That Thing Called Gender Dysphoria

I haven’t written much about this before, but I’ve had gender dysphoria since about age four. A recent book I read describes gender dysphoria in its simplest terms as “a persistent desire to have a female body.” At that age I can remember being aware of the differences between boys and girls and a feeling of loss and dissatisfaction over being a boy. Obviously, I’ve always had a lot of fetishism mixed in with my experience of gender, so it’s always been hard for me to say where exactly I fit in. Am I transgender? (I would say so.) Am I also a flaming fetishist and bondage nut? (Also true and not something that invalidates being transgender or at the very least being on the trans spectrum).

The thing is, though, I’ve never strongly identified with the word transgender itself and have never felt that I really fit in that well with the trans community. Some would probably agree with me that you can sometimes find an anti-crossdresser bias within the trans community, or at least a hierarchy of who is more authentically trans and who is less so – those who transition and pass effortlessly being at the very top. And there’s also often a bias against fetishes such as bondage, which is unfortunate though I can understand why. Some people feel – I would say erroneously – that anything sexual could undercut the validity of the trans experience, and therefore there’s sometimes a tendency to minimize or deny anything sexual or of a fetish nature. “Move along! Nothing sexual going on here!”

I remember going to a transgender support group about two decades ago and just having a sense of not really being welcomed by the trans woman in charge. Maybe it was just me and my low self-esteem, or maybe our personalities didn’t click – or maybe I was just projecting – but I don’t think so. I was never specifically called out but the overall feeling I got from her was, “You’re not one of us.” I did however attend a similar group when I lived in Colorado Springs a few years earlier and at that one I felt enthusiastically welcomed. Obviously it depends on the group and the group leaders, but that one experience left a bad taste in my mouth and made me cautious about sharing my fetishism in support groups.

Recently I read an interesting ebook for the Kindle that got me thinking about all this again. I’d never heard of Felix Conrad before, but he wrote a book a few years ago called, “How to Jedi Mindtrick Your Gender Dysphoria.” I don’t believe Felix has any professional credentials, but he deals with gender dysphoria himself, and he’s a pretty good writer. I found the book interesting and helpful though on Reddit I found some really harsh criticisms. I’ll grant that some might find the title dismissive or overly clever for a condition that causes a lot of pain. But I really didn’t find the book deserving of the degree of criticism once I actually read it. Of course, the comments were on Reddit, so you have to take them with a grain of salt. And again, I want to stress that this is just my own reaction to the book filtered through my own experiences.

What I like about Felix’s approach is that at the start he stresses that no one knows what causes transgenderism. There’s a lot of speculation and interesting data but there are no theories that have been scientifically proven as to the cause of the condition. I think it’s a point worth making. We simply don’t know.

One very interesting distinction that Felix makes is between early-onset trans people and late-onset trans people. He points out some trans people are so effortlessly feminine from such an early age that it’s just obvious that they’re girls and that they should transition. And then there are many more of us for whom things aren’t so clear cut, and who also often have some fetishism mixed in with their transgender feelings. Again, this is controversial, but I think the distinction makes sense. The woman who cuts my hair, for example, transitioned at a young age, and she’s just obviously a woman. I can’t really imagine her ever having been a guy. For myself though it’s always been much less clear to me where I fit in and what my path should be. And the dysphoria I feel is probably more on the moderate end rather than severe. While having dysphoria sucks, for me anyway it’s not all consuming. It’s more like an itch or a repetitive thought or feeling that’s almost always there, though mostly in the background.

The part of the book that is the most controversial is how Felix approaches the question of whether or not to transition. The issue of “passing” is controversial in the trans community but the book argues that in deciding whether to transition one really should take an honest assessment of one’s own body and consider how successful one would be at transitioning. This includes asking the question, “Will I pass successfully?” For myself the main reasons I’ve never transitioned (and I’ve thought about it dozens of times) is that I don’t really feel like I’m “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” I have that persistent desire, but I’ve never felt in my core that I really am a woman. Nor am I naturally feminine in my mannerisms or speech. And probably more importantly, I just don’t think I’d be able to pull off transition effortlessly day after day, the way that some early-onset trans people seem to – though I know it’s not as effortless as it appears. I’m well aware of how much work it is to be a girl!

But for me – and again I’m only talking about my own experience here – it would be a source of frustration to look in the mirror and still see Robert rather than Sandra – and inevitably there would be lots of days like that since I have a tall and masculine body – and a deep voice. I’m well aware of the arguments that there are tall women out there (I know, but they’re still genetic women) and that hormones do make significant changes – yes, they do indeed. But they’re not going to magically give me the body I’d really like to have. To be blunt, I know a few trans women who have transitioned who still have strong masculine features in their bodies, even with the hormones. And I know that reality causes them pain. Sometimes you’ll see incredibly cute young trans girls on Twitter and they’ll tweet, “The dysphoria is really bad today.” And these are girls who look absolutely stunning! Transition, as Felix points out, doesn’t necessarily cure dysphoria, but it can help lessen it, sometimes significantly. And for some trans people who have very strong dysphoria there really is no other choice but to transition. And just to clarify, I’m not anti-transition at all. I think it’s an awesome path for some people. I’ve just never been convinced that I would be wholly satisfied with the results if I were to try to follow that path myself. If I change my mind in a couple years, I’ll be sure to post an update!

So it’s been a long time since I decided not to transition and not to take hormones, and in some ways the decision was made by default just by not acting on it. And I’m mostly at peace with the decision. It feels right. At the same time I still meet friends and new acquaintances who are transitioning and going on hormones and I always have a reaction of, “Oh, really? Very interesting! Do let me know how it goes as you progress!” There’s still always a part of me that gets intrigued about the possibility, though I’ve basically made my decision.

In many ways, reading Felix’s book just got me reflecting on things I’ve thought about for years, and it helped put into words things that I hadn’t completely thought through. Some won’t agree with or like the analysis in the book – and some will hate the book – but I think he makes a lot of good points, and in the end it didn’t really seem that controversial. I think the problem the author ran into is that just by questioning whether transition is right for everyone he’s inviting some strong reactions from some very loud online voices – online voices usually being the loudest. My impression is that he’s really just examining the practical questions of how to best live one’s life and how to carry on and minimize the pain that inevitably goes with gender dysphoria, especially as it relates to non-transitioners and those of us for whom the question has never been clear cut. I found the book interesting and for me, helpful. It’s not the final answer by any means, but I’d recommend it for a clear-eyed approach to a complicated subject.