Gender Dysphoria Isn’t What You Think…
My incomplete list of things that were actually gender dysphoria the whole time!
One quiet evening, about two and a half years ago, I finally gathered up the courage to Google the question I’d spent a lifetime running away from. It was 10:30 or 11 pm, and I was lying in bed alone. My wife was across town playing D&D with her friends. Our air conditioner was chugging along, failing to keep up with the relentless North Carolina heat. That was my last summer in the south, and it was also the harshest. The weather never seemed to break, even at night, and the warmth radiating from my laptop was almost too much to bear.
The heat emanating from the question was worse. The words had crept down the creaky staircase from a forgotten part of my brain and sprang out through my fingers before turning back around and curling up in the empty space between my heart and stomach. I could feel it down there, hot and restless, like a baby dragon.
“How do I know if I’m transgender?” I typed. Then I hit ‘enter.’ Then I waited.
Instead, I came across a lot of things that didn’t feel like they applied to my particular situation. The concept of gender dysphoria wasn’t totally alien to me at the time, but I’d always been scared to look too deeply into it because I didn’t want to learn that I was trans. (In retrospect, this might have been a sign.) But now that I’d finally decided to read about what dysphoria actually felt like, I began to relax. This wasn’t me at all!
“Some people may have the anatomy of a man, but identify themselves as a woman,” one site said. Not me! I knew I was a man — I just fantasized about being a woman sometimes (okay, a lot of times) and kind of wished I could become one. But wanting something isn’t the same as being something, right?
I read on, learning that gender dysphoria often manifests in young children, who gravitate toward clothing and toys matching their true gender. I relaxed even further — this was another thing I didn’t do. The more I read, the more certain I became that I wasn’t trans. I had only cross-dressed a few times as an adolescent, and never as an adult. I didn’t feel intense distress about having a penis. I didn’t even feel like I was “trapped in the wrong body.” I didn’t exactly LIKE my body, but it’s not like I looked in the mirror every morning and thought to myself, “hmm, this should be a girl!” And if that wasn’t at the heart of being trans, then what was?
By the time my wife came home, I had convinced myself that I was just a plain old cisgender man. I might not be exactly at the far terminus of the gender binary, but who was? Nope — I was just a plain old dude who was secretly aroused by the idea of becoming a woman and who would have rather been born female if I’d been given the choice. But I hadn’t been given the choice, and that was that.
For another year, at least.
Every once in a while, a member of the trans community decides to re-litigate the question of whether or not gender dysphoria should be a required prerequisite for calling yourself transgender. It’s a stupid debate. I firmly reject the idea that my identity as a trans woman can only be understood through suffering, and gatekeeping is a rotten thing to do regardless. Telling a trans person that they aren’t trans — or aren’t “trans enough” — serves no purpose other than cruelty. I believe that anyone can transition for any reason, and all “levels” of transitions are valid.
The other problem with adopting a “you must have dysphoria to be trans” ideology is that a lot of unhatched or newly-hatched trans people suffer from gender dysphoria without actually realizing it. Not only did I fail to recognize my own gender dysphoria when I first started looking into it on that hot summer night almost three years ago, I still naively believed that I didn’t actually have much dysphoria when I began coming out to myself last spring. Instead, I took my relative lack of gender dysphoria to be a flashing neon sign that I was wrong to even start looking into transitioning.
If I’d been told that gender dysphoria was a requirement for being trans, I might never have actually realized the truth: I’ve been suffering from gender dysphoria my entire life without understanding what was actually going on.
There’s a simple fact about gender dysphoria that I almost never see discussed: it’s an entirely different experience once you fully accept the fact that you’re trans.
Let’s use the classic “trapped in the wrong body” narrative as an example. Now that I know I’m a woman, I can look in the mirror and understand exactly what’s causing me distress. I know that I’m unhappy with my stubble, my shoulders, the size of my nose, and half-a-dozen other things that make me feel more masculine and less feminine. I feel like I should be able to look into the mirror and see a figure that better reflects the woman I am.
I didn’t feel this way before I came out to myself. How could I? I didn’t know I was a woman, so the idea of feeling like I should see a woman staring back at me in the mirror was alien to me.
Instead, I just knew that mirrors were distressing. I knew I didn’t like what I saw staring back at me, but I figured that was a more general sense of shame and body dysmorphia caused by being overweight. I didn’t like my nose, but that’s because it was so dang big. I didn’t like my facial hair, but that’s because it was prickly and looked weird. So I did what I could to avoid looking in the mirror, and whenever I happened to accidentally glance in one, I was hit with a wave of…. “oh. Huh. Ugh. I guess that’s me.”
That’s another problem with gender dysphoria: early on, you can come up with an alternate explanation for almost every symptom. From a distance, dysphoria can look like anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, or a hundred other things. If you want to come up with an excuse for why something isn’t related to dysphoria, it won’t be particularly hard.
It’s also easy to fool yourself into thinking that dysphoria symptoms are just part of the background radiation of life — things that everybody (or at least a normal range of people) secretly believes or experiences. For instance, I’ve spent my entire life being distressed by tight clothing. I refused to wear shirts that tugged at my arms, which resulted in me almost exclusively wearing shirts that were two or three sizes too big. I assumed that everybody felt this way about shirts, or maybe the upper half of my body was just shaped weirdly so that most mass-produced clothing didn’t fit me properly. Nope. It turns out that fitted clothing is just a thing that most people are fine with, and I couldn’t stand the constant reminder of my own physicality. Now that I wear women's’ tops, tight clothing doesn’t bother me nearly as much.
Dysphoria can also manifest in wildly different ways from person to person. Even among transfeminine people, the variation can be staggering. For example, I’ve always been upset by my facial hair, and the idea of growing a beard makes me shudder. I tried to grow out my whiskers in a “vacation beard” just once, five or six years ago, and it was so distressing that I bailed on the plan after less than a week. But I know several trans women who had the opposite reaction — for them, seeing their chin and jawline on a daily basis was causing them distress, so they made sure to grow a beard that was big enough to hide the lower half of their face.
Talk to trans women about their pre-transition experiences with women’s clothing, or with playing female characters in video games, and you’ll get a similar range of answers. Some trans people gravitate toward expressing their true selves using clothing or digital avatars early on, perhaps not even realizing why. Others (like me) felt too much frenetic energy bound up in these things, and shied away from them — not because I didn’t want to be seen as more feminine, but because I had a lot of shame and confusion and anxiety bound up in these things, and I wasn’t ready to face it yet.
But even though trans people experience dysphoria in a million different ways, we also have so much in common. I didn’t feel seen by the clinical pages that I read when I googled, “How do I know if I’m transgender?,” but once I finally came out to myself and I started reading about other trans experiences, I started to realize that I was not nearly as isolated as I’d feared. In fact, many of the things I’d always assumed were unique to me were actually things that lots of trans women experience.
I started following trans people on Twitter. I read their blogs and listened to their stories. The more I realized that I was exactly like many of them, the more I began to unpack my own experiences with gender dysphoria. A few days after I started writing this essay, a trans woman I follow on Twitter wrote a thread about her own pre-transition experiences with dysphoria. It’s a fabulous thread, and I recommend reading it in its entirety:
I had already been planning on doing more or less the same thing here, and I’m still going to do that. A lot of my experiences line up with Nightling Bug’s, but others do not. Regardless, I feel like we’re all better off when more of our stories are out there in the world, amplified for others to see. So, without further adieu:
Cassie’s Incomplete List of Things That Were Actually Gender Dysphoria The Whole Time!
- I really loved singing, and it was always my favorite activity in music class. Then puberty hit, and I didn’t like singing anymore. My voice sounded awful, and I sort of wanted to take lessons to help fix it, but the idea of actually doing that was deeply distressing.
- I disliked my name, as well as all nicknames and diminutives.
- I was externally motivated. Everybody seemed to see me as a passionate person — first about film-making, and then about writing — but I didn’t really feel driven by any deep, innate sense of desire. Instead, I did these things in part because I liked being seen as as an artist, in part because I didn’t have a better idea of what to do with myself, and in part because I didn’t want to let people down.
- Being seen as aggressive was very distressing to me. Aggression is coded male in my mind, and I didn’t want anyone to think of me as an aggressive (male) person. This aversion to aggression made it nearly impossible for me to set healthy boundaries with people.
- I had a deep and unwavering sense that I was going to die young. And I was so disconnected from my body, I assumed that all mysterious aches and pains were, like, a heart attack or something.
- I could never really imagine a happy future as myself. All of my plans involved some sort of vague transformation into a totally different version of myself. They were like, “I’ll do X, and then Y, and then Z, and then I’ll magically be the sort of person who is happy and successful!” But I couldn’t really picture that person, and I didn’t even really know if I actually wanted to be him.
- My body felt like a meat suit that begrudgingly carried me around from thing to thing. It was definitely not ME. Physicality of any kind felt like a burden.
- The concept of vanity was alien to me. I was self-centered often enough, sure, but it had nothing to do with my body. My body wasn’t really me.
- Feeling disembodied seemed like an enlightened position to have. After all, I was free of the vanity and focus on physicality that plagued so many people, which enabled me to focus on improving my mind — the REAL thing that mattered.
- I felt lonely all the time, even when I was with friends and family. I figured I was just depressed, because I knew that I loved them and they loved me. The loneliness would abate sometimes, but it was hovering over me more often than not.
- I actively daydreamed about becoming someone else. Not anyone specific, but just…becoming another person. When that idle fantasy came up in discussion with cis friends, they couldn’t really comprehend the appeal of that sort of fantasy.
- I didn’t think I was trans, but if someone had come up to me and said, “you’re not fooling anyone — you’re supposed to be a girl,” I would have been incredibly excited to hear that.
- Cultivating a personal style? That was A Thing For Other People. The idea of focusing on my body at all was deeply troubling, so I just wore the most comfortable clothes I could buy online. Hoodies, baggy jeans, etc. All male fashion styles really bothered me, but I couldn’t tell you why.
- I had no interest in most classically masculine pursuits, especially when it came to roughhousing and violent self-expression, but I liked just enough male-coded things — watching baseball, hanging out at the local game store, etc. — to fool myself into thinking I was just, like, one of those sensitive modern “soft boys.”
- Being in male-only or male-dominated spaces made me feel on edge. There was always a sense of being an interloper; of trying to speak phrases in a language that I didn’t really understand in order to gain acceptance. I lived in fear of those moments when “the other guys” would cock their heads at one of my responses before shrugging their shoulders and moving on.
- That moment in a group of male friends where The Last Girl Leaves The Room made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
- I felt a deep and contradictory need to prove myself to groups of men whose opinions I wouldn’t have given two shits about in any other context. In my case, it was in a fantasy baseball league with a bunch of old Orange County retirees. I know other trans women who have joined the military in sort of an extreme last-ditch attempt to make hyper-masculinity work.
- My approach to and experiences with sex and intimacy didn’t seem to match that of my male friends. It didn’t mean that I was any less horny — testosterone is REAL good at making you horny — but I was different in some weird fundamental way and I knew it. I was constantly terrified that my girlfriends would leave me for “a real man” since what I wanted was wrong and different, somehow.
- None of my deepest sexual fantasies involved being me, and they definitely didn’t involve being male. These fantasies were my deepest secrets from age 12 onward, and I told no one.
- It just seemed like women were right most of the time. Whenever I watched a sitcom or listened to a stand-up set in the “men do X, women do Y” vein, I innately sided with and identified with the women before chiding myself for being so silly and reminding myself that I was a guy whether I liked it or not.
- Eventually, this line of thinking broadened into becoming Just A Really Good Ally.
- I became certain that I was gay the moment I started hearing about gay people in whispers and rumors. Then I learned that being gay meant I had to like boys, and I DEFINITELY didn’t like boys, so I dropped the whole thing for 25 years or so.
- Later on, in college, people started calling me “a lesbian in a guy’s body.” This comparison really tickled me, and I leaned into it pretty hard, especially when it came to playing Lilith Fair style music for my friends.
- Most of my friends were queer, and I always felt connected to the queer community even though I didn’t think I actually belonged there myself. I justified it as, “people who are forced to re-evaluate their identities instead of just blindly accepting what they’re given are just more interesting people in general.”
- People kept telling me that I was angry — and I was — but I didn’t FEEL angry. I just felt anxious all the time. The anger is so clear in retrospect, but at the time I just had an incredibly low tolerance for life in general. Sometimes even just the act of going to the coffee shop in the morning left me paralyzed.
- Occasionally I’d glimpse myself in the mirror and experience a pang of confusion and revulsion, especially when I wore formal things like suits and ties. I assumed it was because I was overweight, and all fat people hate their bodies, right? That’s what TV taught me, at least.
- I felt a deep longing to experience femininity, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear a dress or put on makeup or anything because that was way too scary and thinking about my body was so distressing. Instead, I tried to experience femininity vicariously through my partners. That ended up with me in a lot of deeply codependent relationships, as well as being irrationally upset if they wanted to cut their hair, present more masc, etc.
- I was willing to admit that if you could swap genders at will, I’d definitely spend SOME time as a woman. You know, just to see what it would be like. I wasn’t willing to admit the giddy feeling that idea gave me.
- I always had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Being in the present moment was kind of intolerable. Mindfulness exercises always seemed to involve forging some sort of connection with the body, and that was a non-starter for me, so I figured that mindfulness was basically just a scam.
- Speaking of exercise, I didn’t do any. I could very occasionally lather myself up into a blind panic over my weight and lifestyle, and then I’d go out and run until I collapsed or whatever, but any sort of regular fitness routine just caused me to feel embodied in extremely painful ways, both physically and psychically. So I just got fatter and sadder, for years.
- When I wasn’t daydreaming or planning, I immersed myself in movies, TV, video games, card games, books, comics, writing projects, etc. I needed to escape into entertainment on a pretty constant basis.
- I didn’t want to write stories about people “like me” (cishet white guys) because those narratives all seemed boring. But I was always so scared of saying the wrong thing that I didn’t feel comfortable writing about women and queer people, either. I usually ended up splitting the difference somehow.
- I didn’t feel like an interloper or an anthropologist in female-dominated spaces — that was just how normal people communicated, after all — but I did feel terrible whenever any the women in those spaces referenced the fact that I was unlike them in some way. It wasn’t like I knew she was wrong — I still thought of myself as a man, after all — but I wished I could have what they had.
- Most of my strongest friendships were with women, but I constantly lamented how much longer it took women to start trusting me (while understanding exactly why) and that there was always some level of intimacy missing from our friendships. In some cases, this led me to confusing my desire to be best friends with a girl with a desire to date her.
- I didn’t like being tall. I told myself I liked being tall because society privileges tallness, and I definitely liked being able to see the stage at concerts, but I would have way rather been smaller and cuter.
- If you’d offered me the chance to press a button and become an attractive cis woman — and I didn’t have to explain myself to my friends and family and employers because that’s who I would have always been to them —I would have felt a thousand million butterflies in my stomach and I would have agonized over it for hours and then at about 2 AM I would have pressed it so fucking hard.
Some of these thoughts (especially the last one) are pretty dang trans-y, but others are really easy to write off as having alternate causes that are a lot more common than being transgender. In fact, I’d be shocked if the cis people reading this didn’t relate to at least one or two of the items on this list.
I’ve spent a lot of time with other trans women since coming out, though, and I’ve found commonality with some of them on all of these bullet points. None of us have the exactly same experience — I would be shocked if anyone else relates to this entire list — but I’ve found at least a few people (especially among women who transition later in life) who have said “OH MY GOD IT’S ME!” in response to each of them in turn. And each time I make one of these little points of connection, I feel a little less alone.
So yeah. This is what closeted dysphoria was like for me, a gal who began transitioning at age 33 and is now so much happier than she ever was before. If you’re struggling with your gender and you had a lot of feelings while reading this list, feel free to reach out. Whether you’re trans or not, I see you.
❤ ❤ ❤
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