November 7, 2023

Why do trans people transition? It’s a confusion that lurks behind much of the anti-trans sentiment developing in Kansas and throughout the country.

The most common answer is that trans people transition to escape gender dysphoria: that every trans person experiences a deep and unabiding longing to be the “opposite gender,” a longing that manifests as a discomfort with and need to escape from the physical reality of our own bodies, and so we undergo transition to sever ourselves from the gender we reject and reattach ourselves to the expectations and social role of the gender we prefer. A simple exchange, switching out one gender for another and then continuing onward with our lives as if nothing had happened at all.

I can’t deny that this narrative has some truth—I have experienced gender dysphoria, and longed desperately to escape it. I have, late at night when no one else is awake and I’m alone with my thoughts, wished I could simply live the life of a woman without having to transition at all. Gender dysphoria can be cruel and lonely, and anyone who encounters it will want to leave it behind.

Maybe these things are why I transitioned. But to reduce transition to merely a panicked escape to greener pastures, an abandoning of one kind of gender expression for an equal but opposite one, does a disservice to the opportunities that transition provides us.

I began my transition with a specific image in my mind. Years of social conditioning had taught me what a woman was—and all the myriad ways in which I fell short of that standard. I would learn about women’s fashion and makeup, I thought, and undertake medical interventions to reshape my body. I would leave behind any trace of masculinity and take up womanhood in its place.

But as time went on, my understanding of what I needed to be changed, and so did my priorities. I went through with some elements of medical transition, taking hormones, but realized that many of my goals were misplaced. Parts of myself with which I felt uncomfortable—like my height or my long, straight nose—became less signifiers of my failure as a woman and more just part of who I was. As I learned more about myself, my understanding of the world and my place in it evolved. I became a more caring person, more ready to recognize complexity and uncertainty than I had before. Despite the cruelty that the outside world sometimes directs at people like me, transition strengthened my connections to that world, not diminished them.

If, as I discovered, I could contain so many contradicting desires within myself, then surely others must as well. And if I could embrace those contradictions—embrace change and reinvention—rather than reject them, then what wouldn’t be possible? What new ways of being might we be able to discover, together, if we saw ourselves less as static points in a world of change, but as beings who are constantly changing and rewriting ourselves?

I have never felt anything as sure as the peace that comes with knowing that I am who I decided to be.

Transition cannot be a linear process. We may set out on the journey with a simple goal in mind, but we inevitably find ourselves distracted on the way—what begins as a stroll down the road is interrupted by explorations of newly-discovered paths branching out in new directions. We may return to the main path, or we may not. Ahead of us, all around us, are infinite possibilities.

Every one of us, trans or cisgender, will navigate transition during our lives. Who can say that they are the same person as they were a decade ago? How about five years ago, or one? Any story of growing up, of getting older, is a transition narrative about refashioning oneself in a new stage of life. These transitions are complex and individuated: no two journeys the same, no experiences identical. To embrace transition means believing not only that people can change, but also that change itself defines our existence—that the line between what we are and what we become is thinner than we could have imagined.

To return to the question with which I began this piece: why do we transition? I’m not sure that I know. A question like that is far too personal, its answer too unique to each individual, for me to give a single, sweeping response. What I can say is this: no matter why we decide to start a transition (and I have discussed gender transition, but this concept could apply to other transitions as well: changing careers, moving to a new country, starting a family—all of these and more are also opportunities for discovery), the value of transition lies far outside the bounds of that single moment.    

Transition is important not because of how it ends, but for what we must do to get to that end. It demands that we re-evaluate that which we had considered impossible, braving the unexplored possibilities before us, and commit to finding new ways of living. We, in transition, at once discover and create our own liberation.