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Gender Dysphoria

17 December, 2011

Have you ever looked up the term gender dysphoria? Unless you have it, or are intimately connected to someone who does, I doubt it ever crossed your mind to look the term up. According to the medical and psychiatric community gender dysphoria is discontent with one’s biological sex and/or the gender one was assigned at birth. There are two major flaws with this statement resulting in the definition being such a large downplaying of the emotional chaos those diagnosed with the condition suffer it makes the degree holders look like they are purposefully ignoring the trauma of living with this condition.

The first flaw occurs with the definition’s use of the word discontent. Discontent is a dissatisfaction or restless unhappiness. This makes gender dysphoria sound like a wistful longing for what one would term better circumstances. The use of this word to describe the emotions associated with gender dysphoria is a belittling of the person who suffers it, it erases the magnitude of the condition. I do not experience a vague, discontented feeling with my physical self. I experience loathing, a raw, feral hatred of my physical self, from the size of my hands and feet to my hairline and jaw structure and, more loathed than anything, the penis and scrotum (bear in mind this is my experience with gender dysphoria and should not be considered a blanket assessment of all dysphoria, as with other conditions individuals can suffer dysphoria to lesser and greater degrees). Mere discontent cannot account for this intensity of emotion; it cannot explain why there are days, such as today, where my physical self is so loathsome to me that I cannot leave the house out of shame and disgust and the intense anxiety of having others see me. And I have felt this since the onset of puberty and the corresponding development of secondary sex characteristics. To call this discontent is a serious understatement.

This loathing of the physical is born out of a dissonance between the self-conception produced by the mind and the image reflected in the mirror. Our brains are hardwired to have a metal understanding of the self and produces a mental image of what the body looks like. To understand this, close your eyes and allow your mind to picture your body, that image is your self-conception. It is not a remembering of what you look like, but a mental construct of your physical appearance that enables you to function–to literally move in and interact with the world. None of us has a mental image that fully conforms to the actuality of our bodies, but the majority of people have an image that is close enough to the actual that there is no dissonance between the self-understanding and the actuality. I, and others who suffer gender dysphoria, do not have that genetic privilege. My self-conception is such that how I perceive myself to be and what is reflected back from the mirror are radically different. So radically different that I experience a type of self-perception dissonance. My mind cannot reconcile what it believes I look like with what it sees. On good days this only results in a disconnected, surreal (almost free-floating) feeling, as if the self and the body inhabit near-space but not a shared-space. On bad days this feeling is a near failure to recognize what I see as self, rather it is a complete other. This is dangerous. This is what leads so many gender dysphoric individuals to self-harm. The causing of pain and the letting of blood becomes a physical link that allows them to recognize their body as their body. Other times it results in self-punishing behaviors, either punishing the flesh for failing to conform properly or punishing the mind (alcohol, drugs, or beating oneself about the head) for failing to conceptualize properly. The emotional backlash can range from depression to mania to rage. Discontent is nowhere near an accurate description of these feelings.

The second fundamental flaw in this definition is the term biological sex. They use the term as though biological sex only consisted of genitals and secondary sex characteristics. The brain, however, is a biological component running a variety of physiological processes such as our senses, thoughts, and self-conceptualization. Thus, self-concept is also part of biological sex. Those who have a physical-self and self-concept free of dissonance, may not understand the important distinction between the physical and mental components. If they are aligned, it is difficult to tell that they are not the same. But for those of us who experience dissonance between them it is clear that they are different and thus should be considered separate aspects of biological sex.

I purpose gender dysphoria’s definition be altered to a dissonance between the outer, psychical manifestation of  one’s sex and the mental self-concept of one’s sex that results in a constant mental strain as the person attempts to reconcile two, or more, contradicting perceptions of self. I would even go so far as to suggest dumping the term all together in favor of a more accurate term such as biologist and trans woman Julia Serano’s Gender Dissonance.

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