Why It Took Me 26 Years To Figure Out My Gender

by Phil Hill

My entire life I had seen myself as female, although to be honest, it wasn’t really something I had ever given much thought. I had a vagina, I had breasts and people referred to me as ‘she’. Surely me being female was just a given? 

But what I didn’t learn until much later on in life was that sex and gender are inherently different and so although my mother’s midwife declared me a girl based upon what rested between my legs, that didn’t actually mean I was one. 

I began life as a child who had their hair in pigtails and flourished as I embodied Baby Spice in front of the mirror at the weekends. But from as early as four years old, I started challenging gender stereotypes and this has pervaded throughout my whole life. 

I soon found myself preferring the company of boys and would rather play ‘Cowboys and Indians’ or trade football cards over playing with my Polly Pocket. It also wasn’t long before I ditched the dress and tights combo and instead opted for clothes carefully selected from the boys’ section of the Littlewoods catalogue. As I got older I became interested in skateboarding, drumming and conversations around masturbation much more so than around make-up and well, whatever it is that ‘girls’ talk about!

‘From that point onwards, my entire gender identity went under the microscope’

But last summer, this all came into question. Two and half years after seeing my current therapist, we got onto another conversation about my years of being a self-proclaimed tomboy. 

“What gender do you identify as?” he asked me (notice how I ensured my therapist was a man!)

From that point onwards, my entire gender identity went under the microscope for reappraisal. I spent the next few weeks giving much thought to what my years of male-like behaviour really meant and how I really felt in relation to it. I soon realised that for 26 years I, and everyone around me, had been getting it wrong; I wasn’t a girl, I was just born in what we know to be a ‘girl’s’ body. 

To be fair there were perks to having this realisation slightly later on in life. I realised at a time when I was much more capable of articulating my feelings and when exposure of gender non-conforming folk was on the rise. If I was going to have any chance of explaining myself to others in a way they could comprehend and be able to answer any of their questions, I’m convinced I had a better shot at it as an adult than I ever would have as a child – and I would probably get taken a lot more seriously too.

Having said that, there have also certainly been drawbacks to this late development. Having to ask my friends, family & colleagues to suddenly accept I’m not the person they’ve always thought me to be, along with adjusting to my new pronouns and witnessing me make some dramatic changes to my exterior, has been a difficult and ongoing journey. 

‘Why did it take me over a quarter of a century?’ 

But one of the things I’ve found the hardest is knowing that many people in a similar boat to me figure out their true gender identity before they even reach double figures. So why did it take me over a quarter of a century to figure out mine? A year after this life-changing epiphany I believe I have some answers to that question…

Back when I was still in education there was NOTHING – and I mean nothing on gender. The Battle of Hastings, Pi and sedimentary rocks were the focus of the curriculum, but perhaps had gender had the opportunity to sit alongside these other topics, then I may have figured this all out a hell of a lot sooner. I’m not saying that subjects like maths and history don’t have their place in the classroom; of course they do, but why kids are learning more about things they will most likely never use in their adult life than the things that are actually going to affect them (gender, mental health, sexual consent and privilege to name a few,) is beyond me. Until this changes, we are failing our children. 

‘We have to look at language; the complete lack of, that is.’

Not only that, but teachers continually reinforced the notion that gender was a binary concept – whether it be via a boy-girl-boy-girl seating plan, lessons where we were made to line up outside the classroom in gendered (sex-based) queues, or when our presumed gender was what dictated what sports we were or were not allowed to participate in. Perhaps now you can begin to understand why for years I didn’t question there being more than one gender or the concept of gender being fluid, when five days a week I was effectively being told it was anything but.

We then have to look at language; the complete lack of, that is. Growing up in the 90’s and early to mid 00’s, there was one word at my disposal to explain how I felt. That word was ‘tomboy’. Although I may have been happy to use this label at the time, I now realise it wasn’t the right one for me as it implied I was a girl who liked boyish things and therefore failed to acknowledge that actually I may not be a girl at all. 

Fortunately, today’s youth has a huge gender-based vocabulary to explore and utilise: from terms like trans and genderfluid, to queer and non-binary. I don’t doubt for one minute that had I been exposed to those terms as a minor I would have explored them and possibly understood my own gender identity far sooner.

NB: To those who say being trans is a ‘trend’ or believe it to be a new concept – No, hun. People have always been trans. We just didn’t have the terminology to explain how we felt in the past. That, coupled with the fear of oppression…

I didn’t realise people like me even existed’

Cliché stereotypes and other’s ignorance also got in the way. As a teen it became clear that may people saw my masculinity as an analogy for me being gay, but with that assumption it meant it was always my sexual orientation that was under scrutiny. Therefore, potentially life-changing questions about my gender were getting brushed under the rug.

And then there’s exposure. Growing up in a time where there was no Instagram and internet access required your parents’ permission (sometimes even their supervision!) along with your patience as it dialled up, meant the easily accessible exposure of GNC people we have at our fingertips now simply didn’t exist back in my day. Granted, I had Google, but how could I Google anything? Not only was I unfamiliar with gender-based terminology, but seeing as I didn’t realise people like me even existed I didn’t realise there was anything to Google in the first place! 

‘Exposure, language and education on gender, especially at a young age, is paramount’

Although I may have given myself a bit of a hard time at the beginning for not having pieced my gender-based puzzle together sooner, I now know it’s important to cut myself some slack. I grew up in a world where representation of my people in the mainstream media was non-existent and a world where I couldn’t rely on my parents to help me understand my gender, as their knowledge on the subject was even more skewed than mine. 

I’ve now come to the conclusion that it’s not my fault I didn’t figure this out as a child or as a teen; it’s the accumulation of everything I was and wasn’t exposed to growing up. I am a bi-product of my environment (as is everyone) and that is why exposure, language and education on gender, especially at a young age, is paramount for current and future generations.

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