I often hear stories of LGBT+ individuals discovering their identity, and describing how they always knew something was off about how people assumed they were cisgender or heterosexual, even if at the time they didn’t know those words or what they meant. They had their first crush on someone of the same gender when they were five, or they had felt that they were a different gender than the one assigned to them as birth for as long as they could remember. For me, and many others however, the story is very different. I didn’t realize that there was something wrong with being strictly labeled “female” until I was 15 or 16 (about a year or so now). And I’ve only been sure I was anything but straight a year or two earlier than that. The process of discovering my identity has been long, slow, and still incomplete, and the rush to be completely sure has been debilitating. The idea that people must know their identity is something other than straight or cis from a young age to be legitimate has been very harmful on questioning teens like myself over the years, and this idea should change.
My relationship with gender has been a shaky one all my life. When I was much younger, I followed strictly the gender roles to the gender I had been assigned at birth, female. It was always dresses, and pink, and princesses for me. Then, all of the sudden (I think within the course of a week) when I was perhaps 7 or 8, I decided that had to change. No more dresses or skirts (I still hate wearing them now), and blue was my new favorite color. I didn’t want to be like “the other girls” (a gross concept for another time), so I tried to be more masculine. However, despite trying to follow both gender roles at one point or another, I never actually felt like I was either.
I didn’t not feel like them, but at the same time, I had no attachment to either gender at all.
There was never any point where being associated with any gender gave me comfort or discomfort, and I had never given this any thought until recently. Within the past year or so I’ve been trying to find a term that describes my identity. Non-binary has been my general term, and gender-fluid has been the closest I’ve found, but still isn’t quite right. I don’t know what the “right” body for me would be, but I experience gender dysphoria on a somewhat regular basis now. This was never the case when I was a kid, totally oblivious to the idea that trans people even existed because I was never taught they did. I am trans however, and I try to remind myself every day that this is valid even if I didn’t know it then.
My sexuality has been a similar, but somewhat different story. I never felt straight or gay or anything in between or outside of these labels, I never had any actual crushes for a while, and even when I did I think some of them were me just convincing myself I did to try and seem “normal”. Finding my sexuality has been particularly difficult because I identify as asexual. There was no attraction for me to feel, so I never knew if I was feeling it or not, or if I was just not old enough to feel it. It took a while to accept that’s just who I was, even though there was no way for me to have known that. Even my romantic attractions (I am pan-romantic) didn’t come until around the same time as I was discovering my asexuality, and those attractions have mostly been pretty weak. There was no way for me to have known any of this when I was younger, and sometimes I’m afraid that this means the validity of my identity will be called into question, when really my focus should be on discovering my identity, not whether or not people will believe me.
For many questioning teens, not knowing immediately what they identify as can feel very invalidating. Take the time you need to find the right label for you, or completely ignore labels at all. Though there can be a sense of comfort that comes from finding the right label, there is no rush to determine the right one. Who you are will be just as valid now as it will be tomorrow, so don’t feel like you need to decide immediately. The process is hard, especially for those of us who haven’t been harboring these feelings since childhood. You are just as valid as someone who has been however, and your identity is important. For those who have known for a long time, support others in their discovery rather than invalidating them. It cannot be expected of everyone to develop an understanding of something as complex as their gender and sexuality at the same pace.