Letting Go of Gender
I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking about what gender I am or trying to live up to one or another idealized form of gender. I’ve noticed that I often fall into certain thought-loops about gender, often about trying to pin down what I am because I could potentially live as more than one gender. At this point in my life, these thoughts are boring, anxious chatter. They take up mental space and distract me from other problems I feel too overwhelmed to face. They’re riddles that can’t be solved and that’s the point. I can get lost in them for hours and apparently they’re less scary than other parts of my life. Gender is familiar territory, a maze I can seemingly get lost in but whose twists and turns I know quite well. Its confines are comforting compared to the terrifyingly vast open space I enter when facing new and uncertain life struggles. I’ve seen much written about the supposedly liberating possibilities of “gender fluidity” or movement between genders but in my own experience, much of my movement between genders is driven by anxiety, fear and angst. It’s more about freaking out about how there are dangers and limitations put on me no matter what gender role I occupy and feeling pressured to choose the best option when there’s none that gives me all I want. I’ve found more peace by accepting the suffering that comes from being gendered and that I’m not going to get a satisfactory life just from living as a particular gender. Now when these thoughts occur, I’ve learned to not get caught up in them, to gently redirect my mind out of that groove and onto a new path. There’s typically no point in following those thoughts because I know they don’t go anywhere new or interesting.
For many years, I thought I just needed to figure out what gender I was and live as that and then my life would be good. It took both transitioning and detransitioning and not getting the satisfaction I expected to get in each case to figure that I was trying to solve the wrong problem. Both my transition and my detransition went relatively well and I got much of what I was looking to get out of both processes but getting what I wanted turned out to be less fulfilling than I expected it to be. However satisfying something is, eventually the sense of satisfaction fades over time and is replaced by new longings and plans for the future. I also realized that in each instance, I was trying to get something out of the process that wasn’t possible to achieve.
Taking testosterone and watching my body change felt great. I was lucky enough to get the kind of body I wanted by taking testosterone and then stopping once I’d gotten the permanent changes I desired. It felt good to modify my body according to my desires but eventually the excitement faded. While I still like how my body is different now, when I compare the satisfaction I’ve gotten from taking t to other desires I’ve pursued and achieved, it doesn’t rank all that high. For example, I’ve gotten more satisfaction from learning how to farm and use power tools. Controlling the shape of my body felt good but learning new skills enhanced my personal power in a more profound way. Knowing how to grow my own food or build things out of wood is more useful than being able to grow hair out of my face.
I questioned my gender and experimented quite a bit in my early to mid-twenties, trying to figure out exactly what kind of trans person I was. I found some satisfaction living as a genderqueer trans dude. At the time, seeing myself that way helped me accept and express my gender nonconformity. Genderqueer seemed to explain how my sense of gender shifted around, how I felt like a strange hybrid. I still felt somewhat dissatisfied but I thought this was largely because the dominant culture had no place for me as a genderqueer person and because I had a hard time accepting that I had an atypical sense of gender.
Eventually, I began questioning my gender again, asking myself if I could actually be a butch dyke. When I decided that I was a woman, I thought I’d finally figured myself out and would finally have lasting peace. Coming out as a lesbian and figuring out how to live as a woman with after taking t and living as a man for years was hard work and it felt good when I finally got to the point where I felt like I could do this, I could live as the kind of woman I am. But soon after I reached that point I felt let down, like I’d put in all this work and what I’d gotten wasn’t quite as satisfying as I wanted it to be.
It took me by surprise when my detransition ended up disappointing me. I’d gotten quite a lot out of it but not as much as I’d hoped I would. I eventually realized that I had gone into my detransition with some unrealistic expectations. By the time I detransitioned, I’d realized that a lot of my gender dysphoria was rooted in past trauma. That helped explain why transitioning alleviated much of my suffering but still left me feeling unsatisfied in many ways. When I started making connections between my dysphoria and my trauma, I soon figured out new ways to address it and experienced much more relief. Seeing this, part of me had wanted to believe that living as a woman would heal all my trauma or even more, somehow magickally undo it which was of course impossible. I also realized I still harbored the idea that if I just got my gender “right”, learned how to express it or live it out properly, then I’d be significantly happier. I was happier after detransitioning and figuring out how to live as a woman but I still had problems from past trauma and I hadn’t suddenly attained a state of grace just because I established myself in a new gender role.
I went into both my transition and detransition thinking that each process could accomplish more than it actually could. I couldn’t find what I was looking for by changing my body or living as a particular gender. I tried out a whole range of gender related practices, changing my pronouns, changing my body, changing my social role and so on and only after messing around with gender for years did I finally figure out that a lot of my problems weren’t about gender or were only partially related to it. Some of them were about trauma or other psychological issues. Some of them were about my position in society. Some of them were just about being human and trying figure out how to live in a complicated confusing world.
I had this idea, which was shared by many other people I encountered, that because I was very gender nonconforming that meant that I needed to figure out how to properly express my gender in order to be happy. There seems to be this idea that if you’re gender nonconforming you need to do something about it, transition, put extra attention into your personal presentation, link up your gender nonconformity to a political stance, find a very precise name for what you are. You have special needs because your gender is different from other people’s genders. It can’t just be. Lot of people assume that if you’re gender nonconforming, your gender has to be a core part your identity or central to decisions you make about your life. It can’t be insignificant, it can’t be boring. For a long time, it didn’t occur to me that by focusing on gender I could be distracting myself from more interesting parts of life or using it to avoid more complicated problems.
So many people told me in one way or another that I was different from other humans, that my gender was a problem I needed to solve or the most significant thing about me. Some people treated me as if I wasn’t really a person because I was too masculine or they couldn’t figure out what sex I was. Other people acted as if my gender nonconformity made me more interesting or more liberated than other people. Some subcultures treat gender nonconformity as if it’s a virtue in and of itself and value people who they see as subverting gender norms. I went from growing up in a conservative rural community that treated me like a freak because of my gender nonconformity to finding a radical queer community that celebrated my gender nonconformity and told me that it made me a kind of cultural revolutionary, at least if I expressed it according to radical queer social norms. I’d been deeply wounded by being attacked for being different when I was younger and politicizing my difference was a way to redeem it. Linking my gender nonconformity to radical politics was a way to justify it and turn a social stigma into a social asset.
Later, when I detransitioned, I continued to connect my gender nonconformity to radical politics, this time to radical feminism. I embraced radical feminism partially because I was accustomed to making my gender nonconformity seem more justifiable by linking it to a political creed. It was ok for me to be a very butch woman because I was breaking with patriarchal gender norms. I didn’t know how to function outside of a political subculture and so I turned to one that accepted and celebrated women like me.
There was a good long stretch of my life when turning gender into a defining feature helped me get a better social status than I’d had before, along with the access to resources such as housing in queer collective houses. It also helped me find other people who’d also been hurt and attacked for being gender nonconforming, who felt alienated by much of mainstream society because of its ignorance and hostility towards gender nonconformity and ambiguity.
While in many ways, having my gender nonconformity valued and celebrated was an improvement on being attacked for it, now I can see how that approach has also limited me. It still set me apart from others and assumed that the differences between me and other people were more important than the similarities. It presumed that gender was somehow more important for me than for other people and it encouraged me to focus on finding satisfaction through gender rather than through other means.
It turns out, what brings me happiness and satisfaction is not much different from what other people need. I’m happiest when I have fulfilling meaningful work, creative projects, good friendships, healthy food that tastes good, exercise, when I meditate regularly, read and write a lot and have interesting conversations. I want to be around people who accept me for who and what I am, who can listen to me if I talk about my experiences with being a butch woman, transitioning, detransitioning and having gender dysphoria but I want them to be able to see that that’s just one part of me, not the whole.
I now seek to integrate my various experiences of gender into the rest of my life by decentering them, seeing them as just one aspect that feeds into my total reality but does not define it. It means finding the right balance, not denying that these experiences have been meaningful and important but also correcting my past tendency to overemphasize and inflate their importance, to get lost in them because they are safe and familiar. If I make them too important, I get stuck playing a role instead of having a full life. If I reject or deny them, I can’t be whole. I have to make them ordinary, both a necessary part of my life but also no big deal.
It helps to think of myself primarily as a human and to notice what I have in common with other humans, especially those who are different from me in some way. Whereas before I used to avoid hanging out with straight people or people who seem more conventionally gendered, now I have an easier time seeing what I have in common with such people. I benefit from learning not to be afraid of other people just because they happen to belong to groups that hurt me in the past.
I recently started attending meditation groups and connecting with the other people who attend. I’ve been meditating for years and my practice is a very important part of my life. I’ve meditated with groups in the past and found that in a group I could often go deeper in my meditation than if I was by myself. I sought out some local groups in my area with the primary aim of strengthening my practice. Several of the groups I now regularly attend have a period for discussion following meditation. I wasn’t interested in group discussion when I initially sought out meditation groups but now they’re one of my favorite parts. I get to listen to all kinds of people discuss what’s going on in their minds when they meditate and in the rest of their lives. There are differences of course but I can relate to what many people experience. I talk about my own experiences and find that many people can also relate to me. We face many of the same issues as people trying to meditate and also have many of the same psychological reactions as we go about our lives. I’ve learned that many people with life experiences quite different from my own have also struggled with rejecting themselves, feeling like there’s something wrong with them and have struggled learning how to feel compassion for themselves. A few times, I’ve talked about my experiences dealing with dysphoria and my history of transitioning and detransitioing and it’s been well received. It’s been good to talk about those experiences as if they are just another thing a person can live through, in a context where people are talking about their various struggles.
While I have definitely benefited from participating in spaces that are specifically for detransitioned and dysphoric women, I’ve experienced another kind of healing learning that I have much in common with people who are quite different from me. I needed to learn that the people who treated me as if I wasn’t fully human were wrong. For that I needed to connect with people whose experiences were different from my own.
Making gender my central problem and trying to live as a specific gender, no matter what that gender was, didn’t bring me the fulfillment I was looking for. Understanding that I am first and foremost a human, with the same problems and kinds of suffering that other humans face, and focusing on living a meaningful life has been a much more helpful framework. My gender nonconformity, gender dysphoria and history of transition are all a part of my human experience. They neither cast me out of nor define my humanity. At this point, I am more interested in how they connect me with other people than how they set me apart. I see no need to deny where I truly differ from others but I spent so many years being told I was different and overemphasizing my differences until they turned into a role that consumed me. Now I feel a need to re-balance my sense of self by finding common ground.
It’s still hard for me to open myself up to other people and to live as my full self. Other people still terrify me, defining myself in terms of gender is still familiar and comforting, dysphoria is a kind of suffering but one I’ve grown used to. Even though I’ve watched myself chase after gender as a solution several times now and observed the disappointing results, sometimes I still want to try again in hopes things will work out better this next time. It’s hard to disengage from psychological or behavioral patterns even when you’ve come to the point where you know they’re not working out. Stopping something familiar, even when it’s not working or causing suffering, is difficult because it means going into uncertainty. Letting go of what I’ve become used to is terrifying, partially because it means facing the challenges I’ve been using gender to distract myself from.
It took me a very long time to see myself as being quite ordinary and to feel like that’s good enough. I can just be another person trying to have a good life. I don’t have anything to make up for. I’ve been hurt in particular ways for being gender nonconforming and female and I’ve had to heal from that but part of healing has been learning to put that aspect of me into perspective. I’ve had to learn the difference between objectifying myself and truly accepting myself. It feels so good to see that so many of my problems are really basic human problems, even if the form some of them take are less common than average. I’ve been treated like I’m different by so many people, with both good and bad intentions, and it’s such a breakthrough to see how so much of that is bullshit, projections, not reality.
Figuring out how to be a person is a much realer problem than figuring out how to be a gender. It’s taken me years but I’m finally getting a sense of when I need to let go of gender and get on with my life.