Frequently Asked Questions

So you're transgender, what does that even mean?

Transgender is the 'T' in the LGBT-acronym. It means that I don't agree with the gender assigned on my birth certificate. The opposite of transgender is cisgender1. More precisely I'm a trans woman, i.e. a woman who had the extremely bad luck of being born with testicles instead of ovaries and was thus raised as a boy. So for most of my life I believed I was a man and that most men thought like me. On hindsight, after talking more personally with many of my close male friends, that is a very silly thought.

You don't think like men?

Surprising, isn't it? As I recall several dozens of events from my childhood, puberty and adulthood, I now feel extremely stupid for having imagined these were thoughts that most men would have.

For example, most of my life, since the first puberty, I thought that just like me, all men fantasized of having breasts. I mean surely that must have been the case since they are so obsessed with them… However I thought that that could never happen, so that's why nobody ever mentioned it out loud.

I also thought that everybody else is also constantly fighting their subconscious preferences whenever there's a gendered choice to make, for example between choosing a feminine or masculine version of an item, like a camera, clothes, shampoo, etc., and that most people also had to often take the least favourite option just to follow the gender norms and avoid being bullied.

As a kid moving to a new school, I thought: all my teachers are women, so I'll grow up to be a woman. What kind of kid gets thoughts like this, and also recalls them every year ever since?! Well now I know: a trans girl.

I feel like there were so many hints that I should have realized my identity much earlier. I don't deserve to keep my PhD!

So you want to become a woman?

I don't want to become a woman, I am a woman. Before, I wasn't out as a woman. Please don't reduce people simply to the sum of their body parts. People who seek treatment to their menopausal symptoms don't want to become women either. They are women. My situation is the same but more extreme: I have mental pain because my body produces the wrong balance of sex hormones, i.e. too much testosterone and too little oestrogen. That makes my body look different than how I see myself as, and also affects my mood. So I want to fix that, and feminize my body and voice through medical treatment and vocal practice. This is called transitioning.

Couldn't you be mistaken?

Mistaken, like being delusional? That would mean my primal wishes and fantasies of waking up in a female body since adolescence don't mean anything; that I have been delusional for most of my life? That doesn't even make sense. On the other hand perhaps it's not my body's problem but a problem of my brain not growing up masculine. But guess what? The brain is the one in charge.

What if you change your mind later?

I can see two possible ways I would change opinion on this later: a) of my own free will after having lived as a woman for several years, or b) by society's transphobia that makes transitioning very difficult. In the first case there's nothing wrong and I would feel very proud to have another experience under my belt. In the second case please encourage me to continue with transitioning. My inner child is a little girl. If b) happens, that girl who's been struggling to get heard for this long would get locked up, or worse. I would be like an empty husk afterwards.

How did you know you are trans?

This is a long story, but the gist of it is as follows: I have always dreamt of having a female body, but I didn't even know transgender people existed or that there is such a thing as hormone replacement therapy. I thought this must be a pretty common fantasy, albeit one that's impossible to come true. Then one of my quite distant friends came out publicly as trans, but I ignored that for a while since I thought it meant the same as cross-dressing. Then my subconscious gender started manifesting even more, and I stumbled upon an article about the various gender choices Facebook introduced a few years ago. Suddenly transgender was a real serious word for me, and I started reading about it. The stories of other trans people resonated well within me, and that's how I started on the path which I'm on now.

That was the short and boring version. The more detailed version includes angels, toxic plastic, and a great deal of self-deception. I might post it one day more publicly, but for now you have to meet me face to face if you want to hear it.

But you didn't know it as a child?

It's true that in the news and media transgender people are often depicted as having known it since they were children, for example by insisting on playing with the toys of the opposite gender. Like most issues in the news this is an oversimplification. There is no particular age limit on when people can realize this part of themselves. Furthermore it's a fight between society's external pressure (transphobia, cisnormativity, gender binary) and the person's primal sense of self. For example if I had grown up in a more liberal country and had seen other transgender kids, I might have connected the dots already in primary school. I simply thought, like my parents and teachers had taught, that having a penis meant being a boy, end of story, and that all boys are on some level jealous of girls.

So you liked guys?

No! Gender and sexual orientation are different matters. However I want to feel good about my own body first before thinking of this issue too deeply.

Subconscious gender?

This, or subconscious sex, is one of the terms coined by Julia Serrano to explain gender variance in people. Everybody has a subconscious gender, but for most people it is the same as the gender assigned to them by a doctor looking at genitals at birth. When it is not, it tends to manifest itself in subtle ways. Let me give you an obvious example: the first time I saw myself in a dream, I saw a woman.

A much earlier and much more subtle example: the store from which I bought my first camera had two colors for it, red and blue. Most people would just pick the color they like best and be done with it. My mind raced, I should take the blue one because it's obviously for boys/guys, but I like the red one much more. Moreover since I'm so tall and strong, nobody would dare to insult me for taking the girly choice and I bought the red one. Basically often when there was this type of choice and I felt I could get away with it I would pick the more feminine option.

The words get away with it are relevant here. Society is much more tolerant to masculine girls than feminine boys. When I was young I had long hair. And I was insulted of being a girl or being a tranny2 so much just for that. So I mostly let these gendered thoughts come and go and dismissed them. But fighting against my deepest thoughts was a losing battle. Over time there were more and more of these kinds of thoughts which also became more and more explicit. Each time I acted on them I would feel inexplicable joy.

For example I used to sit cross-legged until I was ten years old or so. Then one of my classmates said that girls sit like that. I didn't want to be bullied, so I stopped sitting that way. Ever since, every single day, every single time when I sat down I consciously avoided crossing my legs. This summer of 2018 I went against that. I sat down legs crossed for the first time after 20 years. It felt like fireworks! It felt like freedom! It felt like that's the proper way to sit down! Silly isn't it?

People mention gender dysphoria…

There is no precise definition of gender dysphoria. It encompasses all the negative feelings related to the incongruence of your subconscious sex with your external or perceived gender. A related but opposite concept is gender euphoria: the feeling of joy when your actions or how people perceive you is congruent with your subconscious sex. As with most feelings, these can be subtle or very explicit. Recall the example above of feeling strange joy from buying the red camera. Similarly I felt very glad when my wife said that many women would be jealous of my eyelashes. That's gender euphoria.

Gender dypshoria is more difficult to detect before you admit consciously to yourself that you are transgender. There's always some excuse for why you would feel bad. As a kid I did enjoy breakdancing and partying. During my teenage years I skipped all the fun and partying and focused my mind 100% on maths. I simply didn't see anything worth celebrating or enjoying in what puberty brought forth. I thought I felt bad exclusively because of my father's death. But that happened many years earlier, and I had been happy between that and the start of puberty. I was especially sad and felt like nothing could be done about the beard and the changes to my voice. Similarly, the typical milestones of getting married, buying a house and becoming a father never felt that important to me. It was like that's what was expected of me, so I'll gravitate towards that then. It felt like someone else's dream. However now if I go back to those milestones and imagine I would be a mother, that changes everything! It really makes me want to pursue that dream.

After you know you are trans, gender dysphoria becomes painfully obvious. I can give you some examples again: I feel mild discomfort whenever I book a flight ticket and have to choose male because that's what's on my passport. I'd rather not look at mirrors if I can avoid it. Same thing with seeing myself in photos. When I go to shopping centers I feel a deep sorrow because the women's clothes I see there wouldn't look good on my masculine body. And I have no interest in men's clothes. If I see someone pregnant I feel happy for them but also that fate has played a cruel trick on me. Some days when I interact a lot with people who see me as a guy I cry for hours after returning home. Now as I have to let my beard grow for electrolysis, I have to remind myself of no pain, no gain to get through the day. Some days before I had started hormone replacement therapy, I wished I only had depression instead of gender dysphoria and that I would not feel pain whenever I see myself.

Over time the feeling of gender dysphoria became much worse for me, conjuring up suicidal thoughts in case the doctors would not prescribe me oestrogen. That's why I am transitioning to living and being perceived as a woman. This is despite having to sacrifice many things for that. These sacrifices are well worth it to avoid the pain of the previous paragraph. But as it turns out, they are only scratching the surface…

One hour after taking the first oestrogen pill, I realised how bad my mental state had been. I felt a rush of cheerfulness. I laughed. I started giggling. I felt great. I felt what actual happiness is. I felt as if I had had a glass of Champagne, and that feeling still lasts to this day. What I thought was a normal mood earlier was actually a state of depression. I had had thoughts of suicide at least once a week for many years whenever I would feel bad about something, and that something was usually the thought of having to live according to the typical male gender role. Suddenly these thoughts were all gone. Poof! just like that, life felt like it's worth living. Seems the oestrogen receptors in my brain had been starving for quite some time. So for me gender dysphoria was also a hormonal issue in the brain.

What are you going to do?

I am going to transition. This means different things for different persons, and doesn't always involve medical treatments. In my case it means the following. I am already getting permanently rid of my beard with tens of thousands of small electric shocks. I am doing vocal exercices with the goal of learning to control my larynx and soft tissue in the vocal tract to make my voice sound womanly. I started hormone replacement therapy so that people would look at me and see a woman, and that I would finally develop the breasts I've been hoping for for so long. Just these three items will take a long time to complete. While this is happening please be supportive.

Hormone replacement therapy?

This, or HRT, in the context of transgender people, is medication that will make the body start looking the same gender as your mind is. I am having feminizing HRT which means firstly that the testosterone produced by my body doesn't affect me anymore, and secondly I am taking oestrogen. In essence I am going through parts of the male puberty in reverse while at the same time having the female pubery (no, I cannot get periods or pregnant unfortunately).

Don't you know that trans people get harassed and discriminated against??

I do. Now I'd rather be bullied for who I am than live as who I am not.

I'm serious, trans women get killed in bad neighbourhoods

Look, I am already very dysphoric about my own body, and counting how many times I've almost died because of my diabetes and risky motorcycle driving, I'm not going to waste any time living a life I don't enjoy. Being harassed and having to avoid dangerous looking people is nothing compared to what I would feel if I continued my life without transitioning.

How can I help?

Great question! You can google how to be a trans ally and get general suggestions. But in my case you can do the following:

  • Call me Emilia (or Emily or Em or 爱美 丽) and use she/her/hers when talking about me and my stuff. This will show everybody that you respect my gender identity.
  • Use my new email address and as a backup
  • Give helpful suggestions if you think I'm doing something that could be done better.
  • If you have any questions, please just ask. I'd rather answer than let you guess wrongly.
  • Keep in touch with me. Now that I'm taking several months off for transitioning it's very easy to become lonely.

What about maths? You left academia, no?

I did leave. But I'm an academic, and ended up quitting the job at the bank. Currently I have enough savings for a while after Hong Kong, and I want to calm down and let my mind rest a bit. Transitioning is the number one priority in my mind right now, at least getting rid of the beard. It would take several months. Once that's done, I feel I'd be ready to start working full-time again. Don't worry, I'm keeping my mind sharp and am working on several papers meanwhile.

1trans is Latin for across, beyond; cis means on this side of.

2This is a slur. Don't use it.