I came out as nonbinary to my partner and friends in the summer of 2016. While I’d known I was trans for a couple of years before that, I consider that year to be when my transition really began. The past three years have been filled with all kinds of changes for me, and all kinds of unexpected experiences and observations.
Transition looks different for everyone — sometimes when a person transitions, there are no outward, observable changes at all. For me, transitioning has meant replacing my wardrobe with almost entirely men’s clothing, using new pronouns, using neutral and sometimes masculine-leaning words for myself, stopping hormonal birth control, changing my hair, taking low-dose T, and changing my name and the gender marker on my ID.
In the past three years, my appearance has changed a great deal, but I’m still recognizable to people who knew me before transition. When I’m out in public, I think the average stranger still assumes I am female, but I do get called “sir” sometimes. People cannot always tell what my gender is from looking at a photo of me. More importantly, people who know me well see me as nonbinary, though it sometimes takes a while for that truth of me to “sink in” as someone gets to know me. I’ll talk about this in more detail below.
I’ve learned a lot about transitioning and being trans in the past three years. Not everything has turned out how I anticipated it would. Some transitional steps have been total disappointments and others came with very welcome surprises. I wanted to take some time to step back and reflect on some of them.
I think these observations might be helpful to newly-out trans people, or to those contemplating transition. I also think there is value in cisgender people reading about my experiences, so they can see what a slow, nonbinary transition process can look like. As you read this, please keep in mind that I’m a white, PhD-educated trans masculine person in a major city, and my experiences, especially the easy and good ones, probably do not reflect the experiences of transgender people who haven’t lived as golden and privileged a life as me.
No One Looks at Pronoun Pins
When I first came out, one of the things that mattered most to me was that people use my correct pronouns. I still care about pronouns a lot, in fact, but three years into my transition, almost everyone in my life gets them right.
The first year of transition, though, was a pronoun nightmare. In 2016, I still had long hair and was read very automatically as female by people. Using new pronouns for me required a shift in people’s minds — they had to deliberately pause and correct themselves. I understood why I kept being called “she” so much, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. In fact, feeling pressure to be patient and understanding about these mistakes made the misgendering hurt worse. People get really cagey and defensive when you correct them about your pronouns. It’s exhausting to have to balance self-advocacy with soothing fragile egos.
So I defaulted to the tool that so many baby trans people fall back on: the pronoun pin. I bought pronoun pins at Target and at the local women’s bookstore. I bought enamel pronoun pins from Etsy shops. I put pronoun pins on jackets, messenger bags, and button-up shirts. I bought a They/Them hat.
And it never mattered. Nobody ever noticed.
Newly-out trans people, I need to tell you this: a pin, hat, or patch will never do your self-advocacy for you. Generally, the type of person who guesses a stranger’s gender without hesitation is also not gonna look for, notice, or give a shit about a pronoun pin. A lot of cisgender people forget entirely, at almost all times, that trans people like us exist. You can cover your jacket in trans flags, trans symbols, pronouns pins, and other bold signifiers of identity, but to the average stranger, it will be meaningless noise that does not impact how they treat you.
To every trans person reading this, I am so sorry that this is the case. You deserve to be recognized for who you are. You deserve to live in a world where we don’t assume gender and pronouns at a glance. Unfortunately, most of the world has not evolved to that point. You should still wear pronoun pins if they make you feel good, but don’t do so with the expectation that it will do your talking for you.
I used to wear a pronoun pin pretty much every single day, as an androgynously-dressed, short-haired person living in a gay neighborhood. It didn’t matter. People didn’t notice. They called me “she” and “ma’am”. If I wanted a person to call me anything other than that, I had to tell them, directly, myself — either in a conversation, or via an email or text.
Appearances Aren’t Everything
Some trans people, like the Youtuber Natalie Wynn, think that transition is mostly about “the aesthetic”. That is to say, that transitioning requires changing one’s appearance, and managing the impact that one’s appearance has on other people.
Under this viewpoint, you have to be instantly “readable” as the gender that you identify with, in order to be treated as a member of that gender. If you look ambiguous, or if you are mis-identified in gas stations and coffee shops, you haven’t truly transitioned in the eyes of society. You may identify as male, female, nonbinary, or something else entirely, but if you don’t look the part, everyone will just keep on viewing you the way they always did.
I’m here to tell you that is not true. Gender isn’t all about the impression you give off to a stranger in the grocery-store checkout line. It may suck for a random cashier to misgender you, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t transitioned in the eyes of people you interact with on a deeper level. In fact, you don’t have to change your appearance at all in order to socially transition in a meaningful way.
How do I know this? First, I’ve listened to how trans people talk about early gendered experiences in their pre-transition lives. I’ve noticed, for example, that often trans women experience aspects of “female socialization” long before they publicly identify as female. Trans women are often sexually harassed, undermined, and mansplained to long before they come out. Their looks, tone, and mannerisms are critiqued and policed, the way all women’s are. These things happen to them because they are women. Not because they look or dress a particular way.
On the flip side, I’ve been largely spared a lot of sexism in my life, despite having “looked like a woman” for most of it. Even when I “looked like a woman”, people often listened to me and took me seriously, as if they could tell I was male. This has only intensified since coming out as nonbinary. Now I occupy a space that is palpably distinct from what women and men inhabit.
I am a trans person who does not fully “pass” as my gender, yet when people get to know me, they treat me in a nonbinary way. Sure, I get called “ma’am” and “she” by servers at restaurants, but nobody who works with me or is friends with me actually treats me the way they treat women. My appearance and body are not policed or remarked upon the way women’s are. I am left out of events and plans that are tailored for women. People who know me use neutral or male-leaning words for me, and generally talk about me in a way that makes it clear that their frame of reference for me is somewhere between male and gender-neutral.
It took a while to get to this place. When I first came out, I still occupied the “woman” box in everybody’s mind. But as my friends, colleagues, and loved ones got to know my authentic identity a little better, I noticed that their treatment of me (as well as their language) started to shift. I felt more and more comfortable being around them, and they came to understand who I really was with more and more ease.
A friend told me recently that before I transitioned, I seemed as if I was forever trapped behind a wall. I was hard to know, and hard to relate to. Another person, who has known me since elementary school, told me that I seem more bright and open now that I’ve come out. The more I step into the light of my own truth, the more I am accurately recognized and truly loved for who I am. That recognition required time and honest conversations. It didn’t require surgery, hormones, or conforming to a ridiculous ideal of what a “male” or “nonbinary” person physically looks like.
New Names Are Easy to Learn; New Pronouns Are Not
Man, I wish I had known this one three years ago. I would have changed both my name and pronouns right out the gate. But that’s not what I did.
Foolishly, I thought that the social aspect of my transition would go more smoothly if I eased people into it. I thought changing both my name and my pronouns at the same time would be too jarring. And for some reason, I believed a name change would be more difficult for people to wrap their minds around, because a name is such a fundamental part of a person’s identity. I thought that pronouns could be the training wheels.
I had this one completely backwards. Turns out it’s way harder to adapt to new pronouns than a new name! A few friends took months to stop calling me “she” and “her” . Some of my family members will probably struggle to use they/them pronouns for me for the rest of their lives.
Pronouns are used so frequently in a conversation, and so implicitly, that the average cisgender person really struggles with changing them. Plus, pronouns are typically used to refer to a person when that person is not around, and thus is unable to stand up for themselves or correct any misgendering. My new pronouns also required a completely different grammar than my old ones — changing that requires a lot of brainpower, especially for someone who has never used they/them pronouns before.
I didn’t change my name until a full two years into my transition process, because I was still waiting for people around me to really nail the pronoun thing. I fell victim to one of the classic transgender blunders — I made choices about my transition based on the fear of cis discomfort, rather than what felt good and right for me.
Last year, I decided couldn’t take waiting any longer. I went ahead and changed my name. I assumed it would become another ongoing,years-long battle for respect and recognition, just as my pronouns had been. I gathered my resolve, wrote a few letters and texts to key people in my life, had a few awkward conversations, and then came out publicly about my new, already legally changed, name.
And everybody started using it. Right away. No problem. One day I was “Erika” on all my social media profiles and in every social circle I inhabited; the next day I was “Devon”. I swear, it was that instantaneous. Nobody, ever, ever got it wrong. I was floored.
It turns out that changing one’s name is easy. Well, not legally easy. That part was an expensive bureaucratic slog. But socially, it was a breeze. And as I came to find out, my new name provided a bit of a social guardrail to people who were still struggling with the pronoun thing. If someone wanted to respect my identity, but didn’t trust themselves to get the pronouns right, they could default to “Devon” as much as possible. In some cases, this helped people to feel less panicky about misgendering me, resulting in them getting pronouns right more often.
No One Looks at Gender on ID Cards
When I changed my name, I also legally changed my gender. In Illinois, a gender marker change only requires a letter from a doctor, so getting an M on my documents was pretty easy. It felt affirming and accurate for me to have that “male” signifier below my name.
But it also made me panicky. What would happen when I tried to buy alcohol, or went to the airport? Would bartenders ask me about being trans? Would I be forced to get a TSA pat-down no matter what I was wearing? Was I setting myself up for harassment?
For me, it hasn’t mattered at all. No one has ever looked at or remarked upon the gender on my ID. When I fly, TSA agents and airline employees don’t seem to notice it. At bars and liquor stores, nobody looks at anything except for the picture and the date of birth. If I have to show my ID to pick up tickets for an event, all they care about is the name. While I’m still glad to be legally male, it’s ended up being a pretty inconsequential change.
Note: I think this experience probably differs a ton for trans women, or any trans person who isn’t white and short. Cis people see me as a nonthreatening type of trans person: I’m small, I’m white, and I have some feminine features that make me seem harmless and kind of cutesy. I think if I belonged to a group that was stereotyped as dangerous or threatening, people would scrutinize my gender marker more, and harass me more.
A Few Years In, Misgendering Hurts Less
This is a simple and hopeful one. In my experience, the pain of being misgendered gets less and less intense as you become more comfortable with yourself.
When I first came out as trans, I was flooded with feelings of social dysphoria — the uneasy, discomfiting feeling that people did not see me the way I saw myself. It’s a strange paradox, how realizing and accepting your true self can make it harder to endure being mis-identified and incorrectly seen. Once you have a taste of what it’s like to be true to yourself, it’s hard to endure the weight of other people’s false projections, even if you endured them for decades before.
The first two years of my transition were defined by frustration and yearning. I knew who I was, and I was boldly declaring it in public for the first time, but a lot of people didn’t notice or care. At least not at first.
It took a few years of repeatedly and proudly stating who I was, but eventually I started being recognized. As more and more people came to recognize who I was, I ceased feeling so rattled by the handful that didn’t.
More importantly, I started feeling more confident in the validity of my own identity, and less dependent on cis approval. Today, I know that I am a nonbinary, male-leaning person, and I know that is true no matter how I am seen or what words a person says about me. I still get misgendered sometimes, but only in superficial social situations among people I barely know. Their words don’t call my authenticity into question. They don’t have anything to do with me. And so, for the most part, I can let them slide off my back.
Loving Myself Is So Much Easier Now
Before I transitioned, I was conventionally beautiful and academically accomplished, and I hated myself. People would stop me on the street to tell me how gorgeous I was. I graduated with a PhD at age 25, and secured a first-author publication in a top-tier journal immediately after. On paper my life was great. In reality, I would spend hours crying alone at night, wishing I could just disappear from existence.
I didn’t understand back then that my pervasive self-hatred and listlessness were related to being trans. All I knew was that I detested my body, found it painful to look in the mirror, and struggled to get dressed and head out into the world each day. Every achievement felt false and hollow. Every social interaction was strained and lonely. I couldn’t imagine a future for myself. I was terrible at taking care of my health. I under-ate, over-exercised, and ignored a prolonged chronic illness because I thought I deserved it.
After I transitioned, all that began to change. I started dressing in a way that felt comfortable and honest. I could look in the mirror and see someone cute and lovable. Eating got easier. Making friends took less effort. I started feeling like I deserved to build a happy and comfortable life for myself. I felt more ambitious and energized, and my efforts started paying off more. I was able to experience joy again. A whole lifetime of possibility opened up before me, and for once I felt capable of running out to meet it.
Transition wasn’t a magic bullet that cured all my problems. It introduced a lot of struggles to my life. It forced me to have a lot of hard conversations with people I had known for a very long time; it required that I deal with the pain of being misgendered, and develop some much-needed self-advocacy skills. Transition cost me a lot of money, in new clothes, hormones, haircuts, and doctor’s visits. It lead to some people viewing me as a freak.
But on balance, it has been unreservedly worth it. It used to be that everything in life was immensely difficult and lonesome. I found it hard to see a point in being alive, because everything felt so stultifying and far away. I didn’t like who I was, and I couldn’t seem to like anybody else much, either. My whole existence played out in my head.
Now, three years into my transition, I am living a much more fruitful and interconnected life. I can stand up for myself when I need to. I can push myself to try new things, and I take pride in my accomplishments. I feel attractive. I feel worthwhile. I am capable, in my best moments, of being earnest, present, and fully alive.
Things are not perfect. They never will be. I have plenty of other issues that I still need to work on. But I am myself, and I love that person, and other people can see that person and love them, too.
I wish I could tell 2016 me every lesson I’ve learned in the last three years. But if I could only impart one, it would be simply this: transitioning was worth it. I spent years of my life denying who I was and striving to be as easy to deal with as possible. I made myself quiet and convenient and it nearly killed me. Now, three years in, I know the value of asserting my selfhood, and that act of assertion is as immense and beautiful as it is fundamental to being alive.