Column: What Is Dysphoria?

Even though I get asked often, it’s almost impossible to describe dysphoria.

After all, every trans person’s experience with dysphoria is different – a few don’t even feel dysphoria, but for those who do, it can be literally unbearable. I’ve heard from many trans individuals I’ve spoken to that puberty is likely to be the worst, since that’s when secondary sex characteristics first develop.

But even when speaking for myself alone, it’s impossible for me to find the right words to explain what that’s like.

So instead, I’ll take you on a journey.

When I was a kid, everything about men is what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m not talking about career opportunities, respect in society, or even how to dress. I wanted the whole nine yards. Whenever I saw a woman wiggle her chest, I felt actual disgust – and at some point, I decided that wouldn’t be me.

I couldn’t explain why, it just wouldn’t.

I would be a miracle of science and would prove everyone wrong. I simply decided that, once I hit puberty, I would get facial hair, my voice would drop, and everyone would suddenly realize they had been wrong all along.

I was convinced. In fact, in seventh grade I happened to get a cold, and I was certain that it lowered my voice several notes.

But then I stopped growing.

My hips got bigger, other guys got taller and started to grow awkward moustaches while their voices properly dropped. And I was stuck with a pixie voice and a bald face.

That, for me, was the beginning of dysphoria.

It’s like having a hand grow from your elbow. For some kids it starts even younger, sometimes even as soon as they can point at themselves in the mirror. I once heard a story of a three-year-old “boy” who tried to perform self-reassignment-surgery with a safety scissors… the distraught parents took their child to therapy, and soon learned they had a daughter.

Dysphoria is no joke. It’s a slow grinding feeling of wrongness, the same gradual pain and numbness that you feel when you get a tattoo beaten into your skin. When you first notice it, it might not be so bad.

But over the weeks, months and years, with no cure or acknowledgement, it only gets worse.

I’m lucky that for me, hormone therapy was a strong tool that helped relieve the majority of my dysphoria. I finally got the facial hair that I had felt doomed without, my voice dropped into what feels like a normal pitch, I lost a lot of weight on my lower half, and even my hands have more veins.

But that wasn’t the only step. As a trans man, I still had the type of busty chest that most cisgender women happily wear.

Just over a year ago, I found myself sitting up late on Google, frantically searching for sterile ways to perform a self-surgery. My insurance had denied my procedure, and I told myself that a self-surgery couldn’t possibly be any more agonizing than what I had been going through. 

Then I found myself on the Wikipedia page for “Self-Mutilation.” You know what one of the number one causes is?

Gender dysphoria.

People get so tired of waiting for surgery that they grab a scissors and flip a coin to decide between their wrist or their genitals.

The next day I called my mother, and we set a goal to save up for my top surgery within four months. Keep in mind even being able to call my parents on the phone makes me one of the lucky ones.

That alone is a sad testament to how far trans people have to go before we’re respected.

The number one cure according to countless therapists and organizations is to be allowed to transition and receive whatever medical care is necessary. When we restrain trans people from the care they need, it encourages one of two things: hiding who they are while hoping that the dam doesn’t break, or taking matters into their own hands.

Of course, some trans people may not feel dysphoria towards certain parts of their body. A trans man, perhaps, might hate his chest but has no issue with his voice.  It’s important not to push trans people to transition completely unless they choose to do so, or they risk developing an entirely new case of dysphoria. It’s no one’s business what is deemed “complete” for someone’s transition except for the person who is living through it.

Not to mention, many surgeries are still being developed – countless trans people are fearful of lower or even upper surgeries (i.e. voice modification surery, body masculinization surgery, phalloplasty, etc.) because they may be imperfect and come with risks. It’s like a patient turning down spine surgery because they’re afraid it might only paralyze them.

But for those who take the jump to transition, trust me – it’s not about the aesthetic, and it’s certainly not to “trick” anyone… it’s because it’s their only option. Stabbing your thigh with a weekly hormone injection for the rest of your life isn’t fun, nor is going under anesthesia to prepare for a long painful recovery. It’s done because it’s a necessity to tolerate your own reflection.

As a community, we have to eliminate the stigma of treating gender dysphoria. Trans people deserve rights, and the greatest right is to be who we are, free of pain or trauma.

And that means respecting our right to transition.