I was always under the impression that gender dysphoria was a hatred of the body parts that determined your birth sex, thus having to exist in a body that didn’t physically align with your gender would culminate in one feeling extreme levels of distress, shame and self-loathing.
Having said that, last summer I finally came to the realisation I was genderqueer, where up until this point I was relatively unaware of the daily struggles gender non-conforming people had to endure. But all of a sudden I was one of them and overnight their struggles became mine.
From the ceaseless misgendering through to the internal quandary about which public restroom to use, I found myself grappling with these challenges on an almost daily basis. Although usually left feeling dispirited and upset, I also found these feelings occasionally coexisted with ones of gratitude; at least I didn’t have dysphoria.
I couldn’t imagine the feeling of waking up each morning and despising what confronted me as I looked in the mirror, or having to shower with the lights off for the same reason. And as someone who was assigned female at birth (AFAB), I felt fortunate that I didn’t have to bare the pain of wearing a binder or set up a Go Fund Me to pay for top surgery.
But as my journey with gender progressed I learnt first-hand that dysphoria wasn’t quite what I once thought. I learnt that it is not just about the relationship one has with their genitalia and even when it is, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to abandon them.
I realised that for so long I had in fact been feeling dysphoric, but lack of terminology and education meant I hadn’t realised that that is what it was.
With triggers and feelings of dysphoria having many nuances and varying for each individual, I thought it was important to shed light on my experience of it – not only in the hope of making cis folk more aware and therefore better allies but so queer folk like me knew that their, what I would best describe as, ‘gender induced depression’ was valid and had a name.
I must state at this point that I have never officially been diagnosed with gender dysphoria nor have I even spoken to my doctor about it. But in the same way I knew I suffered from anxiety before I ever got prescribed anti-anxiety medication, I don’t think I need a diagnosis from a cis practitioner to validate my feelings of dysphoria.
As I look back on my childhood I recall memories which made me increasingly uncomfortable regarding my gender, or more specifically, peoples expectations of my gender. Like when my Nan bought me; her hyper-masculine ‘granddaughter’ a pair of floral leggings, or when my Dad disapprovingly told me on numerous occasions that my behaviour wasn’t very “ladylike”. Perhaps that’s where my journey of dysphoria really began, but I am going to start from a place that is much more familiar; after I “came out”.
Suddenly I began catching glances of myself in shop reflections, where each time I was confronted by an image that told others I was a woman. In turn, my mood would plummet and I knew the only way I could alleviate this feeling was to change my exterior. So with the help of some external encouragement, I eventually started my physical (albeit not medical) transition.
As my outer shell developed and became more masculine via sharp fades and grown out body hair, the relationship with my reflection changed significantly and the mirror became my friend. I felt positive and confident each time I saw the authentic version of myself stand before me and as a result, the dysphoria around my appearance faded and was replaced by gender euphoria.
However, sadly the dysphoria moved south and decided to fixate on my chest.
Now unlike many non-binary and transmasculine folk, I actually have a relatively healthy relationship with my breasts seeing them as just another part of my unique, queer body. In fact when I look in the mirror bare-chested (although I cannot deny ever having pondered the idea) I have no desire to go under the knife and for that I am grateful. This doesn‘t, however, change the fact though that on occasion my breasts still make me feel dysphoric.
The dysphoria stems from the fact that these two little lumps become the focal point for which most people make an assumption about my gender, therefore the issue doesn’t lie in having breasts, but the fact that throughout history we have been taught they are a synonym for womanhood. Consequently every time someone notices mine they treat me in a way that doesn’t align with my identity; from calling me ‘Miss’ to displaying signs of benevolent sexism where they assume I am incapable of carrying heavy items.
Eventually, it reached a point where every time I would walk down the street I was conscious of my chest and felt like everyone was second-guessing my gender as they saw an individual who had a combination of both male and female characteristics (although in reality, I’m sure this was only the minority).
In the end, I turned to binding my chest with specialised tape on the days where the dysphoria was heightened as I wanted my breasts to be invisible to those around me. In theory: the flatter the chest the less likely people would think I was a woman.
The only person I felt comfortable seeing them was myself and my sexual partner, although for a short while every time he and I shared a shower the dysphoria was triggered again. As a man, he got to wear his towel around his midriff, whereas I, living in a house of 7 strangers, had to walk to the bathroom wearing mine up high, you know, as girls do…
Next, it was my voice; another key indicator that led to people assuming I was female. This was heightened by the fact that I work as a host in a restaurant, where as I attempted to provide the friendliest welcome possible to those who walked through the door, I became conscious of how my voice would go up in pitch.
Initially, I found the only coping mechanism to be dropping my voice in the hope of throwing people off a little and making them reassess their initial judgement. Occasionally it worked but combined with my military-inspired hair, usually to the other extreme where I would then get misgendered as male.
Regardless, adopting this technique made me feel heavy-hearted; imagine having to consciously alter something as natural as your voice…
It wasn’t just my body that was the issue though, it was even how I held myself. I became wary of sitting with my legs crossed on the train as typically it was more of a female stance, so for a while, I always made sure I manspread. Sorry ladies.
Then as I walked into work each day I couldn’t help but notice my male colleagues shake each other’s hand yet shy away from shaking mine. As they failed to invite me to partake in this male-centred tradition I was left feeling emasculated and on the outside. It was apparent that despite how I identified they still saw me as a woman.
Luckily I explained this to one of my male managers who empathised with the distress this caused me and as a result, always shook my hand at the start and end of every shift we had together #ally.
Perhaps the biggest culprit of any though is having to fill in forms that only provide ‘male’ and ‘female’ options. This out of date, binary way of thinking completely disregards the existence of people like myself and instead coerces us into selecting an answer that doesn’t resonate with our being. It’s bad enough when online stores, which you can take or leave, do this, but when it’s something you have no choice but to fill in; such as a registration form with a new doctor’s, you feel outraged and invisible. You wonder how the “professionals”, you know, the ones you’re supposed to go to for support with this kind of thing can get it so wrong and at that point, you begin to lose faith in humanity.
Will it ever end?
When it comes to feeling dysphoric I’ve been asked “Why does it bother you so much what other people think? You know who you are, so surely that’s all that matters?” That’s all well and good, especially when asked by someone who’s cis, but when I have to I live in a world that enforces such a binary blueprint for society and in turn then have to suffer the ramifications of this; from the language it uses towards me, to how I get treated, to what I have access too, all of which comes at a price for my mental well-being, then I think I’m quite justified in caring about how others perceive my gender.
Nevertheless dysphoria is like most mental health problems – it can be cruel and persistent, but equally, it can come in waves, be managed, or improve with time. That being said, I’m glad to report that although I still get the odd moments of dysphoria, over the last few months mine has reduced massively. So much so that I have stopped binding. I don’t feel the need that I once did to drop my voice and even when I do, often fight the urge to do so. I will happily sit on the train with my legs crossed (although some days manspreading is just comfier!) and I am even learning to embrace my feminine side, albeit behind closed doors. That my friends, I call progress.
If you are struggling with Gender Dysphoria or issues relating to Gender, please find the following resources for further reading: NHS Gender Dysphoria, NHS Transgender Health, The Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), Mermaids. You can also visit Depend; An organisation offering free, confidential and non-judgemental advice, information and support to all family members, spouses, partners and friends of transsexual people in the UK.