A short guide on how to handle the changes and reactions to your evolving trans identity
I decided to transition towards the end of last year. I was fortunate enough to have the means to set things in motion quickly, so I drew up a blueprint for the year to follow and what I had to do: appointments, tests, medications, and so much admin. It was empowering to be so decisive. I was seizing control. I was ending the existential torture caused by years of questioning whether I was a trans woman or just a really, really, confused gay man. I was marking the end of a period of crippling uncertainty, during which my fears of what I misunderstood as essential parts of the trans experience – being discriminated against, being subject to transphobic violence, and dying alone – helped me lie to myself (with increasing difficulty) that I wasn’t trans after all. With my feet at the starting line of my transition, I was finally free.
With my transition underway, I began to move closer and closer toward deadlines I set myself, like when I planned to go “full-time” and when I would tell my employer. However, even though I had planned everything meticulously, I still felt dangerously unprepared for life as a visibly trans person. Some time into my transition, the idea of leaving the house in the clothes I wanted to wear still filled me with dread. The stars, dominoes, ducks, whatever, were all aligned, so how could I – the self-appointed high-flying CEO of my own transition, whose administrative prowess was frequently praised by doctors and therapists – still feel so anxious? Everything I did, all the planning, suddenly did not seem like enough. The road ahead was still exciting, but I didn’t feel equipped to face its challenges. I couldn’t put my finger on what I had missed.
Slowly, I realised that I couldn’t resolve everything by paper or appointment or prescription. The great irony about transitioning, a wonderful and meaningful struggle to realise your identity, is that you can forget about yourself and your emotions entirely. I noticed that when people asked how transitioning was going, I would recite the meetings in my diary rather than the thoughts and feelings in my head. There are lessons I wish I’d learned at an earlier stage and the four below are probably the most important – they would have taught me to put my well-being at the centre of my journey sooner.
Little things can make a big difference
Everyone and their dog told me to get my eyebrows shaped. Defiantly, I didn’t until much later. My eyebrows (and maybe clothes) were a throwback to a pre-makeover Mia Thermopolis, and when I finally got them waxed, it actually made a big difference. Voila, new woman!
So much of my transition has felt entirely out of my control. I can’t control my body’s response to the introduction and suppression of hormones. I can’t control the friends’ reactions to the ‘life update’ I share over lunch. I can’t control the reactions of strangers on the street. Neither can you. However, there are things you can do to make you feel better – actions that give a sense of progress when things are moving so slowly it feels like they’re going backwards.
I’m not suggesting you need to wax your eyebrows. Eyebrow waxing does not a woman make and the impact was largely emotional. I just wish I was quicker to set out the actions which make me feel better and more affirmed, and that I engaged with those behaviours more often. If gender dysphoria has got you down, find out what alleviates it rather than enforcing feelings of low self-worth.
Don’t wait for physical changes to build confidence in how you present
If you’re on them, or plan to go on them, it’s important to remember that changes from hormones can be really slow. Access to hormones can be even slower. You know you won’t wake up with a full bosom or beard in week two, but you’re probably still hopeful. “Oh… oh my,” says the beautiful scrubs-clad doctor in your dreams, “We’ve never seen someone react to HRT this well before… stunning!”. Sadly, you are entering a second puberty. The second, like the first, will be painfully long.
I mention how slow it is because I spent too much time waiting for hormones to work, waiting for my body to change to start presenting how I really wanted to. I thought hormones could get me to the right place emotionally, and that my confidence could play catch-up to my physical appearance, rather than the other way around. I treated my confidence like a succulent, parking it in the corner, and ignoring in perpetuity. When the physical changes came, I still felt crippling anxiety at facing the everyday. The growth of my mighty A-cups didn’t make going to the supermarket in clothes I actually wanted to wear any less daunting. Sadly, even succulents need watering.
Start small, take baby steps and work your way up within the limits of safety. Paint a nail, wear a skirt around your friends, bind your chest – whatever works for you. As your anxiety around how present becomes more manageable, move closer toward your preferred presentation, and let any physical changes to your body be the icing on the cake.
“Start small, take baby steps and work your way up within the limits of safety. As your anxiety around how present becomes more manageable, move closer toward your preferred presentation, and let any physical changes to your body be the icing on the cake”
You don’t have to be happy all the time
Nobody is. It’s really easy to internalise the narrative that gender dysphoria is your only problem, and that you’re going to be constantly happy once you get to the other side. This is an impossible expectation and would also be exhausting. Transitioning removes a very large obstacle to your happiness, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Remember, even cis people get sad too.
I found it difficult to open up to people about the challenges I was facing. Mostly, I didn’t want them to doubt my decision to transition and it became easier to shoehorn my experience into the narrative I assumed was familiar to them. Transitioning and being trans has very clear challenges, and you’re allowed to find these upsetting. It’s why Munroe Bergdorf’s and Alok Vaid-Menon’s descriptions of their battles with mental illness and hardships (while also being trans-positive) add necessary complexity to a monolithic trans narrative.
Transitioning isn’t going to pay your rent. Don’t let the deluge of “Omg! So amazing your outside will finally match your inside!” and “Stand in your truth, babe!” drown out legitimate concerns you have. Find people who are trans-positive but don’t speak in liberal soundbites. Support should be much more considered, deeper and richer than a cishet friend’s “Yas queen!”. Talk about it.
You don’t know what other people are thinking
Keep this in the front of your mind and try not to make assumptions. You’ll never know exactly what’s in someone’s head. It’s the same advice I give friends who’ve been ghosted but it works here too.
Take the example of people staring – it won’t always be because you’re trans. People stare for a lot of reasons: they could like something you’re wearing or you could look like someone they know. People also stare for no reason at all. There’s also confirmation bias to wrangle with: If you’re constantly worried about people staring, you’ll start seeing people staring at you everywhere. It occasionally makes sense to assume it’s because you’re trans, like when they make it clear to you and you are in danger of harassment. In other instances, give yourself a break.
Eventually, I promise, you’ll start caring much less about it. You’ll remember that it’s actually pretty cool to be trans, and lots of people think so too.