Please note that this post is not finished. The contents will change over time as new additions and revisions are made to further expand the full breadth of Gender Dysphoria. The post is severely lacking in AFAB narratives, non-binary, agender & genderfluid specific dysphoria, and Two-Spirit narratives. I would also like to go into more detail about non-western cultural representations of gender.
If you would like to contribute, offer suggestions, or have constructive criticism, please contact me via any of the social media accounts linked at the top of the page. If you are of a GitHub persuasion you may also submit changes directly via a pull request.
Trans·gen·der - adjective Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their sex assigned at birth.
Transgender people have existed as long as the human race itself, and many ancient cultures recognized more than just two genders within the human existence, but it has only been in the last 100 years that a scientific and medical understanding of trans people has become well documented, and with that a proper philosophical and psychological understanding of the transgender experience. Even the word “transgender” only dates back to 1965 when John Oliven proposed it as a more accurate alternative to David Cauldwell’s term, “transsexual”.
To be transgender is to have a gender identity which does not match the gender you were presumed to have based upon your genitals. This can mean a person born with a penis is actually a girl, that a person born with a vulva is actually a boy, or that a person with either genital configuration may not fit either side of that spectrum and is non-binary.
A trans person can come to recognize this at any point in their life. Some children identify it at as soon as they are able to grasp the concept of the differences between the sexes, others don’t start to feel anything until the onset of puberty, and still others do not realize anything is wrong at all until they are fully adults. Many people are simply never exposed to the idea that their gender could mismatch their birth sex, and thus simply accepted their gender fate.
Even more common is a perception that even tho they have feelings about being unhappy with the gender they were assigned at birth, they believe that this is not the same as what transgender people experience. I myself thought for much of my life that voicing my strong desire to be transgender and have transition available to me was some kind of disrespect towards “real” trans people who knew they were actually boys or girls “born in the wrong body.” These narratives of the transgender experience that have been spread by popular media create a very false impression of just what it means to be transgender and what growing up transgender feels like.
This experience of discontinuity between the internal and external self is what we describe as Gender Dysphoria. Every trans person, regardless of their position within or outside of the gender binary, experiences some form of Gender Dysphoria. This is something of a political topic within trans communities, as different groups have their own ideas of what Gender Dysphoria is, how it manifests, and what qualifies a person as being trans. By and large, however, this debate is feckless and fruitless, as the definition above encompasses the beginning and the ending of how these terms intermingle, as I hope to demonstrate in this essay.
Note: If you find yourself struggling with any terminology in this essay, I recommend this very detailed and handy glossary of terms by GLAAD.
If you trace the etymology of the word to its latin roots, gender simply means “type”. Historically the word was used in literature to refer to masculine, feminine and neutral nouns. In 1955 psychologist John Money proposed using the term to differentiate mental sex from physical sex.
Human Sex (the adjective, not the verb) is broken down into three categories:
- Genotype: The genetically defined chromosomal kareotype of an organism (XX, XY, and all variants there of)
- Phenotype: The observable primary and secondary sexual characteristics (genitals, fat and muscle distribution, bone structure, etc)
- Gender: The internal mental model of a person’s own sex.
Any of these three aspects can fall into a position on a range of values. Your elementary school health class probably taught you that Genotype is binary, either Female (XX) or Male (XY), when the reality is that there are a dozen other permutations that can occur within human beings.
Likewise, many people believe that Phenotype is also binary, but biology has recognized for hundreds of years that when you plot out all sexual characteristics across a population, you actually end up with a bimodal distribution where the majority of the population falls within a percentile of two groups. This means that some people will, simply by nature of how life works, fall outside of the typical two piles. Many people fall in the middle, with characteristics of both sexes.
Gender, however, is a lot more… wibbly wobbly timey wimey type stuff. There are a lot of different ways that people have attempted to illustrate the gender spectrum, but none have quite thoroughly captured it, because the spectrum is itself a very abstract concept.
The short of it is, some people are very male, some people are very female, some people feel no gender at all, some people feel both, some are smack in the middle, some land along the edges. Some people oscillate all over the spectrum in unpredictable ways, changing like the wind. Only an individual can identify their own gender, no one else can dictate it for them.
Gender is part social constructs, part learned behaviors, and part biological processes which form very early in a person’s life.
Present evidence seems to suggest that a person’s gender is established during gestation while the cerebral cortex of the brain is forming (more about that in the Causes of Gender Dysphoria section). This mental model then informs, at a subconscious level, what aspects of the gender spectrum a person will lean towards. It affects behavior, perceptions of the world, the way we experience attraction (separate from sexual orientation and hormonal influences) and how we bond with other people.
Gender also affects the expectations that the brain has for the environment it resides in (your body), and when that environment does not meet those expectations, the brain sends up warning alarms in the form of depression, depersonalization, derealization, and dissociation. These are the brain’s subconscious ways of informing us that something is very wrong.
On the social side, gender involves presentation, how we communicate, what our expectations are from life, and the roles that we fulfill as we walk through life. These are all cultural factors, things which have developed within the population over time, but regardless of being essentially “made up”, they are still connected to a gender identity. A person tends to connect to the social aspects of their internal gender, without even realizing they are doing it, and when they are denied access to those social aspects, this results in discomfort with their social position in life.
John Money’s experiments attempted to confirm his belief that gender is entirely a social construct, and that any child can be raised to believe themselves to be whatever they were taught to be. His experiment was a massive failure (see the Bio-Chemical Dysphoria section). Gender does not change, every human is the same gender at 40 that they were at 4. What changes is our own personal understanding of our gender as we mature as individuals.
These negative symptoms (depression, derealization, social discomfort) are the symptoms of Gender Dysphoria.
What Gender is not is sexual orientation. We describe orientation using terms relative to one’s gender (homosexual/heterosexual/bisexual), but gender itself does not affect sexuality and sexuality has no role in gender.
In generalist terms this essay will be describing gender in a sense of binary identities (male/female) vs non-binary identities (agender, bigender, genderqueer, etc), but this is purely for the sake of writing simplicity. Please know that the depth of gender experience and expression is far, far more complicated than this simple breakdown.