It’s an interesting question, and not at all obvious. Clearly my knowledge of my transness cannot come from mere external observation. There is no clear empirical evidence in the same way I know my height or my weight. For knowledge of my weight I simply step on the scale. But how do I know I am trans? It’s not the same type of self-knowledge such as knowing I am hungry. In the stomach there are nerve endings that can detect my hunger levels which then send those signals to my brain which interprets them and I gain self-knowledge of my hunger. But my gender identity is not clearly physiological in the same way. There is no instrument, to my knowledge, which can be pointed at my brain and it determines my gender with certainty. Gender is essentially a subjective process, known only through introspection.
The only known way for others to know my gender is for me to tell it to them. They cannot read it off my dress or my behavior or whatever. Such things do not deliver gender conclusively, though they can certainly be cues. Is that where my own knowledge of my gender comes from? Observation of many many clues and then inductively piecing together the conclusion I am trans? Or does my trans knowledge come from a more direct introspective source in the same way I just “directly” know whether I am in pain? I don’t have to infer that I am in pain – I just know I am in pain. Similarly, do I just know I am trans? Or do I have to infer it?
In my own case, and all I can do here is speak for myself, my trans knowledge certainly seems more like an inference than it does direct knowledge. I’ve never “felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body”. I didn’t have a clear and distinct female identity in childhood. It’s never been something that is obvious to me. It was a hard-fought introspective battle to reach my current state of knowledge regarding my trans identity.
To this day my own gender is not obvious to me. I have proclaimed before that I am gender agnostic: I claim no certain knowledge about my own gender. Am I a special type of man or a special type of woman? I do not know. It does not seem important to me. What matters more is self-knowledge concerning my desires to continue transition. I desire to keep using female pronouns, shopping in the women’s section, taking HRT, using the name “Rachel”, etc.
Just like I am aware of my desire for food I am aware of my desire to keep transitioning. This is the knowledge that grounds my knowledge of myself as trans. I know I am trans because I know I never want to go back to being a testosterone-based creature. I know I love estrogen. I know getting gendered as female by other people makes me extremely happy and being perceived as male/man makes me extremely unhappy.
But I didn’t always know that I loved estrogen. Before I transitioned, I did not have certain knowledge that I would love estrogen. So how did I gain enough self-knowledge about my desires in order to be confident enough to start transitioning? In early Spring of 2015 I was exploring my gender-bending and crossdressing more and more, taking things to the next level in terms of trying to pass and going out into public. The feeling was intoxicating. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking my dog around the block in a dress for the first time. I was hooked. I didn’t want to stop dressing in femme, but I also didn’t want to interact with the world as a man with a male name and a male body, being seen by everybody as a crossdresser or pervert. And let’s be honest, few groups of people in this country are more derided than male crossdressers. In my opinion, if you are not part of the drag community it is harder to be an out and about public crossdresser than it is to be a trans woman. The reason is that trans women usually go on hormones in an attempt to blend into society. But if you’re a male crossdresser you are stuck trying to pass with your AMAB body – and unless you are very lucky – it’s going to be difficult to blend in without doing all the things associated with transition such as facial hair removal and HRT.
So I had a choice. Attempt to subvert traditional gender roles in an attempt to be an openly crossdressing male or adopt a trans identity and transition, blending into society as a woman-identified person. I think I made the right choice. The longer I transition the more confident I am that I did the right thing for my happiness and well-being. Never again do I have to choose between expressing my masculine self vs my feminine self. I never have to hide my femininity in the closet again. I never again have to feel ashamed of my femininity. I have the freedom to be exactly who I want to be and no one is stopping me. It’s a wonderful feeling, the feeling of liberation from the gender role I was assigned at birth, liberated from the body I was born with, free from the thought patterns I was socialized to think, free from the shackles of masculinity. I can be feminine!
It’s surprising to me just how deep my desire for femininity runs. It’s part of my DNA, part of my deep wiring. While it is possible that I could have lived a life as a very feminine male, I do not think I would have been able to express myself in the same way I have unless I fully transitioned to take on a female identity, with female pronouns and a female name. When I think of my birth name it gives me a strange sensation, like having a ring of familiarity but still seeming quite estranged. I can’t imagine that I would have lasted long if I had tried to live life as a feminine male. Femme males are spit up and chewed out by society. They are torn down, beaten down, and sometimes even killed. Though I don’t pass perfectly and thus expose myself to a similar risk of being clocked as a man in drag and thus a target for violence, I blend well enough that if I keep my mouth closed I can pass as a woman in society without raising too many eyebrows. This gives me existence a kind of security that I otherwise wouldn’t have if I had tried to express myself without transitioning.
Deep down I am a gender agnostic. I do not know with confidence if I am male or female, man or woman. But I do know I am femme. I am a femme person, that much is clear. But it’s so much easier to be femme with a government ID that has a female name and “F” on it. It’s so much easier to be femme with the help of HRT. It’s so much easier to be femme if I tell the world I am trans. Which is not to say that being trans is an easy path, or without its own set of inherent problems. Being trans is no walk in the park. It can be a hard life. But it is also very rewarding. I get to enjoy the feeling of joy of self-determination, the joy of picking a pathway and walking down it with my head held high, the joy of having a vision for how I want my life to go and being able to follow it. It’s an indescribable feeling. Cis people can of course feel the same feeling when they choose a career or whatever, but gender transition is an example par excellence of autonomy and self-actualization. Trans people fight against so much just to be true to their deep inner selves. They make so many sacrifices, giving up friends, family, and career opportunities just for the chance of authenticity.
So, for me, I know I am trans because I have knowledge of my desires. Knowledge of my desires allows me to make a grand inference: whatever my gender is, it’s different from the gender I was assigned at birth. Thus, I am trans.