This article is published in partnership with Scarleteen.com.
My early childhood consisted of Legos and Hot Wheels. In junior high, I listened to more metal than pop, wore hoodies and Vans shoes, black nail polish and eyeliner. Nowadays, I’ve been getting more interested in piercings and tattoos. I’ve never felt like a girl for the most part, but I’ve never considered getting some sort of sex change or anything either. I’ve only been attracted to guys, as friends and romantically. Because of my hardcore tomboyishness, guys never ask me out/respond favorably when I flirt. In high school, everyone assumed I was a lesbian. I said no, since I don’t like girls.
Since I feel more like a guy, but like guys, would that make me transgendered somehow?
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Heather Corinna replies:
What our identity is in terms of our gender isn’t about what someone else decides or presumes–it’s up to us to reflect on our experiences and feelings about who are are on the inside, and to label that (or choose not to label it) in whatever way feels true to us as individuals. What feels right and true for you may or may not match up with what other people think about you or call you, or what other people know about you.
While all of us certainly will often have people assume our gender and assign us gender or gender roles, because that happens so much in our world, that’s actually really presumptuous, problematic, and deeply disrespectful. It’s about as kosher for people to do as it is for someone to decide for you and tell you — or anyone — what your religious or spiritual values or beliefs are, what you like to eat, who you want to date, or what your name is, rather than asking you what those things are for you.
Things can get even more complicated when you realize that even something that seems like it’s self-explanatory, like “girl” or “guy” is actually a lot more vague than you think. Sometimes from even before we’re born the gender craziness starts–pink for girls and blue for boys–and it seems like right from the beginning we’re taught about what it is that girls “should” do and boys “should” do. But it doesn’t always work like that. What we like to wear, what we like to do in our spare time or who we like to hang out with doesn’t give the ultimate definition of who we are. There are lots of kinds of girls, and it could also be that how you are and have been is your experience of being a girl and you want to identify as a girl: your version of “girl” just may not match what other people’s experiences are of being one or what your ideas of what girl is, must or should be.
For instance, I’m someone who identifies as a woman, and the way I grew up sounds like your experiences. In other words, my own experience of being a girl and a woman has included spending time in mosh pits, wearing combat boots, boxing, playing with blocks instead of dolls, getting in fist-fights as a kid and having lots of male-identified friends. It’s included mixing some things people ascribe a certain gender to up in ways that some folks do not or did not. At the same time, I know people just like me in all those respects and more who also have the same body parts as I do, but who identify as men, as genderqueer or as agender.
That doesn’t mean I’m right and those other folks are wrong, or that they’re right and I’m wrong. It just means we’re different people with different experiences, feelings, perceptions and ideas about our own gender or gender in general. Our gender and our experiences of gender are very personal and very individual. There’s never any one way of looking, behaving, feeling or thinking that somehow universally proves we are this gender or that one or this other one: there’s only what we feel, what we experience, and how we choose to frame and name it.
So, there’s no somehow here: when it comes to your gender–whether you identify as trans, as a girl, as a guy, as whomever–it’s up to you. However it is that you dress, whatever your interests are, those things don’t decide that for you or without you. I know that can seem confusing when in so many ways, many people don’t give us that option or see it that way, but that’s because of people doing badly by you and by gender, not because we’re not the experts of our own gender and gender identities: we are. You are.
Let’s first check in about gender as a concept briefly, to make sure we’re on the same page, leaping off from this piece:
Gender isn’t about biology or science. It is a man-made (or rather, person-made) set of concepts and ideas people have about how men and women are supposed to look, act, relate and interrelate, based on their sex, about who is a man and who is a woman. Gender isn’t anatomical: it’s intellectual, psychological and social (and even optional); about identity, roles and status based on ideas about sex and what it means to different people and groups. A typical part of that set of concepts is also the idea — even though we know by now it’s flawed — that gender is only male or female in the first place (it’s not). Like sex (which also isn’t just something with two possibilities), gender is often presented as binary: as being only one thing or the other, without any overlap or grey area in between. When we talk about sex, we’re usually talking about what is male and what is female based on chromosomes and/or reproductive systems: when we talk about gender, we’re talking about what is considered masculine and what feminine, man or woman, or other kinds of gender altogether either outside those two terms, mixing them or expanding those ideas and feelings. If our doctors or midwives were to call out our gender at birth, rather than our sex, they would instead be shouting something like “High heels!” or “Sneakers!”
Someone trans gender (lots of people prefer “transgender” to “transgendered,” which some people feel can be objectifying or make it sound like someone’s gender happened to them rather than expressing who someone is as a person, like, as our volunteer Andy explains well, the difference between the terms people of color and “colored people”) is usually someone who experiences and identifies themselves as different or opposite than the sex — and usually, thus also the gender — they were assigned at birth.
In other words, a trans woman, or someone trans feminine, is a woman who was assigned male sex at birth but does not experience herself as being male or a man. A trans man, or someone trans masculine, is a man who was assigned female sex at birth, but does not experience himself as being female or a woman. Not everyone defines it the same way, or has exactly that experience, but I’d say that’s as decent a general definition as any. If we wanted to get even more general, we could just say that someone who identifies as trans gender usually feels like the way other people assigned or identified their sex and/or gender wasn’t and/or isn’t right. But ultimately, if you want to know how someone trans defines this language and experiences being trans, your best bet is always to ask that person, and the same would apply to you should you decide that that’s a gender umbrella you want to use.
There are also many ways of identifying our gender besides identifying it as trans gender or cis gender (a term used to express a “match” between the sex someone was assigned and their gender identity: like someone identifying as a man whose birth certificate says male on it).
There are ways of identifying gender that aren’t binary at all; that aren’t only about boys or girls, men or women. For instance, you could identify as genderqueer, gender-variant or gender-fluid, terms which can express gender identities that don’t feel like a fit in the gender binary, or where identifying as a man or a woman — whether you’re cis gender or trans gender — doesn’t feel right to you. Or, you could identify as agender or androgynous, some ways people identify who feel their gender is neither man nor woman, or who just don’t feel they have or want a gender identity. Bigender is a term some people use to describe feeling they have both female and male gender, either at the same time, or that they shift between sometimes or always.
You could also identify yourself as you have here, as a tomboy, if that feels like a good fit to you.
Suffice it to say, you also don’t have to identify your gender at all if you don’t want to, or right now, and you can also make up your own language if you want. After all, someone made up all of these other words once, including man and woman: language is something people invent and alter all the time.
For those who do identify as trans, there’s no one way or “right” way to be trans. For some people, recognizing their identities for themselves might feel satisfying, while others might want to share it with others. Some people may want to dress or talk differently, use another name or pronoun, or use other approaches and therapies to change their bodies to match up with how they feel on the inside. Not everyone trans chooses to have sexual reassignment surgery (the term we have now for what used to be called a “sex change”), or takes hormones to alter their bodies. Some people do, some people don’t, and that choice can depend on a bunch of factors, including things like what kinds of supports they have in their lives, whether they can access good healthcare, how much money they have, and how they feel about their bodies and body parts.
Unfortunately, no matter how you come to feel about yourself and how you identify, not everyone is going to be respectful of how you identify your gender if it’s not what they’re used to, comfortable with, or if they just don’t get it: some people are also very deeply threatened by the idea of gender being anything other than man or woman and aren’t even safe to be around if you don’t conform to their ideas of gender. So, your choices with this may be influenced by how much of a gender outlaw you feel up to being, and safe being, now or in any given moment or environment. But even if you don’t ever feel up to voicing your gender identity or language to anyone else, you certainly can always choose whatever language you want just for yourself, and use it in your own head: you only have to share it if and when you want to.
One of the toughest things with a question like yours is about “feeling like a girl,” or not feeling like one. Like I’ve said, our experiences of what a given gender feels like are so diverse, so what “feels” like feminine gender to one person can feel like something entirely different to someone else, or that experience of what it is to “feel like” something in terms of gender may not seem like what it is supposed to feel like based on what we hear or observe.
It might help to remember that our ideas, and certainly the world’s ideas, of what things or people are “feminine” and what things or people are “masculine” are often arbitrary, and also are ever-changing to some degree. They’re also cultural: not every culture, now or historically, has shared the same ideas about those words and what they mean, and culture can be everything from our ethnicity to our city even just to our peer group. For instance, I also don’t think I dated a single guy in high school who didn’t wear eyeliner, or dated a single girl who did: that was part of typical gender presentation in our culture at the time, even though at the same time, there were other cultures elsewhere, or at different times in history, even other peers groups only a city or a few neighborhoods away where that was or would have been seen as very atypical. And how we experience our physical bodies as male, female or otherwise, not just ourselves and our gender in our heads and hearts, also has a lot of variation.
This is one of those things where we really just need to follow and privilege our own feelings. The fact that gender is so arbitrary and so personal means we get to have it be arbitrary and personal. So, if you feel more like a guy, maybe you want to choose to identify as a guy, whether you identify as a trans guy, or just a guy, or a girlie-guy or whatever kind of guy you want and are. Or, maybe you don’t identify in one of those ways. Maybe you want to choose to identify as genderqueer. Maybe you might want to identify as agender. Maybe you want to identify as a girl. Just like with sexual orientation, you also have the option as identifying as questioning when it comes to your gender to express that being where you’re at right now. Maybe you want to try a host of different things on and see how they feel, not committing to any of them right now. Maybe you don’t want to identify as anything at all right now or ever, which you also have the right to (not) do.
Most importantly, you get to take as much time as you need to with this, and there’s no right answer, only what you find feels most right for you at any given time and through your life, where your gender identity may always stay the same or similar, or where it may change, sometimes radically. You may even find that for a long time, or sometimes, you have a hard time finding anywhere that feels just right, or resent feeling like you have to make choices around this in the first place. That’s okay, and don’t forget that one of your options with this totally includes living in in-between spaces. Plenty of us feel most at home or like we only fit in the margins, either for certain periods of time, or altogether. This morning, Andy spoke to that really well when he recalled something a friend said that helped him feel more comfortable being genderqueer, which was:
Some people are born and live their whole lives happily in one place. Others will be born in one place, and move to another place at some point, maybe camping out in the middle ground at some point for a few months, maybe a year or so, before moving to the other side. This can be gender, or sexual orientation, or anything like that. But some people aren’t comfortable on one side or the other – some people don’t just stop by that middle ground. We don’t have tents, we have houses with picket fences and vegetable gardens, because that is where we are comfortable. And it’s kind of tricky sometimes, because people can’t understand why we’d want to live in this sparsely populated middle ground when we could have an awesome place on side A or side B, but the middle ground is what works best for us, and it is where we are comfortable, and we make it work.
And when it comes to sexual orientation, people of every gender identity all have the same full spectrum of options, experiences and identities. Just like people who aren’t trans aren’t limited in what their orientation can be, same goes for people who are trans. Our gender identity does not, all by itself, unless we do so with it, impose limits on our sexual orientation, nor on who we choose to or like to be friends with. And the fact that you feel more like a guy and also feel attracted to guys doesn’t automatically make you any given orientation: whether you identify as queer, straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual or anything else is up to you, and is going to be about what feels most true and real to you.
I’d also add that you may not know as clearly as you think why guys haven’t asked you out. For some, it may well be that they are interested in someone more femme than you are, but for others, it may be that they’re just not attracted to you, particularly (as a whole person, not just because of the way you present your gender), because they’re not interested in dating, period, because they’re shy and don’t ask anyone out or because, for whatever reason, they find you intimidating or think you’d not be interested. It may also be that the way you’re flirting isn’t ringing bells for anyone yet: in other words, that the people you have flirted with don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. You’d hardly be the first person, of any gender identity, who had that experience: plenty of people do better with direct communication than with more subtle cues or hints, so you may want to just try being more direct and taking the initiative more often.
If you want some help in exploring all of this and more, I can suggest a couple really great books: Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook and S. Bear Bergman’s The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You are both brilliant. Kate and Bear also just updated the fantastic classic Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation together recently. You might also find it helpful to talk to other people who don’t experience or identify their gender stereotypically; who seem to be a bit more outside the box like you’re feeling. Sometimes mixing up or changing our community can be a big help in getting a better sense of who we are and feeling more able to be whoever it is we want to be. Finally, there’s always the option to seek out counseling if you want to talk more about what you’re feeling with another person.
I’m going to leave you with a few more links that might help you out here, and with my support, acceptance and a yippee-for-you-in-advance for whatever it is you decide your gender is:
- Q is for Questioning
- I feel like my body is wrong, but my parents say my feelings are wrong.
- I’m a Straight Girl, but Wish I Were a Gay Guy…
- Help! I think I’m trapped in the wrong body.
- Boys Will Be Boys…or Not? Straight Talk About Gender
- Living without Labels