K has gone through several transitions throughout her life: from boy to genderless to woman. At least, that’s what it looks like from the outside; K’s inner identity is still a mystery, even to her. After four decades of struggles, K is finally happy.
The Outs and Ins of Binary
As a child, I assumed that everybody was, like me, intrinsically genderless; that everybody just casually functioned within the confines of their gender for no better reason than that was the gender they got randomly assigned to.
Apparently others could do that easily, so I should too. Moreover, I figured there must be a kind of silent convention that one was not meant to not talk about it. Why? “Because” — the universal shut-down answer given to children questioning adults about tough topics. Like everyone else, I could see there were enough subjects that children were not allowed to know the complete truth about, so what was one more?
It made a kind of sense to me at the time. It sounds like an implausible conspiracy theory in retrospect, but what did I know? I followed what I thought was expected of me and allowed myself to be cast as a boy. Clearly I held myself to this standard rather too well. I probably shouldn’t have. Oh well. Or maybe I couldn’t have done much about it anyway: times were different in the ‘80s.
When adolescence came around, gender started to actually matter. I needed a new coping strategy. I don’t really know how, but I just convinced my mind to censor my own thoughts, to shield myself utterly from the topic of my gender. I couldn’t even think about it.
It took fifteen years for the mental dam to break. Panicking, I learned about myself all over again. After that, I wanted desperately to come out, but I was thoroughly insecure and timid and ashamed because I didn’t think that being genderless would qualify as trans, afraid and perplexed about how I should explain it to others. I was transfixed, unable to take any action at all. I didn’t manage to work up the conviction to tell another living soul for four more years. Even after that I still moved slowly, imperceptibly.
Over the course of three or four more years, through my mid 30s, I began to come out. First I shared with my very best friends, then to a trickle of people (including family), then more and more as it got easier to tell, including select coworkers and acquaintances. My closest friends and family got the detailed discussion of what genderless meant for me and how I came to know myself. Perhaps a dozen or two more got a shorter version. Anyone else would probably have guessed that I was trans, but assumed I was on my way to female. During the same time period, I transitioned my appearance, which mainly consisted of facial hair removal, (head) hair transplant, avoiding all clothing (like formalwear) that is highly gender-specific either way, and selecting clothing that is approximately feminine, but never categorically so. I also stopped using gendered washrooms.
Always the worst part, the part that I dreaded, was the moment of change itself. Whether it was a new style of clothes I had never dared to wear before, or a conversation in which I revealed the truth to my parents, or a request to call me by a new name, I absolutely hated drawing attention to myself and the changes I was making. Even though I knew the change would make my situation indescribably better, I desperately wanted to find an inconspicuous way to get there. In all these cases, I would have given anything to avoid or skip the event by using magic if I could, moving straight past the discomfort into the new normal as if the old version had never existed. I had to be coaxed and prodded by helpful friends into making these scary changes, one by one.
On the medical side of things, those same friends helped me to make appointments I couldn’t work up the courage to make on my own. I was seeking nullification surgery: complete removal of the genitals without constructing anything else as replacement (just the minimum to enable normal urination).
I was granted a consultation at the local hospital’s gender clinic. After evaluation, I was invited to sit down to hear what they thought of my case. A whole panel of collaborating doctors and therapists were already in the room when I walked in. They could not have made the setting more intimidating if they’d tried; I was like a defendant in a court of law invited to come hear the verdict.
But worse than that was the pronouncement. The senior doctor callously declared that my request was completely ridiculous, non-sensical, that I could not possibly actually be genderless. I walked out of there devastated. It’s a very, very good thing I had friends to support me. I still can’t believe how that doctor can have been so insensitive and reckless. But that’s in the past, and it gets vastly better after this.
Since the gender clinic that failed me was prominently part of the national public care care system in Canada, I was pretty sure that system as a whole would be a closed door to me. Well, good riddance: I really wasn’t looking forward to arguing with their bureaucrats to get them to pay for a surgery they never heard of that’s not on their approved list while they pay for other people’s binary transgender surgeries automatically. So I went international. It would mean I would have to pay for the surgery myself.
My most helpful friend did research and found a surgeon for me in the US who was willing to give me what I wanted. This doctor placed stronger-than-normal requirements on one of the necessary letters of recommendation, insisting that it be from a WPATH-listed psychiatrist who practiced in the doctor’s own country. This was an onerous requirement that would require me to travel internationally over and over again to get my recommendation, but after the devastating experience with the doctor at home I was willing to agree to just about anything.
Meanwhile, I must say that the social aspect of my transition was proceeding very well indeed. I received nothing but respect, support, curiosity, and love from my all of family, all of my friends, and those coworkers I was close enough to share this with. I am very fortunate to have had such positive experiences.
But there was still something bothering me. While I got all those beautiful reactions from my loved ones, it often felt like complete understanding and complete acceptance were elusive. I truly appreciated everybody’s efforts and enthusiasm, but fully comprehending and internalizing what it meant for me to be without gender was just out of reach for them.
On a more pragmatic note, I was facing many uphill battles, feeling completely daunted by them. Could I have proper public washroom facilities? Could my gender be accurately indicated in (or omitted from) my passport? Could I get people to consistently designate me with the they/them which they struggled to do? Could I avoid gendered formal forms of address? Would I ever wear a swimsuit again? Could I ever blend into a typical crowd? How could I continue properly speaking French (which requires that all adjectives agree on gender)? These things wore me down. I believe strongly in getting those problems fixed for the benefit of the entire non-binary trans community, but I’m not an activist, I never wanted to rock any boats. I need to leave those tasks to stronger fighters (whom I am happy to stand behind in the shadows).
The culmination of this uneasiness is that I changed my gender from none to female. I suspect this change was building up over the course of many months, but when it finally happened it was shockingly sudden: around 8pm on a particular Wednesday evening. And that was that.
I didn’t have to worry about non-binary integration problems any more. And I was already unfailingly passing as a woman in public anyway, even though that hadn’t been my intention.
I wasted no time in sharing the news with friends and family. In many cases, the reaction was palpable huge relief. Finally this was a gender they could understand intuitively and without reservation. I admit that I felt relief in turn, though it’s impossible to say how much of that was caused by my simplified integration and how much by making my loved ones more comfortable.
Previously perplexing situations became obviously correct overnight. For example, one of my friends asked me on the spot to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, a suggestion that would have been very upsetting to me just weeks before.
The unexpected switch occurred less than three weeks before my scheduled surgery, the year I turned 39. The surgery was changed at the last minute from nullification to feminizing vaginoplasty. And that was that, again. Ironically, I could have had that surgery in my own country under the national health care coverage.
Did I really “jump” between genders on that day, or was I always a binary woman and just didn’t know it? Perhaps I am still actually genderless and chose an easy way out, one that works well enough in practice yet betrays my true gender. Who cares? I used to feel the need to analyze and justify my gender, especially to myself. Now it just doesn’t matter anymore. Years later, I’m happier than I ever thought it possible to be, and that’s so much more than enough.
Some years on from this, I moved to the UK to start a new job. Nobody in the whole country knows I’m trans. That’s a novel experience, and also completely normal at the same time. Being trans is not a part of my daily life. And I’m happy to live that way right now.
I know that there are those who hold all kinds of non-binary genders, more genuinely that I turned out to do in the end. This world still needs help to understand and respect and include. I know because I was there: I will never forget the years I spent struggling with non-binary gender. It was difficult, but precious. I hope I can help in a small way, from the shadows. But for me, the story is mostly over.
K works in IT and enjoys travel, hiking, mountains, and forests but especially traveling to forests and mountains without tech gadgets (icky work stuff).
K has been privately a huge supporter of me and this blog for several years. Now, she felt compelled to share her story publicly. Please help me in thanking K and all the others who have been encouraged to speak out so the rest of the world may listen.