How do I explain it?
Well, I give people the clinical description from the DSM-V but people’s eyes tend to glaze over from the dry information.
I explain it in my own words:
I was assigned male at birth. I was raised with everyone else thinking I was a boy. I was treated like a boy. I was told to behave like a boy. I was expected to fulfill masculine roles, and if I didn’t, was made to feel as though my value was somehow diminished. But all along, I was a girl, wondering why being a boy never seemed to fit, and wondering why I was born into a body which other people used to ‘prove’ that I was something that I knew in my heart that I was not.
At first I felt confused: “why are people telling me that I’m a boy? Nobody asked me!” I felt ashamed: “people are laughing at me when I tell them I’m a girl or do the things other girls do. I don’t like this feeling and I don’t want to feel it ever again.” I felt determined: “I won’t let anyone see these parts of me. I’ll lock them away and bury them. Maybe they’ll go away.”
When they didn’t go away I felt angry: “why was I given a male body but made to feel like a girl? Am I being punished? What for?” I felt helpless: as I went to bed each night, I’d pray “Dear God, please let me wake up in the morning and be in the body of a girl. Amen” And when I woke up and still had boy parts, I felt defeated. Eventually (around when puberty began), I realized that there was nothing I could do and I needed to accept the hand I had been dealt. I worked at studying the behaviors and responses of other boys and did my best to imitate them.
As a teenager and later as an adult, this cycle continued, but now I had access to some information. I scoured every library for information on what I was feeling, and found a few books with clinical studies and information meant more for a psychologist than a layperson. I searched the burgeoning Internet and found a few personal accounts of other people who had transitioned, but when they described the various steps to transition, they felt out of reach and utterly impossible. Plus, to pursue transition, I would have to disrupt my entire life – probably lose my job, my girlfriend/fiancée/wife, maybe even my family and friends; I could easily end up homeless! And I would have to tell people, and a white-hot searing shame would hit.
What’s more, while I was going about trying to live a convincing life as a man, I would be nearly constantly reminded of what made me different. I would see women hugging each other and having close supportive relationships with each other and know that I wanted that too. I would see women shopping for clothes and wish I could be doing that too. I saw women being free with their emotions and feel jealous because I had trained myself into feeling nearly nothing in order to keep up the facade of masculine stoicism and emotional control, and I wanted to feel free to experience my feelings and emotions. I saw strength in femininity, but couldn’t allow myself to embody any of those traits. I saw acceptance and knew that I was undeserving of that same acceptance because there was something wrong, something broken, something shameful about me.
All of these feelings and emotions – shame, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, jealousy, and more shame – combined into a feeling of utter brokenness and despair. I dealt with it the same way I dealt with the feelings themselves. I buried them in a deep dark hole in my soul and beat down anything that tried to crawl out of the hole.
I could never shake the feeling that I was out of place, that in a more perfect world, I would be a woman — but that was impossible.
At this point, I usually shift to metaphors and analogies:
It feels like having the most important parts of you – the ones that really make you you be completely invisible. And instead, you are seen for parts of you which are less important or are the things you’ve done to cope with your unfortunate circumstances.
It feels like you‘re an imposter – and this feeling doesn’t really go away, even in transition, because you’ve internalized the lessons of how to be a man so much that you feel like you don’t know how to be a woman. It feels like nobody could ever see you and accept you as a woman. It feels like those who claim to accept you are just humoring you – saying what you want to hear to spare you any more distress.
It feels like betrayal, because your body – your home – is telling lies about you. When someone uses the existence of your penis, the shape of your body, your chromosomes, your upbringing and socialization – all of these external factors – to justify their classification of you as a man, you resent those very things for being used against you.
It feels like sadness – a deep, penetrating sadness, which can never go away.
It feels like yearning. You know what is supposed to be, and you want it so badly that it hurts, literally. You know that you want to be seen as a woman, to be treated the same as other women, to wear the clothes that other women do, to participate in activities that other women do, to have the experiences that other women do. And you know that you can’t. And so you yearn for it.
Then I describe some of the more visceral sensations:
It is painful, in every sense of the word. It hurts my mind, it hurts my body, it hurts my soul. At its worst, I will be in so much pain that all I can do is curl into a ball and cry uncontrollably.
It is always expected and always unexpected. Dysphoria can hit at any moment and for any reason – and sometimes for no reason whatsoever. It is always with me; sometimes it is weak enough that I can ignore it, sometimes it is a buzzing in the back of my brain that I can work through, and sometimes it consumes every thought and feeling. I have little control over when it hits; all I can do is try to find ways to ground myself and let the moment pass.
Gender Dysphoria is the distress of having the gender you experience out of alignment with your body and what you and others perceive about you. It is real, it is painful, and it is not a mental illness. I am a woman, but I was born with a male body, which everyone took to mean that I was a boy — but I wasn’t a boy. I was never a boy. I was born a girl — a girl who was thrown into a confusing world where, in order to survive, she had to look, act, speak, behave, and do her best to try to be, a boy. But that doesn’t change that she was and is a girl.
But in the end, I’ve learned that regardless of how much and how well I describe gender dysphoria, it will always be mysterious.
For those who have never experienced it, no description will ever suffice. For those who have experienced it, no description is needed.