Is it normal to only begin questioning your gender at 14?
Q: I'm 14, and currently identify as non-binary (they/her). Prior to a few months ago, I'd never questioned my gender at all. But hearing that most genderqueer people know by a young age (some places say around 8) has me thinking that maybe I've got something wrong.
As a kid I was fine being perceived as a girl, with nothing resembling dysphoria in the slightest. I've combed through every childhood memory I have, thinking I may have forgotten something, but no: as a child I have always been fine with being a girl. But a few months ago something changed, almost immediately.
My feelings towards she/her change a lot: sometimes I'm okay with it, sometimes I'm hesitatingly okay but would prefer they/them, and sometimes I downright despise it. One thing that has remained constant after I've started questioning my gender, though, is that I hate people referring to me as a girl in any way, such as through 'ladies', 'Ms.', 'daughter', etc. I don't know if these feelings are strong enough to be classified as dysphoria, but I personally don't think they do: they are moderately uncomfortable, but not incredibly distressing.
I know that every gender exploration journey is different, but it's very rare that I come across someone who didn't know to some degree that they were genderqueer until the age that I am. Thus, I'm starting to question whether maybe I've got something wrong - which I'm slightly scared of. This is because I've already come out to some of my friends, a decision I possibly regret, because if I were to rescind that coming-out, I'm worried that they might perceive me as 'performative'. I understand there's nothing wrong with trying on labels before realising that others fit better, but I'm worried that my friends may not understand. For myself, though, I'm very open to the possibility that I might be wrong.
So in conclusion, is it possible/normal to only begin questioning one's gender at 14, without any signs of dysphoria earlier than that?
S: Yes! People start questioning their genders at all sorts of different ages, and often do so repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. (For the record, I didn't realize I was trans until my late twenties, and I know many trans and gender diverse people who realized decades later than that.) Everything you're experiencing sounds perfectly normal to me; the things you're worried about actually reflect some common misconceptions, so I want to break those down.
"Most genderqueer people know by a young age." This is wildly incorrect. For pretty much anything about gender (and everything else, probably), if you're seeing a single experience so regularly that it seems like the only option, you need to expand your perspective. Real-life or online community spaces with trans and gender diverse people of all ages and backgrounds can help with this; so can seeking out media that broadens what you're currently seeing, which sounds like mostly people with a common set of experiences. (Some suggestions: Gender Reveal interviews a huge variety of trans and gender diverse people. To Survive on this Shore features older adults).
"I don't know if these feelings are strong enough to be classified as dysphoria." We've written before about how different trans and gender diverse people experience a wide range of dysphoria, including none at all. I'm actually not going to get into what does and does not count as dysphoria because that doesn't matter here. Though it's not unusual for trans and gender diverse people to believe that you have to reach a certain level of pain or dysphoria before your feelings can be considered valid enough to act on (also known as the "am I trans enough" question), this simply isn't true. It also echoes the horrible history of cis doctors requiring trans people to meet a medicalized definition of dysphoria and perform gender in very stereotypical ways in order to access hormones and surgery. In the case of the language people should use for you, literally the only thing that matters is what you want, regardless of why you want that. You don't have to feel a certain degree of discomfort; "moderately uncomfortable" is more than enough reason! "I like how this term feels" is also a good reason; there doesn't need to be a negative motivation behind switching terminology at all.
"I'm worried that they might perceive me as 'performative'." I can't speak to how the people in your life might react; this may very well happen. But I can tell you that this response would be incorrect and also generally awful. You can't control other people's knowledge levels or behavior, and letting your worries about this sort of response drive your own choices is a good way to lose sight of who you are and what you want. (Obviously if there are safety issues at play, that's very different; prioritize your own safety. But from your letter, it doesn't sound like that's the concern.) We're in a pretty transantagonistic society, and a lot of people are constantly hunting for ways to invalidate the experiences of trans and gender diverse people; that's what's behind the eagerness to dismiss exploration as "performative," not any kind of good-faith argument. I also want to be very clear that it's fine if you're not actually trans! The experimentation is still valuable and should be normalized. I have enormous appreciation for cis people who explore and reflect on their own gender and then conclude that they are in fact the one that was assigned to them at birth. (That said, while we generally avoid telling people our read on their gender because nobody can know that for sure from the outside, the fact that you "hate people referring to me as a girl in any way" is a pretty good indicator that you're not a girl--you certainly don't need to be feeling debilitating levels of discomfort for that to be true.)
Some general thoughts on change and uncertainty: It's not at all odd that your comfort level with pronouns varies at different times, or that you've felt a recent shift in how you feel about your own gender. That all might change, or it might not. You don't need to settle on a specific term or identity, now or ever, though you certainly can if something clicks (and then again if that changes in future). All other people need to know at any given time is how to refer to you in a way that you're comfortable with.
K: Agreed with everything S said above, so Iʻll try not to repeat it all. The common Trans Narrative (tm) is that we have always known from a young age, even if we didnʻt have the language to describe it. While I do know a few trans people that was true for, I know far more people who didnʻt figure it out until they were in their late teens, 20s, or 30s. Before I was 14, I donʻt remember really feeling discomfort with my gender. As a kid, being told I was a girl mostly came with stereotypes and expectations I either didnʻt mind, or would have chosen myself -- like not roughhousing, not playing in the dirt, thinking worms and bugs were gross, getting my hair styled, and a lot of velvet for some reason (unsurprisingly, I grew up to be goth). It wasnʻt until late middle school/early high school that gender started to be stressful and more about performing something I didnʻt understand or enjoy. I still had no idea I was trans, but I guess my point is, other peopleʻs expectations and our understanding of our gender both change as we get older. Itʻs perfectly normal to have your feelings about being gendered, perceived, or referred to a certain way change as you get older.
This is touched on above, but I do want to be clear that you donʻt have to experience any dysphoria at all to be trans or gender diverse. I know plenty of trans people who donʻt experience dysphoria, and instead figured out they were trans because being gendered, perceived, or referred to another way felt good, and they didnʻt feel much of anything about how they were gendered, perceived, or referred to before that. I also cannot comment on how your friends will react if you identify differently later, but Iʻve also known people to explore their gender only to realize they did identify as cis. I feel a lot more comfortable around cis people who have explored their gender, and I definitely did not consider their exploration to be performative. I do agree its worth exploring the resources S shared above. Depending on what kind of relationships you have with your friends, is it possible to share your fear about being "wrong" and perceived as performative with (some of ) them? A lot of trans people I know experienced imposter syndrome at first, and I personally did share those worries with the first person I came out to. It felt a lot better to tell someone about it, but I do also realize that telling the wrong person could make those anxieties worse. I feel like I say this in every post now, but identity can change over time. Itʻs perfectly normal and doesnʻt necessarily mean you were ever "wrong" about your gender if it happens to you. Things do not need to be true forever in order to be true at all. Focus on what feels good right now, and pursue that (keeping in mind your personal safety, of course).