“A woman trapped in a man’s body.” Open any book on transgender issues written before 2010 and you’ll probably see that exact sentence (or its inverse) pop out at you somewhere. Even today, ask any random person what it means to be transgender and they’ll probably slip some form “trapped in the wrong body” mention in there. To many, the transgender experience is simply that; a person whose mind is at war with their own body. A relationship with one’s anatomy defined by distress and anxiety.
This feeling is known as gender dysphoria, or the distress or discomfort at realizing that one’s gender identity given to them at birth does not match with the gender identity they feel most comfortable with. Gender dysphoria can come from the body, where one may feel distress over a part of their anatomy, such as their genitals, chest, or hair. Dysphoria can also come from social factors, such as not feeling comfortable wearing “women’s” clothing or being referred to by gendered pronouns. Or it can be a mixture of the two, as it was for me. While surgery, therapy, and hormones can end up curing or alleviating the mental illness that is gender dysphoria, one commonality between all forms of dysphoria is that those who suffer it desperately wish they didn’t.
And for years, the common understanding of being transgender has been inexorably linked with gender dysphoria. One discovers their dysphoria, and in turn, learns they are transgender. Eventually, if one’s social and economic situation permits, the transgender person takes steps to “transition” their body and how they are viewed by society to something more comfortable, typically to that of the “opposite” gender. Complicated, yet clinical and easily compacted into the digestible phrase of “trapped in the wrong body.”
Certainly, that was my path. A childhood spent fearing own reflection. Drives down to the mall, just to walk past clothing stores, jealous of the headless mannequins in skirts, bras or blouses, making me wish I had the courage to simply try on a dress. Evenings crying in the shower to hide the tears from parents or roommates. That’s what being trans meant to me.
However, as awareness about the trans community has grown, so too has the number of people who identify as transgender. Yet, as the community grows, more and more people who identity with the label of transgender have also found they haven’t ever felt any dysphoria at all. Instead they learned they were trans for a variety of political to social to emotional reasons.
This very concept seems like a slap in the face to the many trans people who spent years in anguish only to learn that they only way to end the anxiety involved a long road of transition. How insulting is for someone to say they are transgender because they’re making a “statement about gender” when so many other trans people struggle just to make their day to day life feel like it’s worth living.
How, then, do these non-dysphoric people get the right to call themselves transgender? Or, to put it more succinctly, should gender dysphoria be required to be transgender?
Certainly, from a medical perspective, the answer should be a resounding “no.” According to the American Psychiatric Associations, transgender “is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” And there are many ways to learn that one’s gender identity or gender expression does match with your assigned gender. For example, many people experience gender euphoria, which is a joy at feeling one’s gender identity, expression, or behavior affirmed. A transgender person could feel joy at wearing a dress, yet have no distress at wearing “boys” clothing. Or they could love using gender neutral pronouns, but not really feeling hurt if someone calls them “he” or “she.”
Indeed, this distinction between gender dysphoria becomes more clear even with people who have suffered gender dysphoria. Today, when I look at my body, I feel none of that old distress. Indeed, through a particular mix of surgery, therapy, and hormones, I’m finally able to look at my own reflection not with fear, but with actual contentment. Or as content as anyone can be when they look at themselves in a mirror.
But does this lack of dysphoria mean that am I somehow less transgender now? I mean, certainly, the fact that I don’t 100 percent “pass” as a woman means I’m viewed by others as transgender. However, I have no problem with not passing. So, without that continual anxiety, can I still be considered transgender? Have I perhaps lost points on the transgender scale? Is my transgender identity somehow less valid?
This is, of course, ridiculous. I am still transgender, not just because I still don’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, but also because I simply still feel a part of the transgender community. I’m still welcome in trans spaces, communities, and conversations. And I doubt anyone would question my transness, regardless of if they are trying to praise, condemn, or simply acknowledge who I am.
Yet, it could be argued that gender euphoria is just a flip side, or a differing form, of dysphoria, as well as that anyone who ever experienced dysphoria has met the “requirements” of being transgender. So what of those who identify as part of our community without any euphoria or dysphoria; those who simply identify as man or a woman without any suffering or anguish, such as those who identify as trans because they see gender as oppressive or political.
As I stated before, this very concept seems insulting to so many transgender people who do suffer dysphoria because they haven’t gone through the “rite of passage” that is the anguish that many suffer when learning one is transgender. To many, being transgender has brought them nothing but pain. Dysphoria is the only way they to relate to being transgender.
Yet, we cannot let dysphoria be the only path, the price of entry, into our community. It frames being transgender as something painful, shameful, and to be resented. It defines transgender not as something to be proud of, but to be fought against, or hide.
And this view fosters not only internalized transphobia, but transphobia from others. Go into any comment section on any transgender content, and I’ll place bets you’ll find someone decry that transgender people are mentally ill somewhere in there. If indeed gender dysphoria, a mental illness, is a requirement for being transgender, would that mean they are that far off? And, as I already stated, if you treat gender dysphoria, have you cured your transness too? Is being transgender something we really want to be curable?
Defining an identity by oppression and pain is not a new concept. In fact, it’s exactly what TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, do to trans women to frame them as not women. TERFs claim that because trans women were not socialized as women since birth, have not suffered direct misogyny (and can never suffer it having not been born a woman), they can never claim to be a woman. To TERFs, womanhood is defined by suffering, by pain. There is no joy in a TERF’s womanhood. It makes me pity them, or as much as I can pity them given the harm TERFs cause to the transgender community.
Instead of framing being transgender as something oppressive or shameful, we need to extol a view of transness as something beautiful, something to be proud of. To me, while I remember the nights crying to sleep, I also remember the thrill of wearing my first dress. I remember the contentment after my surgery. The happiness of finding others like me. The ideas and concepts that being transgender has enabled me to understand. The empathy towards others that my transition has fostered. All these things have become a part of my transgender experience, and have become a part of who I am as a human. The pain shaped me, but so too did the joy.
It’s also worth mentioning that requiring gender dysphoria as a requirement for being transgender also creates a eurocentric view of being transgender. It forgets the idea of two-spirits, hijra, and kathoeys and the long histories they bring, and the differing paths taken to discover those genders.
Being transgender is not an inherently bad, good, or even neutral thing. Just as being a woman is not inherently bad, good or neutral. Or being a man. Or non-binary. Or even being cisgender. They are just all ways of being a human, and being human can mean whatever we want it to mean.
JESSIE EARL is a transgender writer and video creator. She currently works as a video producer for Microsoft as well as her own YouTube channel, which you can follow here.