How Do I Know If I'm Trans, Nonbinary?
Resonance, dissonance, and gender authenticity.
Posted November 16, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Postmodernists often deconstruct gender roles and norms as if they’re just ideas. This can create a paralyzing paradox for anyone unraveling the binary. After all, if gender is just a social construct, what drives people to transition? If gender is just a social construct, why do we feel this deep sense of core identity? Gender norms are most certainly written by culture, but even if we tear up the script, the actor is still left on stage. What inspires us to improvise?
It’s not uncommon for us to describe gender in feeling terms. Yet when we’re first exploring our gender nonconformity, we often doubt who or even what we are, because gender can feel almost ethereal. The ongoing joke is that — if gender is so abstract — it can be anything. Today my gender is a screaming crow. Today my gender is an iridescent baby hippo munching on a watermelon. It may seem silly and even sardonic, but we’re talking about the essence of existence here, and there’s a danger in taking ourselves too seriously.
Gender’s internal gravity is difficult to articulate, as it’s both independent yet integrated with our identity, just as it operates within the flesh without being limited by the body. This powerful yet nebulous feeling can be perplexing, and the anxious may avoid the topic of gender, fearing the potential forest fire of Schrodinger’s gender reveal party. Others revel in the complexity and get all heady about it. Others sweep gender off the table, proclaiming it irrelevant. There’s no right or wrong way to make peace with it, as existentialists, neurologists, and social-psychologist will debate nature and nurture ‘til the end of time.
In therapy, the how and why of our existence is best accounted for by the intrinsic wisdom of the client, as it’s their individual belief system that matters most. Neurological nature, socially constructed nurture, God, Karma, reincarnation—they’re all valid explanations. What concerns us today is the phenomenology of knowing, as that’s where so many get stuck, especially in the early stages of gender formation, exploration, and identification (Lev, 2004). How do we know we're transgender? How do we know we're nonbinary? We may even wonder:
Am I really a man, or am I just fooling myself?
Am I really a woman, or am I just losing it?
I think I might be nonbinary, but how do I know?
If I don’t connect with any of those labels, am I agender by default?
To move through our analysis paralysis requires a deep and above all experiential exploration of our dissonance and our resonance (Stitt, 2020).
Rewind the clock. Before we learned to speak, before we were taught to obey the binary, we used to play. We moved our bodies and expressed ourselves quite naturally. Only later did someone describe our games as rambunctious and masculine, or gentle and feminine. We experienced the world without describing it, labeling it, or judging it, and in so doing we found what made us shrink or grow.
Dissonance often comes first, as it’s easier to recognize what we’re not than what we are. Dissonance is a feeling of incongruent identity, like when your parents forced you to play sports-ball, or when your friend played a country song and you cringed at the banjo. It’s not that you didn’t like it, per se, it’s just clearly not your game, your song, your world. In gender affirmative therapy it’s vital to validate dissonance, as we have to relinquish our attempts to be something we’re not. And you know what? Holding space to kvetch, complain, and reject all that noise can be a cathartic and rapport building experience in session. Under the jaded veneer of cynicism is a part of us in need of permission, and sometimes we have to shout “This isn’t me!” before we can move forward.
Ever hear a new song and know instantaneously that it’s your new jam? Maybe it’s the lyrics, or the percussion, or even the guitar speaking to you without words. I like to use instrumental tracks as an everyday example of resonance as a nonverbal experience. As a sense of allure, awe, curiosity, and alignment, resonance can be cultivated through validation, or squashed by shame. In affirmative therapy, resonance is actively sought through experiences both in and out of session. It’s important not to overanalyze it, as we don’t always have an explanation as to why this particular thing makes us feel alive. Besides, it’s so easy to bog ourselves down with words and labels and doubt. When our head is turned by an outfit, or we wish to join the game, or we long to dance in a way our gender norms don’t allow—that’s resonance. When we feel inspired by a queer stranger, or flit wistfully through memes online, or sheepishly return to the store to buy that particular shade of lipstick we haven’t been able to stop thinking about—that’s resonance. And when we go through with it, and dare to try, and feel elated on the other side? That’s euphoria.
These experiences aren’t limited to the coming out experience, as self-actualization is ongoing and lifelong. Our muses may lose their luster, yet retain a fond nostalgia. Obviously, our gender identity evolves with time, yet it’s our ability to trust our dissonance and our resonance that provides a sense of self-certainty so many of us strive to attain. Gender authenticity is not a cognition, decision, or a written script, it’s the unspoken experience of self that existed before the imposition thereof. This may sound slippery and vague, as experiences often are, until the moment they’re experienced. This is the fundamental difference between knowing and understanding. How many of us knew we were trans, yet felt stuck until we started taking steps? How many of us see the clues so clearly in retrospect? Yes, gender norms are a social construct, but you are not. Yes, there are many scripts, but the best actors always ad-lib.
Lev, A. (2004) Transgender emergence: therapeutic guidelines for working with gender variant people and their families. 1st Ed. CSW-R, CASAC. New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press
Stitt, A. (2020). ACT For Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.