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Imprinting: Why This Transgender Man Feels Like A Man

Updated on March 15, 2018
Photographer: Africa Studio
Photographer: Africa Studio | Source

This a story about how one trans-man feels. It does NOT represent how all trans-men feel. I simply wanted to address the question of how one can FEEL like a man. It is a query often asked by people who think that the only way a man can be a man is because of genitals. This is one way to feel like a man. There are many ways to feel like a man.


We’re all familiar with ducks imprinting on the first thing they see. And that will be their “mother” for the rest of their life… even if it’s you or your dog or cat. Another example is songbirds. The need for a songbird to sing is instinctual, however we have found out that they have to learn what song to sing. Many species can only learn their song during the first few months… what is called the critical period for imprinting.

But an important question is do humans imprint?

The most obvious example of how humans might imprint is how we learn a language. We aren’t born with a language, but when we grow up it certainly seems to be a part of us. But if it’s a language that we learn later in life, then we rarely get to the same level of understanding. This is probably because imprinting has to occur at a young age. There are examples of people that don’t learn a language at all before puberty, and after that they can’t fully learn a language. Some researchers think it is because of the usually slow development of the prefrontal cortex in humans that we learn language so well when we’re young.

Imprinting actually changes our brains. It’s like hard-coding a computer program. An example of hard-coding is explicitly programming a certain number in the program, but in reality that number could change. A finished and compiled program can’t learn the new number if it changes. For ourselves, when the critical period of imprinting is over we can’t learn in the same way.

Illustrator: BNP Design Studio
Illustrator: BNP Design Studio | Source

I also think that humans imprint gender.

Many people think that gender is the body your born with, but it’s actually in the mind; what we THINK about gender IS gender. It’s something that we internalize at such an early age that when we grow up we may forget that we ever learned it, no matter if we're cis or trans. That’s why some feminists say “Woman aren’t born; women are made.” Well, men are made too. Men and woman adopt all gender roles that go along with being men and woman. But I'm proposing that most of us don't merely adopt them… we indelibly inscribe them on our brains when we’re young.

Sociologists say that that we gender-identify at about the age of 3. That means that is when we first get an idea of which group we’re in: girls or boys (usually). After that we begin to “gender socialize”. But what is gender socializing? It’s not a matter of who we play with or what toys our parents buy for us… it’s just a matter of internalizing gender roles and rules. These gender rules are all around us… from our parents, siblings, friends, schools, community, religion, and the media. Many times we can’t see them; they are to adults like water is to fish. But to young children they are apparent. Children have just been born, and they have to figure out how to be. Their minds are not like adults; their brains are growing much faster. Between 4 and 7 years old they have strict interpretations of gender rules. They actively seek out gender rules, and I believe they are evolutionarily set up to imprint them. It would just make sense: we are, at our core, just animals. The most important thing to animals is procreation, and understanding which sex we are and what we have to do about it would be primary. But the “understanding” part is called gender.

Illustrator: kulyk
Illustrator: kulyk | Source

I'll used myself as an example:

I can remember being about 4 and my ears would “prick up” when I heard someone comment on how boys should be. You don’t need to be told to your face what your gender rules are. I didn't act on my gender rules because someone told me to. I knew what gender I identified with, and I actively sought out my gender rules. I was born female, and I thought I was a boy. I internalized male rules. By the time I was 5 I knew that boys had to be strong and do hard stuff, shouldn’t cry, play with wood and hammers (girls play house), should never be like girls, grow up to have exciting jobs like race car driver and airplane pilot, don’t cook (because woman cook), marry girls, and be indestructible like Captain Scarlett [yes, I am that old]. I didn’t just know my gender rules… I feel all the male rules inside of me. I feel no women’s gender rules. I know this is true because I know what happens when you think you can’t live up to your gender rules: shame. Male shame is a common experience for men. We feel that we have to measure up to other men. I was told that I HAD to be girl, and somewhat learned how to act like it to fit in, but was never comfortable with it.

Because of the era in which I was born, if I had come out as a trans-boy at 5 years old I would probably have wound up in an insane asylum. It was pure survival instinct that I thought I could pretend to be a girl on the outside, and still be a boy on the inside. That led to a pretty confusing life. For example, I would look like the epitome of womanhood by sewing my own dresses, but the real reason I did that was to avoid thinking of myself as “pretty” by being “creative” instead. As you can see, people can do the same things for different motivations. Different gender rules produce different motivations. The gender rule: "you have to be strong" produces the motivation to prove that you’re are strong, thus making you stronger. I have all male gender rules, but when people think I’m a woman people often ascribe to me female motivations that aren’t there.

Now I’m an adult. I realize that some of the gender rules I have in me are just plain stupid. Some of them are downright dangerous. For example: The idea that men have to “go it alone”, and do it no matter how hard it is without asking for help because that would be admitting vulnerability. Well, really, that’s why so many men suicide. But no matter how much I think the rules are stupid, and can’t help feeling them. If I consciously try to go against it, I can, but I will always be conscious about it… perhaps self-conscious. If I go against them for a good reason… for example I just enjoy something that society perceives as feminine… perhaps I’ll feel good about it, but I also feel that I have to have a justification ready. I feel that way even though I am currently un-transitioned and few people know that I am transgender, so no one is going to call me out for being feminine. Still, I feel it just the same. The rules that I internalize are deep-rooted; you can’t dig them out and you can’t replace them with anything. No psychotherapy is going to turn me into a woman because I imprinted men's rules, not just adopted them.

Why did I gender-identify with boys in the first place? The world may never know. Scientists are looking into it, but they have no clear cut answers. They’ve done twin studies that point to it being partly genetic. They’ve done brain studies that say transmen’s brains are more like cis-men’s brains in various ways. They’ve done environmental studies, but haven’t found anything conclusive there.

But not why I wrote this article. I did it to explain why I feel like a man. I AM a man because I gender-identified that way, but why I feel like a man is another question. And I certainly can’t speak for other trans-men. But I feel like a man because I have many psychological things in common with men because my brain was permanently changed in the SAME WAY that cis men’s brains are: I imprinted male gender rules. And you can’t change that any more than you can change me from being a native English speaker into a native Japanese speaker. “Being a man” is a permanent part of me.


What do you think about this article?

If you are NOT transgender, tell me the closest answer to how you feel:

See results

If you ARE transgender of any kind, or questioning, tell me how you feel:

See results


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    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      23 months ago from USA

      To make it simple, this is my retort to all those people that say transgender doesn't exist because gender roles are a social construct.

      YOU think it's this way:

      naturally feminine boy ==== thinks he's a girl (because he is feminine.)

      But you've got it backwards. It's really:

      person thinks their a girl ==== becomes more feminine (because of developmental neurobiology and critical periods of learning.)

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      2 years ago from USA

      I agree that we've got to let up on these gender stereotypes, and let kids be kids and not put labels on them.

      However I do not think you understood what I was trying to say. I am a trans-man because I had the male gender-identity early on in my life. That is the ONLY reason I'm a trans-man: my gender-identity.

      But it just so happens that when you have the gender-identity of a male when you are a toddler (cis or trans), you internalize male gender roles. In that way I am exactly like a cis-man.

      And when you internalize such things at such a young age, it changes you. Anything that happens to you as a toddler is like footprints in wet cement. Therefore I don't have any female gender roles INSIDE OF ME. But I do have males ones. And, as a adult, I get to decide whether to embody the male gender roles or reject them.

      Women do not reject male gender roles; I do. That's a big difference between me and a woman.

    • profile image

      Gender Stereotypes 

      2 years ago

      I must agree that it seems like trans is mainly driven by stereotypical gender roles. It seems like gender stereotypes are always the examples given when people explain why they are trans -- males want to fit into feminine stereotypes and gender roles so they say they should have been born female, and vice versa with women who want to do "masculine" things and fit masculine stereotypes.

      I find this especially true with transgender kids. With trans kids, it always comes down to what the kids like as far as clothing, hairstyle and toys. A boy with long hair and wearing a dress is still a boy. A girl with short hair and a toy truck is still a girl. Just because kids don't fit gender stereotypes, they are being told they are in the "wrong body." Personally, I don't think what is "wrong" with this situation is the kids bodies.

      It seems like "trans" puts kids in very small pink or blue boxes and makes them conform to fit in these boxes. I think kids should be "free range" and kept out of boxes. Kids (and adults for that matter) don't need medical intervention because they defy gender role stereotypes.

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      2 years ago from USA

      Hello Kelsita,

      Thank you for reading, and commenting on my article.

      I wasn't trying to disgust you... I was just telling you the truth from my point of view. As an adult I know that "woman cook and be pretty" are just gender roles, but little kids take it differently. They take it to heart... they take it literally... And I did. As an adult I know that gender roles are "a crock of shit". But that doesn't change what internalizing gender roles at a young age does to you.

      Speculation? True... I should have called it my hypothesis, not my theory.

      And I know that some transgender people do not feel as strongly about gender roles, and some are non-binary in gender, though they feel like they should have the opposite biological sex. And that's alright too, but I wanted to tell you how *I* felt. And it seems like a lot of other transgender people feel the way I felt.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      The fact you make points about gender roles for women being that they should cook and be pretty i find pretty disgusting. I appreciate that you may feel this way given that you are a man who's obviously researched gender roles and their influence on kids who turn out trans, but to be honest I find this all pretty much speculation. I am attracted to males but I'm feel masculine, I wear makeup, cook, nurture etc yet still feel like a male. I have no desire to transition but I wish deeply I had been born male. I prefer she/him as my pronouns. Now the point I am trying to make is it doesn't matter what gender you identify with or how you feel in your birth gender, stereotypes and roles are a crock of shit and I don't believe they influence your gender, other than using them to try appear more genuine in your true gender.

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      2 years ago from USA

      To follow up on what I said to Kristen:

      Some people think that being trans is all about following gender roles. But it's NO MORE about following gender rules as it is for CIS people. We have the same gender rules inside of us.... cis-woman and trans-woman have woman-gender rules, and cis-men and trans-men have man-gender rules... and AS INDIVIDUALS we decide what to do about them.

      It's just the fact that when trans people act on our gender rules, that people notice them more, because of the contrast of how they expect us to act, to how we do act. It's alright if a cis person ( like the front office receptionist of my apartment) dons a pair high heels and a skirt everyday for work, but the second a trans-woman does that she is accused of "CODIFING GENDER RULES". NO! she's just trying to be a normal person!

      And there are a lot of "tomboy" trans-woman that you don't hear about, that would never touch high heels.

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      2 years ago from USA

      Thank Kristen for your reply. How do gender stereotypes, especially if you don't go along with them, make you feel like woman (or man in my case)? That is a good question. Here's my take on it:

      Gender rules tell us how we are "supposed to be". It doesn't matter if you're a woman who does what she is "supposed to do", or if you don't do it. It only matters that you *internalized* the gender rule. You viscerally know what society expects you to be like, and your REACTION to that makes you feel like *one kind* of woman.

      For example, I never internalize the fact that I was "supposed" to be nurturing because I internalize male rules, so I don't have a reaction to it. But some woman feel guilty if they don't feel that they are nurturing enough, because they internalized that they "should" be. In this example, the woman feels like a woman even though she is not nurturing, because her REACTION is to feel guilty.

      Of, you don't have to feel guilty; this was just an example. But maybe you can find other reactions to gender rules that are more pertinent to you. I hope this helps. And keep up the STEM research! And smack any man you gives you shit for it!

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      I'm so glad to have found this page. I've really been trying to wrap my head around all this. I am a straight, cis gendered person and have a daughter who is pan-sexual. She has strong feelings about LGBT issues, and I want to be open minded. This post has explained it to me better than any other that I've found.

      The one thing I'm having trouble understanding, is that it seems in my mind that being transgender is very intertwined with gender roles. What is hard for me to grasp is how to come to terms with both simultaneously. If I were to try to describe my personality to you, I would sound like a male. I work in a STEM field, I am much more comfortable in a provider role than a nurturer role within my family, I never wear makeup, hate dresses, always wear pants, etc. Yet, I am a woman. I have no desire whatsoever to present myself as a man.

      I have suffered discrimination in my field for being a woman, I have suffered with my period since I was 9. I live with endometriosis. I've been through 3 pregnancies and the difficult work of nursing my children. None of which a transgender woman will ever have to even consider dealing with. Now I understand that everyone has their own issues they have to deal with, but to me, my identity as a woman has been centered around these things. It certainly couldn't be the "superficial" trappings of womanhood, as I don't fit that mold. I guess what I'm trying to say, trying to understand, is how does identifying with what basically amount to gender stereotypes make you feel like a woman?

      And now I'll apologize in advance. I realize some of this sounds not so nice... but I really do want to understand and hope someone will respond with something I can make sense of.

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      2 years ago from USA

      Thanks Seatnai for considering what I wrote. And you should write your own story... we all should.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      I have to say that this article certainly gave me much to consider. I am a transgender woman born in the same era and share the experience of having to hide my gender identity in a hope to avoid that periods mental health nightmares. My brother is two years my junior, a cisgender heterosexual male struggling to understand what I am living with.

      I have always identified as female. I have no sisters, only my mother and my violently abusive father, in those early days. We moved so much I never had very many friends. The few friends I did have were all male.

      In those days, girls were kept separated from the boys. I can't remember even being in any lines with other girls, or even on the same side of class with me.

      Try as I might to conform to my father's expectations of my gender identity, I stayed hidden as completely as possible until I was grown, had children and suffered the guilt of putting three lovely women through divorces from marriages that should not have happened.

      There are more women like me. We need to be able to get our stories out to the rest of our community. This article may hold some evidence that needs to be taken into account on the way we develop our identities. Though, I just am not sure yet.

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      2 years ago from USA

      Yes, Kelli L, and I would look very manly in my pink clothes! LOL

      The problem with those who "have been around the block" is that they are too few in number. We've got to get the message out to the general populace. Also I wanted to get across the fact that I couldn't have chosen this at such a young age, and it's irreversible.

    • profile image

      Kelli L 

      2 years ago

      Those of us that have been around the block know that gender is a largely a social construct. If it was 100 years ago you would have been imprinting pink clothes. That's what boys wore then.

    • Larry Copano profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Copano 

      3 years ago from USA

      Thank you, CapturedWord. I cannot imagine being other than me. Although I don't love everything about me, it's still me. We are definitely individuals.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I agree with you totally. I feel a person is who they are because that is who they love to be. No matter what the case, it makes us all individuals and special. Unique! That in itself is lovable!


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