Living With Gender Dysphoria
Updated: Sep 13, 2020
By Bren Bartol
Disclaimer: This post may be triggering for some, as it discusses mental health struggles and transphobia. In addition, the Voices of Gen Z acknowledges that not every gender nonconforming and trans person experiences Gender Dysphoria or Euphoria.
Gender Dysphoria: “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.”
I have a problem with this definition. While it is a good beginning source for anyone unfamiliar to Gender Dysphoria (hereafter GD), there is a key word that is problematic: “identify.” This word, especially in the context used, is invalidating. I identify as a thespian. I identify as a runner. I identify as a nerd. I do not identify as genderfluid, I am genderfluid. Sam* (he/him) a trans male, feels the same way.
When discussing outside factors that impact his gender dysphoria, which has alleviated now that he has gotten top surgery, Sam mentioned this: “Being told I identify as a man, no, no thank you...I was a boy the whole time.”
But if this definition doesn’t do the condition justice, what does? It’s different for everyone. Some people have GD when it comes to their voice, or their chest, or their hair. An important thing to note about GD is that it isn’t experienced all the time.
“The string of customer service jobs I’ve had and will continue having cause dysphoria, especially with my voice, which sucks sometimes, especially when my customer service voice is even higher pitch than my natural voice. It’s not uncommon for a customer to see me and address me as sir, then hear me talk and go, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am,’” says Alex (they/them), a nonbinary individual. “It [dysphoria] just feels wrong and gross. It doesn’t feel right and it’s very uncomfortable and...that’s not me.”
After interviewing four individuals who experience GD, the consensus was that it sucks. It’s hard to explain if you don’t have a reference point, but Sam compared it to when you turn 13, your body doesn’t necessarily feel right, and you're uncomfortable. Sophie (they/them) a nonbinary individual, says dysphoria feels like a tightness in their chest. Sky (they/them), a nonbinary individual, explained it to be frustrating. Alex was short and sweet: it sucks.
GD is influenced by lots of factors, both internal and external, and everyone has varying severities and experiences with it. “When I am having bad body image, my dysphoria is worse,” says Sky. Sky has their fair share of stories about the external factors to dysphoria, including a boy in their class who was harassing them to the point where Sky had to request to never be put in a class with him again.
“I’m not going to be a jerk to the Starbucks worker who said, ‘have a nice day ma’am’, because they don’t know, but it still bothers me,” says Sophie. They have also expressed their annoyance with online companies that need to know your gender when you make an account. Many sites are limited to male and female, and if more progressive, they have the option of Other. The problem with their good intentions is it writes off the fact that there are people outside the gender binary, and makes us seem like we are an entity that deserves little respect. It makes us an afterthought, which is another problem Sophie has noticed. “I straight up won’t use companies...if you’re [companies] going to acknowledge me, do it...correctly, don’t just be like male, female, or whatever. Show a little initiative or you’re not getting anything from me. And I’m not going to send them a threatening email, it’s just pay someone a bit of money to go in and fix this. It’s not hard.” This is one of seemingly never ending gendered things in society, reinforcing the idea to many people that gender is very black and white, not a spectrum (which is not true).
“I remember, in drama my freshman year, I specifically said to the teacher, ‘I don’t want to wear dresses.’ I had to, because she made me wear dresses the next two shows,” says Sam, which led him to quit drama, despite his love for it. “It’s [dysphoria] not necessarily worse on a bad mental health day, but it’ll be harder to ignore and it will elicit more of an emotional response.” And Sam brought up a problem that everyone has seemed to struggle with in his school: the lack of gender neutral bathrooms.
At my school, gender neutral bathrooms are few and far between, and the only way to actually find them or know they exist is by word of mouth. Supposedly there are nine, but I only know where three are. Gender neutral bathrooms are important. Sam revealed that neither the men’s or women’s bathroom felt comfortable or safe to him. No one should have to feel uncomfortable or scared when using the bathroom, which is something that many gender nonconforming and trans people don’t have the luxury of experiencing.
Alex, out of the four interviewees, has had the most experience with one of the biggest outside influences and conflicts LGBTQ+ people face: Religion. Alex was raised Mormon, and to protect themself, they couldn’t come out to teachers or their family. Their friends couldn’t even use Alex’s preferred name or pronouns around certain people in order to protect their safety. “Mormonism is very, very, very, very, very hardcore about keeping the gender binary. I spend almost all of my youth activities in Young Women’s, where we would do a lot of activities that were very typically feminine things. There was no allowance for masculinity, for any androgyny. It [being Mormon] made it a lot harder to realize my gender identity. I mean, even when you’re a kid, they specifically say they try to keep boys and girls apart so they only have friends that are boys or friends that are girls.” They acknowledged that the faith is changing, and that the church is becoming more gay friendly, but “you will get excommunicated if you transition at all.” When I asked how they felt about that, since Alex wants top surgery, they explained they want to leave the Mormon faith by their own free will so it can’t be spun as if they didn’t have a choice (Alex no longer practices the Mormon faith).
For me, the best way to describe it is there is a pit in your chest that just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It feels like my chest is being torn open. My strongest internal influence is mental health whether it’s a good or bad day, and my strongest external influence is misgendering. It takes minimal effort for someone to get someone’s pronouns or name right, and while it seems like a small thing to you, it has a huge impact on the person in question.
It does get better. I know that that sounds cliche, and when it comes to mental health, sometimes it’s hard to believe. But once you get a chance to experience Gender Euphoria**, it can truly be life changing. The first time I put on a binder (a real one. Bind safely!), I cried. It felt like the pit in my chest was filling, and my chest was stitching itself back together - healing. And as I have lived as genderfluid for over two years, I have found other ways to feel this relief, this sense that you can finally relax. Since then, I have had a lot of fun finding out that I love dresses and dress shirts, and of course, a good baggy shirt. While gender expression is not an indication of someone’s gender, it can be a great way to experience Gender Euphoria.
“Figure out outfits that help you...experiment with makeup too. Makeup is definitely genderless,” says Sophie, who reccomends thrifting and experimentation when dealing with GD. “My ultimate goal is to confuse people really. For people to ask if I am a boy or a girl, and for me to say neither. That’s when I will have ascended.”
Sky has a different approach. “Putting on a cute outfit is very helpful...what I do to get gender euphoria is I take extremely high quality nudes with my strap on,” Sky says, smiling cheekily. “Surround yourself with people who support you, and if they don’t, drop ‘em.”
Alex and Sam both agree: Don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s okay to be wrong and to like things you didn’t like previously. You don’t have to feel yourself all the time, and that’s okay.
“There are moments when you’re not thinking about it [GD], when you feel confident and that’s wonderful, that doesn’t invalidate you, and you’re allowed to doubt yourself, because that means that you’re evaluating your experience and coming out ot if with a more educated view of the way that you understand your body,” says Sam.
While the experiences and struggles faced by these individuals may seem depressing, all four of these individuals were smiling and laughing with me throughout the interview - cracking jokes, engaging in small talk about everyday life, and telling me how well they are doing. Alex is going to college soon, Sam has gotten top surgery and is currently on T, Sky is in a happy polyamorous relationship, and Sophie is living their best life baking and getting ready for their senior year of high school.
People are not defined by GD. We live full, wonderful lives, and this obstacle, no matter how big or small, makes us stronger. When I first met Alex, they told me that they immediately pinned me as a baby trans (a term used to describe people in their journey of transness and gender nonconforming-ness), and took me under their wing. They took care of me and helped me buy my first binder. And I don’t think about my gender identity all the time. Instead, I’m thinking about running, or that A I got on the test, or the fact I get to call my girlfriend tonight, and I do all this without GD.
For all of you out there questioning your gender identity, dreading coming out, or hurting yourself because you don’t see an end, keep this in mind: bind safely, adhere to the guidelines of your binder, and do not overdo it. If you can’t bind, wear a baggy sweatshirt. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Come out when you are ready, and please make sure you are safe to. And most importantly, no matter how many times the world pushes us down, we will get back up, so our future community can live better than us. It does get better.
To all you who are not trans, gender nonconforming, or experiencing GD, you have a job to do. Educate yourself, get that friend’s pronouns right, and call out people who use slurs or are being transphobic. Even if you don’t understand it, you can still be respectful.
Living with Gender Dysphoria is not an easy task by any means. Living with Gender Dysphoria is neither fun, nor should it be taken lightly by others. But living with Gender Dysphoria didn’t stop us then, and it won’t be the thing that takes us down now.
*Last names have been omitted for anonymity & safety reasons.
** A feeling of euphoria associated with presenting and being treated as your gender (most used and prevalent in the trans and gender nonconforming community).
Written by writer Bren Bartol