[content warning: brief mention of suicidality]

I’ve seen a lot of people say things along the lines of “if you’ve ever thought about being trans, you are trans!” and “cis people don’t question whether they’re trans!” I see people link questioning people to the website amitransgender.com (spoiler alert: it says ‘yes’).

To me, this seems both wrong and harmful. Of course there are people who question whether they’re trans and decide that being trans isn’t right for them. There are gender-non-conforming people who wonder about whether their affinity for ties and discomfort with girls’ nights out means they might be a man. There are sissification and forced feminization fetishists who, noticing the correlation between those sexual interests and being transgender, wonder if they might be transgender as well. There are depressed people who notice how much happier a lot of people are after transition and wonder whether it would cause their depression to lift too. There are people with dissociation and depersonalization issues who wonder if it’s because they’re trans. Heck, there are gender dysphoric people for whom transition is not the right choice– maybe right now, or maybe ever. All of those people exist!

People say, “there’s no pressure to be trans! There’s actually a lot of pressure not to be trans!” As a cultural thing, this is true. However, things that are true of American culture as a whole aren’t necessarily true of every subculture. In queer/trans communities, there’s often a lot of pressure on gender-non-conforming women to transition; some gender-non-conforming male rationalists have told me that their friends assume that they are of course a trans girl, and their objections are just denial.

The advantage of “if you think you might be trans, you’re trans!” is that it gives people permission to think they might be trans. It says: in order to be trans, you don’t have to have known since you were six, or act like stereotypes of the gender you want to be, or hate your body. It’s okay! If you want to be trans you can be! And that’s something that’s desperately needed in trans narratives.

So one of the things I’ve been trying to do lately is switch from framing transness as an identity to framing it as a choice.

Of course, the identity framing is really freaking useful, most notably when advocating for trans rights. The identity framing allows you to say: I am a man, I am always going to be a man, you do not get to question whether I am a man or not, please call me ‘he’ and we will move on with our lives. And in a time period in which allowing people who identify as women to use the women’s bathroom is controversial, allowing people who choose to be women to use the women’s bathroom is far more so.

But the problem with the identity framing is that it allows endless layers of recursive questioning. It is not like there is a blood test to see whether you’re really truly trans or not. There is no way anyone else can verify what you’re feeling and go “yep, that’s definitely dysphoria.” And I feel like a lot of the angst of the gender-questioning person boils down to trying to find a solid, objective answer to a question that’s inherently subjective.

So I think that for a lot of gender-questioning people, it is useful to characterize being trans as a decision. The question is not “do I, in some fundamental sense, have a gender identity that is different from the one I was assigned at birth?”; the question is “would transition improve my life?”

Now, sometimes the answer to the latter question is extremely obvious. To many cis people, the answer is “uh, no, duh.” Many trans people feel like they would rather die than not get to transition, in which case it is pretty obvious that transition would improve their life (for one thing, they would get to have a life). But for people who are more uncertain, I think it can be clarifying to realize that you don’t have to justify your decision to transition with an identity.

Seriously! If your quality of life is better when people call you “they”, you can just do that. If you think it would be really awesome to be fucked in your brand-new user-upgraded vagina, you can get one installed. To a certain degree, I think the debates about whether autogynephilia is a thing or whether trans men have just internalized misogyny are kind of ridiculous: if it improves your life to transition because of your sexual fetish, why is that anyone else’s business? It is your life and your body; you only get one life, and you deserve to be happy.

On the other hand, if transition wouldn’t improve your life, you don’t have to. If you’re wondering about whether your love of skirts and lipstick or your sexual fantasies about becoming a woman might mean you are really a woman deep down, well, it turns out that there’s no law that says that people who are really women deep down need to transition. You can just stay a dude if you want to and if you think that is best for your overall life goals.

You have agency over your own gender. In a very real sense, your gender identity is what you want it to be.

And, of course, if it is a choice, then your decision can change as your life circumstances and self-knowledge change. Detransitioning or deciding to transition doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve come to a different position about what you really fundamentally are deep down; it can just mean that a choice that wasn’t right for you once is right for you now. (Of course, some changes are not reversible, and some reversible changes (such as whether or not you have breasts) are expensive or a pain in the butt to reverse. It’s wise to be cautious about such changes and perhaps wait a while to see if your desire is stable.)

Another important caveat is that transness is an intensely personal decision. No one besides you knows what the best choice for you is. And if someone is like “you’re so trans! you have to transition!”, you have my permission to lightly thwack them with rolled-up newspaper.