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‘I Ain’t What You Think’: Understanding Gender Dysphoria

Gender Dysphoria: What happens when your gender identity doesn't align with the one you were assigned at birth?

Updated
Mind It
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>What is gender dysphoria? how does it manifest?</p></div>
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(13 to 19 November is observed as transgender awareness week. In light of that, and the recent events in India, FIT is republishing this story to draw attention and sensitivity to the trauma and mental health strain that people of the trans community experience.)

Trigger warning: This article discusses details of situations that cause gender dysphoria.

"I felt suicidal, confused and feared the future," recounts Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender rights activist, and artist based in Chennai.

Living in a world designed for cis-gender people (those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) is a battle on many fronts for those who don't fill the bill—from social expectations, gender roles, to healthcare and civil rights, trans people have historically faced stigma at every point.

It was only in 2019 that the WHO stopped classifying transgender as a mental disorder.

But even before the battle with society begins, transpersons have to tackle the conflict between their own body and their self.

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Describing her experience with gender dysphoria in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview, retired Olympian and T V personality Caitlyn Jenner said, "The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves all day long. I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live."

What exactly is gender dysphoria? How does it manifest?

What is Gender Dysphoria? 

Vihaan, a transgender rights activist, and peer counsellor based in Delhi explains the psychological distress, saying "as a transman, I was assigned female as birth, but I identify as a man. This mismatch between gender identity and assigned sex causes dysphoria in some transpeople."

"Although, all trans people don't necessarily face gender dysphoria, many do," he adds.

"My Gender dysphoria definitely made me feel, insecure, unrested and unease because I felt a strong mismatch between my biological sex and my gender identity."
Kalki Subramaniam

This is the lived experience of many who don't feel comfortable with the gender they are assigned at birth. But the experience of gender dysmorphia is more than just 'discomfort'.

This discrepancy can lead to intense distress and also manifest in the form of serious mental health issues including panic attacks, Anxiety disorders, persistent fever or sickness, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Kalki is reluctant to say more. It's too painful to recount, she says.

Instead, she shares some of her artwork, hoping her work could convey what she can't bring herself to put into words.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Artwork: 'I ain't what you think'</p></div>

Artwork: 'I ain't what you think'

(Source: Kalki Subramaniam/@queenkalki)

What triggers Gender Dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria usually starts manifesting at an early age, especially during puberty, but can be triggered in situations where a person is expected to fit into the mould of the gender other than what they identify with.

Speaking of what causes dysphoria in transpersons, Vihaan breaks down some typical triggers.

  • Misgendering

When someone is not using the correct pronoun for a transperson, for example if someone who goes by She/her pronoun is referred to as he/him, this could trigger dysphoria.

  • Physical or bodily gender dysphoria

"For a transman who hasn't transitioned, for instance, it could be because they might not be comfortable with their chest, or other feminine features in their body."

Physical dysphoria can be varied and personal to each person.

“Like I have a voice dysphoria, because I don’t think my voice is manly enough. Some transmen might feel like they need to have facial hair, some transwomen get dysphoria because of the body hair they do have.”
Vihaan
  • Social Dysphoria

Social expectations when it comes to gender norms, like the kind of clothes you’re expected to wear.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Hollywood actor Elliot Page opened up about his experience with gender dysphoria and how having to wear dresses and heals during the premiere of the film Inception was so traumatic and stressful that he ended up getting panic attacks and collapsed.

Vihaan recounts his own experience.

“When I was in school and had to wear the girls’ uniform, the dysmorphia distress would get so bad that I would get a fever often. It was because I was wearing that uniform which didn’t match my gender identity.”
Vihaan
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Another major thing that triggers social dysphoria is public washrooms.

“In most places you only find two types of washrooms for men and women, and a transperson who isn’t able to go to the washroom of the gender they identify with, and are forced to go to the one meant for their assigned gender at birth, even then they might face some gender dysphoria,” he says.

This is pervasive in other public spaces too, to the point where one might not even give it a thought. “Like security checks at airports and metro stations,” adds Vihaan.

“For me, it feels like the structure is telling me, ‘you are a woman’. Even though I am a man, and the only reason I’m entering that facility is because I don’t have an option.”
Vihaan
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Artwork: 'The Unmasked'</p></div>

Artwork: 'The Unmasked'

(Source: Kalki Subramaniam/@queenkalki)

Tackling Gender Dysmorphia

Gender dysphoria is often looked at as a clinical condition. But, Vihaan, and other trans rights activists are against medicalising the experience.

“I don’t see gender dysphoria as something that needs to be treated, or as something that is wrong. Obviously one can try to decrease their gender dysphoria, but I wouldn’t call someone with gender dysphoria as a patient.”
Vihaan

“Identifying what is triggering dysphoria in a person can help them, and their counsellors understand how to work upon that, and what can help the person cope when it happens,” says Vihaan.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Artwork: 'The Soul Within'</p></div>

Artwork: 'The Soul Within'

(Source: Kalki Subramaniam/@queenkalki)

“What’s important is that when a transperson talks about their experiences, to listen to them and validate their experiences," he says.

People like Eliot page, Caitlyn Jenner and Kalki Subramaniam speaking out about their experiences helps creates a space for transpersons where there was none before. Although it's a start, it's not enough.

“In our society there are only a few people that are talking about their experience with gender dysphoria, and that is also mostly restricted to online spaces.”
Vihaan

“But there are many people in small towns and villages who might not have access to online resources and communities and don’t really have someone with whom they can actually speak to about their experiences,” he adds.

“It helps immensely for trans and queer people to have a support system that understands them and shares their lived experiences.”

How can people around them help?

Ask people what their pronouns are, make an effort to use the right pronouns, don’t use their dead name, support them in their process and create a safe space for them to open up and share their feelings and worries, are some of the things he responds.

Kalki believes things are getting better systemically as well.

"For transgender and gender non-conforming persons today, it isn't any more like how we suffered in our teenage years. There are so many resources available, psychiatrists and medical community has been much more sensitised and educated on gender dysphoria." says Kalki.

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