CW: descriptions of gender dysphoria and mental illness. Note that the target audience is primarily cis folks.
In my last post I described cissexism and how it impacts me and other trans individuals. In this blog post, I will be discussing gender dysphoria. I have previously described my personal experiences with gender dysphoria, but I never really explained exactly what it is and what kind of implications it has for my overall health and treatment. This will likely be significantly more challenging than my other posts, so here goes nothing…
Gender dysphoria is a condition in which a person feels dissatisfaction, distress, or restlessness as a result of their assigned sex not being in-line with their true gender. It may cause those who have it to experience a variety of difficulties such as social isolation, bullying, harassment, discrimination, confusion, low self-esteem, etc. which may lead them to “suffer with anxiety, depression or related disorders at higher rates than nontransgender persons” according to the American Psychological Association. Note that most of the difficulties that I mentioned are often related to cissexism. In other words, cissexism is a major contributing factor, if not the primary contributing factor, to gender dysphoria.
I imagine many of you know what it is like to experience ostracism for being different and how painful non-acceptance can be. If you have experienced the sting of being an outcast, then you know what kind of distress it can create. Some of my darkest and most painful memories are those where I didn’t feel accepted or loved by those around me.
This information may be causing you to think of a question or two.
Does this mean that being transgender is a mental illness?
Absolutely not. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, and those who do experience it don’t experience it in the same way or to the same degree.
Okay, being trans may not be a mental illness, but what about gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness. The DSM-V has this to say about gender dysphoria’s status:
“DSM-5 aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. It replaces the diagnostic name ‘gender identity disorder’ with ‘gender dysphoria,’ as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.
“Persons experiencing gender dysphoria need a diagnostic term that protects their access to care and won’t be used against them in social, occupational, or legal areas.
“When it comes to access to care, many of the treatment options for this condition include counseling, cross-sex hormones, gender reassignment surgery, and social and legal transition to the desired gender. To get insurance coverage for the medical treatments, individuals need a diagnosis.”
Stated differently, gender dysphoria is not a mental disorder. Those who experience it sometimes need access to treatment for distress that is associated with it and the point of the diagnosis is to ensure access to proper care.
Do all those treatments really work?
The optimal type and number of different treatments for gender dysphoria can vary from person to person. Some may feel that dressing in accordance with personal and/or societal expectations of one’s true gender is sufficient. Others may seek psycho-therapy, hormone replacement therapy, or various surgeries. It has been shown many times (see references in linked post) that those who transition have improved health outcomes.
I can also speak from personal experience that transitioning is the best thing I have ever done for my mental and emotional wellbeing. Nothing else I have tried (believe me, I’ve tried a lot of things) has ever come close to being as effective.
What can I do?
Be our ally.
How can I be a good ally?
The answer to that question will have to be saved for a later blog post. However, I alluded to some of the basics in my post on cissexism.
In summary, gender dysphoria is a condition some trans folks experience as a result of their assigned sex being incongruent with their true gender. It is often associated with disorders like anxiety and depression and a primary contributor is cissexism. It is not a mental disorder and transitioning is an effective treatment.
A word of caution: beware of some of the opinions of certain medical ‘professionals‘. The scientific/medical community, as a whole, acknowledges the existence of trans people and does not consider being trans a mental illness or disease of any kind, though transphobia still exists in said community. If you seek the opinions and insights of particular professionals, it helps to (1) get more than one opinion, (2) make one’s self aware of the professional works about the topic in question when possible, (3) get a sense of what the expert consensus is, and (4) understand the relevant concepts and evidence supporting the expert consensus. (Sometimes systemic bias can negatively influence a consensus as can be seen by the history of rampant transphobia and transantagonism in the scientific community.) There will almost always be disagreement to some degree, but that does not mean those in opposition to consensus have opinions that are equally valid.