Naming the Problem
Coming into contact with trans culture gave me language and a framework to describe and make sense of different feelings, sensations and experiences I had. It named a problem and a way to fix it. We usually called our central problem dysphoria.
Dysphoria is a very broad term. It literally translates to something like “hard to bear”. Sometimes people try to use it for very specific sensations but if you look it up in a dictionary you’ll see it defined as things like unease, dissatisfaction, feelings of anxiety and/or depression, feeling unwell, restless, and so on. It’s more or less a fancy Greek/New Latin way to say psychological suffering. It’s suffering with a certain status, suffering of clinical significance. In current usage, dysphoria is typically shorthand for gender and/or sex dysphoria and connected with trans experience and identity. I’m not sure how it got its present, more specific meaning and it’d be interesting to try dig into past clinical and popular writings and trace that development.
In the trans culture I moved through we talked about different types of dysphoria, we’d often break our specific experience into different components. There was a lot of individual variation in how people used the term but it was pretty easy to figure out what other trans people meant by it. I had what I called body dysphoria and social dysphoria. By body dysphoria I meant feeling disconnected or out of place or uneasy about my body, how it was shaped and functioned, feeling like it wasn’t as it should be and wanting a more “masculinized” body. By social dysphoria I meant how people treated and responded to me in ways that made me feel wrong or off, like they weren’t really seeing me. I could be managing one type of dysphoria well while having trouble with the other.
For example, taking t helped my body dysphoria much better than it helped my social dysphoria. I liked almost all of the physical changes I got out of t, I enjoyed watching and feeling my body turn into something I could inhabit. It both helped and aggravated my social dysphoria though because I had mixed feelings about passing. Sometimes I loved it and I took t partially to pass more consistently. But since I didn’t feel or see myself as a man all the time, being seen exclusively as male felt wrong and made me feel invisible. Over time these feelings increased and my satisfaction with passing declined.
I had been told so many times how well I passed and became proud of my ability to be seen as a man. I identified with that ability and this cut down stress because it suppressed conflict with the world around me. I saw myself as other people were happy and inclined to see me as and this allowed me to take in their acceptance and feed off of it. It gave me a kind of wholeness, my consciousness matching up with other’s view of me. Seeing myself as female leads to discord between myself and others’ perceptions. Being a woman who can pass for male means being constantly out of place and getting treated like a glitch in the system. It makes me an outsider. No matter how well others treat me, most people I encounter have a very different experience of the world than I do and that gets lonely. Believing that passing actually made me a boy or a man gave me the illusion of having access to the center of a male dominated culture. I could pretend I wasn’t as far outside as I actually am.
And yet I felt ambivalent about being too far in. One way of finding a compromise was identifying with gay and queer men and trying to model myself after some of them, specifically some gay male writers whose work I enjoyed. I didn’t want to be a straight man, even though I’m primarily attracted to women, and I didn’t want to be stealth. If I was going to be a dude I was going to create my own version of manhood, specifically what a man would be if he had a cunt and female upbringing. Seeing myself as a man made passing more comfortable but whatever ease it brought me couldn’t erase feeling different from most men. And I felt increasingly different the longer I passed more consistently.
My social dysphoria was about being pulled in different directions, trying to manage conflicting impulses about being seen or hiding, being safe and expressing how I really felt. I never resolved this conflict while I was trans/genderqueer. The best solution I came up with was to settle with passing out in the world but being more openly genderqueer around my friends and family. This was how I began realizing I was facing a social problem though at the time I saw this as society not being able to recognize genders beyond woman and man and only recognizing stable identities instead of ones that shifted around. I knew I couldn’t change my body or presentation to get the recognition I wanted, I knew vast cultural changes would have to occur for me to be seen as I saw myself.
I had a better time with my body dysphoria. My body reacted quickly and dramatically to t. I gained about thirty pounds, most of it muscle, over the first six months of being on it. Watching and feeling my body transform was very satisfying. I liked hearing my voice grow deeper, enjoyed my shoulders growing broader and my hips getting narrower, my muscle mass increasing. I liked seeing new body hair grow in and felt ecstatic when I could finally grow a beard. I was very happy with my enlarged clit and could finally have satisfying sex with a partner.
The one change I wasn’t too keen on was how t changed the shape of my face because I’d already been satisfied with it pre-t. My face was and is angular, with a strong jaw and brow line. It was one of the things that helped me pass pre-t and I never felt very dysphoric about it. I wanted my old face back and that was one of the reasons why I stopped but it was pretty far down the list. The mental and social effects were way bigger factors in my decision to quit.
When I stopped I was really glad that a lot of the effects were irreversible, like a deeper voice and facial hair. I wasn’t happy about giving up the quick and easy muscle gain but I made sure to work my upper body a lot so I would retain as much muscle mass as possible and keep my shoulders wider than my hips. I saw myself as having experimented with body modification and finding the best compromise for what felt comfortable. I thought I had created a genderqueer body to reflect my genderfreaky self as best I could. After being off t for months I’d look at myself naked and see a male body or a queer body, a mixture of male and female but never just female. The changes I’d made to my body like broader shoulders, muscles, and facial hair still read as male or not female to me.
Taking t was one way I found peace with my body. I watched how it reshaped my flesh and learned how to get most of what I liked other ways like working out and farming. Transitioning helped me engage with my body when I was dissociated from it and had trouble staying inside of it. It was my main coping technique until I learned other ways to be present in my body, like physical labor and meditation. It helped me work out my body issues but it also created more social and psychological problems. Transitioning caused at least as many problems as it solved and I could’ve worked through my body problems using other methods if I had known about them.
I’m ok with having a deeper voice and facial hair. I don’t mind having a hairy chest. I’ve always been a hairy woman, so a bit more hair doesn’t seem out of place. I only feel distress about shit like that because it makes other people think that I’m not female. If I could be seen as a woman with a beard I would probably grow mine out, at the very least because shaving is a nuisance. I get more anxious about my voice. Sometimes it’s the first part of me people encounter. When I’m looking for farms to intern on, I usually have a phone interview with a farmer long before I ever meet them. If I end working on their farm Í’m more or less going to be living with them and spending most of my time around them, so I want these people to know I’m female and be ok with the kind of woman I am. I used to tell prospective farmers that I have a deep voice for a woman but now I tell them I’m butch lesbian, which is my way of letting them know in general that I’m different from how “woman” is usually understood in this culture.
The problems I used to call social dysphoria didn’t go away but I don’t call it that anymore. I don’t have a single term to describe whatever difficulties I face moving through society. I guess if I was going to sum it up now I’d say I deal with some social bullshit because I’m a dyke living in patriarchy. I’m also a lot more aware that a whole lot of people can’t take for granted that they’re going to be seen as they see themselves and have to deal with a lot of stupid shit because of that. I don’t seem like such a special case anymore, my experience is common though unique in its particulars.
While the term social dysphoria recognizes that society and culture are part of the problem it’s situated in a specific person and focuses on that person’s suffering. Dysphoria points to things happening inside a person’s mind, feelings, sensations and the like, and implies that those originate in that person. It frames the problem as one that can be fixed by changing that person somehow, their body or presentation or behavior, though not to the exclusion of trying to change the surrounding environment as well. Still, since it tends towards individual solutions, socially directed change becomes promoting these solutions, teaching people they exist, making them easier to access and calling for their cultural acceptance.
The word dysphoria has attracted a lot of people and gained popularity because it can mean so many things. Its range of meanings allows people to group a whole lot of suffering, discomfort and life problems into one thing so that all that shit can be dealt with at once. Transitioning was my attempt to completely change my life, a way to hit the reset button and start over as a new person. The “dysphoria treated by transitioning” framework gave me set of steps to follow that promised to take me to a better place and I was desperate for something better than what I had.
Calling a problem dysphoria will lead people to respond to it differently, including doctors and psychiatrists, people with authority, including subcultures that offer refuge for people who get treated like freaks and hated on. It gives similarly burdened people a way to talk about and bond over their suffering. Saying I had dysphoria made people give a shit about my pain and it made it easier to talk about. I talked to all kinds of people about my dysphoria. I explained my experience of it to non-trans people, I compared notes with other trans and genderqueer people. I felt closer to some people cuz we dealt with the same shit. It was part of what gave me an identity and a community.
Now that I have a lot of the same problems but see them differently I don’t talk about them so much with most people. I only go into details with people I trust. Because now I don’t see it as dysphoria, I see it largely in terms of trauma, personal and social. What I called dysphoria could be hellish, could drive me to contemplating suicide but it’s not the same as the anguish I’ve felt since getting to the actual root of my problems. Dysphoria as a concept acted like a shield between myself and my real issues, a way to get distance from trauma and make it more manageable. It didn’t get rid of my suffering but it blunted it down into something I could take. It gave me treatment options instead of just pain with nowhere to go with it. Now I see the wounds I was covering up and if I really look at them I go back to when they were freshly open and when I talk or write about them I can feel them. I can’t go to such a ripped open, fucked up place with most people.
It was easier to say I was dysphoric than to say that other people hurt me so much I couldn’t stay in the body they ridiculed and ostracized. It was easier to come out as trans than to say that I was in so much pain I needed to ditch my self for years and become someone else to survive. I told so many people about the wonders of testosterone morphing my body but I’ve told far less people how taking t now seems like damage I’m still recovering from. In some ways it was easier to take t and live as a man than face just how much other people and this culture fucked me up and got inside my head. I’m not saying transitioning was easy cuz it wasn’t but what I’ve been going through the last few years since I stopped is a whole new level of torturous shit to work through. The only thing I can compare it to is dealing with my mom’s suicide which makes sense cuz right now I’m trying to get back from my own attempt at erasing myself.
What I have to say now is not going to get sympathy from a lot of people in the trans and queer scene. Now it could get me kicked out or attacked. Before I could talk freely cuz people got good radical points for listening to my trans angst and other trans and genderqueer people could relate to how I saw shit. Now I don’t know what to expect but I can imagine how threatening I could be to some people. I also know there are people in that scene who are looking for a fight and looking to take other people down. I’ve already been a target for such people in the past for different reasons and I have no intention of having that happen again.
Saying I’m no longer dysphoric is as much about describing a shift in how I understand myself as saying I no longer endure particular feelings and sensations. I feel more or less at peace with my body now, I’m inside of it most of the time and its form fits me. But what I formally called social dysphoria remains with me, is intensified even. Letting go of dysphoria as a way of understanding my difficulties is letting go of a map that not only gave me a route and destination but traveling companions on the same journey. I constantly feel like I’m struggling to find words and meaning to make sense of my experience and I feel far more alone. It’s like letting go of that and other concepts took away protective coverings and filters, shit I didn’t even realize was in place until it were gone, and now reality is pouring in with an intensity I’m still learning how to handle. There’s not much I can turn to to explain what I’m going through, I have to experience it first and interpret it second. And I feel so much less certain of whatever meanings I come up with because I’m more alone and I have very few women to compare notes with.
It no longer makes sense to see what I deal with as dysphoria because it’s not inside of me, it’s the world around me. I still feel out of place a lot of the time but it no longer points to having a specific condition. I have feelings that arise under certain circumstances, in response to the culture or people around me and eventually they go away. Since I don’t identify with them or see them as part of the main problem, since I just watch them come and go, I find they occur less and less often. Far less often than they did years ago when I still thought I was genderqueer. While I may be acutely aware that many people I encounter have no idea what I am and that society has no place for women like me, I’m learning slowly and painfully not to let that define who I am. I’m learning not to be disturbed by how others see me. Those feelings, those instances of being unseen are just moments that will pass and I will continue beyond them.