An extremely common trans experience, especially before we know we’re trans, is finding reasons why we can’t be trans. These reasons are borne of our fears, our self-doubts, our internalized transphobia, and many other negative thoughts we have towards ourselves.

In the trans community, we call these self-repressing reasons brainworms. It’s a somewhat common term in trans circles, but definitely not universal.

A major part of hatching (i.e. coming to understand that we are trans) is moving through these narratives thrashing around in our minds, to find who we truly are.

It’s not easy, and you’re not alone. If you’re going through these thoughts, feel free to email me.

In this post I’m gong to explore some common brainworms, both ones that I’ve told myself, and ones I’ve seen in other people. I’ll explore why we tell ourselves them, and why they’re not true. I’ll mark ones that I’ve had in my head with a ✨.

And maybe you’re telling yourself these same reasons. That’s Ok. Your true self is in there. Maybe you’ll work through these feelings, introspect on them or confront them or dissect them. Or maybe over time they’ll just stop feeling so important. Or maybe you’ll take your own path.

Before I jump in, a few disclaimers:

  • Not everyone who has these thoughts is trans, though many are. I don’t know whether you’re trans, and this post won’t immediately tell you. But working your way through these brainworms, if they’re in your head, will make it easier to see yourself, for who you really are.

  • Any given person probably won’t have every brainworm, and I’m sure there are ones I’ve never heard of.

  • Take it slow. It took me years, maybe even a decade to get to where I am now, resolved enough to make a post like this. If the emotions are heavy, rest, go at your own pace. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Brainworms don’t just vanish when we hatch (realize we’re trans). They arise again at many times, including around coming out (telling others we’re trans), medical stuff, and whenever we’re feeling bad. This post focuses on pre-hatching brainworms, however.

  • I am transfemme, and that colors my topics and my commentary, but similar brainworms exist for transmasc people, transneutral people, and other kinds of trans people.

Common Brainworms

✨ “It’s just a sex/fetish/kink thing, right?”

This is probably the most common trans brainworm, I know so many trans people who thought this before they hatched.

There are a lot of reasons why this brainworm lodges in people’s minds. Some of it relates to historical and medical transphobia. Some of it is societal. Doc Impossible at Stained Glass Woman has a nice essay on this brainworm in particular.

For me, I think the reason that this narrative lodged in my mind is because in a sexuality context, I find it very distressing when I notice or am reminded of masculine characteristics. I have gender dysphoria from experiencing masculinity and sexuality at the same time.

So naturally, I gravitate towards sexual concepts and ways of experiencing sexuality that are free from that. And I experience gender affirmation from experiencing femininity and sexuality at the same time. So I gravitate towards that, as well.

And I have leaned decisively in this direction since long before I hatched. It wasn’t the earliest sign, in retrospect, but it was one of the more noticeable early signs.

So in those early days, when I had very little self-understanding, I wasn’t yet thinking of myself as “someone who leans towards femininity and away from masculinity”. I was thinking of myself as “someone who, in a sexual context, leans towards femininity and away from masculinity”. And so I didn’t start consciously exploring or questioning my gender for many, many years. Because I siloed off my sexuality from the rest of me.

In retrospect, it’s blindingly obvious what was going on. I am transfemme and have always been, and my sexuality is transfemme and has always been. There’s no “just” about it, and there never has been.

✨ Exploring gender is gross and disgusting and shameful, so I can’t explore

This is the brainworm that tells us “I can’t try on that dress, and if I do I certainly can’t let anyone see me like that, I’d be disgusting.” As with many brainworms, this partially derives from society, and is partially internal. Society definitely pushes a message that gender nonconformity is gross, and there certainly are people who explicitly or implicitly believe that.

But there’s more than that. For many of us, exploring gender can be a minefield. Clothes that could be gender-affirming, but fit poorly or not at all, can feel worse than not even trying. An incongruous gender expression, like lipstick with facial hair, can feel worse than not trying. And if this happens a couple of times, and if these narratives are already circulating, then the full-blown brainworm can arise.

But it’s not true. Gender exploration is, in fact, wonderful and beautiful, regardless of how much practice you have. Regardless of whether it’s being done in a nonconforming way or looking for a core gender true or for any reason. The nail polish does look good on you. That crop top is cute. I love the new voice you’re trying out. I don’t care where your skills are, I’m glad you’re trying something new.

Trans people always knew (✨ You have to resemble a stereotype of a trans person to be trans)

Another common brainworm tells us that “I can’t be trans because real trans people always knew that they were trans, and I’m just now considering it.”

In the past, society was a lot more trans-exclusionary and transphobic than it is now. As a result, everyone who wasn’t overwhelmingly certain that they were trans was shoved into the closet or into the shell. So trans people, to be visible, often had to leave no room for uncertainty or vulnerability.

Moreover, the trans people whose stories were promoted enough to be heard far and wide were selected to be (or sound like) the kind of trans people who are the most appealing to cis audiences, to the kind of person who only wanted their boat rocked a little bit. Those stories were:

  • Straight (e.g. attracted to people of the opposite gender to their true gender)

  • Men or women (e.g. not nonbinary people)

  • Presents and acts gender conforming in their true gender

  • Identified as their true gender continuously since they first heard about the concept of gender.

  • Is interested in, and succeeds in obtaining, all imaginable gender-affirming care.

  • Is conventionally attractive as a member of their gender.

Only a tiny sliver a trans people actually check every box on this list. If you don’t, you’re valid! And that certainly applies to anyone who hasn’t always known you were trans. Which is definitely most of us.

It’s becoming more common for trans people to be open about their uncertainty, and about the long path towards hatching (like me! Hi!), but the narrative has been around long enough to be a brainworm.

Of course, it’s false. Hatching is always complicated, and when it happens doesn’t say anything about how real a trans person is. You don’t have to be perfect to be trans. You can be messy and complicated – basically everyone is.

This is really a special case of the more general brainworm, “I don’t resemble an idealized picture of who a trans person is”. Other instances of that pattern of brainworm include:

  • ✨ I don’t want all the medical stuff (e.g. I don’t want bottom surgery), so I can’t be trans. No, trans people don’t need medical stuff to be trans, and are allowed to want or not want whatever they please.

  • I’m attracted to women (if transfem) or men (if transmasc), so I can’t be trans. No, gay and lesbian and bi (and ace) trans people are real and valid.

  • ✨ I don’t feel like a women (if transfem) or a man (if transmasc), so I can’t be trans. You can be nonbinary! Or reject labels altogether and not even call yourself trans but still do gender-affirming stuff!

  • I like some things relating to my assigned gender, so I can’t be trans. There’s no purity test for transness. You don’t have to 100% accept or reject anything. You don’t need to perfectly match a stereotype to be real.

At the end of the day, the idealized picture doesn’t resemble actual real-world trans people, and it doesn’t need to resemble you.

✨ I’m just a boring cis straight person, nothing interesting going on here

There was an LGBTQ+ club in my high school. Did I go to it? No, and I never seriously considered going. Because I didn’t think of myself as LGBTQ+. I thought of myself as ordinary, nothing noteworthy going on.

There was an LGBTQ+ club in my undergrad. Did I go to it? No, even though I was actively exploring my gender by that point. Because I didn’t think of myself as LGBTQ+. I didn’t connect the thoughts “I’m exploring my gender” with “There are other people with similar experiences”.

I didn’t have “queer” as part of my identity. I didn’t think of finding community as a possibility.

But community is a place for people to explore, not just for people who have already hatched. I finally joined an LGBTQ+ club in graduate school. I finally explored with other people. I finally incorporated “exploring” into my sense of self.

I think this brainworm is particularly common among transfem people primarily attracted to women, and transmasc people primarily attracted to men. We don’t have an in to the queer community prior to hatching, the way people who identify as gay, lesbian, bi, or other parts of the community, prior to hatching, have an in. And the queer community is a great place for gender exploration. But it’s totally valid to just hang out with queer people and talk about these topics, even if you’re not identifying as trans, or even as exploring or questioning.

✨ I just have to learn to accept what I have

Trans people, before we realize we’re trans, often have a lot of turmoil around our bodies and our senses of self. We put a lot of work into getting to trying to accept our bodies as our own. Find someone to not hate what we have. We often try to do that by repressing our feelings and our desires. And this can feel like a duty. That it is our purpose in life, our endless struggle, to accept what we’re given and stay quiet and not complain. We often receive explicit and repeated pressure in that direction. To be a man or be a woman. To be simple and easy for other people to understand and put in a box.

So that brainworm arises: I just have to accept my body. I just have to accept my gender.

But, you don’t. You don’t have to accept what you’re handed in life. You can look at what life gave you and say “excuse me, this is not what I wanted, I’m making some changes.” Or a lot of changes. Or you can explore, and discover what you actually like, what actually feels right, without knowing what that’ll look like.

A common but not very accurate saying is that “trans people are born in the wrong body”, a boy brain in a girl body or all that. I think of it a bit differently. I would say that (some) trans people are born in a body that isn’t right yet. You’re not going out and taking a fresh body off the shelf, you’re just making some changes. And (some) trans people are born with a perfectly nice body for them, in a society that sees them the wrong way.

In neither case do you have to accept what you’re given.

✨ I don’t have dysphoria

Due to the medicalization of transness, the narrative has been pushed that to be trans, you need to have gender dysphoria, namely a irritation, pain, discomfort, itchiness, revulsion, etc., brought on by gendered aspects of your body or social interactions or other elements of society. This narrative is based on the premise that transness is a malady that doctors treat. Dysphoria is the symptom, trans is the diagnosis, medicine is the treatment, insurance pays for it, simple and easy to understand for cis people.

This narrative is false for two very important reasons. First, some trans people don’t have dysphoria. Just because someone is a woman, or wants to be a woman, doesn’t automatically mean that they have discomfort or pain or any of that from being seen as a man, or having masculine bodily characteristics. Nothing is simple and automatic, there’s a range of experiences. Escaping pain isn’t the only valid motivation. Lots of motivations are valid.

But secondly, and applying to far more people (including myself), it’s hard to notice you have dysphoria if you’re structuring your life around coping with that dysphoria, to the point where coping is automatic. And trans people who don’t know they’re trans get really good at coping. On top of that, without the benefit of exploration and trying out different options and community, it can be really hard to notice that dysphoria exists, or recognize it for what it is.

For example, I definitely get dysphoric when I hear the default voice I produce without trying. I’m gradually getting less overwhelmed by it, in parallel with learning my new voice, but it takes time. So what did I do for all those years, and what do I still do now? I avoid hearing myself. Hearing my own voice is edited out of my stream of conciousness. All I hear is my internal narrative, which has no sound.

I have had similar experiences, coping by ignoring or avoiding noticing, with my facial hair, my face in the mirror, and aspects of my personal hygiene. All have greatly improved now that I understand the underlying dysphoria patterns that I’m experiencing.

So if you’d asked me if I had dysphoria before I hatched, I would’ve said no. I did say I didn’t have dysphoria, even after I hatched, for a significant period of time. In retrospect, I was coping too hard, repressing too hard, to notice what was going on. It was essential for me that I could understand myself as trans, I could hatch, without needing to unpack all of the dysphoria first. So I could find community, find an understanding of myself, as a framework to work through all of those internal struggles.

You don’t need dysphoria to be trans. And you definitely don’t need to know whether you have dysphoria to be trans.

And the insurance company can keep putting whatever it wants on the forms, and the doctors can call it whatever they want. They don’t define us.

I’d be too ugly, so I can’t be trans

A lot of times, when people secretly dream of being a different gender, they specifically dream of being beautiful and attractive in that gender. That’s how fantasies work: They’re idealized. And furthermore, media representations of people of a given gender are overwhelmingly more attractive than the vast majority of people of that gender, giving a skewed sense of what is normal.

When it comes time to consider translating that dream into reality, people can despair. They think they’ll never look as pretty as that idealized image, so why bother transitioning at all.

First, it just feels nice to be the right gender, no matter how you look. Lots of trans people don’t change anything about their appearance, and it’s still nice to know yourself and acknowledge yourself.

Second, trans people who do pursue gender-affirming HRT tend to look pretty unexceptional for their gender after several years have gone by. There’s a distribution, and trans people are in the mix of it. Obviously, this is very subjective, but that’s my vague read on it.

Third, a lot of attractiveness relates to skills one can develop, like skin care, hair care, makeup if you’re interested, clothing, posture, attitude, etc. It’s not inherent.

Finally, people sometimes think that they’ll never be socially validated for their gender unless they’re very attractive. This is not true. A doting, wrinkled grandma who wears a scarf over her hair and hands out sweets to the kids in the neighborhood is constantly being validated in her gender, and it has nothing to do with attractiveness. A man who gives supporting, comforting hugs when friends need a source of emotional steadiness is being validated in his gender, and it has nothing to do with attractiveness.

Attractiveness is a pretty small slice of gender.

For example, see the coming out comic of Mae Dean. I’d recommend reading the whole sequence until the July 17th comic, if you get a chance.

✨ I’m a bad person, so I don’t deserve anything better

A lot of us have internalized the message that good things in life take struggle, have to be earned, have to be a reward. When it comes to gender affirmation, that feels like something we have to earn.

For me, the way it felt like I had to earn my way out of masculinity was to stop hurting people in masculine ways. That as long as I shouted at people or (insert things here that I’m not comfortable talking about but definitely exist), I didn’t deserve anything better than masculinity.

This is a brainworm, and it’s bullshit. First of all, this whole “anything good in life must be a reward for something” is bullshit. Life can just be nice, it doesn’t have to be a struggle. Second, gender is a part of who we are, not a reward. You don’t have to earn your gender card, and no one gets to take it away. Third, I saw myself as a lot more harmfully-masculine than I really was, because I didn’t like seeing masculinity in myself. As with many of these brainworms, it was being reinforced by my transness, even as it told me I couldn’t be trans.

This goes hand in hand with brainworms like “women are nice and I’m mean, so I shouldn’t be a woman, I’ll make womankind worse by being part of it.” This is nonsense, and it’s your mind lying to you. You’re not hurting anyone by being a woman. You’re probably not as mean as you think you are. And there are plenty of mean women out there, you’re just as valid as them (very valid).


I wrote this for you, hypothetical trans person who doesn’t know you’re trans (if that is you, hi! Email me or message me on Mastodon! Let’s chat!).

But I also wrote it for me. I’m thinking back to those long years of being trans and not knowing it, and I often wonder why I didn’t know. And what I was doing all those years, gender-wise. And I think these brainworms, the reasons my mind generated about why I couldn’t be trans, are some of why I didn’t know. And some of what I was doing. And I’m trying to forgive myself. It was a hard journey, and I did fine.