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‘There’s No Rulebook’: Letters To Trans and Gender Nonconforming Youth From Those Who Have Been There

The first memory I have of coming to understand myself as the transgender woman I am today, was at the age of five, when I would walk around my family home in my aunt’s black Manolo Blahnik pumps. I remember how my family would laugh and assume it was just a phase. But as time went on, my proclamation of my identity only grew louder. I would wear towels on my head as I pretended to have long flowing hair; I would sneak my cousin’s dresses; I would play with Barbie dolls with the girls in my classroom, and felt completely alienated from all of the rough play of the other boys. My family’s humor began to shift into worry and they began to make me repress it.

We all know the challenges that come with childhood, as kids navigate school life, peer pressure and puberty, and growing up to find their place in the world.

Many transgender men, women and nonbinary people alike, can relate to having felt punished growing up for not sticking to the status quo of gender binary, because we were anything but cisgender, even if we did not have the language to understand it.

Familial rejection of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming (TGNC) children and adolescents is one of the largest factors for mental health concerns. A study by The Williams Institute placed suicide attempts among TGNC respondents at 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the rates for the overall U.S. population. It’s important for TGNC youth to live in an environment that is open and accepting of their identity and to dispel misinformation that only causes them harm. The media plays a critical role in how transgender people are perceived and shapes whether parents and caregivers choose to delay or even deny their transition. A survey conducted by GLSEN reveals that 65 percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school, in addition to facing verbal and physical harassment regarding their gender identity.

According to The Williams Institute, an estimated 150,000 youth identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. These statistics, however, underrepresent the vast majority of youth who are unreported and those who have not come out yet.

TGNC youth face problems at home, at school, in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, where discrimination often goes unchecked. According to the National Center of Transgender Equality, 59 percent of TGNC youth have been denied access to restrooms that align with their gender identity, a barrier created by legislatures hellbent on erasing their identities.

Just earlier this year, Gavin Grimm, a transgender student in Virginia, won a lawsuit against the Gloucester County school board, in his efforts to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school.

Although Gavin is a fighter who stood for civil liberties that should be given to all trans and gender non-conforming people, he should not have had to fight to simply use the restroom.

And although visibility has made great strides in the TGNC community, it is important that we keep our youth in mind. Many of us did not have others within our community to look up to. To ensure that never happens again, INTO interviewed 10 transgender and gender non-conforming people, asking what advice they would like to give to our youth on their journey.

Desi, 21, She/Her/Hers

When I first decided that I was transitioning, I did so alone. I’m about two years into my transition at this point and now I have and am continuing to build a community of trans siblings around me. If I could tell myself anything, it would be to find your people. Find the people that encourage you, make you feel good, the people that gas you up! We aren’t meant to operate in isolation.

For the longest time in the beginning of my transition, I’d find myself using the wrong pronouns when I thought about myself. This was something I’d never heard about other trans people doing and it made me question my gender identity. I thought that since I’m misgendering myself in my head then maybe my gender identity was less valid. It wasn’t until later that I realized I wasn’t the only trans person who does this.

Unlearning the rigid gender roles society has placed on us is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight. As you learn who you are be gentle if you think about yourself as anything other than how you identify. If you find yourself using pronouns other than your preferred pronouns when you think about yourself or even talk about yourself, be gentle. It doesn’t make you any less trans, or nonbinary. It’s a process. Be patient with yourself.

Andrew, 24, He/They

I think the biggest source of anxiety, fear, and insecurity that I ran into throughout my youth and especially when navigating my gender identity was that I felt like I was always doing things the wrong way — or that there was one correct way to be the gender I was.

I think it’s important to investigate what your life has taught you about gender or how people are “supposed to” behave. Often the way we’ve been taught to act, to treat or judge others, and engage with the world and people around us, is rooted in humiliation, shame, and fear. We’re taught not to be a certain way or reveal certain things because we may face ridicule, judgment, or even violence.

In a society that doesn’t have active, healthy representation for transgender people, we can be treated like outsiders and can have trouble understanding who we are because everything we’ve been taught is different from how we feel.

The secret is that there’s no one way to be. There are things that we’re taught are more “socially acceptable,” like identifying with our assigned genders, and then there’s the reality that being human is complex.

The world may not yet celebrate our experiences or identities, but that doesn’t mean we should hold ourselves back from being our fullest person or that there’s anything wrong with who we are or how we live.

Take your time. Give yourself a chance to learn who you are without fear of not being like everyone else. Remember that you’re just as deserving of taking up space and carving your own unique reality into existence as every other person on this planet.

You don’t have to be fearless. You don’t have to pretend it’s not scary. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Ada, 33, She/Her/Hers

We are everywhere. It may not seem that way — depending on where you live and who you know. But there have been people like us, like you, living our beautiful truths since the dawn of humanity. I can’t lie, some parts of the road may feel lonely, and sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. But you’re not struggling alone. We love and we fight, some of us in the spotlight and some of us in the shadows, but all of us united by the grand tradition of being ourselves. And I can’t wait to meet you.

Whit, 22, He/Him/His

No matter how you’re feeling or what you’re going through, there are people like me and thousands of other people who understand your feelings and experiences. You are not alone. You and your feelings are valid. I know what it’s like to not feel comfortable in the body you were born with and to struggle with dysphoria every day.  

Often times kids and teens are looked at as if they don’t know who they truly are or what is best for them; that what they are going through is all a “phase,” but in all reality you know yourself better than anyone. Don’t let anyone try to tell you who you are or aren’t. Know that your life now in the body you’re in is only temporary and that there will be a time when you look back and see how far you’ve come — a time when you can look yourself in the mirror and recognize who’s smiling back.

Most of all, stand tall and be proud of who are you, listen to yourself; ignore anyone who doubts, hates or judges you because those people are never worth your time or attention.

Samantha, 32, She/Her/Hers

Gender is weird and confusing. But just because you might not understand how you feel about your gender right now doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of or run away from those feelings. I spent a huge chunk of my tween and teen years knowing I felt different from everyone else, but I ran away from exploring what that meant. It’s easy to get scared when you don’t know how to explain or define the feelings you’re having, but it can be exciting, too.

There’s an entire universe within you, waiting to be explored! And if it’s too scary to explore on your own, ask a friend or an adult that you trust to help you find your way.

Anand, 37, They/Hen

I came out pretty late in life due to me not knowing that my gender was valid. I believe I would’ve lived my life much differently if I’d known and had the language to know I was nonbinary from the start.

I’ve learned that no one can decide whether you are trans but yourself. Your validity as a trans person isn’t dependent on anything other than you identifying as a gender(s) other than the one assigned to you at birth, or you don’t identify as a gender at all.  That’s it. There is no rule book. And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Gabriel, 21, He/They

Never stop learning new things about yourself and others. Always be open to any and all possibilities, and have confidence in everything that you do. As cliche as it sounds, you have to live for yourself. You live as an individual who has the capacity to change other people’s lives as well as your own — so why not be happy in your own skin while doing it? Even if you’re not in a place where you can fully express yourself, that place is out there — it can be made and it can be obtained.

Camilla Akasha Rose, 26, She/Her/Hers

As a child, it was very hard to understand myself because I knew I was different. As I got older, I began to notice my femininity — which quite frankly scared the hell out of me. It scared me because I was insecure about showing my femininity in front of others, and I was uncomfortable with being othered. I remember how I would try to suppress my gender expression, only allowing myself to be the whole of who I am at nightclubs where I would perform in amateur drag shows.

The pivotal moment in my life, in coming to understand myself as the transgender girl I am today, was the night I met a good friend of mine whom I thought was another person in drag, only to discover that she was transgender. It was like the blindfold had come off of my eyes and I was seeing myself clearly for the first time. She taught me that even though people point and look at me and say mean things, at the end of the day — I am who I am. And I have nothing to apologize for and I am unwavering in that knowing. I will never change myself to be liked for all of the wrong reasons, when I can be happy for all of the right ones.

So always be yourself and never let anyone tell you differently. There will be times when you feel as if there’s a personal rain cloud over your head — and you can choose to stand there and get soaked while feeling gloomy or you can dance in the rain and find something to celebrate. You can’t control others actions, but your power lies not in other people, but in yourself and how you choose to respond and feel about other people’s behaviors.

People are going to say things to bring you down, so what? That is just the way it is. Always keep your head up and look fabulous while doing it. In the words of RuPaul, “How the hell are you going to love yourself, before you love anybody else?”

Stay true to yourself inside and out. I love you. And you’ve got this.

Dany, 29, She/Her/Hers

Be you. Don’t listen to any negativity. Cut it out and throw it in the trash. Be the fabulous you and own it! Don’t show fear — hold your head up high and walk that walk!

Caelan, 32, They/Them/Theirs

Above all else, trust yourself. I spent years trying to explain away the feeling that I knew I wasn’t cis, because I knew I wasn’t trans. I am nonbinary, but I felt as though I didn’t present as gender non-conforming as a lot of nonbinary people.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, don’t judge yourself by another person’s standards. Believe in yourself, you know who you are


Serena Sonoma

Serena Sonoma is a writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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