Today is Transgender Day of Visibility (TDoV)! It’s an annual event during which we celebrate transgender people, celebrate our contributions to society, and raise awareness of the work we still need to do to ensure that society includes, supports, and values trans people.

TDoV on March 31st is one of two major annual trans recognition days, alongside Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20th, on which we mourn trans people who have been murdered for being trans.

I really believe in the power of visibility. I think that the more our stories are out there, the more that trans-people-to-be can see us as we actually are, not filtered or silenced or restricted, the better the lives of those future trans people will be. I am indebted to the trailblazers who took us to where we are now, and I want to pay it forward.

For this Transgender Day of Visibility, I solicited questions about being trans and nonbinary. I’m answering these questions from my personal experience and perspective, which I described in my question post. Thank you to everyone who asked a question!

I plan to do Q&As like this each year, for each TDoV, so I’ll be able to build up a catalog.

I’m answering these questions in the order they came in.

Gender: Personal or Societal?

How much of gender do you see as a personal thing and how much as a societal thing?

On the societal end of things, I think the gender structure we have is all down to the society we’re in. The fact that we have categories called “male” and “female”, and that those categories presume a specific collection of attributes, with our current level of pressure to fit those attributes and rewards for those who do, all of that is societal. It’s likewise because of our society that there are no other established, respected gender categories, except insofar as “nonbinary”, “genderqueer” and the like are gradually becoming established.

On the personal end of things, I firmly believe that someone’s gender originates inside them. You cannot look at someone from the outside and decide that they are male or female or nonbinary or anything else. The only way to know someone’s gender for sure is for them to understand themself enough to have an answer, and for them to trust you enough to tell you.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone is able to answer that question, or that nobody will come back later and say “I didn’t know, then. I know now.” I’m saying that from the outside, there’s not even a hope of knowing. At best, you can help someone explore.

Finally, whatever someone’s internal sense of gender, how they express it, how they describe it, and how they think about it, are all influenced by the society that the person is embedded in. This is of course true of essentially every concept imaginable, and it doesn’t invalidate that expression and description as being authentic and true to one’s self.

To summarize, society has a framework of gender, and a person explores and learns whether they take up residence somewhere within that framework, smash it to bits and make something from the scraps, or roll their eyes at the whole thing and wander off.

Gender: Identifying-as vs. being-identified-as

A follow-up to the previous question:

How intertwined do you find those aspects of identifying-as and being-identified-as, if at all?

I think of “identifying-as”, i.e. a person’s internal sense of gender, as predominantly personal, as described above, and worthy of respect and consideration.

I think of “being-identified-as”, i.e. what other people in society think one’s gender is or should be, as wildly unreliable and not worth putting much weight or reliance on. Other people’s identification of one’s gender, and how that gender should be expressed, will always be unreliable, spotty, biased, and ultimately rarely helpful for anyone trans, or even anyone not particularly gender confirming to an established gender.

Now, I do need to talk about a group of people who I describe as “cis-by-default”. A cis person is someone whose sense of gender matches the gender they were handed by parents, doctors, and society when young. Cis is the antonym to trans.

A good fraction of cis people are cis because it was what they were handed, and if they’d been handed something else by society when young, they’d’ve ended up with a sense of gender matching whatever else that might have been. I have a particular person in mind who was handed “girl” at birth, and that’s fine for her as far as it goes, but if she’d been handed “boy” at birth, or “enby” (nonbinary), that probably would’ve been fine too.

This isn’t the experience of every cis person, but from what I can tell it does describe a substantial fraction.

For these people (but not almost any trans people), “being-identified-as” is the foundation of their internal sense of gender, their “identifying-as”. And these people’s genders are valid and worthy of respect, regardless of the route by which they came to that point.

And it’s also Ok if one’s sense of gender is in flux, not so firm, still being formed. It’s Ok if the gender one’s been handed isn’t really working but nothing else is decisively better just yet. It doesn’t have to be permanent, it doesn’t have to be clear, and it doesn’t have to be simple.

Trans and Nonbinary?

How can someone be nonbinary and trans at the same time?

Silly answer: Like this!

Real answer: Let me tell you what I mean when I say “trans” and “nonbinary”. These definitions are pretty standard in the trans community, though nothing’s universal.

Trans (short for transgender): A trans person is anyone whose gender does not match the gender they were handed by family, doctors, and society, around when they were born.

To clarify, trans includes people who don’t have an internal sense of gender, if society handed them one when they were born, and also includes people whose internal sense of gender sometimes matches the gender they were handed but not other times, or partially matches but not completely.

Nonbinary: A nonbinary person is anyone who lives in a society that has a binary framework of gender (men and women) and whose gender does not match either of those two genders.

To clarify, nonbinary also includes people who don’t have an internal sense of gender, people whose internal sense of gender is sometimes male and sometimes female, or whose internal sense of gender matches one of those somewhat but not completely.

In particular, the way I and many other trans people use the words trans and nonbinary, not only is it possible to be both trans and nonbinary, but in fact all nonbinary people are trans, at least in our current society where everyone is handed either “male” or “female” around the time we’re born.

Once that stops being the case, once kids grow up being able to decide for themselves, we’ll need new terms. I’m looking forward to it.

A subtlety: I’m talking about “trans” and “nonbinary” as group descriptors, not as personal identities. How one chooses to describe oneself gender-wise is a personal decision, and it’s a lot messier and more real than the abstract definitions I’ve listed above. A given person chooses whether to describe themself as trans or as nonbinary, and their choice may differ from the definitions I’ve given above. In particular, there certainly are people who would describe themselves as nonbinary who would not describe themselves as trans, and there certainly are people who would not describe themselves as any of trans, nonbinary, male, or female.

Nonbinary: No gender?

A follow-up to the previous question:

Isn’t non binary where one does not affiliate with any gender?

That’s not how I use the word nonbinary. As I described in the previous answer, I use nonbinary pretty broadly, to describe a wide variety of people, some of who have some gender going on, some who don’t. Nonbinary people aren’t wholly and exclusively male or female, but male and female aren’t the end of the story as far as gender go.

The term agender is somewhat closer to what you’re describing. An agender person is someone who opts out of the whole gender system, someone who doesn’t have an internal sense that they’ve got gender going on. Note however that I would still describe agender people as trans, though not all agender people identify themselves as trans. See the discussion at the end of the previous answer.

There are many other ways to be nonbinary. There are genderfluid people, whose internal sense of gender might change hour-to-hour, day-to-day, or over longer time periods.

There are people whose genders are a mix of male and female, the neutral space in between, Something void, something fantastical, something strange, or something new.

Or people who have something going on, and encapsulating it into a term feels phony or pointless or reductive.

Or people like me, who have a personal gender, our own sense of gender that doesn’t necessarily match anyone else’s. I describe myself as an ulzilna, a term that I made up by consulting an Ancient Sumerian dictionary. It’s not a gender category that anyone’s ever inhabited, and I don’t need a preestablished category. It’s just what feels right, and that’s all that matters.

So, in summary, there are a lot of ways to be nonbinary, and many (but not all) of them involve affiliating with a gender.

Exploring gender

What are some ways to go about actively exploring my gender?

A good way to guide your gender exploration is via your curiosity and your joy. Do what seems like it might be fun, or intriguing, or interesting. And it’s Ok if you have false starts or things that don’t go just right. There’s all sorts of things to try, and there’s no rush to perfect anything.

Also remember that exploring isn’t a commitment. You don’t have to be sure to explore. You can just try things.

Whatever you try exploring, it really helps to have people who will support you, people you can talk with and trust and feel safe with. That might be something online, an open community like a subreddit or a more private community like Discord or a friend group. Or it could be something in person, an LGBTQ+ meetup group or a couple of friends or even just that one person you can share things with. You can tell people about this, and a lot of people will be there for you.

Here’s list of possibilities for gender exploration:

  • Visual gender expression. You might try clothes, maybe a wider or tighter neck, a boxier or curvier cut, a suit or a skirt or a dress, different colors, different patterns, different textures, different sizes (baggier or more fitted). Thrift stores are a great option, for variety and cost and informality. Maybe accessories - jewelry, hair clips, watches. Maybe aiming for specific aesthetics, current or historical. It might be in a personal context, focusing on the feel, the look when you look down at yourself, or the look in a mirror. It might be in a friendly context, something you explore with people you know and feel safe with. It might be in public. It might be online, like in a Zoom call.

    If you have an unexpected automatic reaction to trying-on gender-affirming clothing, don’t panic. CW: sexuality.

    It is fairly common for people who are exploring their gender to experience involuntary arousal when trying on gender affirming clothing, especially during puberty, especially when they’re just beginning to explore. People often find this very distressing, and worry that it means that they’re a fraud, and that their gender experience is inherently gross or sexual.
    None of this is true. This is just a way that one’s body might react to an unfamiliar experience, and it doesn’t diminish or invalidate anything, gender-wise. I tell you this so you won’t take it as hard as I did, when I was young.

  • Bodily gender expression. Maybe trying makeup, both the “like me but more so”, and also the “drawing on my skin” kind. Makeup can be used to conceal or create gendered features, like facial hair, thick/thin eyebrows, jawline, etc. Maybe painting your nails. Maybe a wig. Maybe shaving areas. Maybe moisturizing. Maybe perfume or cologne. Maybe shampoo and conditioner. In the longer term, it might look like growing your hair out or cutting it shorter or styling it differently, growing out your nails or clipping them. It might involve trying a different voice, or trying a voice changer. It might involve wearing things to change the shape of one’s body, like a binder, trans tape, tucking, breast forms, packing, shoulder pads, hip pads, or a butt pad.

  • Referential gender exploration. Maybe change how you introduce yourself. Maybe a nickname, maybe a wholly different name, different pronouns, etc. To test this out, one can use test accounts on websites such as social media, create characters in video games or role-playing games such as D&D, introduce oneself differently in a low-stakes interaction like a coffeeshop or a chat with a stranger you’ll never see again, or write a story about someone whose a bit like you. One can also try exploring social interactions in a safe environment, like a friend group, an LGBTQ+ meetup, or other affirming spaces. You can totally go to a LGBTQ+ group and introduce yourself differently from week to week and tell people you’re exploring and they’ll be right there with you. This might look like gendered titles (Mr., Ms., Mx.) or terms of respect (sir, ma’am) or other gendered terminology (bro, sis, boy, girl, man, woman, enby, etc.).

  • Emotional gender exploration. Oftentimes, the emotions we’re told to experience, that we end up internalizing and experiencing, are very gendered, and very restricted. Opening that up can be a way to explore. Maybe exploring feeling sad authentically, crying, letting emotions go where they will. Maybe not reflexively managing others’ emotions, pleasing others at the expense of one’s own wants and needs. This is all about exploring authenticity, what feels right for you to feel in this moment, without anyone else’s pressure. Maybe watching emotional movies or TV or listening to music or reading stories and letting your emptions take you where they take you.

  • Interpersonal gender exploration. How we relate to people is often very gendered. Who we empathize with, the kind of advice and support and guidance we give and receive, and who we give it to and receive it from. Being caring when someone needs it, being cared for. Opening up, listening and supporting. Being the emotional stability someone needs, being the righteous anger someone needs. Being loving, being kind. Ranting to a friend. Seeking comfort and reassurance. For many people, some of these options have been blocked off because “boys should be tough” or “girls should be polite” or some other bullshit like that.

  • Gendered interests and hobbies. Maybe try knitting or crocheting. Maybe join a fandom space. Maybe read up on those trains you’ve always been interested in, and find others who are similarly into it. Woodworking or sports or weightlifting or art or dancing. Think about all the things you might’ve been into, over the years, but maybe you didn’t get a chance to be into. The world is at your fingertips.

  • Exploration of shared gender experiences. A lot of people gone on journeys of gender exploration. A lot of people are on them right now. And a lot of people have written and talked about their experiences. Maybe a gender essay, like mine or those of Doc Impossible or Julia Serano Maybe check out some egg memes, memes about people’s experiences before they realized they were trans, or while they were exploring. It really helped me to realize that a lot of experiences I thought were weird and idiosyncratic were actually pretty common. Maybe try watching some videos of a trans video-maker, like Jammidodger, Samantha Lux, Lily Simpson, or F1nn5ter. Maybe listen to music about people’s experiences of gender, like Gender is Boring, IDK If I’m a Boy, Tell Me a Story, When I Was A Boy, and The Nonbinary Song. Maybe chat with some trans folks, or people who are exploring gender-wise, or people who are gender-noncomforming. A lot of people are happy to share (like me! Hi!), especially if you’re respectful and let them share only what they’re comfortable sharing, and especially if you let them know that you’re interested because you’re exploring too.

I know these options might be a bit overwhelming. But you don’t need to make a checklist, or try everything, or anything like that. Just take it one day at a time. Just find one thing you feel like trying, and try it out. Find some way to try it that feels comfortable and safe. And then talk about how it felt with someone. Maybe someone you know, maybe some you don’t. You can take things at your pace. Learn things your way, explore what you want to explore. There’s no wrong way to do this, so long as you’re having a good time.

I’m glad you’re thinking of exploring. I’m happy for you. And I’m proud of you.