After Elliot Page came out as transgender this week, I’ve seen (once again) a rash of people popping up who call themselves attack helicopters. Or dinosaurs. Or Gods, or royalty…. pick a noun, any noun and someone is there asking you to respect their new identity and treat them accordingly.
Unfortunately these folks who are reaching out to the trans community to share their new identities don’t always seem to know what treating them “properly’ entails, or how to go about exploring their new sense-of-self in a way that feels good and healthy for them. They might not understand the difference between identity and fantasy, and need a clear explanation. So as someone who grew up with a pervasive sense of my own identity mismatch, a mismatch that blossomed into the acceptance of my non-binary self at a rather late age, I thought I would offer some advice for those individuals trying to express their new identity as inanimate objects or theological concepts. I will endeavor to use language that doesn’t offend, but I am open to suggestions and corrections. Of course not everything here will be correct or accurate for every experience, but I hope it will be enough of a guide to get you started.
Why did I write this? Well when people come to the transgender community to express these claims it’s easy to dismiss them as transphobic. What if instead we used their claims as a way to model how trans people should be treated – with respect, support, belief, and kindness. It costs very little to get someone’s pronoun right, and to refrain from dismissing an identity as invalid. This blog post may help you understand how others – and you – can explore and understand identity. It’s written in a sort-of order, but all of these are going on all the time, because self-awareness is a continuous and wonderful process!
Discovering Your Identity
People often fantasize or dream about being someone or something else for the day. As a child I wanted to be a horse, or a mermaid, or an elf. But while identity may show up initially AS fantasy, identity and make-believe are two very separate things. One of the “tells” is whether your desire to be someone or something else is persistent and consistent – does it show up frequently? Does it show up in regular association with certain prompts/contexts? Does it persist over a long period of time? Resist the urge to tell yourself “Well, all people dream about being an Attack Helicopter.” Because while that might be somewhat true, that doesn’t mean those people shouldn’t spend some time questioning their identity as well, especially those dreams come up often, or if they feel distinct psychological distress that they aren’t mechanical. You also might NOT feel psychological distress, and that’s also common. Many people discover their gender because of extreme joy when it’s right, not just pain when it’s wrong.
Another way to distinguish daydream from identity is to experiment with “I” statements. If you say to yourself “I am a man” does that feel real? False? Scary? Like coming home? What about if you say “I am a dinosaur”?
You could also think about what draws you to a given identity. Is it about the way you’d get to dress, or talk, or behave? Are there things about your identity that stop you doing these things that you could change? Would that take away the identity mismatch, or would you still feel like you weren’t who you’re supposed to be? For me, binding really helped my dysphoria, but I ALSO felt like my chest was wrong, and no amount of binding could take away the material reality of my chest, which is why I opted for surgery.
Keeping a journal or some kind of record of these thoughts can help you organize your thoughts when talking to other people, especially if you’re worried that you’ll second-guess or doubt yourself.
All the science around transgender identity is very clear that the most healthy and supportive way to treat a trans person is to respect and reflect their identity. We’ll get to what that might mean for you later, but initially it means you have to have folks around you to do the respecting and reflecting. If you’re feeling shy about talking to your friends right away, you might want to seek out people on similar identity journeys. Facebook is a great place to start, with places like “Attack Helicopter is my gender. My preferred pronoun is pew pew.” or the “The We Identify OurSelves As Dinosaurs Group” or “Nonbinary Support” could be full of new friends waiting to help you process what you’re going through.
A community of like-minded individuals can be a great place to ask questions like: what pronoun do you use? Does my experience seem valid? I’m confused about these feelings, does anyone else have them? It can also be a place to try out a different pronoun or a new name, or share photos of yourself experimenting with identity. You should look for groups that feel supportive, that don’t judge you for asking basic questions, and that don’t set “gatekeeping” boundaries around how to do an identity “right.” You might be a herbivorous dinosaur, and that’s totally fine.
As your confidence progresses I do recommend telling friends and loved ones. This can be really intimidating, but being affirmed by people you care about and having them support your identity is an incredibly validating and lovely experience. If you are younger or financially insecure you may need help in accessing certain things you want to try, and many communities have fund-raising programs, or know of resources that can help you do things at a lower cost than just going for it alone.
Trans people benefit hugely from the help of a therapist, and a therapist’s authentication is required for certain kinds of transition like hormones or surgery. But a therapist should not just be someone who signs you a letter, they should be a supportive human who can help you explore your identity and determine if you’re certain about who you are, plan strategies for expressing your identity, help you talk to your friends etc. My top surgery process was easy because I trusted my therapist, she trusted me, and she was able to explain clearly that I was non-binary, how that affected my life, why surgery was a medically necessary intervention for my well-being, and that I was prepared to care for myself afterwards, even if the results weren’t perfect. When there was a complication, which you can read about on this blog, therapy helped me shift some of the grief and distress I felt into productive action and healing. Whatever identity you’re exploring, I recommend therapy if it’s available to you.
As you tell more people about your identity you are bound to find people with misconceptions, or misunderstandings about who or what you are. Even though there’s a lot of popular media out there about attack helicopters, it doesn’t mean that everyone knows how to treat one. In fact they might have learned that it’s “better” or “healthier” or “kinder” to laugh at you and tell you you’re wrong about yourself. As I’m sure you know, finding your identity is a long and complicated process. No-one wakes up in the morning and decides to be someone/something else on a whim. Like trans people, you deserve trust in your sense of self. But people who do want to treat you well might not even know how to do so, and that’s where you can help them with clear suggestions for enacting your identity. You might also want to familiarize yourself with facts, research and figures, like the extensive scientific research that confirms transgender identity, or the history of trans people (we’ve been around as long as there have been humans), or accounts of trans identities in other cultures, if the people you’re telling are data-lovers who find that kind of evidence easier to understand.
Enacting Your Identity
So you are who you are. That’s awesome, but now what do you do about it? The answer to that is really up to you. I – among other things – wanted people to use the right pronouns for me, and to stop being grouped with women when the room was split by gender. There were things that I could do by myself, and things that I needed others to help me with, and so I had to tell people “I take they/them pronouns” before they got it right. If you’re an attack helicopter you might want to stop talking, or shift to an oil-based diet, or live outside without a domestic shelter – that’s something you’ll figure out, and don’t worry about finding you don’t like something and changing your mind, that’s part of the process.
Enacting your identity is often made harder by people who refuse to respect your identity, or who decide to bully you through misgendering or other kinds of nastiness. Contrary to what you might have heard, misgendering is not fully covered by freedom of speech laws. In America, transgender people are now legally protected by Title VII anti-discrimination law, so consistently and deliberately misgendering someone at work is a punishable offense. In Canada, deliberate and consistent misgendering is classed as hate speech whatever the context. But having legal protections doesn’t mean that discrimination and violence goes away, in fact it can make it worse as people latch on to their old prejudices. I am deeply sorry if that kind of cruelty comes your way. I support myself by relying on the community of kind, supportive people I’ve gradually built up around me, but I also know that the queer community is often ready to champion folks in trouble so ASK FOR HELP when you need to.
Parts of enacting your identity may be expensive, and again, community can be a really helpful resource. Free and low-cost binders are sent round the trans community all the time. Dinosaurs, if you want to try a second-hand claw set, try asking a reptile group near you. Depending on your circumstances you might have to start small – trying things in your bedroom, or at a friend’s house, or in a virtual environment – but don’t feel like you have to have done certain things in order to be accepted as who you are. Identity isn’t a performance, or things you do, it’s who you fundamentally are inside, and nothing can change that and no-one can take that away.
I hope this guide has shown you some of the ways of exploring and understanding some identity. If you’re not exploring identity yourself, maybe you can understand a bit more about the process and how deep it goes, or how to support someone trying to live as themselves if they ask you for help. Yes, I wrote this post to address a persistent form of transphobia, but hopefully it has become a message about how we can be kinder and more respectful to each other.