Do you have a gender identity? Want to find out?

“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.

Or not.

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.

Do you have a gender identity? Want to find out?

63 thoughts on “Do you have a gender identity? Want to find out?

  1. 1

    I’m a bit surprised to see you speaking with such confidence on the mental and emotional effects of hormones. While from what I can tell they’re real, my impression has been that the evidence is still largely anecdotal for the most part. Or are there good studies (or even imperfect studies) on this I should know about?

  2. 2

    Not sure if this was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure it was to an extent, but a cisgender person who transitions might feel upset about the transition not because the lack of recognition of their “true” gender, but simply because the societal stigma towards transitioning would probably affect them.

    I think a better way to approach this issue is, when cis- people say, “I don’t feel like I am strongly attached to my gender, I don’t know why trans- people make such a big deal out of it.” to say, “So what?” Maybe they are just being ignorant or maybe they genuinely don’t have a strong attachment to their gender, but even if they don’t what does that have to do with any individual trans- person? Some people have a strong attachment to their gender and others may not. Just because not being recognized as your “true” gender doesn’t produce a lot of psychological stress for one person, doesn’t mean it doesn’t for another. People just need to accept that there are differences between individuals about some things.

    1. 2.1

      Sure, they would face the same stigma for “transitioning” – if people found out. But it’s not like they actually have to tell anyone, especially since they’re likely not even trans. Taking HRT in private can be pretty feasible for trans people who aren’t yet out or living as their identified gender. Its effects can’t always be readily pinned on “this person is trans”.

    2. Meg

      Yeah, some do not feel atteched, just have an attitude to live without problems and procreate some time. I would call it not cisgender but conforming attitude.

      1. Meg

        Well, how does one know what is ‘true’?

        Everyone knows the light ray of truth, and it is easy to distinguish. It is strong, revealing and connecting, pleasing. But what is there is only a jungle of various factors, with a ghost of daylight sinking mildly from far above?

  3. 3

    I would like to know about any such studies as well. As is, there’s a whole lot of self-selecting going on – the effects of low testosterone in cis men are only noted in cases where it causes noticeable symptoms which are then found to be related to that; HRT is generally only pursued by trans people who have reached a point where they’re confident that this is appropriate for them; and so on. Like I mentioned, it’s quite possible that there are whole groups of people out there for whom the effects of different levels of various sex hormones are not so pronounced either toward the positive or the negative. It’s just that there’s little reason for anyone to pay attention to that or make it a subject of study, so we end up with all sorts of gaps and purely anecdotal reports. As a result, there’s no particular way of telling how people without a strong sense of gender, for instance, would actually feel about gendered changes in their bodies. It isn’t that all the facts are already in on this topic. It’s that they’re *not* – not by far. This seems to be the best information we have to work with, but it is quite limited.

  4. 4

    The real question, I think, is not how cis people as a whole would react to cross-sex hormones, but how cis people who claim not to have a strong gender identity would react vs the other ones. The studies you cite are bunching cis people together in a way that doesn’t answer the question.

    1. Meg

      Maybe it’s not a good example, but I (and many other women, i suppose) have like large so to say fluctations of hormones during the mothly cycle, and around the break between two cycles (beggining of period and just before) there is a “testosterone” phase, which I feel as a soaring libido and getting more lively/overactive and nervous (I don’t mean irritated but capable of getting more irritated and ) than before. It has pluses and minuses.

      Progesteron phase is a phase of being dumped and estrogen is calm and content (with a steady rise in libido). And the phase of female hormormones slipping down is like… depressed PMS. And I realise it because my mood really depends on it and even people around see it.

  5. 5

    This study seems to indicate that HRT has a affect on emotions during transition and afterward.

    They use the word transsexual and I’m not sure if that is because of the year it was done (2001) or because it addresses something different from what I’ve learned of transgender transitioning. It seems to have studied only those who have gone through HRT and SRS, so perhaps that is why they used transsexual? I’m still a bit ignorant, so my apologies.

  6. 6

    “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.”

    While I more or less would agree with this position myself, people taking it to I wouldn’t have a problem so you shouldn’t either seem rather callous. I don’t know how effective it would be on others but to me it doesn’t matter how I feel about my body it’s about how you feel in yours. I think we can all think of other conditions that we might hate being in but that others accept or even enjoy and vice versa. So if someone else is bothered by their body or the gender they feel forced to express (or how ever you want to describe the experience) it seems the compassionate thing to do to help them change what ever is bothering them.

    I dunno I admit I’m not the best read on this subject but as sort of one of those people that’s how I think about it.

  7. 7

    While this argument may be elegant in its simplicity, it’s not always effective.

    Considering that they asked such a question as What does it feel like to have a gender, anyway?, I can’t say I would be surprised. It is almost as if you could say to them, “Well, you have a gender”, and they might react with shock and surprise and say, “What? No I don’t!” Like, maybe they’ve never seen a definition of “gender” and think it means something else.

    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.

    Lolwut? It is quite clear that the brain is not engaged at this point.

    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.

    At this point, I would have to refer back to the beginning and say that we aren’t really talking about cis people, then. They have been conveniently lumped as nominally cis into the group of cisgendered people. I mean, I thought the premise was that they were in fact cis, which generally has had certain implications of stronger cis-identification in everything I’ve experienced. Whatever, I’ve always assumed it was recognized that there is a continuum, probably in more than one dimension, between/around cis and trans, but maybe that has more to do with me and the people whose thoughts I read than the wider perceptions on the subject.

    I think you experiment would be interesting in terms of the people who may belong to the group which I considered to be in a state of brain-disengagement, but not so much for more genderfluid or genderless people, whether that fluidity is active or potential. I’m not entirely sure it would show them what it is like to be trans, though.

    I still can’t help but think there is some conflation between cis people who don”t know what they are talking about, and nominally/functionally cis people (or identified by others as cis, anyway), who really don’t have a particularly strong attachment to a pre-defined gender identity – at least not one defined by someone else.

    Wow, this is some highly complex stuff. Intensely interesting and thought-provoking post.

    1. 7.1

      Part of the issue here is that you’re using “cis” in a….fuck, what can I use for “positive” or “affirmative” meaning “actively so” that won’t get misread as a moral or normative statement? But, more commonly it’s used to mean “not trans.”

  8. 8

    Plenty of “cis” people have inadvertently discovered that their genetic/gametic/gonadal/hormonal/etc. sex and/or their gender (or lack thereof!) don’t all match when dealing with some other issue (potentially) unrelated to gender identity (e.g. infertility, athletics). Makes me wonder what we’d discover if we genetically tested everyone! (To be clear here: no, I am not advocating routine or compulsory genetic testing, and I am emphatically NOT advocating assigning gender based on genes.) I strongly suspect there are a lot more people than we (or they) know who don’t fit typical assumptions of what “makes” someone a man, a woman, or any gender outside or in between those two.

    Would trans* people still identify as “trans*” if there wasn’t a societal insistence on the recognition of, and distinction between, ‘man/male/masculine’ and ‘woman/female/feminine’? That’s an admittedly moot question right now, and one with as many answers as there are individuals.

    @Chris Hallquist: Plenty of imperfect studies, to be sure! e.g….

    1. 8.1

      Would trans* people still identify as “trans*” if there wasn’t a societal insistence on the recognition of, and distinction between, ‘man/male/masculine’ and ‘woman/female/feminine’? That’s an admittedly moot question right now, and one with as many answers as there are individuals.

      It would be a moot question, except that it is regularly used as a rhetorical tool to portray trans peoples’ genders as false, unnatural, and invented by societal gender roles (usually with the implication that we should just not be allowed to transition since our dysphoria is just a delusion caused by us being unenlightened about gender roles).

    2. 8.2

      “Would trans* people still identify as “trans*” if there wasn’t a societal insistence on the recognition of, and distinction between, ‘man/male/masculine’ and ‘woman/female/feminine’?”

      People would still change sex, but no one would care, just like with any other medical procedure that doesn’t have a stigma attached to it. Fantastic!

  9. 9

    (Er… I should point out that that PubMed search is neither all-inclusive nor exclusive of studies unrelated to the topic at hand. I only meant it as a starting place. I’ll also say here that while many articles will be behind a paywall, individuals can try asking the corresponding author of any paper for a .pdf for personal use, or checking to see if your local college or university library carries hardcopies of the journal. You can usually read hardcopies of articles in the library without being a student.)

  10. 11

    We recently discussed this on Pharyngula where the personal experiences ranged from “strong gender identity (cis or trans) ” to “meh, sure, whatever”. So, cis (for lack of better term) people on the “meh, whatever” end of the spectrum would probably be ok with suddenly having the opposite sex body (anybody else thinking “Orlando”?) while strong gender identity cis people would be more likely to understand the trans* person’s perception.
    I think the consensus was that maybe it really is a continuum. Which means that in the end we should just recognize that our personal experience with gender identity is a very individual data point.

    But I would not recommend any medical trials where the goal is to actually make you miserable. You can never know whether somebody who starts with a hormone-induced depression doesn’t fall into a severe clinical one.

  11. 13

    I don’t really have a strong gender identity. Maybe there are idiosyncrasies that I picked up over the years, but I do not view myself as having a true feeling of gender. I can see the biological sex assigned to me at birth as consequential to how I have been perceived, but I don’t understand what I am supposed to feel, gender-wise, as that sex, aside from the usual biological imperatives which remind me of my sex.

    Maybe I’m one of the one’s who are not getting the difference? Dobbs knows I can be obtuse, but I will (try to) get it if you can correct any of my phrasing above.

  12. 14

    I never really thought about my gender identity before reading your and Natalie Reed’s blogs. The more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with my assigned gender, female. I don’t always agree with what society tells me that means, but I’m definitely female. I’m female to the point that I’ll always play female characters in tabletop rpgs and video games, if I’m given the option.

    A tangential thought: About a year ago, I gave my D&D character an background that challenged the preconceptions of my gaming group. My character had two mothers, one of whom was a sorceress who made potions. (Those of you familiar with D&D may know where I’m going with this.) When they decided to have children together, they either cast alter self or used a potion of alter self to temporarily change to male and impregnate the other. Neither of my character’s mothers wanted to be permanently male, so this solution was perfect to let them have children together. My DM was cool with this backstory, but I could see the other player’s brains lock up every time I mentioned my character’s two mothers.

  13. 15

    Couldn’t it be argued that that sense of not realizing you have/”not being attached to” your gender is analagous to white people not realizing they have/”not being attached to” their race? When you’re the societal template for “default,” (in this case, cisgendered) you don’t even think about your identity because you see it reflected everywhere and never suffer for having it. It’s so normalized it’s invisible, and since you can’t concieve of life without it, you make a false equivalency based on your experience – that life would feel the same but look different.

    IDK though, maybe I’d just rather try to explain privilege than feed people hormones

    1. 15.1

      There are plenty of feminine men, tomboys and butch women who aren’t the social template of anything and get a great deal of suffering because of it.

      Stop saying cisgendered people are just fine and dandy conforming to the social expectations they are expected to follow.

  14. 17

    Couldn’t it be argued that that sense of not realizing you have/”not being attached to” your gender is analagous to white people not realizing they have/”not being attached to” their race? When you’re the societal template for “default,” (in this case, cisgendered) you don’t even think about your identity because you see it reflected everywhere and never suffer for having it.

    I’ve seen that argued, but I’m not really convinced.
    1. Race is absolutely cultural, not biological. It’s a sociological category. Privilege blindness is for sure a real thing, but there’s no biological component to it.

    2. I certainly suffered enough for being perceived as doing “masculine” things (like studying physics and motorcycling) while female. I’ve had to think about my gender most of my life. I’ve never questioned that I was assigned to the right category, but I’ve sure as hell questioned the whole point of even having those stupid categories. My gender seems to be a handicap – a biological condition that somehow makes other people treat me badly. Yuk. So I’ve never had a very positive view of being gendered-F (what do you even call that? I’m definitely not “feminine”, though I have a female body.)

    Obviously I don’t know how I’d feel in the science-fictional scenario of waking up in a male body. Since I know this isn’t possible, I’d probably think I was hallucinating, and I would be distressed by that aspect – very much more than by the specifics of the new body. The same as if I woke up as a tiger or a cockroach or a completely different yet still female person. But the idea of being male-bodied seems kind of interesting. You’d have to do the Tiresias comparison test. It sounds cool, not scary-wrong.

    1. 17.1

      I sometimes wonder about being in a sexless body (whatever that would be like). To be free of gender expectations from birth. Of course if sexless and genderless people were to become common enough society would start stereotyping them too. You can’t win.

  15. 18

    hello!,I like your writing very so much! share we be in contact more about your article on AOL? I need a specialist in this house to unravel my problem. May be that’s you! Looking ahead to peer you.

  16. 19

    I finally figured it out!!

    I love the “cis” thing – did you coin that?

    Anyhow, I know what has been “wrong” with me for 37 years! I’m not gay, and I don’t want to be a man, but I don’t identify with my gender!! If gender didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be anything “wrong” with me.

    Keep up the good work.

    P.S. I am a follower of Christ, and I love you. That’s what we do. (speaking for myself, obviously)

  17. 21

    As someone who doesn;t particularly feel attached strongly to their gender- I would never- ever use this as a mallet to beat trans* people with.

    The idea of an experiment is interesting- but to be honest, I think to draw any conclusive results or meaning, there really, really needs to be blindness and a control group.

    The placebo effect is pretty powerful, and I’m not convinced that without randomisation and control that people’s preconceptions (e.g. I don’t feel strongly attached to my gender, but I am a horrible transphobe and by association will have a negative reaction/ I dont feel strongly attached to my gender, and may be cis by default or closet trans* or nonbinary) they’ll be a lot of mixed results.

    Additionally, there’s maybe some subtle differences between “waking up as the opposite gender” and HRT, I have zero clues about how the hormones display such different effects, for example.

  18. 22

    I know it isn’t perfect but what about asking if the cisgendered person would feel comfortable going about their lives dressed/ made up like the ‘opposite’ gender, including using their toilets/ changing rooms etc?

    A solution to get them to think about the question without potentially dangerous drugs?

  19. 23

    I am a “cis” man. If I claimed that I felt like my true identity was that of an egg, insisted on dressing up in an egg costume, and demanded to be referred to by the name “Eggman”, rather than “John”, would it not be reasonable to believe that I was insane? What about if I thought I was Napoleon? How would thinking of myself as a woman, with a perfectly normal male body, XY chromosomes, be any less insane? Really, I want to know. Shouldn’t what the mind perceives match the objective reality?

      1. I was not joking, although the “Eggman” quip does admittedly sound like a joke. What are the limits, where to draw the line between variant-normal and insanity? I genuinely want to know. If I believed myself to be a bird, put on a bird costume, and tried to fly by jumping off a building and flapping my arms, I would be rightfully called insane. After transgender behavior becomes normalized in our society, is the normalization of furries/otherkin next? Did you watch that South Park episode where Kyle gets a “negroplasty”, and his dad gets a “dolphinoplasty”?

          1. I swear, I’m not trolling this site. So much for “free thought”, “science”, and “reason”. What a rude reply. At least a fundie would answer my question, rather than just cussing at me.

        1. I swear, I’m not trolling this site. So much for “free thought”, “science”, and “reason”. What a rude reply. At least a fundie would answer my question, rather than just cussing at me.

          I gave you an honest answer and you ignored it in favor of repeating the same “What if I believed I was a bird?!?!” stuff. That pretty much makes you look like you’re really just a troll. It also doesn’t help that you’re complaining about someone being rude to you, while you’re citing something like South Park, which deliberately portrays trans people in the most rude, insulting way the creators could think up.

          1. I’m another wondering this same question, with the same – I suppose and hope! – honestly ignorant attitude. Maybe John could have put it somewhat more cautiously, but the main point is something very basic and philosophical. There’s nothing rude in it, basically: “How can you identify yourself as something that you’re not?”

            I’ve read of some research on brain-body mismatch claiming that your brain can have physiological features (can’t remember what) that tell you your gender identity, that somehow your brain could tell you that you have wrong genitalia.

            I have no such clear gender identity that I could tell where physiology ends and culture starts, but I think it’s possible that my difficulty to have an objective gender identity may be just a result of not having a mismatch.

            It’s the few philosophical questions about gender identity that puzzle me. Politically and morally, I’d say it’s wholly irrelevant. If you want to change your sex, go for it.

    1. 23.3

      All humans have the biological potential to be born one sex or the other, and there are many, many cases where they are born somewhere between the two. So it makes perfect sense for someone to have the neurological state aligned with a different sex than the body has developed.

      No human embryos have the potential to be born as a giant egg, or Napoleon (not since the first one), or another species, etc. So it’s ridiculous to claim these ideas are in any way comparable to being transsexual or transgender.

  20. 24

    You know, I don’t think I have a gender identity.

    Given a choice I’d probably be male, but that is more or less related to the fact that most of my interests are more socially accepted in men than in women, that I think breasts have no practical usage beyond giving you back pain, that having periods and their companion migraines sucks, and that I wouldn’t mind more muscle mass. But the idea of having either male or female genitals leaves me indifferent.

    As a child I kept hair short and often dressed as a boy (that was more practical since my chosen activities were a bit rougher than those of the average girl, and you wouldn’t have caught me dead wearing pink). People would think I was a boy until I told them my name, and I didn’t care that much either way. When I contrast my own lack of reaction when called “boy” with that of my sister’s rather agressive and insulted one, I’m starting to think I may be simply be a weird case.

    The mistake I made was to extrapolate that weirdness to other people, especially trans people, and I had no idea that it is used to invalidate how you feel.

    So thanks for writing this.

  21. 25

    On Encyclopedia Dramatica, I learned a word for a biological male who has not transitioned, but whose appearance is so convincingly female, that a prospective sexual partner doesn’t know, until it’s “too late”. I actually saw this phenomenon on an episode of the Jerry Springer show. The word is “trap”. Do you find this word to be offensive?

  22. 26

    I’m another person who’s not very attached to my gender identity. I just wanted to point out that the transgender spectrum contains such identities/experiences as agender, gender-fluid and bi-gender. I think most people who don’t feel very attached to their gender might be better described by one of these gender-queer terms than cis-gender, which kind of implies that one has a strong, constant gender identity and would be distressed to be in the “wrong body”. Of course, most people don’t know these terms/identities exist. As a gender-queer person, I can say that I don’t understand why most people are highly attached to their gender-identity and/ or their sex-identity (not the same thing, though they line up for most people), whether they are cis or trans (of course, that doesn’t mean I should try to invalidate their feelings and identity just because it is different than mine). Before I knew about gender-queer, there really didn’t seem to be a space for people like me. I didn’t feel the way I thought trans or cis people should feel most of the time, yet felt the way I thought each should feel every now and then alternatively. From my perspective, it’s not that I can’t imagine being in the body of the other sex (quite the opposite- sometimes I prefer it); it’s that they is no “wrong body” or “right body” for me, at least not most of the time.

  23. 27

    I am a cis-hetero woman, a wife and mother. I have never had a lesbian affair. And I can relate exactly to lack of gender identity. I just don’t feel that my being a woman is important to my core feeling about myself.

    I was honestly shocked when I found out how much stress transsexuals experience, feeling their body isn’t their true gender. I thought it was a decision more like whether to get plastic surgery for a serious problem. People might feel better if they didn’t have scars on their face from a car crash, but their core personality wouldn’t be different. I really thought a sex change operation was kind of like that.

    And prejudice against transsexuals makes no sense to me at all. Why would anyone else care one way or the other? It’s like hearing Wisconsin is at war with Minnesota or something. What on earth could the issue be?

    What I think all this means is that gender identity is probably not very fixed in evolutionary terms. The perception of male-female differences being a clear and profound dichotomy is largely a function of social pressures, not biology. After all, I have been passing- even to myself- as a perfectly normal average woman. But my view of gender appears to be quite different from the view other people who consider themselves normal, average women.

  24. 28

    I’ve never really felt like I had a gender identity. I have a female body, but I don’t feel like a woman and I dislike being referred to as one. Yet I don’t feel like a man either, I feel uncomfortable with being referred to as one — that would basically be a lie, since I have a female body — and I know I’d never pass. Suicide feels like the only way out. That’s not a normal cis way to feel, but it’s not trans either, is it?

    1. 28.1

      Suicide is NOT the only way out. You can be trans without identifying as the “opposite” gender. There are labels you can give yourself other than man or woman — I would look into genderqueer, neutrois, and agender identities to see if any of those fit you. There are gender-neutral pronouns you can ask others to use if it makes you more comfortable. It’s also possible to transition physically without trying to make yourself into a passable man, if that’s what you need to do.

  25. 30

    I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and I think I’ve finally hit on what was vaguely getting to me about the questions you’re asking.

    The first is that you’re coming very close to advocating the use of HRT without the consultation of a doctor. I realise that you aren’t literally doing that, and I also realise how unpleasant doctors can be in gatekeeping gender reassignment therapy. Nevertheless, I feel you ought to disclaim that a little more – after all these are powerful drugs.

    The second is that I don’t think it answers the question you are talking about – “what would happen if you woke up tomorrow as another gender” isn’t the same thing as “what would happen if you had to spend the next couple of years going through emotionally and physically painful gender reassignment therapy”. I don’t think people who are unconcerned about their own gender to the point of not having one would be willing to go through the latter, even though the former may be no problem whatsoever. Essentially, I don’t think the question of whether there are some people who don’t have much of a gender identity can be answered with reference to our current, difficult medical arrangements.

  26. 31

    Ooooo, Zinnia Jones.

    Do you have a gender identity? is a great question. Many people that would call themselves “cis” probably have no gender identity at all, and I learned recently that the term for that is different. I realized I don’t. I call myself female because that’s my sex, but I don’t have any feelings about being a “girl” as a “gender.” Not sure what that would be like.

  27. 32

    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.



    …seriously. Thank you for writing this. I’ve found it really difficult to engage with a lot of trans writers (including Natalie, and I believe you in the past) because of the way this sort of thing:

    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.

    interacts with my history of being bullied for being gender-noncomforming and generally gaslighted.

    I don’t mean either to equate my experiences with those of trans people or to suggest that they somehow make trans people’s experiences and needs less valid. I just don’t see what the fuck was EVER gained from simultaneously erasing and villifying my lived experience.

  28. 33

    I have experienced something a little bit like your proposed experiment, Zinnia. I am a cis woman (I would say I have a fairly strong gender identity; I’ve wondered what having a male body would be like but I’ve never felt like my female body didn’t match my sense of self). I have endometriosis, which is estrogen-dependent. For a while I was on a synthetic androgen. It was horrible–I felt angry more often, I had mood swings, and just generally felt “wrong.” Of course, there are probably more variables and other side effects of the medication, plus it wasn’t testosterone, so it certainly isn’t exactly like what you propose. But my experience definitely leads me to suspect that a cis person taking the opposite gender’s hormones would not find the experience pleasant.
    On a related note, I believe estrogen is sometimes used as a treatment for prostate cancer. I wonder if anyone has ever looked at the emotional/psychological effects on men undergoing this treatment. (Although the problem of many variables would be huge).

  29. 34


    I 100% lack a gender identity, and really, really feel like I’m missing something. I’ve considered therapy to help me clearly identify as a woman. Not because I have any innate preference, but because that identity could be accomplished without surgery.

  30. 35

    I think in a lot of cases it is ignorance and lack of empathy, but some people just don’t identify with gender, so asking them to understand the specific feeling of not being in the right body is difficult. Obviously, they could be asked to empathize with the emotions in general, but not the sensations. How do I know this? I don’t have a sense of gender, not really. I have a female body and I am fine with that, but thinking about it, I wouldn’t mind having a male one. When asked this question in an academic discussion my first thoughts were not of discomfort or oddity, but of probable pros and cons of each. I don’t act or think in accord with gender roles and stereotypes either, I have always just been me. Frankly, I don’t believe in gender because it tries to limit what we can be and do – it becomes a matter of being allowed instead of able and I dislike that notion. But I’m also not going to take a bunch of hormones on top of my current medication to prove my identity. Fact is, I have no gender (and I might be asexual as well) and I shouldn’t have to prove it to anyone, nor should anyone else in my position or near it. Gender is a continuum and all points are valid. We have to be accepted as well. And for the record, while I cannot understand why it is so horrible to be in the opposite body, I do know it must be horrible to feel the emotions that transgender individuals describe and I can understand wanting to alleviate them in whatever manner is necessary. So I can empathize, just not in the specific way you desire.

  31. 37

    I am one of those people who does not believe in the existence of gender. I have always seen the word “gender” defined as the socially expected behaviors of a certain sex. After struggling with issues of sex and gender my entire life, I have seen enough to conclude it is complete bull. If it’s real, why would it need to be taught and enforced, and why would almost everyone need to change themselves to fit it? I was not a boyish girl, because playing with trucks and action figures and liking sports and being rambunctious and outgoing are not inherent, male traits. All the people who mistook me for gay or trans as a teen because of the way I dressed, walked, talked, or sat or because of my hobbies were judging me by criteria that had nothing to do with anything, because none of those things are ever either masculine or feminine. I shouldn’t have had such a battle for my identity as a perfectly ordinary human female, and wouldn’t have if the completely arbitrary, incorrect idea of gender had just been abandoned by society at large. “Cis” and straight people *do* struggle with gender, and we do have to be aware of it, and trained, mercilessly, in how to put on the pointless act of it, from the little boy whose mother yells at him for looking at nail polish, to the little girl who is denied certain shoes because they’re blue, to the teen who has to monitor their social image constantly or face violent retribution for seeming “effeminate”, “masculine”, or gay. After 20-odd years of analysis, I see absolutely no biological basis for gender. Sex, as in being chromosomally, genitally, hormonally, or mentally male or female (note, being “mentally” female does not refer to preferring long hair and dresses, and so on), yes, that absolutely exists. Your feeling that you should have a body of a different sex is about sex, not gender. We are all fed the same propaganda, and being trans doesn’t necessarily make you more savvy about it. To be frank, some of the things my transwomen friends talk about when discussing femininity are horrifyingly sexist (weakness being a feminine trait and thus something for them to strive for, for one). All this is just my perspective and personal conclusions, as a woman who spent her life often near suicide trying to reconcile her apparent masculine identity with the fact that she *thought* she felt female but had no satisfactory definition of what that entailed. Now that I don’t believe in gender I feel freer, and don’t act and dress as stereotypically “masculine” as I used to due to not feeling like I have to put on any kind of act to “pick a side”. Not trying to say I’m right and you’re wrong, just, well, food for thought, I guess. (In fact, given the hour, I must apologize just in case I’ve merely typed rambling nonsense)

    1. 37.1

      Kristi, I have had exactly the same experience my whole life. I am physically female, but I love to do a lot of “boy” stuff. For instance, I am an archer, but I don’t feel like archery is either masculine or feminine, yet I get stares at the shooting range. Furthermore, my favorite color is gray, and I really like murder mysteries and horror films. Since absolutely none of that requires certain sex parts, but all of my favorite things are for people who are usually “cis-male,” I ought to be considered somewhere in between the gender binary, right? And there are other ways that I don’t really act like a woman “should.” I like to have loud, obscene conversations, and I like to wear men’s clothes on occasion. I got a big mutt (whom everyone thinks is a boy, but is female) at the pound instead of a poofy girly dog and we play rough at the park. I really want a big SUV, and I usually have dirt under my fingernails (occupational hazard, not poor grooming). So is my “lady card” then null and void? What makes a person one “gender” or another? By the way, for the record, I wouldn’t mind waking up one morning with male genitalia. It wouldn’t effect my personality at all, but I would be able to feel safe walking in the woods alone and I might get more respect/less harassment at work. I could also leave the child bearing up to my significant other (assuming I start liking ladies along with the sudden sex change). The only thing that would take some getting used to would be the fact that I would have a body part that moves on its own. That would be pretty weird for a while!

  32. 38

    The title of this page is “Do you have a gender identity? Want to find out?

    And I was hoping to find a quiz, of 10 questions, maybe 20. And then an answer.

    Don’t scoff – it’s a starting point and then you can agree or disagree with the assessment and refine the answer.

    Quizzes are awesome, they don’t have to accurate, because you can gauge your response…disappointment, excitement? Nailed it? Couldn’t be more wrong? I don’t know….

    Anyway, this may seem like its coming out of nowhere, but just fyi, I was looking for a quiz, and google sent me here – and there was no quiz.


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