What constitutes “transitioning” as a trans person?

I had a weird conversation a few months ago. I was actually so floored by it that I don’t even know what I said in response when it actually happened, but it’s stuck with me enough that I want to write about it.

I was hanging out with a friend of mine who mentioned that he had recently heard my spouse-person referring to me as “trans”. Which, I mean, yeah. This friend knows this about me, for the record.

Or at least I thought he did? He knows that I am genderqueer. He knows that I use gender neutral pronouns, that I’ve changed my name, that my gender expression has shifted considerably over the years. I think he knows that I write about it all the time, too, even.

But apparently all of these things didn’t signify trans to him. And his next question clarified why.

“Does that mean you are planning to transition?” he asked.

As I say, I was floored. I didn’t know what to say, and I honestly can’t remember what I did say. I have made, and continue to make, so many transitions with respect to my gender over the past three years that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

I know what he was actually asking; he wanted to know if I intend to pursue gender-related medical interventions, like surgeries, or hormone therapies. But the entire framing of the question made it clear that he really had just somehow completely failed the register the enormous amount of personal work I have been doing with respect to my gender identity and the expression thereof.

It’s exhausting to realize that even people who support me don’t recognize that I am trans, somehow. It’s also exhausting to be reminded that the entire trans experience is still reduced in most people’s minds to a list of medical procedures.

And so I guess I just want to take a moment to ad my voice to the litany, and repeat what so many trans people have been saying for so long:

There is no correct way to be trans. There is no definitive “transition” action that can be taken. Some trans people seek out medical interventions. Some do not. Some of us change our names. Some do not. Most of us change our pronouns, but some do not. Some come out to the world at large, some only ever share their reality with the people closest to them.

Every. Single. Thing. Any trans person does to affirm their own sense of self and to make others see them as they want to be seen is a form of their transition. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, it is valid, and it is real.

If you were born into a culture that functions on a binary gender system1, and your gender is not the one you are assigned at birth, you are trans. Whether or not you choose to do anything about it, ever. Regardless of what form your expression does or does not take.




1. Some people with non-binary identities that are recognized within their cultures (including Two-Spirit, Hijra, and other non-Western genders) do not identify as trans, as the social and political construction of trans identities is not relevant to the cultural context of their gender. The application of trans theory and narratives to these identities is inherently colonialist, and I do my best not to participate in the appropriation of these identities by (usually white) trans people and communities.

Read more about this:
Transgender Identities in an Age of Globalization and Colonialism
Anagnori’s glossary of transgender, non-binary and genderqueer words directly addresses colonialism (and its relationship with binarism), and provides links to information on some non-Western genders.


  1. Yup… you’re fighting a category that is hammered into people’s heads in several times a day… Ain’t easy to flatten high walls back down into grey areas which people can cross. Thanks for trying, though. And nice cultural fact! I’m going to put that in my brain and let it simmer happily.

  2. My transition started the day I realized that I was trans. The media really plays into the “stereotypical trangender narrative” with the 1-2-3 step process with the end goal of assimilating into mainstream binary society. Most people just believe what they see on TV or read in the news.

  3. I think the problem is that the only visible transgender people that most of the general population ever hears about are people like Kaitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono who do a binary transition in a relatively short period of time. It’s dramatic and absolute so when they have a friend in real life who’s transition is not so dramatic, absolute and binary they don’t necessarily recognize it for what it is. It will take some explaining and educating to help people understand that transitions aren’t always binary and obvious.

  4. Yes! Thanks for this. I did used to think of genderqueer and trans as two separate categories – and I guess what you’re saying is that they can be, but they can overlap. I heard you refer to yourself as trans a few times this summer and thought ‘ohhh of course, that makes sense!’ (Because, as you say, there have been market transitions in your presentation, so).


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