One non-binary person’s perspective on how to transition thoughtfully and safely

Miami and Baltimore– Urban Health Media Project reporter Vanessa Falcon, a high school student in Miami, interviewed Arin Jayes, 30, of Baltimore, about his gender identity journey and experience transitioning to a non-binary trans man. Jayes, a behavioral health therapist, is also an urban farmer and embroidery artist.

Q:  How was your transitioning process? Was it overall very difficult? Why? How long did it last?

A: As a non binary person, I have a flexible view of how individuals develop their gender identity. It’s something that may evolve throughout a person’s lifetime, based on experiences; changes in personal values and relationships; bodily changes; and other factors. Gender identity also intersects and interacts with many other identities, such as race, ethnicity, physical ability or disability, sexual orientation and class.

For many trans folks, the gender transition process is lifelong and never-ending! Pronouns can change multiple times (hence the “pronoun check” posts we see on Facebook). Similarly, physical changes or adjustments may happen over years, instead of all at once. I mention this before bringing up my own story because it is important to normalize the idea of flexible, changing genders. After all, gender is a social construct designed to categorize people. When we view gender on a continuum, we can recognize a galaxy of gender journeys that a person can take.

My own transition is a prime example. I came out as genderqueer in 2012, and used “they/them” pronouns exclusively. In 2015, after further introspection, I realized that I wanted to live in a more masculine body. I came out to my family and friends as a non-binary trans man, using “he” pronouns and physically transitioning. I made this decision with the understanding that I wasn’t transitioning because I identified as a “man” per se, but that I felt more comfortable in a body that had more masculine characteristics. Since physically transitioning seven years ago, I’ve passed as male about 90% of the time. (Masks can sometimes make passing complicated for trans folks!) When people ask me nowadays what my gender is, I just say “non-binary,” and that my pronouns are “he or they — either as fine.” I am leaning into presenting as femme or as masc as I want on any given day, and being as gay as I want. It can be tempting to present in a way that is more conventionally masculine or feminine, because sometimes it is just easier (fewer questions, comments, or worse). But if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it is that time is not guaranteed, and we must consider what makes life worth living, and embrace it. Every time Pride Month rolls around, I recommit to my true self. But this year it feels all the more important.

Q: Throughout the transitioning journey, many clients are informed of possible negative side effects. Despite hearing about them, you still decided to transition. Why?

A: Deciding to transition was one of the most important and difficult decisions I have ever made. Like many trans people, I didn’t initially know what being transgender meant. I had to do a lot of research, introspection and support group work before I realized that being transgender described how I felt. When deciding whether to physically transition, a person can do research about the changes that they may experience, talk to other people that have gone through similar changes, and seek individual or group therapy for support. I decided to physically transition after weighing my options based on the information that I gathered, the changes that I wanted, and my financial budget.

Luckily, there is a lot of information and help available. Trans folks are resourceful, and do a lot to support and inform our communities.  For example, there are numerous databases developed by trans people for trans people that allow you to review different surgeons or healthcare providers; compare photos or results of surgeries; and share resources and educational information about physically transitioning. Many community mental health centers have legal clinics that help people navigate the name and gender marker change process.

One side effect that I didn’t entirely understand until after I transitioned was the significant impact that being transgender has on how we navigate the world. It affects where we go to school and receive healthcare, even which streets we choose to walk down late at night. On a job interview, we often feel the need to consider, “Will people here be accepting of me? Will there be a restroom that I can safely use?” As a white and masculine-adjacent person, my navigation of the world is privileged based on systems of white supremacy. I will not for a second forget the trans women of color who paved the way for us to demand justice; their leadership — and that of their successors in our movements — must be recognized.

Q: Did you have, or do you currently have, any regrets about transitioning?

A: What I think this question is getting at is, “How do you know you’re sure?” This was a question that I asked myself many times as I considered making irreversible (or at least, not easily reversible) changes to my body. My answer to that is: I didn’t truly know it was right until after I did it. That may seem radical or scary. One may ask, “Why on earth would you do something so permanent if you weren’t sure?” But It took a leap of faith. And, as someone who has been there, I can say that if it doesn’t feel right, you know. It is important to trust yourself and your bodily autonomy. Also, if you decide to stop your physical transition, you don’t need to think of it as “de-transitioning.” The path of your gender journey is unique to you. You call the shots.

Q: How has transitioning helped you and your image of yourself? How has it affected your self-esteem and mental health?

A: Much of what is written about trans people focuses on the challenges of being trans. While I said that deciding to transition was one of the most important and difficult decisions I ever made, it was also one of the best ones I ever made. I love being trans! Trans people are unique, creative, and resilient. Trans culture is rooted in grassroots community organizing. It is humbling to think of all the amazing thinkers, writers, and artists who walked this journey. I have had the privilege to meet a lot of amazing trans people who remind me of the power of our community.

Q: What advice would you give to other people who want to follow the path you did?

A: Despite what society tells you about bodies and gender, there are no rules! You don’t have to justify or explain to anyone your decision to transition. You’re in the driver’s seat. Your body belongs to you and no one else. You will live in your body for the rest of your life. Therefore, you get to decide on what terms you will occupy it.

This article is part of the 2021 Youth Pride Issue in the Washington Blade in partnership with Urban Health Media.