The Two Sides of Dysphoria
Trying desperately this week to take a breather from the constant stream of political news in which conservative politicians are trying to screw up our lives (and yes, there are about three or four options for me to write about just that subject just this week) so bear with me on a bit of personal introspection.
I’m going to lead with a disclaimer here: it is very easy for us as trans people to express our feelings and experiences as if they are universal when they aren’t, even though they may be common to the majority. There’s an interesting sense in which the trans experience can give us a sort of viewing angle on someone elses experience that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise – for example, I recently read a quote about race which pointed out how difficult it is for white people to appreciate the difficulties of other races because we live in a culture which is saturated in the custom that white is the “default” ethnicity, that is you are either white or non-white (ever heard someone say a white person is a “non-black”?). But for me, being trans helps me understand that since being cis is the “default” gender identity in our culture. Unlike some, I don’t object to this. I accept that my condition is a divergence from the statistical norm. This may seem off topic but it reinforced for me the reality that it can often be VERY easy to assume your experience is common to all people. So what follows may or may not seem familiar to your experience, but it’s an intimate feature of mine.
The more that times passes since I came out to full-time status (seven and a half years ago) the more I recognize the distinction between two different types of dysphoria. As I’ve tried to explain in various different forums, trans people – at least transsexual people – experience dysphoria on two different axises. One is the physical makeup of our bodies, what we see in the mirror. Particularly in “sexed” traits like genitalia or body hair, but also in the less obvious characteristics (height or bone structure and such like). M reaction to my reflection for as long as I can remember was to feel alien from it, and more so after puberty, and for that reason to neglect it (I know not everyone reacts the same way) as a sort of “lost cause”. My distaste for it went beyond the things that an operation can change, it’s too big, too heavy (fat aside), too tall and too hairy, quite apart from the plumbing being wrong.
The other involves how the world identifies and reacts to you. From an early age you either internalize or rebel against the reality that the world sees you as a boy (forgive that my various references are in a MTF context, obviously reverse these for a FTM experience) but you never accept it. For people my age, born into a culture that scarcely recognized transsexual people existed at all, the idea of a child defying that reaction and saying “No but I’m a girl!” was basically non-existent. The other option is to bury it, or bury yourself in withdrawal and depression and a growing hatred of the body that causes that reaction. What you see in the mirror is bad enough, but living in a world thar repeatedly reaffirms that which you feel to be false is – though based on your appearance – a whole other thing.
But what I’ve experienced in the last several years is that while changing my outward appearance does provide significant relief on the second axis- simple little life interactions in which people speak to (and of) me and react to me as a female are literally life-saving relief to my soul. Likewise the stubborn holdouts who “know my secret” and insist on the deadname and the wrong pronouns as if to make some point or deligitimize my gender, and most particularly when it’s done in such a fashion as to call attention to the subject from folks who would otherwise have not given any thought to it are a sharp source of emotional pain. Still, the reality that almost every time I encounter someone who didn’t know me before sees me as a woman is a strong antidote to THAT sort of dysphoria…
The sharp contrast between those reactions and the reality that I’ve been unable to afford to make dramatic changes in what I see in the mirror makes this sort of dysphoria considerably worse. In the same way that very small social interactions like being called “ma’am” are little sources of joy, relatively small reminders of my physical state (like having to shave, or “adjust” certain things) can be utterly depressing. More so, I think, than before I began to transition. I struggle literally every day to not judge myself illegitimate because – purely as a matter of cost – there’s so much yet undone in terms of reconciling my physicality to my identity.
This experience, the dichotomy between the outward and “inward” transition, is while I feel empowered to explain to our critics that how they deal with a trans person, names, pronouns, bathrooms, common civility, and so forth is as necessary in treating dysphoria as the physical care, and to deny us either is to willfully choose to be a part in causing suffering in another. Hopefully our culture is someday going to be willing to move past that sort of callousness.
Photo credit: Hermitic Hermit