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Exploring and affirming your gender

Being transgender isn't a mental health condition, but the trans community faces higher rates of mental health challenges than any other LGBTQ+ identity group. Being your authentic self — if safe to do so — is one of the best ways to protect your well-being. Take pride in exploring and affirming your gender identity!

This article covers:

  • Why questioning gender – especially your own – can be so confusing.
  • Ways to safely explore your gender and cope with discomfort.
  • How to affirm your gender to yourself if you aren’t ready or safe to be out.

If some of this language is unfamiliar to you, you can find bolded words defined in the Human Rights Campaign's Glossary of Terms

Gender is complicated.

Based on your gender, society has certain expectations of you – how you dress, your personality, your hobbies, the way you show emotion, and your interactions with others are expected to line up with your gender’s stereotypes.

In reality, gender is a social construct – an idea our society has created to understand and explain the world we live in. There’s no reason that we should encourage boys to enjoy sports over art, or girls to dream of being teachers over construction workers. But because of these gendered labels, straying outside of these restrictive boxes can be difficult.

Because of society’s expectations, most people feel they are a man or a woman based on what sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender). Others feel like “a boy in a girl’s body” (or vice versa) from a very young age, and as soon as they’re introduced to words like “transgender” or “gender nonconforming” they realize, “hey, that’s me!” And some people aren’t sure yet. As we start to unlearn the gender binary, more and more people – especially youth – are beginning to explore their own gender identity.

Exploring your gender doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re trans or nonbinary.

Your gender plays a huge role in your life – it benefits anyone to explore that identity. It’s completely normal to question your gender identity, just like any other part of who you are.

Reflecting on your gender can be an uncomfortable process and bring up challenging feelings. You might even be scared to start thinking about it too much. That’s okay. Give yourself time and space to process your thoughts and feelings. Despite the difficult emotions you might face, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Being your authentic self and being accepted as that version of yourself is one of the best ways to support your mental health.

Figuring out who you truly are is a lifelong process. The journey to understanding your gender identity might feel like an emotional rollercoaster. Some people are scared to start thinking about it - and that’s okay. There are many ways you can start to think about your identity. Our friends at the Trevor Project recommend starting with some of the following questions:

  • How do you feel about your birth gender?
  • What gender do you wish people saw you as?
  • How would you like to express your gender?
  • What pronouns do you feel most comfortable using?
  • When you imagine your future, what gender are you?

You can reflect on these ideas through research, connecting with the trans community (social media is a great place to find people you relate to), talking to people you trust, journaling, art, or any way that helps you to explore your own mind.

If it’s safe to do so, another way to explore is by experimenting with your gender expression, which is how you present yourself to others. Depending on your surroundings and resources, you have some degree of control over this. We all express gender in a number of ways, like our physical appearance, clothing, makeup, hairstyle, behavior, and more. See what feels comfortable and most like you. You’ll never know until you try.

That’s okay! You aren’t alone, and discomfort is normal. Reflect on why and how you can support yourself:

I don’t have anyone to talk to. Starting to explore your gender can feel isolating, especially if you don’t know any trans people. If you can, show up to trans and broader LGBTQ+ events as an ally, relieving any pressure that you need to come out there. Social media is also a great place to connect with the trans community.

I’m hesitant to start. There’s no rush. Take small steps when you’re ready. Just learning more about gender can help you feel more confident in thinking about your own. Follow related social media accounts without engaging, or even create another account for yourself to use if you want more privacy.

I’m just not ready yet. That’s okay. This page will be here when you are.

If you are trans, you might be experiencing gender dysphoria – an uncomfortable disconnect between the gender you were assigned at birth and the gender you identify as. This is normal, but can cause significant distress.

If you’re struggling to cope with the feelings you’re having about gender, consider taking a mental health test to see if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition like anxiety or depression.

Feeling affirmed in your gender protects your mental health.

Being affirmed by your loved ones and receiving gender-affirming care are some of the most effective ways to affirm your gender.

Unfortunately, not everyone can count on being accepted as their true self by the people around them. Or maybe you just aren’t ready to let them know about that self yet. Whatever the situation, there are ways for you to take control and affirm your identity for yourself.

It’s a lot easier said than done, but the first step is figuring out what feeling affirmed in your gender means to you. As you explore, you’ll probably get a better idea of what feels right.

Express yourself. Once you’ve explored different types of gender expression, run with it! Get a new haircut, clothes, piercing, or whatever else feels like you.

Try out new pronouns. Use different pronouns when referring to yourself. It’s helpful to have others involved with this if you are comfortable with it.

Test out a new name. If you don’t feel like your name fits you, try something else! Maybe your middle name or a masculine/feminine version of your name feels better, or maybe you’ve always felt like another name fits best.

Embrace your creative side. If you can’t outwardly express your gender, art is a fantastic way to privately express and affirm who you are. Draw, paint, dance, write – anything that makes you feel like you can build confidence in your identity.

Some trans people transition as a way to affirm their gender – but your identity is still valid if you can’t or don’t want to take that step. Some people think of transitioning as strictly medical, such as taking hormones or getting surgery to physically reflect their true gender. Those are some ways to transition, but not the only ways. Transitioning can also include other ways of gender expression. Your transition and gender expression is completely up to you and what feels comfortable and safe.

  • Social – having new pronouns, name, or appearance
  • Legal – legally changing your name and/or gender
  • Medical – taking hormones and/or getting surgery

Whether you consider all, none, or a few new ways of transitioning to express your gender – you are the gender you feel you are.

There’s another layer to the complexity of this: Gender identity and gender expression aren’t the same thing. Your identity is who you are, while your expression is how you present yourself to people. For instance, a cisgender man wearing makeup is still a man, and a trans woman with facial hair is still a woman. Whether you can or want to transition in whatever way you’d like – including not at all – you are the gender you feel you are.

Being LGBTQ+, and especially trans, isn’t easy given how society treats you. If you’re struggling, you aren’t alone. Learn more about gender and take a mental health test to see if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition.

Note: In the United States in 2023, it isn’t safe for many LGBTQ+ people – especially those in the transgender and gender nonconforming community – to publicly explore and affirm their identities. If that’s you, our hearts are with you, and we are fighting for your ability to be your true self. Learn about others’ experiences on coping in a non-affirming environment.

Take a mental health test

Online screening is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition.

See more LGBTQ+ resources

Learn more about LGBTQ+ communities and mental health