Articles / Categorization / Verbal Hygiene

Some of us don’t transition

In the past I’ve done verbal hygiene on the words “transgender” and “coming out,” and now I feel like I need to do some on the word “transition.” I have always thought of transition as meaning that someone takes on a new identity, with a new name and a new presentation, and a new gender marker to go with it. Almost twenty years ago I decided not to transition, meaning that even though I regularly feel gender dysphoria (a discomfort with living as a man) and transgender desire (a desire to live as a woman), I examined my options and concluded that I wanted to continue living as a man most of the time. Back then it seemed pretty clear to everyone what transition was, and I chose not to do it.

Maybe I'm transitioning to a new Centauri identity...
Maybe I’m transitioning to a new Centauri identity…
Once in a while when I tell people I’m transgender and out but not transitioning, I get a puzzled reaction about the “not transitioning.” The first time I recall was about ten years ago from Reid Vanderburgh, but I’ve heard it from several other people since. The general idea is that everyone’s idea of “transition” is personal. I can just decide that for me “transition” means not changing much of anything, so then I must have transitioned!

I guess this line of thinking is meant in a nice way, but there are a few things that bother me about it. The first is that it undermines its own claims to respect my definitions. In this view, I can have any definition of transition I want, as long as I transitioned. I am not allowed to define transition in such a way that I – or any trans person – have the option to not do it.

The second problem is that it erases very real prototype effects. Maybe Vanderburgh and friends will respect my personal definition of “transition,” but they have no power to compel anyone else to. Even if people do accept the idea, that means that nobody knows what I mean by “transition” until I tell them.

As I understand it, they think that I can talk about “my transition” and everyone will keep an open mind and not make any assumptions about what it entails. But that’s really not how anyone’s mind works. We always have an image for any category. If I mention “my dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a common breed like a yellow Lab or a German Shepherd, or maybe a pit bull or a Maltese if you know city dogs. If I then tell you I have a great Dane or a Bassett hound or a Chihuahua you might not be surprised, but you won’t envision one until I tell you, because they’re not prototypical dogs.

Similarly, if I mention “my transition,” you’re going to envision hormones, surgery and a name and document change, because that’s the common transition image. There are so many people doing it who are so vocal about it, that me saying, “I shave my legs more often now” is not going to budge the needle.

Finally, there’s a message I want to send: that you can be trans and lead a relatively happy life without hormones or surgery, and without significantly changing your gender presentation, name, pronouns or legal documentation. For me, the easiest way to say that is “I’m trans, and I decided long ago not to transition.” Take that away, and it makes it that much harder for me to say what I want to say.

The bottom line is that people have images, schemas in their heads for every category. That’s the way the mind works, and saying, “everyone has their own definition” doesn’t make it so. There are some things you can legislate about language, but you can’t legislate prototypes out of existence.


  1. Hi Andrea,

    I’m very happy to read this from you. I’m very similar to you in that my desire to live/act/be a woman varies a lot, day-by-day, and while I definitely find myself wrapped up in gender euphoria at times, I have my doubts about whether I’ll ever feel sufficiently needful of the “full transition,” gender affirmation surgery.

    On a fantasy level it’s really appealing. I do have almost constant envy of girls/women that I see in my daily life and in the media. But it is a fantasy. I would come out of the whole transition as myself, whatever that will be. And the road to get their is long, risky, and there’s the concern that I took the wrong fork.

    I think of it in much the same way as I decided that I am transgender, by considering my history of thoughts and feelings, and how I feel when presented now with new information. For example, I can safely say that as a toddler (or at least, pre-schooler) I felt more comfortable with the girls, envied them, played with them, and didn’t like playing with the boys. I also admired girly things. These emotions and fantasies were with me throughout childhood. Unlike others I’ve read about, I never really hated my body, considered cutting off my penis, and I also played and had fun with “boy toys” such as guns and rockets.

    So maybe I’m caught in the middle, first needing to fully acknowledge and accept my feminine self, desires to be feminine, and at times experiencing and exhibiting my femininity. But not all the time. I guess that’s a better outcome for me than feeling such a compelling need to fully transition, since I hope that my current needs will work out okay with my wife, and our relationship will survive.

    On the other hand I’m also a bit envious of those who are (or at least seem to be) so comfortable and confident in their needs to go on HRT, have the SRS, and live their lives as transwomen. At least they don’t have to content with this ambiguity.

    Long story short, I agree with you: define transition as you need to and as it fits you.



  2. No, Emma, that was Vanderburgh’s argument! I don’t think people can define transition for themselves; definitions are negotiated in communities.

  3. Woops! I stand corrected. I guess I’m waffling here but yes, transition tends to mean (to most) the full RLE/HRT/SRS deal. Agreed?

    Most importantly to me is your message, that one can be transgender and lead a happy and healthy life without hormones, surgery, and/or living as a woman. Occasional forays into ones feminine persona can suffice.

    Thanks Andrea for your feedback. I love your blog and writing.


  4. Thanks, Emma!

    I don’t necessarily agree that “transition” has to include hormones and surgery. The main thing is that it includes presenting 99% or more of the time as the target gender.

    I’m not sure what does suffice. I think for some people, occasionally wearing the underwear of the target gender in private may be enough.

    What’s vastly more valuable than “forays into one’s feminine persona” – or masculine, or neutrois, or whatever – is being out of the closet: being able to talk about what you’re going through to people without worrying about being attacked or discriminated against. In my experience, that has a much bigger effect on happiness than any public displays.

  5. Hi Andrea,

    Okay, I understand now what you mean by transition. It makes sense and helps me gain some understanding of what other people may mean too.

    For me, my “transition” which has been pretty profound has been my awakening and acceptance of who I am really, and my full disclosure to my wife. I’ve lived with this shame, depression, and hurt feelings about myself my whole life. Thankfully, that fog is lifting, so that’s a transition for me. So, that’s in full agreement with what you wrote as well in your last paragraph.

    May you and yours have a very Happy Thanksgiving,


  6. Sorry, Emma, I guess I still wasn’t clear.

    Accepting yourself as you are and telling others about it is coming out. It’s a great thing, and I’m proud of you, but it is not transition. Please don’t call it transition.

  7. Hi Andrea,

    No problem. I hope you and yours have a wonderful thanksgiving! I’m cooking four crabs in the morning for us to feast on with friends in the afternoon. Hmm. I’d better get some sleep.


  8. Hi Andrea, I continue to read your blog entries and find them to be a relief and a comfort. I commented before but my husband has similar feelings as you’ve shared and as the spouse, I too, feel like we’re the anomalies in the transgender world. But you’ve shown us we’re not alone. All too often, the only examples we find are extremes and for those falling somewhere along the spectrum, you feel isolated. But, i agree that transition can take on different forms depending on the person. What suffices and has allowed that person to be happy and even if that means considering the other attributes in his/her life like his/her family, etc. all lead to transition – a better place I guess. That may mean surgery, hormones, simply dressing, or a low dose hrt, etc. it is crucial as you say to go from a place of shame to one of coming out and acceptance. Just means it could be different for each person. Thank you! You’ve inspired me to be brave and put my thought out there. It’s such a relief. I hope this helps others too to know we’re not alone out here. Best, VernG

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