Dysphoria is defined as a state of unease or general dissatisfaction with life. As someone who has fought depression, anxiety, body issues, and gender issues for as long as she can remember, I am well acquainted with the concept and many of its permutations. Even before learning what dysphoria was, I experienced it, which I think is honestly the most frustrating part of dealing with it. It is impossible to talk about something you don’t even understand yourself, especially if you don’t even know there’s a term for those experiences. It is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life, but only in the past five years have come to understanding it as gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria is the term for what transgender people experience in regards to the gender they were assigned at birth. What I would learn as I researched and read about transgender issues in my attempts to make sense of the feelings not only enlightened my past, but also made dealing with that same dysphoria even more difficult.
I liken my own gender dysphoria to the FedEx arrow. if you haven’t been FedEx Arrowed yet, there is an arrow in the negative space between the E and the x. It’s something that you don’t realize consciously is there, but the moment it’s pointed out you can’t ever ignore again, and has been there all along. Every time I see the FedEx logo, I see the arrow. It can’t be ignored. The same quickly became true of my gender dysphoria. The more I learned about it, the more I read, the harder it was to ignore. Not because it got worse, but because my acknowledging it meant that I couldn’t bury it or conflate it with other feelings.
Similarly, there’s this idea that’s started spreading called Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, or ROGD. When I first heard this phrase, I wrongfully assumed it was similar to my concept of the FedEx arrow, but it is instead something much more sinister. There’s a great article by Julia Serano that a friend of mine linked to me that talks about the subject. Essentially it refers to the idea that people come out as transgender suddenly and unpredictably, or perhaps because of friends that also happened to be transgender peer pressuring each other.
Now that I know there’s a name for this particular line of thinking, it’s also something that I can no longer ignore. It used to be a subject I’d laugh about. Particularly funny to me were articles and posts with people claiming it’s statistically unlikely for a whole group of people to all be LGBT. It was funny to me, because my closest group of friends, the ones I’ve known for close to two decades, are all LGBT.
It’s no coincidence. The reason that all my closest friends are LGBT, is because all of my other friends have drifted apart. This is partially because of my own gender dysphoria. As I became more aware of it, I became less comfortable being around friends who I was afraid wouldn’t be supportive. It is also partially for the reasons any friendship drifts apart. We simply grew apart due to varying interests, varying political views, and just life in general getting in the way. My closest friends though, I always knew would support me through anything. It only got more apparent as we all began coming out to one another. Unfortunately, I was the last of my group to come out. Even though I knew they would be on my side, my own fears kept me from doing so for far too long.
When I finally did come out, my gender dysphoria was at what I thought would be its worst. I had been thoroughly FedEx Arrowed by my accepting that I was undeniably transgender. It could only get better from that moment, right? Wrong. While acceptance is the first step to change, accepting my being transgender only made the dysphoria worse.
But what does that mean, exactly? What is dysphoria, beyond the unease and dissatisfaction given by the definition? How does it present? What does living with it actually feel like?
When I was younger, dysphoria presented itself as unchecked depression, as well as discomfort with my body. I was one of the shortest kids in my class. I was the least athletic. I didn’t fit in. I was jealous of the girls in my class, but couldn’t really have told you why at the time. When I was that young, I couldn’t have pointed out my dysphoria even if I wanted to and knew that it was possible.
As I got older, dysphoria started to become more apparent, but I was still oblivious to it. I started hating photos being taken of me. I started hating being required to dress up. I wanted to wear baggier clothes. I wanted to hide my body. I couldn’t have told you why any of these things bothered me the way that they did. The best way I can describe it is how wrong it felt. Wearing ties was probably my least favorite thing, which I would have described as feeling like I was being choked. I hated being called “sir” because, i thought, it just felt too formal. I never would have said because I wanted to be a woman, because I had no idea that was even an option.
Late high school and throughout college my first understandings of my gender dysphoria began to surface. Not at all coincidentally my depression and self-hatred were also at some of the worst in my life. I was a late bloomer as far as puberty is concerned. When facial hair started to grow, I largely left it alone. I hated shaving. Part of this was because I felt that growing a beard would strengthen my masculinity, and part of this was just out of laziness and lack of self-care.
To fight off the depression, I buried myself in movies, tv shows, video games, and tabletop roleplaying. Movies were my first experience with the idea that being transgender was a thing. As terrible as it sounds, the first time I looked up anything relating to being transgender was because of Clerks. There’s a moment in the movie where Randall talks about the porn he just rented. “Hermaphroditic porn,” he exclaims, “Chicks with dicks that put mine to shame.” I googled “Hermaphrodite.” Not because I wanted to see porn myself, but because I was genuinely curious. Not that i could have really told you why at the time. That night I went on a fact finding binge that lead me to learning about being transgender, intersex people, and similar subjects.
At one point, one of my friends wanted me to go to an anime convention with her. There was a catch, she said. She wanted me to cosplay with her and her friends. Then she showed me the costume she picked out for me. It was a woman from Final Fantasy X. My first reaction was no way. I couldn’t possibly do that. My gut, however, wanted to. I couldn’t have told you why, but it sounded like fun. I remember spending a few hours reading cosplay forums about crossdressing. In the end, I chickened out and the cosplay didn’t happen, but I regret chickening out to this day.
In both of these anecdotes, my dysphoria presented itself as a gut feeling. Something I inherently wanted, but couldn’t really bring that want to the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t be transgender, because I was a guy. All my guy friends would judge me. My family wouldn’t understand. Transgender people know what they are far younger than I was, so I couldn’t possibly be one myself. “Just wishful thinking”, I’d tell myself.
It wasn’t until I become more aware of social justice that my understanding of being transgender came to a head. I can thank Gamergate, a reactionary attack on women developers in video games, for pushing me in the direction of “social justice warriors” and particularly Anita Sarkeesian for her feminism in video games and popular media series of YouTube videos. I started identifying as a feminist. The more time I spent in social justice circles, the more I learned about being transgender, and realizing that it fit who I was. Still, I was in denial. Dysphoria, however, got worse.
Now it began presenting itself as actual hatred for my body. I wouldn’t have said it was gender related, but I would look at myself in the mirror and wish things were different. I’d shave a couple of times, and like how my face looked. Laziness and depression would take over, and I’d just grow my beard back, but it was an experiment none the less. It didn’t help that friends and family always convinced me I looked better with it.
I hated how thin I was. I hated how tall I was. I hated my gut. I especially hated my hair and how curly and unmanageable it was. I started growing my hair out more, but every time it would start getting long, it would just turn into what I would call my nerd-fro and I’d get it chopped off again. Little did I know that in a couple of years I would consider my hair my best aspect.
When I started seriously dating is when my dysphoria went from being this nebulous confusing depression, and becoming something that I was actually cognizant of. There were a couple of transgender women on my dating site matches, but I never got the courage to send them a message. I didn’t want to be the person grilling them on their gender, when they were only there looking for relationships like I was. I found myself incredibly jealous of them though, and for the first time started considering what it would be like to transition.
That is when my body hatred started changing as well. I would look in the mirror, and hold my hands over imaginary breasts wondering what it would look like. Still, I’d deny that I was actually transgender. I was just curious, I’d tell myself. However, the more I fought it, the worse it got.
Every step I took towards transitioning, would cause the dysphoria to get worse. This is where I think the idea of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” comes from. While my dysphoria was always there, it rapidly increased as I became more aware of it. When I came out to my friends and family, it got even worse. It blindsided them. It was something I refused to talk about with anyone. When it became something I decided to face head on no one could have possibly seen it coming.
Once I actually started to transition, I was sure that the dysphoria would get better, and it did, but it changed again. It stopped being about wishing I could wear a dress, and wishing I could have breasts, to wishing I looked better in a dress, and wishing I had bigger breasts. It became about nitpicking my body and my voice and my hair and everything about myself.
It felt worse, because the transition just didn’t happen fast enough, and the longer the transition continued, the more I found myself nitpicking things I wouldn’t nitpick before. The more I experienced womanhood, the more that I felt that my own womanhood wasn’t enough, that it would never be enough.
The waves of dysphoria and euphoria are nauseating.
Things like being misgendered weren’t a big deal early in my transition, because I could shrug it off, but now a year and a half into HRT, being misgendered hurts so much more. I could be wearing the most feminine attire, and the word “sir” just eats right through me and ruins my day.
Dysphoria now becomes about passing, or the lack of passing. I’ve been transitioning for long enough that I feel like I should be able to mostly blend in, and when i don’t it hurts. Someone asking my pronouns early in my transition was euphoria inducing, but now, much to my own chagrin it feels like being asked is just a sign that i’m not woman enough for my gender to be assumed.
I used to look in the mirror and see my breasts and feel euphoric and wonderful. I sometimes still do, but more often than not I wish they were bigger, more perfectly shaped. I know, intellectually, that I have two to three years of growth before they’re finished, but it feels like it’s not happening fast enough. The same is true for everything about my changing body, even my hair. It just feels like it’s not happening fast enough.
It’s a constant struggle to remind myself that these things take time, but while I wait, the dysphoria is there, taunting me, and causing me distress. I’m honestly not sure if it will ever go away entirely. To be fair, it has gotten better. Just the parts that have gotten better get overridden by the new elements of dysphoria as they come up.