Do You Need Dysphoria to be Transgender?
Before I dive in, I need to make the disclaimer that what you are about to read is more of a think piece. I will not be citing sources because the purpose of this article is to express my views that are based in my own experiences and my observations of other transgender people. The purpose of this article is not to be a scientific research paper. There are, however, many resources and research studies with scientific evidence that have come to the same conclusions I have and will be discussing below.
If you're involved at all with the transgender community online, you've seen the very intense ideological divide that has developed surrounding this question. I'm going to break down the opposing belief first and then offer my own belief and my reasoning for why I hold said belief.
What is Dysphoria?
The dysphoria in question is the shortened version for the term:
Gender Dysphoria: an extreme distress or discomfort caused by the disconnect between gender identity and sex assigned at birth. This can manifest as body dysphoria, discomfort in regard to one's body internally (ex: discomfort with having breasts), and social dysphoria, discomfort in regard to the perception of one's body externally (ex: discomfort with strangers referring to you as your sex assigned at birth).
What is TransMed?
If you believe that a person needs gender dysphoria to be transgender, you probably know the term "transmed" (a person who believes that the transgender experience is medical in nature and inherently a mental condition). So far as I've gathered, these are typically held beliefs by transmed individuals:
- You need dysphoria to be transgender;
- The dysphoria you experience does not have to be strictly body dysphoria as many transmed folks recognize social dysphoria as a valid dysphoric experience;
- Nonbinary people are real (many transmed disagree) but only if they experience dysphoria;
- Transgender people can be traditionally feminine or masculine as correlates with their sex assigned at birth (ie. a feminine trans boy, a masculine trans girl; again, many transmed disagree) so long as they still experience dysphoria;
- Dysphoria in their eyes tends to be a constant feeling, most times overpowering and debilitating;
- Dysphoria is physically observable in the brain
Dysphoria is immeasurable, indeterminate, and ever-evolving
While I can see why many transgender people who have felt intense dysphoria would feel this way, I do disagree with this ideology. I have noticed that most people who believe this are extremely judgmental and police the gender liberation of others. How can a trans person police and gate-keep the realization of gender of another trans person? The goal for all trans people in their journey of self-discovery in regard to gender should be to find comfort in their own gender identity and own body - however feels right for them personally in their own lives. This includes holding a level of respect for those with different experiences from our own.
Dysphoria is a tricky subject, that's for sure. There are trans people who experience significantly more dysphoria than I do. There are trans people who experience dysphoria in waves. There are trans people who experience dysphoria intermittently. There are trans people whose dysphoria changes throughout their lives. There are genderfluid trans people whose dysphoria can change from hour to hour, or perhaps be nonexistent as they are affirmed by all genders. With all these ideas being understood, who is to decide the threshold of dysphoria to surpass in order to be considered 'trans enough'?
As I have transitioned medically with hormones, my dysphoria has dwindled down to virtually nothing - many days with me experiencing zero dysphoria at all. Does this mean that I am no longer trans now that I have reached a point of contentedness with regards to my body internally and perception externally? Of course not. And I would never declare that someone who has experienced less dysphoria in life than I have is not truly transgender.
So what do I believe?
Another argument of folks who, like me, believe that one does not need dysphoria to be trans is the existence of the opposite. Gender euphoria is an affirming gender experience. This can include, for example, the excitement you may feel when a stranger reads you as a gender you identify with. However, while a wave of positivity may be caused by this, perhaps you are indifferent when people read you as your sex assigned at birth. Maybe hearing "he" empowers and excites you, but hearing "she" doesn't bother you any.
Personally, I believe that my trans identity is inherent and rooted in more than just one thing. I believe it is a core part of my being that has been shaped by many different interacting realms of my existence. I believe my trans identity is a result of more than just... suffering. Shocking, I know. I would like to offer the following analogy as to why I believe one does not need dysphoria to identify as transgender:
Please note: the following is an analogy to an illness. While I maintain the parallels I will explain, I firmly believe that being transgender is not, in any way, shape, or form, an illness. Some do argue, however, that Gender Dysphoria, a recognized medical term, is a type of mental condition.
When you have the flu, there are multiple possible symptoms. You can have a runny nose, a stuffy nose, a cough, cold sweats, etc. However, you can have just one or a few and still have the flu. If you only have a cough and a runny nose, you can still have the flu. If you only have a stuffy nose, you can still have the flu. Not all symptoms are necessary to have the flu - yet you can still have the flu because everyone will experience the flu differently, and the symptoms are just generally observed as recurring in association with the flu. And if you want to get super technical, yes, the flu is caused by a virus... but even then, there are so many different strains of the virus, that the same analogy still applies.
With that being said, I believe that gender dysphoria can exist as a symptom of the transgender experience. This means that one may or may not have it in order to still be transgender. At the end of the day, the only one who can truly know for sure the transgender identity of a human being is the human being in question. It is not up to anyone else to decide for that person.
I believe that my transness is innate and stems from multiple experiences I have observed in my life which include: gender dysphoria, gender euphoria, indifference, curiosity, control, perception, societal norms, gender roles, the rejection of traditional values, and many more. With that being said, I believe that other people may attribute other concepts and experiences to their trans identity and may not attribute the same things that I do. This means that we may potentially share some in common and have others that we do not share in common.
My dysphoria has changed over the course of my life. As a child, I never experienced dysphoria. I was proudly a girl and never felt that I needed to be viewed as anything else. When I was 14, my body dysphoria was very intense. I wished longingly that my chest was flat and resembled that of a cis man's. When I was 15, my body dysphoria was nonexistent, but my social dysphoria was intense enough for me to realize I was nonbinary and come out to myself. When I was 16 and 17, my body dysphoria was nonexistent, and my social dysphoria was also extremely minimal and, on many days, nonexistent. At age 18, my social dysphoria was so unbelievably overpowering that it then informed my body dysphoria, resulting in me having intensely dysphoric episodes that would then push me to pursue medical intervention in the form of Testosterone. Now, at age 20, my dysphoria is virtually nonexistent again. I feel completely indifferent when referred to with gendered pronouns - something that had previously made me want to throw myself against a wall. I feel affirmed in my body despite still having all parts traditionally associated with cis women. My breasts, which at one point in my life years prior had made me feel lost, now empower me in different ways.
Due to these shifts in dysphoria I have experienced (and witnessed in others), I believe that dysphoria is too fluid to be viewed as the defining factor of whether or not someone is trans. How can we base the entire gender identity of a person on one flaky feeling that can come and go with the seasons and with age? There are plenty of cisgender adults that experienced debilitating gender dysphoria as teenagers, but no longer do, and comfortably do not identify as transgender. There are elderly trans folks who never experienced a day of dysphoria in their lives until they were much older. Are they then not transgender because they did not know from a young age? Are they then not transgender because puberty did not damage them emotionally? With dysphoria being so inconsistent and uncertain, why is it then so difficult to entertain the idea that someone may experience no dysphoria and still be transgender?
So WHY then would people believe that one needs dysphoria to be trans?
There are multiple reasons: a superiority complex; a need to feel accepted by a cisnormative society; a fear of rejection from said society; a need to feel as if they are 'not the biggest freak out there'; a way to point fingers and say "I'm really transgender, but those people are just faking it and risking the reputation of the rest of us real transgender people, curse those transtrenders!"
This also can be a result of the fear of the "demedicalization of transgenderism" which is just a fancy way of saying, "I'm afraid that if people don't take my trans identity and dysphoria seriously, my insurance will no longer cover my medical treatment." Please try to entertain the following: transgenderism is not a medical term. Being transgender is already non-medical. Gender Dysphoria, however, is a valid diagnosis and medically recognized term. A transgender person with minimal-to-no dysphoria probably won't have any interest in medically transitioning. So, don't worry! Being transgender isn't at risk of becoming demedicalized because (1) it is already non-medical, meaning that transgender is not an official medical diagnosis and (2) those without the proper medical diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria, are not likely to seek out medical intervention to treat something they do not have.
With that being said, if someone without dysphoria pursues transitioning in a non-medical way (ex: legal name change), that is their decision and no one else's business. Should a non-dysphoric transgender person wish to pursue some form of medical transition or intervention (ex: hormone blockers), that is a decision between solely them and licensed medical professionals.
This concern of demedicalization has in turn resulted in a fear that non-dysphoric trans people are "stealing" resources from "real" transgender people who need them. I would like to offer the following observation: resources are not finite. Pharmacies are not experiencing a testosterone shortage. The world isn't going to run out of estrogen in twenty years. A lawyer who assists in name and gender-marker changing is not limited to one transgender client. A non-dysphoric trans person seeking out resources is not "stealing" resources from someone else. They are utilizing them. If someone is making use of a resource, the resource is delivering on its purpose.
For resources that are becoming less accessible, such as the lengthening of wait-lists in other countries, the issue to be addressed is the need for an extension of transgender and gender-related resources. The issue is not someone seeking out resources. The issue is the government gatekeeping a resource and making it an unnecessarily long and difficult process. This is causing problems such as people who are unsure if they want to start hormones feeling compelled to sign up for a wait-list on the off-chance that they will want to start hormones two years from now when their appointment will end up being. Another problem is people, disheartened from the extensive wait-lists, dropping from the wait-list and pursuing intervention in either unsafe or non-conventional ways. There are more serious problems caused by inaccessible resources than the irrational fear that the resources are being stolen by people you unfairly believe don't deserve them.
I have ascertained that the biggest strife transmed folks face is the internal frustration with being seen as valid and the insecurity within them that is caused by other trans folks owning their truth in (what transmed believe to be) non-conventional ways. This desire to be seen as valid by society causes them to project onto other trans people and police what they believe other trans people need to do. The issue is not other trans people owning their truth and feeling empowered in different ways. The issue is society saying only one type of person is valid and deserving of basic human rights. Why blame other transgender people for the bigotry of transphobic cisgender people? People will never fit into strict boxes. Therefore, wouldn't it make more sense to educate people of different experiences rather than attempt to force people of different experiences into painful molds? It's never worked to force people into strict boxes before, so it is illogical to believe it would somehow work now.
They might think: How could a trans person... be happy with themself? How could they love being trans? How could a trans person feel empowered in their trans identity? How could they enjoy being trans when for me, it has caused me such pain and sorrow?
When I say "I love being trans" believe me when I declare, I do.
I love the outlook on life my trans identity has given me. I love seeing the world through my trans lens. I love the deep-rooted respect I have earned for myself after having traversed a journey of self-discovery. I love having a sense of empowerment that has arisen within me because of my gender identity and resilience against an oppressive government. I love feeling like I have finally listened to myself and my needs and honored my body in the ways that feel comfiest. I love knowing that being true to myself was an act of radical self-love. Coming out and owning my truth has been an incredibly enriching experience.
I am not saying that life has been easy as a transgender person. I am not suggesting that every experience I have had thrown at me as a result of being an OUT trans person has been a positive one.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have risked losing family, friends, jobs, and much more at the expense of being out and living my truth.
Transgender people can experience incredible hardship, both internally and externally.
I can understand why some transmed folks feel the way they do about dysphoria - most of them have had very intense dysphoria for most of their lives, and it's hard for them to fathom the idea of another trans person not experiencing such internal pain and strife.
However, I revel in the fact that not everyone's experiences will be the same. Where we have differences, we should celebrate and uplift one another. We should learn from each other's experiences and offer all different kinds of trans narratives to the public, rather than strictly one of pain and suffering. We should embrace different trans people leading different lives from our own and allow our minds to expand to accept all different types of trans people and the wide range of narratives they provide.