Journeys to identifying as trans and gender-diverse

There were many different ways that the young people we interviewed came to identify as trans and gender-diverse. Young people we spoke to identified feelings at different ages, some connecting to early expressions of gender as a child, whereas others identified feelings as adults. The attitudes of family, influential adults, media and the public often influenced how safe young people felt to express their gender.

The diverse journeys to a trans identity are captured by the following areas:

  • Early expressions of gender
  • Feeling different or uncomfortable in your body
  • Reaching a turning point
  • Identifying with characters in media, film and literature
  • Safe spaces and community role models
  • Breaking free from the gender binary

Early expressions of gender

The young people we spoke to described their early experiences of gender and how they expressed themselves at a young age. Our participants expressed themselves through appearance, clothing, hair, and hobbies among others (see Trans and gender-diverse young people’s experience of changing names, gender expression and appearance). Young people described feeling a mismatch when stereotypes of the gender assigned at birth were imposed upon them at a young age.

Some of our young people described expressing themselves in what might be seen as stereotypical masculine or feminine ways. Bailey, Jacob, Loges all describe being labelled as a ‘tomboy’ by members of their family. Bailey enjoyed playing football, Jacob wanted to perform the boy parts in plays, and Loges wanted to dress up as a pirate.

Cassie described how when she was young she “wanted to wear my mum’s clothes and dress up like my mum. There was a fashion show at a primary school and I wanted to wear a pretty dress”. Sophie spoke about “doing makeup in the Wizard of Oz production at my school which I really, really enjoyed”. Tyra enjoyed having long hair, growing it “all through primary school… down to my shoulders”.

Tyra talks about watching My Transsexual Summer and their early experiences of gender at school.

Age at interview 25

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An important influence for young people we spoke to was how adults around them reacted to their early gender expressions. Jacob and Ezio described positive experiences where adults in their life supported their diverse expressions of gender. Jacob said, “My parents always let me pick whatever clothes I wanted, whatever toys I wanted really, because they didn’t believe in gendered clothing or whatever.” However, some participants described less supportive experiences. Bailey was told he had to put a dress on if the family were going out.

A few young people described distressing negative experiences with adults where they were made to feel ashamed of their expressions of gender. Tyra spoke about how her teacher “bullied me about my hair. She was like, ‘Oh you look like a girl,’ and I ended up cutting all my hair off, that I’d grown for so long, which was a part of my identity and my confidence, [it was] really, really horrible”. Find out more about experiences with teachers and advice on discrimination at school.

Theo describes finding comfort in diverse expressions of gender as a trans man.

Age at interview 23

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Challenging ideas about gender

Some people found comfort being recognised in their correct gender from an early age, while others wanted to challenge traditional ideas about gender and the gender ‘binary’ – the system in which all people are categorised as either male or female. ‘M’ said “I don’t necessarily think that gender as a construct is something that works for me , [or] something that is helpful for society.”

Charke said that they are “very much into gender abolition”. They said that they “came to a sort of realisation that it’s much better that I exist outside of any of the restrictive (binary) gender roles” and added, “I think society as a whole would be better if that entire construct were to be abolished.”

Bee describes being non-binary as “the chink of light coming through the toxic, restrictive and violent systems of sex and gender.”

Age at interview 31

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Feeling ‘different’ or uncomfortable in their body

Some of the young people described feelings of being uncomfortable in their bodies and of being ‘different’ in their gender to others. For many young people these feelings were brought on by the onset (start) of puberty.

People talked about not having the words to describe these feelings until they were able to learn about trans and gender-diverse identities. Bay said, “I guess when sort of the age of 11 or 12 I started to, grow up a little bit. I guess that was when I first started to feel different in some way. But didn’t have any words for it at that point.” Erion says learning about trans identities meant “finally having a word to describe a lot of what I was feeling”. Loges says, “I just felt quite uncomfortable but then when I actually found out like what trans was and how I could fit into that I felt a lot more comfortable with myself.”

Erion says “finally having a word to describe a lot of what I was feeling felt like a massive weight off my shoulders”.

Age at interview 22

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Tom talks about being uncomfortable going to swimming lessons and using changing rooms.

Age at interview 13

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There was discussion trying to rationalise these feelings of being different as a way to make sense of them. Charke said that they realised, “Hey I’m a bit weird or not exactly like the rest of the boys, something’s going on” and rationalised it as, “Oh you’re just gay” for around about a year. Similarly, Bay said what they “wanted to wear, how I wanted to have my hair” and told themselves, “Oh well, you know that must mean I’m gay”. Tori remembers that for a time she lived as a “very flamboyant feminine boy, even though not feeling right, even being an effeminate boy and being a part of the LGBT community, and them accepting me as a, you know, a feminine boy, it still didn’t quite feel 100%.”

Finn describes trying to rationalise his feelings about puberty as “You are just a year 7, it gets easier”.

Age at interview 16

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Reaching a turning point

In some of the stories we heard, young people described significant ‘turning points’ in their life that sparked a change after keeping their feelings hidden for a long time. Jay described having a “bit of a breakdown to be honest. I’d been dealing with really bad dysphoria for so long, even though I didn’t realise necessarily that’s what it was. And it just sort of hit me and I was like, I need to do something about this and I need to make a change and I knew, for me, the only way to address that and the only way to get rid of the dysphoria I guess was to transition”. One participant shared that she “ended up having a drug relapse, a pretty horrendous relapse that nearly killed me”. She says, “The reason that happened was it really had become unbearable to continue living as a guy”.

‘M’ speaks about coming out the other end of a “deep depression”, finding their non-binary identity and not looking back.

Age at interview 25

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Identifying with characters in media, film and literature

Finding the words for trans and gender-diverse identities could be the missing puzzle piece before coming out as trans. For some of the young people these words were sometimes found through the media, film and literature. Eel had a “lightbulb moment” reading The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, the story of a young trans man. He said, “After reading it, I was like ‘This is me!’ And then I was like, ‘So I’m not a lesbian. I am a trans guy.”

Summer speaks about having no early experiences of gender but feeling a connection to Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl.

Age at interview 25

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Rahul speaks about Ruby Rose and their role in Orange Is The New Black as an important role model.

Age at interview 25

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There could also be a positive impact in seeing trans people share their experiences in online media such as YouTube videos. Alistair said that while watching a trans man talk about his experiences on YouTube he had a “crystal clear moment” when he felt like he needed “to do something about it because I think it was making me more unhappy than I was realising.” ‘A’ talked about trans meme [a humorous video, image, GIF or text shared online through social media] pages being helpful in understanding their identity. Loges talked about a documentary with trans characters.

Other sources of online media discussed were the site Tumblr which Safia felt was helpful in understanding “the concept of being genderqueer, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s me'” ‘N’ stated that Boys Don’t Cry was “such a profound, significant film to watch”. They said, “I wasn’t just relating to that to anybody watching that story, I was relating to that because of what the story was”.

CJ talked about being “involved with transmasculine YouTube” and the impact that had on their identity.

Age at interview 34

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‘H’ reflects on his early experiences of gender and identifying with a trans guy in an internet video.

Age at interview 28

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Safe spaces and community role models

Finding a safe space within a community was the point at which some people’s trans and gender-diverse identities were able to flourish. Learning from, and having the support of, other trans people was a significant positive influence in feeling comfortable in their identities. Rosa describes how “the realisation came as a direct result of having actually met some trans people in real life and having more understanding of what being trans meant and what it could look like”.

Tyra and Beth reached out to established charities and organisations like Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence, while others organised events themselves so that they could meet other trans people. In our interviews some young people said that learning and reading about feminism, politics and queer theory became formative experiences in their journey. Noelle described how she was introduced to feminism through politics at A Level. She “learned a lot about trans people and as I was learning it was kind of like, ‘Mmm, that sort of applies to me.'”

Henry describes finding friends “under the LGBTQ spectrum” and starting to explore his identity.

Age at interview 25

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G speaks about identifying as non-binary and the transformative impact of finding a “queer commune.”

Age at interview 23

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See also:

Diverse journeys and pathways

Experiences of puberty and puberty blockers

Finding information

Experiences of college and university

Diverse journeys and pathways

In our interviews with trans and gender-diverse young people, they spoke about the many different healthcare experiences they had and the importance of multiple narratives...

Coming out

For many trans and gender-diverse young people we spoke to, ‘coming out’ and choosing to share their identity with others was a complicated process. It...