Time travel a bit with me for a moment, back to the faraway time of the early 2000s.
The open discussion of the “Gay Marriage” debate then was a heated and passionate time in most of our memories. It seemed like almost every family and all your friends were split on the fundamental question if queer people could get married. Your aunt might argue for “civil unions” or marriage but not the ability for gay couples to adopt. Your sister might reply back in horror. Tables might be flipped. Pearls might be clutched.
Looking back almost two decades later, it isn’t hard to understand the issue: if two people love each other, why shouldn’t they get married? Who cares if they were both women or men?
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that love is one of the few universally understood human emotions. Most understand what it is to love someone to the point where you’d give up your financial independence in order to make an “us” in a legally-binding way. Heck, even religious clergy who’ve taken vows of celibacy still officiate weddings!
A modern-day equivalent of “the gay marriage” issue is understanding the emerging transgender community. Discussing trans issues often means dealing with sneers from the mildest critics (“I identify as an attack helicopter!”), and physical violence from the worst of them. Trans men and nonbinary folks can be made to feel infantilized, dismissed, or “crazy”.
Worst of all, trans women and trans feminine people of color are the most likely to be the victims of violence and murder. Even today, “trans panic” is still a legally acceptable defense in the majority of the United States. Trans panic is not a queer emo band, but rather a flimsy defense: I didn’t know she was trans, so I killed her in fear. It’s a tragic and violent symptom of society’s violent discomfort around trans people.
“I just don’t get it!” cries the well-meaning devil’s advocate, “I mean, why not just accept your body and get on with it?” It’s not as though transgender people just haven’t tried to accept ourselves as we were assigned. Most of us have spent our days trying to make sense of our bodies and trying to play into specific gender roles. I didn’t start transitioning until I was in my mid-20s, after a lifetime of being exhausted from trying to be someone I simply wasn’t.
Ultimately, understanding what it means to be trans and specifically understanding dysphoria seems to be one of the main issues between cisgender and transgender folks. It becomes even more complicated when folks are presented with a radical idea: you can be trans without having gender dysphoria. Trans people can have what’s called “gender euphoria”.
But first, let’s discuss dysphoria a bit more.
Let’s talk about dysphoria ( and try not to cry )
For most of the 21st century, being transgender was largely defined by having severe “dysphoria” around your gender assigned at birth. Transness was medicalized, and until the changes to the psychological diagnostic guidebook (known as the DSM-5) in 2013, “gender dysphoria” was still labeled as “gender identity disorder”. Outside the trans community, being trans was regarded as a disorder to which dysphoria was a primary symptom.
Cisgender people have been told descriptions of what it means to be trans that include odd or unrelatable analogies. Being trans doesn’t always feel like you’re “in the wrong body”, because does anyone know what that really would feel like in the first place? In my experience, it feels more like your body is off on an integral level.
To put it plainly, dysphoria is the sense that there’s something “wrong” with your body. Gender dysphoria specifically feels like different things for different people; for me, it felt like a gnawing pain and need to fix everything about my gender presentation… now.
Dysphoria drove me in circles. I wanted to look how I felt, but when I saw how I looked, I realized no one saw me how I thought of me. I wanted to melt in a human puddle of goo.
Dysphoria isn’t like hating the shape of your legs or wishing you had thicker arms. Instead, it’s a never-ending feeling of despair at how far you are from being seen from how you see yourself. It can make you feel agoraphobic like you want to avoid interacting with people at all in order to avoid folks who will likely use the wrong pronouns for you. It feels like a nightmare you can never escape.
Most cisgender people only understand gender dysphoria through statistics or metaphors. Trans people are reported to have attempted suicide at a rate of 22-43%, which is a significantly high percentage. Transitioning, whether it’s medical or social, reduces this number but still, many people lose the fight and die from suicide after transitioning. There are those who find themselves struggling against what they’ve seen in the mirror for decades, and can’t seem to find solace in their gender presentation.
Sections of society might not accept them as women or men due to rigid body standards imposed, standards even cisgender people struggle to fulfill against like a nacho-chip shaped body or a waist so small it would require removing ribs.
It can be hard to understand the overall statistics, so I’d like to offer a personal story to help bring a human element to understand just how far dysphoria can impact someone’s life. It’s a story that doesn’t focus on suicide or physical self-harm, but rather hating a simple aspect of your body and turning into a university drop-out.
It was 2009, and it wouldn’t be surprising for anyone who knew me that I wanted to become a journalist.
I had been writing before I could actually spell and enjoyed connecting with others and their life stories. Applying to the local university’s popular journalism program was a natural progression for me, and seemed to be a perfect fit. I applied myself rigorously to the assignments despite their sometimes offensively easy tasks (signing up for social media was one of them).
During one of our first classes with an eloquent and impressive professor, she told us that we would have to choose our career path in the journalism course soon. Our choice was simple: study print media or multimedia. I was conflicted.
I was extremely comfortable writing but often felt like I had more presence and character presenting in front of people where I could be holistically humorous. I enjoyed talking to people on camera and made videos on my unknown Youtube channel. Sure, print media had history and prestige, but the tug towards the camera was a siren song I couldn’t ignore. At the very least, I was eager to try it out.
We were instructed to make simple videos on a topic of our choosing, and I eagerly made mine using the little animation knowledge I had at the time. When it came time to present it to my peers, I was excited. I worked hard on my presentation and trusted that my fellow classmates would appreciate the effort I made to make it engaging.
As I was setting up my presentation in front of my intimidating class, I suddenly heard a squeaky voice cry out of the speakers. It grated against my ears and made my skin crawl. I didn’t know who that voice belonged to. Maybe it was Kristin Chenoweth’s voice put through an Alvin the Chipmonk voice filter, I don’t know.
Instead, my face popped up on screen in bright and overwhelming size.
It was my voice.
It sounds neurotic but I felt myself becoming woozy. I had always visualized myself as a boy or a kind of Peter Pan figure and I somehow forgot that my voice wasn’t how I mentally imagined it to be. Whenever I heard the voice inside my head, it sounded much deeper and had a certain androgynous quality.
The voice I heard that day in class could not be seen as anything other than feminine. There isn’t anything wrong in sounding feminine, but it wasn’t me! I felt like I was looking in a mirror but seeing someone else’s reflection. I couldn’t cope with the idea of progressing in the world of multimedia with that voice, and I felt a certain unraveling happen.
The longer I analyzed my reaction to hearing myself talk, the harder my realization hit: my internal voice was masculine but the world would never see me as anything other than a woman.
I began to come undone.
Over the next couple of weeks, I stopped attending my classes and especially stopped raising my voice up in class.
I felt a level of shame I couldn’t describe in words. Hearing my feminine voice reminded me of just how far I was from my ideal self-image. I wasn’t being perceived as a young man but instead as a timid young woman who’s dishonest attempts at looking “pretty” just highlighted how uncomfortable I was in my own skin.
It didn’t take long before I quit university, much to my parents’ horror. I assured them that I had a plan: I was going to go back to school for art (of course). There’s a happy ending to this story, however, because I got accepted to a popular illustration program at a local community college. I grew, made friends who accepted who I was at my core which led me to finally understanding how much I needed to transition.
Gender euphori-what now?
Even though my experience of being trans includes a lot of dysphoria, I strongly believe that it isn’t dysphoria that makes you transgender. To limit the transgender experience to simply “hating your body” excludes a whole host of people who experience only gender euphoria, the opposite of gender dysphoria.
Gender euphoria is pure gender-based happiness. It’s getting a coffee and feeling effervescently joyful after hearing the barista call out your gender-affirming name. It’s the permanent smile you get after buying clothing that makes you feel more feminine or masculine or androgynous. It’s seeing your new haircut in the mirror, or the scruff you’ve grown over the last few months on testosterone and knowing… yes, this is me.
Plenty of people experience gender euphoria around socially or medically transitioning, but many more experience it internally without any need for outside acknowledgment. There are people who internally understand that they’re one gender, while appearing as another in their everyday life. They’ve made the enormously personal decision to not pursue any form of transitioning because they’ve made peace with who they are, without needing approval from anyone else.
Society’s role in all this
I need to make a bold statement before continuing.
There’s a current trend of defining transgender people as a kind of “topic of conversation” while not including us in the discussions, which I find dehumanizing. As a trans man, it makes me feel like I’ve become an intellectual concept, removed from any compassion. In an attempt to be current and stimulating, schools will hand out debate topics like “Should transgender people be allowed to change their IDs?” or “Should gender-neutral bathrooms be legally enforced?”.
Sure, these are important conversations but those conversations ethically require trans people to be present.
Imagine those conversations happening with regards to someone’s race, or sexual orientation. Like I mentioned earlier, I was a teenager in the early 00s and my high school often had my class debate the “gay marriage” issue. It was infuriating to suffer through listening to people who had absolutely no clue what it was like living as a gay person suddenly assuming they could be the authority on how we’d live.
Society at large has decided that to be “really” trans means having specific life experiences by certain ages, while also having to live in a constant state of hating your body… until you have the “right” medical intervention. What happened to striving to be a more compassionate and ethical world as a whole?
But I digress.
No dysphoria, still transgender
Limiting the trans experience to simply disliking your particular body’s configuration can also create an odd situation for people like myself who’ve transitioned to where I’m presumed falsely to be cisgender. My dysphoria is virtually nonexistent. If we were to define being transgender as primarily “having dysphoria”, wouldn’t medically transitioning somehow exclude me from this? If medically transitioning has changed my relationship to my body… would that mean I’m somehow now “cisgender”? Post-gender?
Clearly, no. I define myself as transgender because my current gender identity differs from what was assigned to me at birth. I continue to identify as transgender because I get immense joy and euphoria out of being seen as a man, and my experience getting to manhood is a lot different than most cisgender men.
Towards a better world for ourselves and future generations
For a lot of the newer generations of trans and nonbinary youth, the concept of limiting being transgender to simply “having immense discomfort” around your body is seen as archaic. If being a woman doesn’t require specific body parts, then why modify your body to someone else’s standards of womanhood? It’s a breath of logical fresh air for some trans folks, and often a little threatening gust to others.
At the core of the misunderstanding between trans and cis people is a genuine fear. What does it mean to live in a world where one person could transition, or decide their body is both or neither genders? It can be destabilizing to feel like the basic values you were brought up to believe in are melting away.
However, it’s genuinely heartwarming to see so many people embrace their gender, regardless of society’s strict impositions. Whether it means transitioning medically or socially, or wearing traditionally feminine/masculine clothes regardless of gender roles. There are people in their 70s transitioning, or young teens recognizing gender as an abstract and not entirely helpful concept.
Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a nerd, but I’m reminded of a famous statement of Vulcan philosophy: infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
It is encouraging to see folks thrilled to experience life in all its facets. I can only hope to strive to make the world a more acceptable place for these lovely people.
So, live long and prosper in whatever way feels good to you.