“How can you know that your gender doesn’t align with your body? What does it feel like to have a gender, anyway?” These are common questions from cis people who want to understand what it’s like to be trans. They want to know how we can be so aware of our gender that this internal sense of identity overcomes what our anatomy would seemingly dictate.
One of the usual replies is to turn this around and ask them how they know that they’re the gender they identify as. This is often explained through a thought experiment: we ask them to imagine how they would feel if they unexpectedly woke up in a body of another physical sex. Wouldn’t they still know that they were their true gender? And wouldn’t they be uncomfortable with a body that doesn’t match their identity?
While this argument may be elegant in its simplicity, it’s not always effective. Many cis people do realize that in this hypothetical situation, they would still have an awareness of their gender and its mismatch with their new body. But others don’t really think it would be a problem. They sometimes reply that they would be okay with this surprising turn of events, and that they wouldn’t have an issue with being another sex. This can make it difficult for them to understand why trans people can’t just accept having a body of any particular sex.
It’s sometimes tempting to tell them their answer is simply wrong, and that they’re lacking in the necessary experiences needed to understand our situation. It can be difficult to have an explicit awareness of your internal gender when it’s never bumped up against the confines of your body and you don’t feel constrained by the social roles attached to it. This is often compared to how people don’t pay much attention to the feeling of the clothes they’re wearing, unless their clothes are uncomfortable and poorly fitting.
That’s the standard response. But it’s also possible that these people may just have genuinely different experiences and understandings of what gender means to them. Ozy Frantz recently theorized that while some people, cis and trans, have a strong sense of their gender, it could be that others actually don’t feel like they have much of a gender at all.
This wouldn’t be unheard of. It’s a common misconception that trans people all share the experience of knowing our true gender from a very young age, and that it’s as unambiguous as a flashing sign that says “male”, “female”, “non-binary”, and so on. But it’s not like that for everyone. Plenty of trans people never had any awareness of gender incongruence in our youth, and it can take us a long time to figure out who we are and what we want to do with ourselves. Even among those of us who do decide to transtition, we might not always feel that life as the wrong gender is totally unbearable, and this can draw out the process of self-discovery even further. For some people, their gender might be clear as day, but for others, it’s a long road to being comfortably certain that our identities have more to say about who we are than our bodies do.
So I wouldn’t really be surprised that some cis people also don’t have a clear sense of gender identity. Just as I didn’t really mind being a man until I started to realize that there was a better option, they might not object to having a body of any sex. But while this could explain why they find it difficult to relate to those of us who are aware of our gender, it can still be frustrating when they question our own need to transition based solely on their own experiences, especially because there’s no way of testing how they really feel about the relationship between their gender and their body. We can go through any number of thought experiments, but there’s no concrete evidence we can gather to clarify the situation, and we end up at an impasse of subjective experience versus subjective experience.
The people who ask these questions want to understand what it’s like to be trans. The matter of what it’s like to feel that you have a gender is merely a proxy for this, and there may be ways to simulate the experience of being trans more directly. For example, people who choose to transition often exhibit a distinctly different pattern of reactions to sex hormones. Before cross-sex hormone therapy, while we’re still experiencing the effects of the hormones that are native to our physical sex, many of us report feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, and general discomfort. Of course, much of this could be attributed to gender dysphoria itself, as well as its comorbidity with other mental health conditions, and the prevalence of negative attitudes and discrimination toward trans people in society. But after starting HRT, trans people often notice that this discomfort becomes less severe. This likely has something to do with the satisfaction of feeling our bodies take a more comfortable form, but even before the physical changes appear, many people experience a sense of relief and calmness. They simply feel better.
This stands in contrast to how cis people respond to the presence or absence of certain sex hormones. Cis men with low testosterone tend to experience anxiety, depression and fatigue, which can be relieved by testosterone supplementation. Cis women experiencing menopause suffer from various symptoms tied to a reduction in female sex hormones, and those symptoms can be alleviated by replacing those same hormones. However, despite sharing the same physical sex as cis men, trans women tend to do much better when their testosterone is suppressed by anti-androgens and replaced with estrogen. Trans men likewise respond well to testosterone, even as it suppresses the effects of estrogen.
Because of these clear differences between how cis and trans people tend to experience the effects of sex hormones, HRT is often administered to trans people on a trial basis to see how they respond to it. While not all trans people use HRT, it is a very common treatment, and it’s part of the established standards of care. If they find it helps them, they can continue it indefinitely, and if it’s not right for them, they can stop taking it. Many people don’t know this, but HRT doesn’t have to be a permanent, all-or-nothing decision. There is room for experimentation here.
So, what could this mean for cis people who don’t believe the sex of their body is important to them? Is there a way for them to put their money where their mouth is? Might we be able to show them, in some small but concretely biological fashion, what it’s like to be trans? Ozy noted that we can’t really go around covertly giving cis men HRT for trans women to see how it affects them. But I think we could circumvent most of these concerns if they agree to it first.
I must point out that I’m in no position to give medical advice, and nobody should start taking any kind of medication like this without the appropriate supervision and a full awareness of its possible risks. That being said, it would be surprisingly easy for cis guys to obtain HRT for trans women without once seeing a doctor. While testosterone is a controlled substance, limiting the options for trans men or curious cis women, estrogen and anti-androgens are not. They’re not over-the-counter, but they can be purchased from overseas at a rather low cost. There are even places where you can order the necessary blood tests to ensure that it’s safe for you.
Theoretically, it should be entirely possible for cis men to experience what it’s like to have a poorly-fitting set of sex hormones, without permanent effects. If they were to stop after perhaps a month, any physical changes should be minimal and fully reversible. There would likely be hardly any breast growth, and this would recede after discontinuation. Any erectile dysfunction or reduction in fertility would probably be temporary. Once their testosterone is no longer suppressed, everything should go back to normal, which is why it’s considered relatively safe for gender-questioning people to try out HRT for a short time without having to commit to it.
But while any serious physical changes are unlikely to occur within a month, mood changes are another story. As illustrated by cis women and trans men with their own monthly hormonal cycles, the mental and emotional effects of sex hormones can manifest on a scale of days. The self-reporting of their subjective experiences would obviously be compromised by a lack of blinding and other biases, but no more severely than the self-reported experiences of trans women on HRT. Without a randomized controlled trial to study the effects of cross-sex hormone therapy on cis people who either do or don’t feel a strong sense of gender identity, this may be the best we can do for now.
Again, I certainly can’t recommend that anyone should actually try this. But if they wanted to, the option is always there, and the results could be interesting. This isn’t just for the sake of proving a point – I’m in no position to predict how any one person would respond to cross-sex hormones, especially when they don’t even feel like they have a gender. For all I know, they might like it. But this is something they would have to find out for themselves – just like I did.