Beyond the Binary: Self Doubt

A lot of the writing and communication about gender and self-identification tends to present gender as fixed. Something you know. Something you are confident in. I am guilty of this myself, in my own writing about my lived experience as a genderqueer person, and there is a certain defensive element to it; if I admit elements of doubt, I feel like I am potentially exposing myself to the usual line of cis garbage about how I’m not ‘really’ genderqueer or I just want to be ‘special.’

The thing about gender, cis or trans, is that it is not that simple. Lots of people go through periods of doubt and flux about their gender—not everyone, and you’re not broken if you’ve always been very, very sure of your gender—and pretending that we don’t harms pretty much everyone. If you’re cis, experiencing periods of conflict about gender and how you express it can be disorientating when everyone around you appears so confident. And when you’re trans, there can be a sense of letting down the team if you fail to toe the line, if you admit that sometimes the lines are blurry for you.

Self doubt is normal. Being told to suppress it, and being forced to hide it, is also normal, but shouldn’t be, because we should be able to openly talk about the role self doubt plays in our lives. I know that for me, being able to explore those issues probably would have helped me feel more secure in my gender earlier, and could have helped me break down some differences between gender presentation, actual gender, and emotional constructions of gender.

For years I experienced deep self doubt and confusion because I thought dressing femme meant I couldn’t be genderqueer, because I had mistaken femme for ‘feminine’ and both of those things for ‘woman.’ I thought that surely, since I dressed the way I did, I wasn’t ‘really’ genderqueer and couldn’t identify that way, and I struggled with that self doubt a lot internally because I was afraid to talk about it. I didn’t know who to talk about it with or even really how to express it because it seemed so silly when it was put into words, but it had a profound impact on how I thought about my identity.

And I continue to experience self doubt—not about whether I am a woman, but about whether I am possibly something else. ‘My gender is doing strange things these days,’ I have been saying for months, and it is. I feel like I’m pushing and perhaps settling into something entirely different, but the self doubt holds me back. I look at myself in the mirror and wonder who I’m fooling or what exactly I am doing or who I am, even as the person in the mirror looks utterly alien and unfamiliar. I whisper things in the dark of night to close friends and they nod. They know.

Self doubt doesn’t mean you fail at gender. It just means you’re human, and being human isn’t such a bad thing, overall. It’s what humans do to each other that can be a problem, and it is here that self doubt can come into play, because some people may try to use it to erode your identity and sense of self. Doubt makes people appear vulnerable, soft and tender, and while they are exposed, other people may take that as an opportunity to have a go. It can be hard to counter that, when you’re wounded and down and any response feels defensive and inadequate, but sometimes the attacks on people experiencing self doubt and flux and confusion say more about the attacker than they do about the attacked.

People who seize upon self doubt are often very invested in proving something, and that something is usually about themselves and the world they live in. With gender, it’s often a desire to be assured that there is an order to things and everything will be all right and gender is fixed, stable, and rigid. Cis people seize upon self doubt in the trans community and the hideously named ‘transition regret’ as proof that trans identities aren’t real, that lived experiences in the trans community are somehow falsities and lies, because they feel threatened by the existence of trans people and living evidence that gender is a complicated and many-faceted beast. For them, expressions of self doubt are evidence that they are ‘right’ and you are ‘wrong.’

There’s also some policing from within the trans community on self doubt, for a variety of reasons that are somewhat more complex than those among the cis community. Sometimes I get the sense, as I mentioned above, that there is a desire for us to present ourselves in a uniform and nonthreatening way, so each of us can be educational and friendly to cis people. A desire, too, to affirm trans identities as very very solid and very very real because of a long history of denial, medical gatekeeping, and hostility. Self doubt blurs lines and makes it harder to make definitive statements about gender, which some people feel undermines work done to legitimise the trans community.

For others, self doubt may be something terrifying for other reasons. Perhaps fear of their own self doubt and reluctance to face it, or something else entirely.

When you’re in a community that expresses hostility to emotions you are experiencing, that doesn’t provide a safe space to talk about them and work through them, it is hard not to feel isolated and unwanted. And it is hard to actually process your emotions and decide what you want to do with them. It’s okay to feel self doubt. And confusion. And flux. There is nothing wrong with you and you are not a failure when you have those emotions, no matter what anyone says.