The time between one’s first questions about their gender and the resolution thereof can be anxious and scary. Transition is a big deal, and contrary to the bigoted idea that it’s something we do on a lark or for fun, most of us agonize over that decision for a long time, for many reasons. Many of us fear how our social environs would react if they knew we harbored such questions, and especially how they’d react to us deciding to transition. Another lot of us figure out what we’d like to do long before we’re comfortable doing it, and must exist in that dysphoric hinterland until our circumstances free us.
For this in-between group I inhabited for years before I recognized where I was heading, there are options. There are many ways to explore one’s gender or assuage dysphoria until one feels safe acting on it in larger, more visible ways, discreetly and at one’s own pace. What follows is specifically from a transfeminine perspective, but will contain occasional nods to transmasculine variants.
If one feels unsafe showing any outward sign of their questioning, there are still ways to engage. Wearing nail polish on one’s toenails and wearing closed-toed shoes, wearing underwear designed for “the other” gender (including sports bras that do not show through loose shirts), and engaging in feminine-coded ablutions in private are all reasonably safe ways to explore one’s femininity without giving too much away. None of these signs are visible unless specifically sought, so the primary outing concerns are keeping the associated equipment secret and not getting caught in the act. If one is living under an abusive regime of periodic room searches or does not have the freedom to dress and undress in private, these tools can be discovered and made incriminating, but otherwise, one is generally safe. A bottle of lightly scented hand lotion in a desk drawer is unlikely to draw much attention even if it is found.
High-school students juggling environments with different clothing norms have a whole suite of other tricks that can be repurposed. If one has the freedom to store and transport clothing and makeup without their cargo being revealed, one can bring these items to another location and try them out there. This is particularly useful if one has access to an accepting friend or space that can help one make the most effective use of the items they have acquired and suggest where and how to get more. When disassembling these outfits and resuming one’s masculine disguise becomes harder and sadder each time, one will have learned something about oneself.
Depending on the intensity of the masculine norms under which one labors, there might also be ways to take on ambiguous femininity as part of one’s everyday look. Many subcultures encourage men to wear makeup, for example, and participating in theatre and similar endeavors can also open up this activity. Conversely, other subcultures encourage women to dress in masculine-coded ways, providing cover for transmasculine people in their midst in the process. Taking up an ambiguous haircut and shaving or growing out one’s body hair can sometimes alleviate dysphoria, as can slowly incorporating minor gender-variant touches into one’s in-disguise wardrobe. These methods are all much more obvious and less secretive than the previous suggestions, so one should be ready to deflect or answer them.
The Internet can prove vitally liberating for people in this situation. In addition to providing relatively discreet ways to seek out gender-variant items (as long as other people aren’t opening packages you receive, or you had the foresight to acquire a PO box) and knowledge, it provides communities wherein one’s name and gender don’t have to be the ones one’s meatspace community is using. Whether via video-game avatar or assumed name, Internet spaces provide a way to experiment with being referred to and treated as a member of another gender, to see how it feels. It can also be a place for building a new community that recognizes one for the gender they are, rather than the gender they are escaping. Such a community can provide support in the event that one’s existing surroundings prove hostile, up to and including someplace else to live. The Internet can also be a hostile place for transfeminine folks in particular, though, so care is needed in building this safe space.
For people whose situations are urgent enough that they are prepared to take substantial risks, transition steps that traditionally follow or coincide with social transition can be undertaken “out of order.” Depending on whether one has access to such care in the first place and can maintain the required secrecy, it may be possible to see therapists and endocrinologists without alerting the people one fears. With cunning use of outright lies or via clinics using the (better) informed-consent model, one can then secure hormone replacement therapy. Alternately, hormones and anti-androgens can be sought from any of various less-than-legal sources and self-administered, with a risk of incorrect dosing or potentially dangerous side effects (especially for spironolactone, which affects electrolyte levels and blood pressure). Similarly, supposedly-cosmetic treatments such as laser hair removal can be sought and kept hidden. This is a dangerous game, because hormones begin having visible effects on one’s physique within the first year. It is not easy to conceal breast growth, a sudden increase in musculature, or androgenic voice deepening, much more so than explaining away changes in hairstyle or the softness or hardness of one’s facial features. But if one’s mental health has deteriorated to the point where changing one’s hormonal state is one of the last paths away from self-destruction, doing so in secret can buy precious months and bring one’s transition past the point where it can be prevented or reversed once it becomes wider knowledge.
I implemented many of these options in my own transition. I did not feel safe sharing any of my explorations with my parents. Eons before I knew why I was doing it, I had secret stashes of feminine clothing in my closet, placed in my care by friends and partners for unrelated reasons. I indulged in a longstanding fantasy life of having a more feminine body. I trusted isolated details of that life to specific friends and used their reactions to decide how much else to publicize. I began maintaining a larger secret femme stash once I was living on my own, and kept it for close to five years before I recognized my gender. For some of those years, Ania knew about and assisted me with occasional feminization. I began shaving my legs and painting my toe- and fingernails later on, maintaining the former even around my increasingly puzzled parents. Once I recognized my gender, the combination of my lengthening hair, the occasional appearance of my painted nails, and previously revealed signs made my parents increasingly suspicious, but the distance between me and them enabled me to make my grand reveal on my schedule. I was even able to extract money for laser hair removal from them, calling it (accurately) a medical expense without revealing the specifics. My path was eased by the unearthly fortune of being a country away from my bigoted relatives and surrounded by accepting friends and lovers during my questioning and transition, a benefit whose effect on the actual process of my becoming myself I cannot overstate. Even so, I still transitioned in partial secrecy and disclosed my situation to different social spheres at different times. I made my last social disclosures, to my family, after I had already started hormone replacement therapy, and I lived with the knowledge of what was coming for seven months before I began attending my education in femme. In between, I wore necklaces, skinny jeans, and feminine-cut shirts on the outside and sports bras and panties underneath. For a while, I even brought femme attire with me and changed in a distant bathroom on my way out, so that I could be femme at my next stop and hidden at the lab. I have no doubt that my supervisor and colleagues suspected queerness was afoot, but they were discreet and respectful, and left me to come out on my own terms. I have several transition steps still to come, bound up in financial and legal administrivia that prevent me from moving more quickly, but I no longer have reasons to be secretive.
For those of us who still do, there are ways, and I hope this article helps you in your quest to become the truest, finest, best you that you can become.