Sometimes checking off just one box, “male” or “female,” doesn’t tell the whole story.
From the minute we’re born, we get labeled pink or blue, girl or boy. That label is supposed to indicate who we’ll be and who we’ll grow up to love. But despite the fact that our world is divided into accepted standards of “male” and “female,” experts now believe gender actually exists across a spectrum.
None of us is 100 percent masculine or feminine; at times, some of us are less nurturing and emotional (traits considered “female”) and more aggressive and physical (traits considered “male”). Or the other way around. When you think about it, who hasn’t met a girl who is a tomboy or a guy who’s gentle and soft-spoken?
Gender is one of the first aspects of our personality that we communicate to the world, and kids are conditioned to learn how a boy or girl “should” be from a very young age. We all express gender through the clothes we put on each morning, the way we style our hair, and how we talk, gesture, and stand%97that’s called gender expression, and it’s what we present on the outside.
But our gender identify is how we feel inside. It’s not about who we’re attracted to. Rather, it’s our inner sense of being male, female, or somewhere in between.
For most of us, our physical sex%97what shows on the outside%97matches the gender we feel on the inside. But what happens when your inside and outside don’t match? Some people born with girl bodies don’t feel like girls on the inside, and some born with boy bodies don’t feel like boys. Still others feel they don’t fit into either gender.
It can be confusing when you’re used to thinking about only two clear-cut options. But imagine if the body you saw in the mirror didn’t match your inner sense of who you are. You’d probably feel scared, confused, and pretty helpless. And then you’d want to tell people the truth.
Today, a growing number of young people are coming forward to reveal that their true self isn’t reflected in the mirror, or to the world. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, between 750,000 and 3 million Americans identify as transsexual%97and this number doesn’t even include those who identify under the broader definition of transgender, or the many teens who now identify as genderqueer.
More and more teens are openly questioning not only their own gender, but also society’s rigid gender expectations%97and challenging others to open their minds too. Here are the stories of three young people who are doing just that.
24, Seattle, WA
Andrea was biologically born a boy, but she realized she should have been born a girl.
One of my first memories is from when I was 3. I asked my mom to teach me how to put on lipstick. I was just drawn to it. The only problem was that I was a boy.
When I was 9, I read a short story in which the main character has a sex change operation. It was the first time I encountered the concept that you could change your sex by medical means, and the thought intrigued me.
I looked like the other boys in school and I liked girls. Still, I kept to myself. Instead of having a social life, I focused on my studies. I did so well in school that I even skipped a grade.
When I was 16, I started my freshman year at Cornell University. By that point I was still denying that I felt different.
I oversimplified my feelings by convincing myself I was just a highly unconventional guy who envied girls for not having to make the first move in relationships%97not that I’d ever been in a relationship myself. In fact I felt so alone that I sunk into a deep depression.
By the time I graduated in 2004, I probably would have committed suicide if I hadn’t met Kelly. Kelly was my first girlfriend. I was 20 and she was 24. I met her online when I still presented as a feminine, gothy boy. We just clicked.
I’d always been attracted to somewhat masculine women, and she fit that description. But she was so much more than that%97she was the first person who actually made me feel loved.
Pretty soon, though, my gender confusion started to come to the surface. I became more aware that I didn’t feel like a guy on the inside, but I was still too afraid to tell anyone, even Kelly. I was so repressed that I don’t think she had any idea what was going on with me.
But I was forced to deal with my feelings one day when I was doing some research online about what I was going through. The word transsexual popped up onscreen and I panicked%97it sounded so severe.
I’d only met one trans person, back when I was 13. She was a trans woman in my town who dressed like a woman but didn’t pass very well as one%97she still looked a lot like a guy. I admired her bravery, but people snickered about her behind her back. I didn’t want to be like that, but I was miserable how I was. Something had to give.
Around that time, when I was 22, I met a trans guy named Lancer, and we became friends. He told me that when he first saw me he thought I was a butch girl%97I had long hair for a guy%97or maybe I was a trans guy, like him. Lancer helped me figure out a lot of stuff about myself. He was the first to refer to me by female pronouns, which felt right to me.
Finally, after two years of researching and soul-searching, I realized I was in fact a girl. I just hadn’t been born as one.
Living the Truth
In May 2006, I told Kelly I was trans. I was scared I’d lose her, but she said she’d stick by me. Then I posted on LiveJournal that I was starting my transition to live as a woman. I was shocked at how supportive my friends and family were.
That summer, I wore girls’ clothes everywhere except to my job as a software engineer, where I still presented as a male, but I felt like I was wearing a mask. So that fall, I legally changed my name to Andrea and found a doctor who specializes in trans patients. She prescribed me female hormones to make my appearance more feminine. Amazingly, they made me feel more balanced emotionally too.
When I finally came out at work, my coworkers were surprisingly accepting. But Kelly felt that I was no longer the person she had fallen in love with, and we split up after two and a half years together. It was so painful.
Recently, I started seeing another transgender woman named Samantha. She understands me, and for the first time in my life, I’m happy. Eventually, I’ll get surgery to look more physically female and I’ll be done with my transition for good. It’s amazing to finally feel like I don’t have to live a lie. Now I can just be myself.
19, Sarasota, FL
Kody is a junior at the New College of Florida. Raised a girl, he now identifies as a genderqueer boy.
When I was little, I was fine with being a girl. But my attitude changed when I started to grow breasts at 10 and got my period at 12. My friends were excited about growing up, but I just wanted the changes to my body to stop.
It’s hard to explain, but I felt like a stranger in my own body. Things like bras and shaving legs were for girls, and I didn’t feel like a girl. My C-cup breasts felt alien to me.
Once, when I was 16, I bound them with one of those big elastic bands people use for back support. Suddenly my chest was flat and I could actually see with my eyes what was in my head. But if I wore that tight band all the time, I’d probably pass out. So I switched to sports bras. I wore two of them, in a size too small, every day during my senior year of high school.
When I came out as a lesbian in 10th grade, my mom cried that I wouldn’t give her biological grandchildren. But my parents never turned their backs on me.
I’d been presenting myself as androgynous for so long%97I wore baggy jeans that hid my hips and T-shirts with an overshirt%97that when I started identifying as trans my junior year, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It was just the next step of a gradual process for me.
My girlfriend at the time was totally supportive. Since she was bi, my gender didn’t matter to her. My senior year, I transferred to a magnet school for smart kids. Being out as trans to a whole new group of people gave me the confidence to be more outgoing. My classmates even nominated me to be prom king!
Living the Truth
When I got to college, I took my transition one step further. I joined the campus queer students group and asked people to use male pronouns when referring to me. Being honest is a huge part of my Quaker faith. (I’m a religion major, and I expect to join the ministry after college.) I finally felt true to myself, but one thing still didn’t fit%97my breasts.
So last summer, when I was 18, I had surgery to remove them. My parents wanted me to take more time to think about it, but I was ready, and they supported me. To me, this was about being authentic with myself, the people I love, and God. Now I identify as a genderqueer boy because that term allows me to express both my male and female qualities.
I’m single now, but I’ve mostly dated bi or queer girls. Being trans does make it harder to find someone to date, but the joy and pain of relationships and crushes are the same no matter who you are.
Discovering my identity has been a tough spiritual journey. Coming out wasn’t about rejecting myself as female, but about discovering who I truly am.
19, Purchase, NY
A sophomore at SUNY Purchase, James, raised a girl, now identifies as genderqueer.
When I was growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, my family raised me to be a girlie girl. My father, a high-powered executive, was the breadwinner and very masculine, while my mom was a homemaker and ultrafeminine.
As a kid, I was content being a girl. But my first clue that my gender and sexuality weren’t so simple came in eighth grade when I realized I liked both boys and girls. I came out as bisexual to my friends and family.
My dad wasn’t a big part of my life at the time (my parents had divorced when I was in elementary school), but my mom handled it well. It helped that my older sister had already come out as bisexual. I went back and forth between calling myself bi and lesbian until my junior year of high school when I realized I was confused about more than my sexuality.
That year, I picked up the book My Gender Workbook%97it’s filled with exercises designed to challenge your ideas about how women and men are supposed to act. That book helped me realize it was my gender, not my sexuality, that I had been confused about all this time. After finishing it, I knew I wasn’t a girl, but I wasn’t a boy either.
At the time I didn’t know there were any other options, so l panicked that I would never belong anywhere. It felt as if my world were crashing down.
My junior and senior years I tiptoed down lots of different avenues: I tried presenting as a femme bisexual, a butch lesbian, a butch bisexual. My real friends were accepting, but I still felt so alone. I read everything I could find about gender, and after some deep soul-searching, I figured out I was genderqueer.
When I went to college, I started going by James because it just felt right. I don’t reveal my old name. That’s in the past.
At first, I worried about dating. It’s awkward to have to explain my gender on first dates%97a hassle most people don’t have to deal with. But now that I’m secure in myself and have a great support system of friends, I have no problem finding and keeping relationships, mostly with other queer and genderqueer people I meet on campus. They tend to understand me better.
Living the Truth
Now I’m perceived as androgynous. Both “he” and “she” pronouns are fine with me. Being genderqueer lets people see me for the person I am.
In terms of the physical stuff, it’s private, but I’m sharing it here for the sake of helping people understand: I’m considering taking a low dose of male hormones to make my body less curvy and my voice deeper. I don’t need the hormones to validate my identity, but they’ll help others see me as I really am.
Last year, I started a campus group called Trans Action to raise awareness of gender issues. Even if you aren’t struggling with your gender identity, it’s time to recognize that strict gender expectations limit all of us. Without being open-minded, we can’t fully explore who we are.