What Gender Dysphoria is Really Like
Discovering Why We Celebrate Diversity
My purpose in this essay is to help non-transgender people (i.e., cisgender people) understand one of the “reasons” for transitioning. Please note that this is my simple explanation of a personal and diverse topic for many people. The human experience of gender is vast, emerging, and fascinating. I hope that my story will encourage others to explore and appreciate the diversity it is to be human.
Disclaimer for my LGBTQ+ family: Gender dysphoria is not a requirement to be transgender. Many transgender people do not experience gender dysphoria. Many people who experience gender dysphoria do not transition in the same way. Transitioning is as diverse as we are with respect to treatment, society, and personality. You do not need any reason to be you.
So, What Is It?
Have your ever felt so uncomfortable that your entire body felt out of place? You might have felt this at a party where you didn’t know anyone. Or, you might be familiar with the drowning dread you feel on the first day of summer when you put on a new swimsuit.
All people have felt a sense of uncomfortable-ness, both transgender and cisgender people. Our perception of our gender can be at odds with how others perceive us. This dissonance causes stress, discomfort, and anxiety. The clinical definition of gender dysphoria is a bit more exact:
[the] discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics. WPATH
I used this clinical language when I described gender dysphoria to my family. Most of my family works in the medical field, so it was natural to use the language of pain, suffering, and cure.
To me, that’s what transitioning has been. I’m taking the measures needed to treat my physical discomfort and mental anguish. Personally, that means hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and social transition. It was simply a matter of medicine: gender dysphoria could be treated like other physical and mental problems.
In many ways, this explanation is too simple. Were I not to be gender dysphoric, and simply felt like a woman, I would still consider myself transgender. The transgender subsection of humanity beautifully blends sociology, gender studies, medicine, expression, and identity.
Still, I get the usual questions: why don’t you just be a feminine man? Or, wouldn’t it be easier to take medicine for your mind instead of changing your body? The short answer is no. To condense years of research: changing the body is more effective than medicating the mind.
While language like ‘treat’ or ‘medicine’ is used, being transgender is not a pathology that needs treatment. Note that the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t even describe it this way. Transition, and simply being allowed to be yourself, is the treatment. The world grows more wholesome as we accept and celebrate the vastness of humanity. Being transgender is a part of human diversity, not a disease.
That said, gender dysphoria can be a painful, stressful, and confusing experience. And, it is a reason many people, including myself, transition. I didn’t just “feel like a woman” and go about my day. What I felt most of my life was pain.
What Does It Feel Like?
Gender dysphoria expresses itself in many ways, affecting individuals differently. Below is a spectrum of types of dysphoria that can affect all people. Even cisgender people experience this uncomfortableness. I illustrate examples so that you can live (and vote!) from a place of empathy — even if you don’t experience gender dysphoria.
Dysphoria Caused by Gender Expression and Roles
Gender expression is how you choose to express your internal sense of gender. You can do this through clothing, body language, hair styles, or your voice. Gender roles, however, are those invisible constraints placed by a society on toits peoples’ gender. Gender roles are most easily seen within religious institutions. The belief that only men can be pastors is a gender role. The fact that many men wear suits is gender expression.
Being uncomfortable in a gender expression or gender role can result in a form of mild gender dysphoria. You have probably experienced some level of discomfort due to your personal gender expression. Some examples are:
- Men who feel uneasy waiting for their wives outside Victoria’s Secret
- Some butch women who might be offended by being called ‘sir’ or ‘man’
- People who are ridiculed for the particular shade of pink they’re wearing
Gender roles can be easier to spot if you’ve ever moved into or out of a subculture. For example, some religions place restrictions on things certain genders can and cannot do. Different cultures can also have a diversity of gender roles imposed: mothers who stay at home, men who are quiet, etc. People are often insecure in their gender roles and expression because our society insists on an obscure binary: soft, pink, weak for femininity; strong, blue, rough for masculinity.
Stringent binary systems in society contribute to the anguish related to gender dysphoria, but that’s not the whole story. Gender dysphoria is not something cured simply by allowing freedom of expression. I like to wear feminine clothing, and if society were little more easy-going, men could get by with wearing dresses (some do!). But our sense of gender is internal: I’m not a feminine man. I’m a woman.
Dysphoria Caused by Our Mental Gender
Have you ever played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey? Even while blindfolded, you are able to walk, talk, and move around. You can feel you body’s presence. This is called proprioception. Sure, you can’t see the living room. And you might have trouble walking around. But if someone were to ask you to raise your left arm or spin around, you’d be able to do it without thinking. Your mind has an innate sense of your body — what it feels like, and also what it should feel like.
Your mind also knows your organs, your height, how big your feet are, and how wide your shoulders are. For most people, your mind is aware of every bend in your body. Not only would be you be aware if something were wrong, you would be uncomfortable or even in pain. Many people feel this way if they lose or gain weight, or if an accident leaves a scar.
Many transgender people feel this sense of gender dysphoria. I have always been uncomfortable with how my body appeared, but I didn’t know why until I began therapy. My mind expected a female body, but was stuck with one (that used to be) more masculine. I never felt that I was in the wrong body. It seems to be a common misconception that all transgender people feel “born in the wrong body.” While I don’t want to discredit those who do feel that way, I want cisgender people to understand that most of us love our bodies. We’re just trying to feel as comfortable as possible in them.
Dysphoria Caused by Physical Gender
This next example is further introspective. Many people can related to feeling uncomfortable due to gender expressions or roles. If that discomfort reaches a stress-inducing, negative, harmful feeling within, it becomes dysphoria. Gender dysphoria often presents due to the disconnect between our perceived gender and our physical bodies.
Cisgender people can experience forms of this. Men with gynecomastia experience discomfort because the presence of enlarged breast tissue disagrees with their male body. Women who have more facial hair than they feel comfortable with can also experience symptoms of dysphoria. Many people can celebrate these differences in their bodies, while others experience distress.
Many cisgender people who experience a physical incongruity like this are often encouraged to pursue physical modification. More often than not, it seems to be only transgender people who are told to “get over it.” As beings who have bodies, we all must be allowed to explore what it means to have autonomy.
What Can be Done about Dysphoria?
I hope it’s clear: the ultimate solution is bodily autonomy. We know ourselves best, and all people — cisgender and transgender alike— should be encouraged to do what they think is best to come to terms with their gender dysphoria. That path will look different for everyone.
What helps one person alleviate gender dysphoria might be very different from what helps another person. This process may or may not involve a change in gender expression or body modifications … Gender identities and expressions are diverse, and hormones and surgery are just two of many options available to assist people with achieving comfort with self and identity. WPATH
I felt the best course of action for me was to pursue medical treatment. I know what my body should feel like, and the way it ended up after puberty is not it. I also choose to wear clothes that are typically more feminine. Transition looks different for everyone, which is why our stories are so important. I didn’t realize just how diverse we were until I began to further explore my gender identity. Because dysphoria is different for everyone, the way we deal with it is different too.
For all the harm wrought by gender dysphoria, there is a diversity within human expression to reckon with it. This is why we need the “+” in LGBTQ+. This is why no one person looks the same, acts the same, or thinks the same. Diversity is larger than you think. It can be scary to realize that the world — or it’s people — is not as black and white as we thought. But what is black and white is that this rainbow of diversity is healing.
This post was originally published on Medium March 2, 2018