I feel drawn to explaining what gender dysphoria feels like to me, and consequently, what it feels like to be transgender. Not only because it might satisfy the curiosity of many, but because I think it could help people understand transgenderism a little better, and particularly, understand the validity of trans genders.
When I look in the mirror in the morning, before having shaved, it’s certainly a painful experience. But perhaps not in exactly the way you might imagine.
The immediate reaction I get from my reflection is a feeling of very strong disassociation, accompanied by a kind of shock, confusion, or mental jarring. (Actually, the shock is what I notice first).
I have the strong, gut-level sensation that whoever is behind the mirror is not me. This feels just as wrong and surreal as it would feel if someone played a trick on you, and replaced the bathroom mirror with a pane of glass with a pantomime behind it pretending to be you.
My reflection in the morning feels like a mirage, feels alien, unreal, and very very distant. It causes my eyes to unfocus and for me to take refuge in my thoughts rather than being in the here and now.
I experienced this all my life, even when I didn’t know I was trans.
Isn’t it funny how I can suffer so much, and so obviously, now, but once not have known I was trans? Well, this was made possible by the fact that I didn’t know why I was disassociated from my reflection in the mirror. I think I just felt I was ugly, or that I hated myself (a good explanation when I did, in fact, hate myself).
Or, the feeling was just so normal, seeing as I had had it all my life, that I didn’t think anything special about it; it was just what I always experienced. I think I imagined that perhaps everyone else experienced that, while simultaneously I feared to explain it to anyone in case I was a freak.
My defense was just to disassociate as much as possible from my image and sense of self, which led me to be rather scruffy and socially awkward. The latter thing was because I couldn’t really take the mental view of “watching myself” as I spoke. This meant I was almost always very unaware of the effect of what I was saying or doing. (Only since I began to live as a woman has this lack of self-awareness begun to really resolve itself).
I would also take refuge in my thoughts when I was a child even more than I do now. I remember almost every day experiencing a sense of comfort and release when I was lost in my thoughts, somehow managing to imagine I didn’t exist. When something brought me back to reality, I would come down from my dreamland with a jarring bump, and it would feel so horrible to remember my existence and identity.
And really I wasn’t much aware of this being about my gender, or I don’t think so*. I just didn’t like to be me.
*I am pretty sure that at some point when I was very young I was aware of wanting to be a girl, but later suppressed that knowledge. I have only disjointed and vague memories to go by, though.
Nowadays I am much more at peace with myself, though it’s interesting that the only times I’ve ever spontaneously said “I love myself” have been after taking hormones.
When I started my gender transition by very radically jumping into full-time life as a woman, I first experienced a sort of daze, for about a week. I had broken through so many internal barriers at once, it was as if a train had hit me.
After that I found myself becoming a lot more grounded. I could finally get closer to reality and my sense of self, as those things no longer felt so intolerable for me.
Nowadays, after almost 3 months of hormones, my face is becoming more feminine. I’m harassed less on the street. Sometimes people’s eyes pop out a bit when I mention I’m trans.
And, once I’ve shaved and covered up my beard shadow with makeup, I can have what for me is still an odd experience: I can look at myself.
I mean, I can look at myself for longish periods of time, without my eyes unfocusing, and without the feeling that existence is somehow intolerable.
By the way, I don’t mean I think of suicide; my experience all my life has been that the thought of existing was intolerable, and that I wanted to imagine I had no existence, no sense of self. Seeing myself in the mirror or remembering my sense of self caused me an intense mental jarring, a feeling of wrongness.
Now that that is gone, or at least going, it is kind of a strange feeling. Existence doesn’t weigh so heavy on me. The thought “I am me” doesn’t feel so horrible, so unthinkable.
The old feelings come and go. Sometimes I still feel resistance to my sense of self, for instance when I haven’t looked in the mirror and my old self image returns by force of habit. But sometimes I feel surprised to notice that I haven’t felt like this for a while, and that it actually feels OK to be me.
What I would find interesting, though, is if I could help you understand that what I feel, is something you could feel too.
I first got a taste of this understanding when I watched an interview with some actors from Cloud Atlas.
In this movie, the actors often played roles in the opposite gender. With Hollywood magic and a lot of makeup, they were made to look the part.
This is what Susan Sarandon had to say about the experience (I shortened the full interview to include just the relevant clip):
“I loved being the man, because when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t even see myself, which was really the first time that’s ever happened, despite all the various things I’ve done to myself on film, I’ve never looked in the mirror and actually thought ‘..Is that Chris Walkin’s cousin or something? .. Who is this person, what’s going on here?’ And that was just a startling experience, you know, to not recognise yourself at all.”
I stumbled across this quote by accident, but as I watched it I had the understanding which I think very few who watched this clip must have had: Susan Sarandon was describing gender dysphoria!!
Note that while Susan seemed to find it an interesting experience, I doubt she would enjoy it if she was forced to experience this every day. Gender dysphoria is weird and wouldn’t make a bad experience if it were just once, but add repetition, inescapability, and the connected frustration of not being able to be yourself and you have a recipe for hell. I expect, also, that feeling disconnected from your own sense of self must not be too bad for a short while, but long-term it seriously and genuinely takes away from your ability to function in life.
What I’ve come to understand is that we all have an internal gender. The only difference between trans and cis (non-trans) people is, cis people don’t notice it. When there is no conflict between inner and outer, it’s easy to think that the inner is the outer.
But this misconception causes trans people to suffer. Cis people who think that way often act towards trans people in ways which suggest the perception of the wrong gender, such as calling a man “she” or a woman “he”, giving a girl a “dude hug”, etc.
Even when such a person tries to respect a trans person’s identity, they often fail because they don’t understand that the trans person’s identity is real. Because of this misunderstanding, remembering to use the right pronouns will be an effort, and every so often they might “slip up”. Or the person might do subtler things without even realising that they are problematic, such as the “dude hug” mentioned above.
These acts are not only annoying when done accidentally, and offensive when done purposefully, but they also cause us to feel the same jarring shock as we feel when confronting our pre-transition bodies. The suffering is actually worse, in fact, because when we confront the mirror we have a chance to steel ourselves, let our eyes unfocus, and do any of the other mental defenses we have learned over years. In the case of pronoun slip-ups and the like, they usually come as a surprise, and the mental jarring is total.
Some people will say, “If you have a penis you are a man; that is just the definition of the word.” But this is not true: because a word is how you use it, not necessarily how it is put down in the dictionary. (Actually, I think a good definition will attempt to make the closest description of how a word is used). And the word “man” does not in practice make a cool-headed reference to a person’s anatomy; it alludes to many things, many of which are internal and not external.
The big mistake which we make as a society is thinking that all aspects of a particular gender are always found in a member of that gender. That gender is absolutely irreducible; you can’t break it into parts; you can’t blend or blur the lines.
But in reality, we can blur the lines. Intersex people blur the lines in physicality. And trans people blur them by showing that inner aspects of gender can be separate from outer aspects.
I believe that we simplify things so much we don’t realise there is a difference between inner and outer gender. We think that the outer gender of someone is the reason we call them “he” or “she” and gender them in other ways. But that’s not true.
For instance, if you singled out a cis woman for a funny prank and decided to call her “he” all the time, give her “bro hugs”, and otherwise interact with her in a male way (being more physically and verbally rough, swearing around her more, calling her “man” at the end of every sentence, verbally sparring with her, etc), you can imagine she would feel offended.
If you somehow managed to do that to her for a long time, and to get everyone else to do that to her, she would hate it.
When we avoid doing such cruel things to someone, we are not just acknowledging and respecting their external gender. Primarily, we are respecting their internal gender. Their external gender is not the reason they get offended by this; the reason is their internal gender.
Something that is more common in daily life is temporarily mistaking a cis person’s gender. When we do this, they are usually offended. We usually then apologise and correct ourselves.
If people didn’t have an internal gender, how would this be an offense?
I think these examples show that when we interact based on gender, we are really interacting with someone’s internal gender. Really, the only time someone’s genitals or chromosomes matter is in a doctor’s office.
Even sexuality has more to do with the inner gender than most people realise. From my time in the trans community, I’ve heard about or witnessed dozens of incidents of people being attracted to a pre-transition trans person in spite of that person’s body being in conflict with their sexual orientation. In some cases, they didn’t even know the person was trans. Until they found out, all they knew is that it was seemingly just an inexplicable exception to their sexuality.
I hope, now, you understand that when someone disregards a trans person’s identity, they are not responding to any aspect of reality. They are simply discriminating, by choosing to respect the inner gender of cis people, while disrespecting the same inner gender when it comes to trans people.
It comes down to this. Gendered treatment comes from the inner gender, and trans people’s inner gender is just as real and valid as the inner gender of cis people.
So what is an internal gender?
I think it is a combination of things. I mentioned, for instance, that men tend to verbally spar more with other men. I hated that, even before I understood I was a woman.
I remember a trans man saying once that he hated being treated “like porcelain” when he was seen as a woman. Through his choice of words, I understood that he was implying that this was sexism, and that everyone would naturally want to be treated like they were tough.
But actually, while I identify as being strong, I don’t like being forced to receive the rougher treatment which men receive. Male interaction has a pattern of “testing” or “challenging” one another’s strength, a kind of sparring. This might involve playful teasing or even mild insults. Or they might punch each other or even wrestle with each other playfully.
For me, it feels just a little masochistic. But for them, the slight pain is okay; they just push back against it, and it lets them feel their strength.
I always responded “wrongly” to attempts at male interaction with me. I would become very offended and hurt, whereas the “correct” response was just to push back, maybe respond to a playful insult with a witty comeback of my own. I “should have” used the opportunity to take up more space, rather than fold in on myself. But, see, I just didn’t have the instinct for this.
So I see the male gender as being more “tough”, while the female gender is more “gentle”. Taking female hormones confirmed this a bit: I felt more mellow, less in need of constant action, less pushy.
By the way, this doesn’t mean women aren’t strong; they just affirm their strength in other ways. Try not to let this description become a prescription, or a stereotype or a call to prejudice. Just let the words help you find the feeling I’m trying to point to.
Another note I can make is that if it seems derogatory to say that women act more “gentle” and less “tough”, you might want to look at the values which your male-dominated society inculcated you with. Our society sees male-style strength as incredibly important, while it sees female-style gentleness as inferior and a sign of weakness. This is the true sexism. In a non-sexist society it wouldn’t be seen as degrading to suggest that women act “gentle”.
Finally, note that there IS variation within genders and that I’m not saying there SHOULDN’T be. I can describe how I feel my gender; I can’t tell other people how they experience theirs. Please don’t take what I write to be prescriptive. It is merely descriptive of my own experience.
As another example of my internal gender, I should mention I have also always been very drawn to women’s clothes. I feel so much more comfortable in them, so much more affirmed, so much more myself. I like the flowiness of skirts, the radiance and beauty of flower imagery, and the cuteness and tenderness expressed by bows and lace.
I actually think that these things are all somehow innate to me. My internal gender is flowy, cute, tender, radiant, and beautiful. By beautiful, I mean beautiful in the way a flower is beautiful: radiating beauty; being beautiful for the sake of beauty itself, not merely as a byproduct of functionality.
When I was small, and I still had no idea I was female, I felt incredibly uncomfortable when my hair was cut short, like there was something missing from me. I would continue to feel awkward and stunted until my hair finally grew back.
I’ve since learned that female hormones make head hair grow faster, which makes me think there may be a biological reason why we associate long hair with women. But asides from that (and, in fact, complementing that), I believe that long hair expresses something from inside me: this same flowiness such as I associate with skirts.
I express this flowiness when I dance. I express it, along with an effusive expressiveness, in my gestures.
In fact, these things came out before I knew I was a woman. I worked hard to suppress it though, since I would often be attacked or criticised for being too feminine. I tried hard to learn a way of dancing and gesturing that would help me pass as male. Now that I live as female, I don’t need to learn to move in a female way; I just break down my self-repression and set free the movements which come naturally to me.
Asides from these things, I could point to how female hormones gave me a sense of peace and comfort with myself that I’d never experienced before.
This happened before any real physical changes had appeared. Mostly, I had just noticed the internal changes: feeling more mellow, having a gentler sexuality, having less of an impulse to constant action.
Somehow, these changes just felt so unbelievably, indescribably right.
A trans person I read about once said, “My brain loves estrogen.”
I can so identify with that. It’s something about our psychology finally being affirmed by the impulses of our hormones, rather than being in constant conflict with them.
Our brains know which hormones they should be having.
So there are the matters of toughness/gentleness, of clothes, and of hormones. These are a few examples, though definitely not the only examples, of how inner gender can cause us to act differently and prefer to be treated differently.
But there is also the matter of the body. Most trans people feel identified with having a body that is in accordance with their internal gender, and they work to reconstruct their body in that mould.
Though we do want people see us as who we really are, I think the primary reason for wanting to change our bodies is personal. This is who we feel we are, and gender dysphoria makes sure we never forget it.
Something I think helps understanding a little is to think of body awareness. When someone’s limb is cut off, they often still “feel” it there for years afterwards. This phenomenon is called having a “phantom limb”. It has to do with the fact that the mind has an awareness of what our body is – or should be – shaped like, and this awareness can even persist when the body is no longer shaped that way.
In my case, I believe that my brain has an awareness of my body as female. That is why it’s so shocking and surreal to see any aspects of my body that contradict that.
Further supporting the “phantom limb” parallel, is the fact that many trans men actually feel the presence of their phantom penis. (In my case I don’t experience the same thing, because I have something that should not be there, rather than something that should be there but isn’t).
I should stress that internal gender is not just about body awareness, because there is also all that stuff about e.g. being called “he”, verbal sparring, clothing, etc. But body awareness seems to be part of it.
And while it may be harder to point out that the e.g. women reading this might have a problem with “bro hugs”, it should be fairly easy to get them to understand that they have a body awareness, and that if something changed in their body it might feel “wrong”.
I’m going to steal something from Julia Serano’s amazing book “Whipping Girl” now.
I challenge you to consider this scenario.
Say that someone offered you ten million dollars on the condition that you live as the other sex for the rest of your life.
Would you accept?
I know I wouldn’t. I know that if I had the money, and spending it were what it took to feel congruent with my internal gender, then I’d spend it.
Cis people have varying reactions to this scenario. It’s obviously something most have never stopped to think about. But I generally see varying levels of certainty that no, they wouldn’t take the money, when I ask this question.
Many cis people need to think about it. So, think about it.
Imagine being forced to see someone else every time you looked in the mirror.
Imagine hearing the wrong pronoun all the time, or being treated roughly (if you are a woman), or overly gently (if you are a man).
Imagine no-one in the world really seeing who you are.
Probably, if you can really feel that, you will understand more or less what it feels like to be a trans person.