There are often milestones that we attribute to certain ages. For example, going to college or getting married is traditionally associated with young people — yet it’s common enough to see people doing it later in life, resulting in being happier because of it. 

Transitioning is no exception to this.

A frequent misconception is that a person should socially or medically transition within a certain time period, or that those who transition later in life may regret not starting sooner. Figuring yourself out takes time. With something as complex as gender, it’s no surprise that many find themselves putting the pieces together at a later age. 

Thanks to increased representation and acceptance of transgender communities in everyday life, many people are discovering that what may have been unthinkable mere decades ago is now be a practical possibility moving forward. 

Remember: Whatever stage in life people may transition, it’s with the goal of bringing them happiness — where there’s no upper age limit.

Understanding gender dysphoria

The term “gender dysphoria” is used by medical professionals and can be described as a marked incongruence between your gender assigned at birth and the gender you identify with.

That’s a pretty broad definition, one that can inadvertently stir up feelings of imposter syndrome in those questioning their experience with gender identity and expression.

It’s not unusual for people to wonder whether they’re “trans enough,” “queer enough,” or worse. Negative thoughts can take root, such as feelings of “faking it” or “just doing it for attention.”

This can leave people living in limbo about their identity for years while they try to find a path that’s right for them.

There’s evidence that gender dysphoria manifests at an early age, which may leave some wondering that if these exact feelings of discomfort didn’t appear at this exact point in their life, then are they really trans? 

With that in mind, it’s important to note that, if dysphoria does manifest — it doesn’t always — it can do so in different ways. It might not appear obvious at first and, for some, childhood might have been many years ago, making it difficult to recall exact feelings.

The accessibility of LGBTQIA+ education, for example, may influence whether a person can recognize dysphoria at an early age. Without the awareness and knowledge that trans people exist, dysphoria may take the form of other mental health conditions, further complicating the process.

There can even be an added angst over experiencing dysphoria at all, which can, in turn, result in a type of dysphoria all of its own.

Many trans people don’t experience dysphoria and choose to transition for a variety of other reasons.

For example, some people may feel better about themselves when not conforming to their assigned gender at birth, or they might not feel enamored with traditional societal expectations.

There isn’t a prerequisite to being trans, so focus on what your own feelings are about your gender, not what you think you should be feeling.

There isn’t one ‘correct’ way to transition

Social transition

The social aspect of transitioning refers to how you present yourself to others. It’s an umbrella term that includes things like how you look and which pronouns you use. 

You might also change your personal details on documents, like your driver’s license or other ID. 

Like medical transitioning, social transitioning doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes time and effort. It may seem daunting at first, so take each step at your own pace.

For many people who transition, it can almost feel like a second adolescence, with all the highs and lows that go with that period of life. 

If you can, use this experience to reach out to your friends — they can help you avoid common blunders they might have made growing up.

When I was first transitioning, for example, having a critical eye to help with my makeup and wardrobe really helped. 

It’s also a great way to involve your friends in your transition, as well as give you a confidence boost from a valued second opinion.

Formal transition

Some parts of transitioning are incredibly mediocre, and the bureaucracy of changing your personal details is one of them. Work IDs, bank accounts — the list seems to go on. 

The good news is that most places have systems in place for updating your name and title, and they require little fuss. It’s best to take this one step at a time, but it can be extremely affirming to see your new name in print.

Depending on which country you live in, updating your gender marker on official documents may require a little more effort and may take longer. Many trans people find the process invasive and outdated, and they may choose not to pursue this as a result. 

It’s ultimately up to you to decide whether you want to move forward with this aspect of transitioning. It’s not up to a government body to dictate your identity. 

Medical transition

Some medical procedures are expensive, which can certainly be a barrier for some trans people. People who transition later in life tend to have more disposable income, which can help reduce or remove those barriers.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often the first step of medical transition and is overseen by a healthcare professional. HRT usually consists of two parts: the hormones of your assigned gender at birth are suppressed, and then new hormones are administered. 

Nonbinary people may also undergo hormone treatment as a form of gender-affirming care.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that starting HRT at a younger age may yield more effective results, but research is needed to explore this further. 

There are documented benefits for those starting later in life. For some, HRT is a mood booster and can result in a sense of normality in the long term. 

It is, in essence, a second puberty and may bring some of that upheaval with it. This may sound daunting, but there are definitely upsides to taking a break between puberties. 

Being an adult can bring a level of emotional maturity and self-control when the inevitable mood swings hit, plus any other emotional changes that may present themselves.

By no means a necessary part of transitioning, surgery is an option that many trans people pursue. There are many different procedures, which may have varying recovery times. 

As with any other surgical procedure, age does have an impact on your individual risk of complication and recovery time. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular movement, and quitting or limiting smoking can all aid in the recovery process.

How age can benefit your ‘coming out’ experience

Although the thought of coming out to others can bring up feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, you have years of experience on your side when transitioning later in life. 

One benefit of coming out as a more mature adult is the self-confidence you have built as a person over the years. I certainly felt much more equipped to explain my feelings about my gender in my 30s than I ever would have been able to achieve previously. 

There may also be a difference in the regular company you keep. People in their teens and 20s tend to have a wider circle of friends, as opposed to those who are older and may have fewer, closer friends. 

Whether you’ve known your friends for a long time or have become fast acquainted more recently, these are the people who take time out of their lives to enjoy your company, and transitioning isn’t likely to change that.

Having a stable source of independent income or employment can also be an important factor. For me, reaching a certain point in my career allowed me the freedom to explore beauty treatments and wardrobe changes that wouldn’t have been possible earlier in life.

Coming out to a partner 

Coming out to a romantic partner or spouse might seem tricky at first, especially if you’re in a heterosexual relationship. It’s important to be honest with your partner(s). 

They might even surprise you — for example, you might have subconsciously expressed “signs” of being trans that they picked up on, in which case it may not come as a complete shock to them.

Remember it’s a change in gender, not a personality transplant. People can and do fall in love with a person, not their gender.

Coming out to a family member

Parents and other family members are important to many people. 

Sometimes, a fear of how family may react will keep people from transitioning while they still live under their caregiver’s roof. Being older and more independent may give you and your family the space you need, as well as the time they might need, to adjust. 

Those who are transitioning will have undoubtedly spent hours and hours researching. But for family members and other loved ones, this conversation might be their first time hearing about trans people.

Where to find support in your journey

It’s worth stating one more time that there’s no right or wrong way to transition. Here, in no particular order, are a few resources you may find helpful.

Close family and good friends may be tough to talk with initially, but they can offer a support network that can be invaluable. Transitioning can be a rollercoaster ride, so having people who are looking out for you is important.

Talking with a primary care doctor or other healthcare professional is usually the first step in medical transition. They may refer you to a specialist in gender. This is a good place to explore talking about your gender and discuss whether any medical steps are suitable for you.

Reaching out to LGBTQIA+ friends may offer a different kind of support, advice, and a sense of solidarity. Having someone show you around the LGBTQIA+ friendly places in your community, such as bars and cafes, can be a great way to start expressing your gender identity in public.

There are often community-based LGBTQIA+ groups, ranging from support circles to social clubs, that meet regularly and can be found through social media. Having a friend go with you to one of these meets can also be a safe way to explore your identity in a group setting.

The bottom line

Transitioning can be a part of someone’s life at any age. There’s never a stage when it’s too late. And if someone tries telling you otherwise? Well, you weren’t born yesterday.

Sophie Litherland is a writer and scientist based in Bristol, UK. She works with subjects involving gender and identity, as well as science and science fiction. She’s also a gaming presenter and is involved in stand-up comedy and science communication. You can follow her on Twitter.