My discomfort with my presumed gender-normative identity reached the point where I knew I had to move beyond it about four years ago. The trigger was the failure of a business effort in which I wound up needing to go to the limit of what I could stand with a number of gender-normative behaviors.
I finally could give myself some time to reflect on what I had done and how I had changed as a consequence of my effort. Many behaviors I had been propelled to express to a much greater extreme than I ever had before included many that were especially valued by my normative gender. I got some idea of the stress I must have taken upon myself when I observed how many of those characteristics and expressions did not align well, or at all, with my own sense of self. Looking back through my life prior to that time, it became clear that they never did.
Measuring myself against my normative gender and its standards, and coming to understand the stress I was routinely facing in the name of an effective expression of that identity, clarified for me that trying to express myself as gender-normative by the standards that did not suit me was, in the long run, unhealthy for me. Normative gender expression was now feeling more and more, and more of the time, like role playing rather than spontaneous behavior. I could do it – mainly because of years of practice in presenting as normative despite feeling otherwise – but I saw that the stress of staying in-role was continuing to escalate. I would need to repudiate the standards that did not suit me, and find other standards for defining my gender identity.
None of the options facing me were at all comfortable. Many of the standards causing me the most stress were valued by, and believed by many to be intrinsic parts of, my normative gender. Continuing to claim my normative gender as my identity would confront me with the derision and exclusion that comes from being viewed as a poor adherent to those standards. If I wanted to do anything about that, I would need to join or start a movement to get a whole bunch of people, many heavily invested in the standards at issue, to change their minds about the standards' relevance to their gender identification. Not at all my idea of a good time.
I would also need to consider whether I would fare better by claiming a different gender identity with which I was more aligned. And although I was managing by taking advantage of opportunities for forms of expression at odds with my normative gender identity when at home, that relief was clearly not going to suffice in the future. I needed a new gender identity, and claiming it was not enough – I would need to express it, and have others perceive it.
Recognizing that I wanted guidance and support in this step, combined with the effects of gender stress on my relationship with my spouse, led me to begin gender counseling. This confirmed to me that the gender identity I should claim needed to be something other than my normative gender identity, and also helped me understand how to refine my search for my new identity.
I quickly understood that merely asserting that my gender was not normative would not suffice for me. I needed to find an identity and understand it well enough to explain it to others.
Between then and now, I have been working out which aspects of my normative gender expression I wanted to keep, which aspects I would choose to discard, and which forms of expression that lie outside normative boundaries I wished to include. This has included occasions, which became more and more frequent, where I included non-normative elements in my public presentation while retaining enough normative elements to make it reasonably deniable that my gender identity was anything other than normative. (I will have more to say about this when I discuss presentation.)
I have now gotten enough information from the counseling and the experimentation that I can assert my intended gender identity: My gender identity is “me”. I will not adopt any forms of expression because they are normative for any gender identity, but instead according to what I believe would encourage others to interact with me as I wish to be interacted with.
This declaration of identity is something that I can maintain. I can allow my presentation or behavior to align with normative expression for some gender without refuting it or identifying as a member of the gender my behavior may currently be normative for. I will undoubtedly need to assert my gender identity when people incorrectly infer it from my presentation, but, for me, doing so is much more in tune with how I feel than conforming to any generic set of standards ever would.