I had a conversation with a probably-trans friend last night which they1 found helpful, so I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts on the subject with a broader audience, as it’s a perspective that I don’t think is heard from often, and may be helpful as a point of reference for people who are wondering if they are “trans enough”.
I am cis. I’m reasonably sure of this. I have asked myself whether I was trans, concluded that I was not, and am pretty confident in this conclusion2. You don’t hear much about this sort of experience, because from the outside it looks like a total non-event, so I thought it would be helpful for me to elaborate on what it feels like from the inside.
Ozy Frantz coined a term a while back, Cis by Default3, which makes the point that a lot of cis people just don’t have anything that you might describe as an internally felt sense of gender. I think this is true and is a very useful observation, and for quite some time I thought it was an accurate description of how I felt. Since then, I’ve decided that there are details that it doesn’t quite capture accurately for me that are worth unpacking a bit further.
I think the distinguishing features of cis-vs-transness can be roughly captured by three important questions:
- What was your assigned gender at birth?
- What would you like your gender to be4?
- How much do you care about the above?
Being trans is essentially having very different answers to the first two questions and caring about it a great deal. I think the significance of the caring part is often missed, because the people who talk about this the most (both cis and trans) are often the ones who care about it the most.
This model is a bit simplistic, so some caveats before I go any further:
- Gender/sex/etc constitute a very large bundle of roughly related parts. e.g. identity and presentation are different, and there are distinct gendered norms. People will rarely have the same answer to these questions for each of those aspects. That’s fine.
- I encourage very broad interpretations of the questions. Definitely no assumption of binary gender implied. Also it’s perfectly OK for your preference to be to not have a gender at all (i.e. being agender).
- Answers to these questions may change over time. The relevant period of time can be on an hourly basis for some people (e.g. genderfluidity).
- “Oh gods I have no idea” is a perfectly legitimate answer to any or all of these.
- “What would you like your gender to be?” is a slightly loaded phrasing, but I can’t think of a better one, so please let me emphasise here that I very strongly believe that your gender is whatever you choose or believe it to be.
You can think of the experience of this as breaking down into roughly four quadrants which get labelled as follows:
- Agree/Care – “Standard” Cis Experience
- Agree/Don’t Care – Cis by Default
- Disagree/Care – Trans
- Disagree/Don’t care – It Depends
I would consider myself to be in the “It Depends” quadrant. Someone in this category could reasonably choose to consider themselves cis or trans, depending on whatever seems important to them. For my part, I’ve chosen to consider myself cis – I don’t think I or other people would find it at all helpful for me to describe myself as trans, so I don’t, but other people in the same quadrant might make a different decision and that’s fine too. You could think of us as “ambiguously cis” (or, for people in this quadrant who have chosen to consider themselves trans, “ambiguously trans”) – there isn’t a particularly clear cut answer as to whether we count as cis or trans, so it mostly comes down to personal choice and social circumstance.
What does being ambiguously cis feel like? I don’t know. It depends. I can tell you what it feels like for me though: It’s not really that I mind being a man, I just wish someone had asked me first5.
If you wanted to simplify the vastly complex internal experience of human gender into a single number6, you might imagine that there is a percentile scale of 0-100 of “How much you would like to transition?” with 0% being “Under no circumstances would I choose my gender to differ from the one I was assigned at birth” and 100% being “Under no circumstances would I choose to live as my assigned gender at birth”, I’d rate myself somewhere in the 5-10% region.
Practically speaking, what this means is that if you dropped me into the Culture and gave me access to cheap and easy body modification technology and a society that was very encouraging of using it, I would absolutely experiment with different gender presentations, would give you pretty good odds that I would swap back and forth, and maybe slightly better than even odds that I would adopt a more feminine body plan as a default.
In the real world where transition is complicated and subject to social censure, it’s not even close to worth it for me, because my preferences here are really very mild. There are some circumstances7 where it reaches the heady heights of “I guess that would be nice”, but it’s really not a big deal for me. As a result I present as fairly generically masculine because it’s extremely easy for me to do so and not worth it for me to not do so.
Given this, I don’t think it’s in any way useful for me to identify as trans, but someone with essentially the same preferences as me who cared a lot more about them probably should think about identifying as trans.
Someone who cares exactly the same amount as me might still reasonably consider themselves trans if they were in different circumstances. I don’t know what those would be – I can’t really think of any plausible circumstances under which I would, but that doesn’t imply anything about what other people should do.
If you are in any way unsure about your position in this quadrant, there is a useful concept that I got from a post by Kelsey Piper a while back. Although I’m not the target audience, the point generalises very well and I still it found very helpful:
I have now talked with multiple bi women who’ve said ‘sometimes when I have a crush on a girl I get really worried I’m a Fake Bi and not really attracted to women and therefore I won’t ever get to kiss her.’
And I know orientation and labels and so on are complicated but I think there should be a rule that if you are sometimes scared you’re not bi which would be bad because it means you can’t kiss girls, you are totally and categorically allowed to kiss the girls
The generalisation is this: If you are worried that you are not (label) and that that would be bad because it would mean that you don’t get to (do the thing that label people get to do), I think there should be a rule that you are totally and categorically allowed to (do the thing).
I suggested “Disagree/Care” as the intrinsic definition of transness, but a useful extrinsic definition of “being trans enough” is if it would be helpful for you to view yourself as trans.
If you find yourself worried about not being trans because if you’re not you wouldn’t be able to do all these things that would make your life better, I think that you are totally and categorically allowed to do the thing that makes your life better. If you feel that life makes much more sense when you view yourself as trans, or you really hope you’re trans because that would mean you get to transition (in whatever sense of “transition” is helpful to you), that is a pretty big hint that you are not in the “It Depends” quadrant and that you are trans enough to count. The trans umbrella is large and it definitely has room for you.
This is essentially a variant on the model I proposed in “On Not Quite Fitting” – Binary identity labels don’t actually describe real categories, they describe complex cost-benefit analyses where each individual must decide whether something is worth it to them or not. I think this model is particularly important in the case of gender because both the benefits and, sadly, the costs are quite high for many potentially trans people.
I am not the person to give you advice on how to navigate that cost-benefit trade-off, as it contains a lot of trans specific experiences I don’t share, but feel free to use me as a reference point if you need convincing that you’re trans enough: If you care about your gender significantly more than I care about mine, it’s probably a subject you would find worth exploring.
Equally, I am definitely not someone you need permission from, but if you would find my permission helpful then you have it: Do the thing that makes your life better. If you’re worried if you count, you do.