I still don’t know what it means to be a woman. On Netflix’s excellent show Sex Education, a group of high school girls are given the task of finding what they all have in common. The conclusion they come to is: “Other than non-consensual penises, not much”. Gender is something that can mean so much, but so little. It’s something that can feel simple, but resists simplicity.

For myself, I’ve had a hard time with the word “woman”. For about twenty-two years of my life, I identified happily, if somewhat naively as a man. There were signs that something didn’t line up, but that way of knowing myself wasn’t accessible to me yet. Looking back, hoping many nights to wake up as a girl or writing that I “feel like I might be gay, but I’m only attracted to women. So confused…” in my journal shine a certain light on what I was going through in retrospect.

As I began to find out more about trans women and seeing some of myself in their experiences, I played with the notion of identifying as a woman myself, but it was a terrifying idea. Six years ago, I was able to go to therapy and break through that barrier, finally identifying as a woman. I took the daunting steps of coming out to my parents, girlfriend, and some close friends. But with every step I took, I was less sure of myself. Being a woman made sense in my head, but when it came into the real world and other people in my life knew about it, it felt less real. After all, it was a big step for these people to see me as anything else other than a man. The confidence and determination in my identity as a woman faded, and I rationalized that “woman” was talking the place of “person worthy of love and admiration” in my head, which were things I was desperate for at a very difficult period of my life.

I moved on with my life, vaguely self-identifying as non-binary, but effectively living as a man in the world. Not a stereotypical masculine man, but a man nonetheless. I got a job, proposed to my girlfriend, got fired from my job, went back to school, and got married. Gender was something that would come in waves. Sometimes I wouldn’t feel much of any distress at all, and others I’d go through a period of intense worry and stress before letting it subside. The greatest of these peaks of gender feelings were when I would see a trans woman come out online, especially one who I was previously aware of. Seeing them live as their true selves in a way that seemed so strong and powerful made me all the more aware of how unresolved my own feelings about gender remained.

Which leads me to now, in the midst of a deluge of feelings, positive and negative, exciting and frightening, crystal clear and maddeningly confusing. I know now that being a woman has more meaning to me than some misplaced sense of acceptance. I don’t know how to explain what being a woman means any more than I could explain what “north” means to a society of people floating in empty space. But I think that I’ve found my compass, and I see a direction it’s pointing. I only have a vague idea of what I’ll find that way, but I know that it’s somewhere that I need to explore. Maybe I’ll find myself.

Pseudonymous Canadian under the trans* umbrella. They/them