Transgender vs Gender Dysphoria

A friend messaged this question to me:

“Set me straight—am I confused—aren’t all transgender people gender dysphoric in that the gender physically born with is not the same as how they feel and identify?”

This is my response to the question.


It was pretty recently that I read my first article about people who are trans but don’t experience gender dysphoria. For those of us who follow the DSM, the idea is startling, because the medical model of trans has been and still is based on the old trope of “trapped in the wrong body”.

It’s true that many trans people can describe their experience as being trapped in the wrong body, of feeling dysphoria (unease / dissatisfaction / distress) regarding their bodies as compared to their gender identities.

But there are plenty of other trans people who are OK with their bodies, to varying degrees. An example is a trans woman who doesn’t have genital surgery, not because of financial or medical reasons, but because she simply doesn’t want it — she doesn’t need the surgeon’s knife because she’s secure enough in her gender identity and willing (even glad) to live in her body as it is. Another example is a genderqueer or non-binary person who’s undoubtedly trans (they certainly weren’t assigned nonbinary at birth!), yet is not dissatisfied with their body.

The DSM5 says “gender dysphoria diagnosis involves a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning.

Notice that distress is considered an essential element of gender dysphoria.

To be trans, though, is simply to have a gender identity differing from the gender assigned at birth (usually assigned on the basis of one physical characteristic).

Nothing about distress in there, so nothing about dysphoria.

And to be fair, the American Psychiatric Association begins its Gender Dysphoria web page with this paragraph. Note especially the “may be” and “sometimes”:

Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.

Sam Dylan Finch, a widely read trans writer, identifies as a genderqueer gay boy, although when I first encountered his blog he identified as simply genderqueer, with no reference to the male/female gender binary. He published an article in Everyday Feminism about why it’s problematic to insist that gender (or body) dysphoria is a necessary part of being trans.

While he details six reasons why, they’re all manifestations of a principle that’s part of any social justice worldview: When someone tells you their lived experience, believe them and learn from it.

Especially if they’re part of a marginalized group.

Especially if you’re not.

 

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