Something about the ages between 25-30 causes a lot of stress and depression. Your life is now, or about to be, drastically different from the rest of your life thus far. Up until now you've had very clear expectations of what's required of you - go to class, get good grades, don't do drugs, etc. None of what they teach or what you learn prepares you for this stage of being an Adult. This is when you're transitioning into work -> eat -> sleep -> work again. If that's not very exciting I don't know what isn't.

This is causing you extra stress because you're a self analyzer. You'd be shocked how many people don't ask themselves the questions you're asking yourself. Unfortunately, people who self reflect like this, tend to suffer from depression greater than others. You can see all the flaws in yourself, that you might not be able to see in others - and this can cause you to compare yourself to them and lead toward negative feelings toward yourself.

It's going to take some time, but you have to change the way you think about yourself. So what if you're uncertain about your gender. You are you, no matter what your gender is. Your hobbies, your desires, etc are all about the attitude you take on them. Own yourself. This means when you find yourself shaming yourself for something (such as your fantasies) you need to full stop and tell your brain to cut that shit out. It's not hurting anyone and you're enjoying it. There is no harm.

That's the best advice I have for you. Learn to love who you are and stop paying attention to the wants, needs, and expectations of society.

Side note: There are problems there with your fiancee. That's an entirely different question though. Before you marry her, work on communication with her. You don't want to marry someone who's not able to communicate/isn't comfortable communicating something as important as sexual needs with their future husband. That kind of thing won't get better with the rings.
posted by INFJ at 8:39 AM on September 26, 2016 [13 favorites]

I think you should read some blogs and books by trans women, genderqueer people, non-gender-conforming men, etc and just....see where it goes.

It's not uncommon at all for trans people (hi!) to have what my therapist refers to as "complicated gender identities" and to need to process a lot of stuff - sorting out feelings about misogyny and toxic masculinity from desire to actually transition is complicated. It's also not uncommon for non-trans people to have to do a lot of sorting out of these feelings from how they want to perform gender.

Dysphoria-to-the-point-of-self-harm is not something you have to have to be trans. You might have moderate dysphoria. You might find that as you work on your depression and general loneliness/sadness, you will find feelings that have been blanketed by those things - numbing your feelings about your body and gender is also a good way to negotiate gender identity problems!

But you might also just be a complicated cis person! Complicated cis men are also great!

Transness on the one hand isn't summed up by just doing stuff conventionally associated with a different gender (lots of cis men like baking, lots of cis men have strong feelings, etc) but on the other hand it's not totally divorced from that either. It's complicated.

You don't need to rush at this point, though. You don't need to write off transitioning ever if you don't decide that you definitely want to do it next week. You can just think about it some more, being gentle with yourself.

Also, are you in a city at all? Going to some groups for trans people or gender non-conforming people might help clarify some stuff for you. If you aren't in a city, try messageboards. Just talking to people who have complicated gender and sexuality stuff can be really helpful.

If you're in or around Minneapolis, feel free to memail me - I'd be glad to make some social life recommendations and I also bake a lot.
posted by Frowner at 8:40 AM on September 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

This all sounds like relevant stuff to discuss with a trained and licensed clinical psychologist in a safe therapy setting. I don't know what it's like to be trans, but I doubt that acknowledging yourself as trans would make your feelings of shame and self-loathing go away overnight. I would think that a better understanding of your sexuality would be a natural outcome of dealing with the depression, not the other way around.
posted by deathpanels at 8:52 AM on September 26, 2016

Male fragility and toxic masculinity are real, and getting annoyed by it as a man doesn't make you any less of a man.

Likewise, aversion to Cosmo doesn't make my niece any less of a woman.

Some women can breakdown and re-build an entire Honda, some men run away and shriek at the sight of spiders.

My point is that gender norms are kind of silly and frustrating, but to me, participation in them is completely orthogonal to actual gender of a person.

I would not recommend using your aversion to one type of masculine expression as evidence that you're not a man.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:08 AM on September 26, 2016 [18 favorites]

One thing re not-liking-being-a-man:

While it is very, very true that not being masculine doesn't make you a woman and not being feminine doesn't make you a man, because of the way our culture works, discomfort with stereotypically-[GENDER] things is one way that some trans people experience and articulate transness.

Basically, you could have two people, and one of them is a woman who loves fixing motorcycles and has a buzz cut and finds fashion magazines pernicious and burns water if she tries to cook, and one person is a trans man who loves fixing motorcycles and has a buzz cut and finds fashion magazines pernicious and burns water if he tries to cook.

When asked to defend their genders [by assholes], they would say different things: "you can be a woman and fix motorcycles, that doesn't mean you're a man!" and "look at how man-like the way I live is - you may not be willing to understand or respect how I feel, but surely you can see how I live!" This is basically because we live in a society which pushes people to "prove" their gender identity unless they're rootin' tootin' gender caricatures.

What I'm saying is that your feelings about baking, etc, could be just that you're a dude (or a genderqueer person) who likes to bake and hates toxic masculinity. Or they could have social-symbolic force and represent your feelings about wanting to transition.

Thinking this stuff through gently in therapy with a therapist who works with trans people (you may not be trans, but you don't want a therapist who doesn't work well with trans clients) would be one way to start to unpack what it all means to you. Being gentle with yourself is important. Those of us who have complicated genders are often pushed by the rest of society to make big strong statements before we're ready, because otherwise we get told that we're just making it up.
posted by Frowner at 9:21 AM on September 26, 2016 [26 favorites]

I know it seems momentous, but transitioning is not really like jumping off of a cliff. There are a lot of steps before you do something truly irreversible. Most trans people I know weren't certain at 4 years old that they were [other gender]. They, like me, just knew that something was "off." Lots of us don't hate our bodies to the point of wanting to harm ourselves, we just know they don't align with our gender. Some people don't change their bodies at all and are still trans.

Transition is also not just a couple of checklists (one for men, one for women) and you're done once you've checked off all the boxes. There is no single pathway to being trans, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. I know someone with a long beard who wears earrings and dresses and makeup. As far as I know they have no plans to have surgery or take hormones. They are comfortable with who they are.

For me personally, I knew something was off for a long time, and I resisted transitioning because I was scared to upend my life. I denied that it was really that important, and thought maybe I could be happy as a butch woman. But once I started transitioning to male, it felt like climbing into a down-filled bed with clean flannel sheets after a massage. Basically the most relaxing thing you can imagine. Not to say it's been easy, and I know it's often harder for AMAB people to transition, but I've never met one that didn't feel better for doing it. All the "inconvenience" of paperwork and doctor visits is a very, very small price to pay for my mental health.

No one here can tell you whether or not you're trans. I would follow Frowner's advice and start reading things by AMAB trans people. Start connecting with them online and off. At the very worst you'll have new friends and a wider view of the world. At best, something will click, or not, and you'll have a firmer sense of where you stand.
posted by AFABulous at 9:42 AM on September 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Even if you are not trans, it will certainly not be a waste of your time to spend some of it thinking harder and doing more work on what gender means to you in your own practice of living, and how to grapple with it in intersection to your other life factors including mental health, perception/processing, motivation, and class and race (which you didn't mention but those are something too).

Definitely seek out, if you can, a trans-friendly or gender-emphasis therapist since they're going to bring a lot more to the table on that subject than someone who's not really into thinking much about that kind of thing every day.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:22 AM on September 26, 2016

You say you were diagnosed with Asperger's at an early age. Have you read Gendervague: At the Intersection of Autistic and Trans Experiences by Lydia Brown?

Many people on the spectrum identify as trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, or otherwise gender divergent, at what seems to be a much higher rate than in the non-autistic population. A lot of the responses so far seem to be coming from a neurotypical perspective, and you might find that an autistic perspective resonates better with your own experience.
posted by Lexica at 10:29 AM on September 26, 2016 [11 favorites]

Lexica, that rings so true with me!

From that perspective, I feel like this makes a lot more sense. Gender being largely performative probably explains why I, as an autistic spectrum person, get that feeling of "are you me?" when I've read/heard about trans experiences. The disconnect between who you act as and who you feel like really describes a lot of my experience.

I will definitely read more along those lines.
posted by MuppetNavy at 11:21 AM on September 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Noticed a weird typo or Freudian slip. I said I have "white hair" under physical when I meant Body Hair. I have no idea how I wrote that.
posted by MuppetNavy at 11:29 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

The question I asked myself after a long time of being NB/GQ identified was "do I want to have boobs and smooth skin and a more feminine face?" The answer was "yes". The very next question I asked myself is "do I want more estrogen in my body" and the answer was "yes". Mind you this was all accompanied by a general sense of unease and fear and uncertainty, but I knew that the future version me very badly wanted to have breasts and so I gave the future me that gift.

That's only a very narrow slice of the overall picture of being trans, and it certainly is NOT required to be trans, but I've found that answering "yes" to those two questions are very concrete indicators that there's something going on that needs to be taken care of.

I am also (recently identified as) on the spectrum, I have all kinds of other issues as well with my physiology, some similar to yours. I would like to caution using your physiology as any indication of what you identify as because there are solidly identified cis people the same physiology as yourself or me. That would seem to indicate that "what makes the trans go" is not related to physiology in that way. I look at it more like...something deep in the places where our biology meets gender, a deep place in ourselves where maps are formed as we grow up that make up how we see and adorn our bodies, how we desire sex, and how we desire to treat others and be treated. All that is a big cloudy mess of "gender-ness" and we get the opportunity to experience that. It's pretty rad, really.

I'd recommend asking yourself the two questions I asked myself, and if there's any kind of desire there, then you have some deeper examination to do. If the answer to those two questions are "nah, I'm not really down with that" then there's probably some degree of exploring on the "how you dress, what gender roles you play" that may help you find some answers.
posted by Annika Cicada at 2:49 PM on September 26, 2016

I learned a lot about myself from going through My Gender Workbook. Even though I never seriously considered transitioning, it still helped me get a handle on how I felt about the gendered pressures I feel as a man, toxic masculinity, etc. The activities in the book might help you sort your feelings out.
posted by Banknote of the year at 6:06 PM on September 26, 2016

Hey folks,

Thought I'd give an update. I've thought it through a bit more.

One thing to be clear: The part of my question which I failed to convey is that I'm not really miserable or have a severe antipathy to my body. My depression is a lot less than it used to be. It's mildly seasonal, but I mostly just get a big fat meh out of my brain these days. I don't hate seeing my male self in the mirror. I just don't feel a super strong connection to it, or any eagerness for how I present. Honestly, I rather would be cute than handsome. But I'm concerned about what a transition would entail, or how far I would/should take it.

Annika, the more I think about your questions, the more I'm inclined to say "Yes."

I'm going to read some books and try out the questioning group at uni. I'm not sure I could find a therapist for gender dysphoria on Medicaid, but I guess this is one step at a time.

Thanks all!
posted by MuppetNavy at 8:30 AM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I could find a therapist for gender dysphoria on Medicaid

If you are on Facebook, there is a group specifically to answer questions about coverage for trans people. I am not going to name it here because it's a closed group and I don't want idly curious people peering in, but memail me and I'll give you the name.

(Note: "closed" means that people can see that you are a member of the group, just not the content. If you don't want this, I recommend setting your privacy levels so that no one can see any of the groups you belong to.)
posted by AFABulous at 9:41 AM on September 27, 2016

But I'm concerned about what a transition would entail, or how far I would/should take it.

If you feel inclined, please read this tumblr post I wrote based off a lot of things I have written and spoken to a lot of people, this may or may not apply, but I feel like it gets at what you're concerned about here.

For trans women just starting to confont the gender question for themselves
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:54 AM on September 27, 2016

Hey, I thought I'd give an update. I've been debating nonstop this for over a month now, and overturned some older memories, such as times my mom yelled at me as a kid for looking too feminine on the way to school because something was wrong with my clothes, the time a neighbor girl painted my nails, and the time a classmate made fun of me in kindergarten because I said I'd like to be a "mom or dad" when I grew up. They seem like they shouldn't have stuck with me if I'm cis. I've started shaving/trimming my bodyhair, and now I really don't like seeing it come back. What was weird is the first time I shaved my legs, I felt that dissociate fog that's chased me my whole life lift, if only a little, and I felt like I was real and myself. I looked down, and saw MY legs. I went on a great run, and felt euphoric. And now I realize how numb I've been, and how I don't want to spectate my own life feeling this way forever. And I feel a bit of that vicariously when I see people's HRT timelines or transition blogs.

I never really saw this as a great way to treat depression, or get better at school, or anything like that. I guess my initial question gave that impression, but I talked about the depressed years because they're about a third of my life, and most of my adult life. The dysphoric feelings I've found behind the depression is more feeling unfulfilled socially and physically as a man, if that makes sense. And it's not that I thought my cis presentation was bad. I wasn't muscular or prone to macho acts, but I never wanted to be like that. It seemed wrong for me.

In terms of actual changes, I've come out to my regular psychiatrist, discussed this with my counselors at school, and I'm seeing an informed consent HRT doctor to discuss that option.

My fiancee and mother first reacted pretty badly, but they're coming around. My mom is worried about societal and medical consequences. My girlfriend is mostly concerned about what society will think about me, but she mostly just wants me to be happy. She started crying when I told her how I felt, and told me she wanted me to not keep going through life like I am. She made it clear she loves me, the person and personality, and not my physical body.

I admit I could be making a mistake. Maybe I'm biologically made to be a half-mile away from a stranger's emotions. It could just be that's my "good days." But I have one life. I feel like not following this feeling would be a bigger mistake than trying at least a little bit of transitioning on a provisional basis.

And how many cis people spend a month questioning their gender when they remember they wanted to transition in middle school, feel envy for those who do transition, or just have a desire to transition period? I think there's something here.
posted by MuppetNavy at 8:37 PM on October 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

PS: I've also been hanging out in a trans-friendly IRC channel, mostly expecting to be rejected as a weird straight. But I'm amazed to find people I have so much in common with, after a lifetime of my mom telling me I'd never connect with people except maybe a handful of the right people who also have aspergers (which never happened, my friends have been neurotypical mostly).
posted by MuppetNavy at 8:39 PM on October 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

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