I’ve always had a hard time with gender dysphoria. Identifying it has been half the struggle. For most of my life it was unnameable, and unqualifiably sad — a deep ache in the pit of my belly that I had learned to ignore. When it reared its head I saw it as dysfunctional, and my self-image was tainted by that view.
My dysphoria was difficult to identify because I am androgynous, and I don’t dislike or disidentify with any particular part of my body. What I experience is a profound sense that certain attributes are missing from my body.
The number one most talked about attribute of gender dysphoria — discomfort with one’s existing physical features — is actually the one I don’t have.
My androgyny is dualistic in nature, so I experience myself in two different ways simultaneously. My gender has two bodies. The deep sense of loss I experience at manifesting only one of them physically is gender dysphoria.
If you have ever shared that sense of loss, whether or not it manifests as discomfort with your present physical features, you may have experienced gender dysphoria.
The other thing that made my dysphoria difficult to identify is the culture I grew up with. I’m Armenian, and in so many ways, Armenian culture has defined my relationship to gender. On the one hand, my culture is extremely heteropatriarchal and transphobic, and that’s kept me from seeing and accepting the true nature of my identity for most of my life. On the other hand, it’s given me positive understandings of masculinity and femininity that are different in nature from Western ideals, and that can be difficult to interpret from a Western point of view.
Exploring and understanding my identity in Western terms such as “transgender”, “gender non-conforming”, and “gender dysphoria” has been hugely difficult. It’s taken a long time for me to get to where I can say, “Yes, this is gender dysphoria. This is what it looks like when an Armenian has gender dysphoria.”
Just putting a name to gender dysphoria can be helpful. Of course, a lot of folks deal with their dysphoria by medically transitioning. Studies show overwhelmingly positive effects for both hormone therapy and gender affirming surgery, so it’s worth taking steps to assess whether this option is right for you, such as consulting with a trans-friendly doctor.
That said, this particular avenue for handling gender dysphoria is only appropriate and available for some. Whether because of prohibitive expense, social stigma, illegality, or just plain not wanting to, medically transitioning is not a viable coping mechanism for everyone. Whether we choose to live in our bodies as they are or whether it’s forced on us, we need ways of addressing dysphoria that bring us closer to a radically loving relationship with ourselves.
Here are some of the strategies I personally think are valuable.
1. Prioritize Emotional Self-Care
You can tackle gender dysphoria first and foremost by providing self-care for your emotions. Do the things that make you feel attended to and whole. Surround yourself with your loved ones, vocalize your needs. Spend time with pets. Blast the music you love. Treat yourself.
You can also care for yourself by setting whatever boundaries you need to feel secure in your gender. You might need to set boundaries with cis people, who may hurt you inadvertently due to their privilege. You may find over time that your gender dysphoria has certain triggers, which you may decide to avoid if they are sufficiently severe. Setting all manner of boundaries is legitimate.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, feelings of dysphoria reach crisis point. It’s important to have a contingency plan for emergencies. Find someone you can turn to, preferably someone who understands gender dysphoria. Call a hotline. Learn breathing exercises. Make a gender-affirming grounding box full of things that are reassuring and that calm you down.
2. Assert Your Identity
Some of us have much more freedom to do this than others. Even when we are not able to display our preferred gender in public, it can be immensely affirming to find some way — any way — to channel our dysphoric feelings into external expression. It could be something very small, something that is not usually gendered but that has personal significance for you. For me, it’s a silver ring that I sometimes wear on my right index finger.
Asserting your pronouns can be very empowering, as can modifying your appearance.
Makeup, contouring, binding and packing can be helpful. Wearing items that shape the body and simulate our desired sex characteristics feels great for many people. Self-expression through fashion can also be radically empowering, and I’ve always taken solace in simply changing my hair and clothing. A button-down can help me feel more comfortable in my own skin, and more than once I’ve shaved my head as a way of telling to the world that I am being misunderstood.
More Radical Reads: On Loving a “Feminine” Body as a Transmasculine Androgyne
More permanent forms of body modifications can also provide powerful relief. Every time I get a tattoo or a piercing I feel more like my true self. Making alterations to my flesh empowers me to feel in command of my body and capable of shaping it in ways that better express who I am. This alleviates gender dysphoria and nurtures radical self-love by bringing my authentic self to the forefront of my self-perception, and by holding space for my gender identity to manifest itself physically.
3. Express Your Sexuality
If you are allosexual — that is, if you are a person who experiences sexual urges — do what makes you feel sexy, pleasure yourself, and seek encounters in the ways that you are comfortable. Communicate your desires to your partners and speak of your body as though it has the physical features that you wish. Have your partners vocalize to you about your body in the same way. Let your play lead down a path that’s something like role-playing, but grant yourself the gratification you would experience if it were real.
Providing for your sexual needs can be powerful act of radical self-love, and erotic self-expression can be deeply affirming of gender identity. I don’t think there’s any time that I feel the fullness of my gender more strongly than when I have sex. Characteristics that are otherwise stifled have a chance to blossom, and the true extent of my gender identity feels free to manifest itself.
On the flip side, sex can also affect dysphoria negatively, so don’t shy away from abstaining or halting a sexual encounter on that basis. As much as I may want sex, and as much as it nourishes me, it’s not uncommon for me to feel that sex is a painful reminder of the body I do not have.
When sex gets triggering, I know I need to take a step back.
4. Provide For Health And Wellness
Both physical and mental health affect our ability to cope with gender dysphoria. Mental illness in particular can make the feelings that accompany dysphoria much more difficult to deal with. If you have a mental disability, seeking treatment can aid in developing healthy coping mechanisms for all manner of negative feelings, including those associated with dysphoria.
Addressing physical well-being can be equally helpful. I’ve found that my various bodily discomforts tend to compound one another. When my back is bad, when my stomach is upset, when I have a headache, my feelings of dysphoria are accentuated. Those things are disruptive to the carefully balanced relationship with my body that I work so hard on.
Having noticed that, I now make more of an effort to do things like avoid foods that I know give me indigestion. When I’m on top of it, I feel better in my body and have more energy with which to address my emotional needs.
I’ve also taken great joy in discovering exercise. When I really push myself, it gives me a feeling of being deeply engaged with my body — like we are one, my body and me — rather than feeling separate from, and at odds with myself, as I often do. Not all of us can exercise in the same ways — indeed, it’s only after years of physical therapy that I can do things like go running – but finding ways to engage the physical world that are challenging, exhilarating, explorative could bring you more in line with yourself, and could be worth attempting in whatever ways are available.
5. Build Community
Community is one of our deepest human needs, yet so often it is overlooked and trampled. Building a gender-affirming community will give you an outlet for your dysphoria and help you overcome feelings of isolation. Find people who you can go to with your questions, your fears, and your privileged information. Place yourself in settings where you can really be yourself.
Do what you can to voice your dysphoric feelings to others. Join groups and forums, make a blog, read, and connect with others. Share your experiences. There’s a unique catharsis in knowing that your own personal narrative is providing insight and emotional support to others.Connect with people intimately, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with those you trust. Remember that when you take a chance, you give others permission to do the same.
6. Make A Cultural Connection
Gender is a social construct. As we develop our sense of gender, we shape ourselves in relation to our cultures. But oftentimes, people of color and others find themselves in a social context that does not represent the cultures that they identify with. This cultural estrangement can frustrate one’s relationship with their gender and exacerbate feelings of dysphoria.
I’m not just a man. I’m an Armenian man. In my quest for masculinity, I had been trying to define myself on Western terms, and it wasn’t working. The frustration I experienced had an adverse effect on my dysphoria. I have since realized that I crave a sense of masculinity that is not reflected in the culture around me.
Too often we find ourselves at odds with our cultures because of cisheteropatriarchy. It hurts me deeply that Armenian culture violently rejects trans identities, as well as my personal interpretation of Armenian ethnicity. This means that engaging with my culture involves shaping new spaces for myself where I am not necessarily welcome. However, that’s something I have to do in the Western cultural context anyway, and it doesn’t give me the same sense of belonging that Armenian culture can give me.
So far I’ve accumulated traditionally masculine Armenian music, instruments, pastimes and clothing. These give me the sense that I’m stepping into my desired identity.
I’ve got a beautiful hat that I love dearly; the kind old Armenian men wear. Seeing it, wearing it reminds me of another world that’s much more comfortable for me overall. When I look in the mirror with it on my head, I see a naturally masculine person — an Armenian king. It gives me a feeling of effortless self-security unlike any other.
So far I’ve just scratched the surface, but every item like that helps me orient my perception back to the non-Western view — the one that reminds me why my sense of gender feels so disoriented to begin with.
7. Challenge The Gender Binary
As trans and gender non-conforming people, our very existence is politicized. We are socially marginalized, and even the targets of discriminatory legislation. Openly supporting pro-trans politics is an empowering way to assert yourself, and connecting over activism is a great way to build community.
Internalized phobias and invalidation are a significant source of internal conflict and self-estrangement. It’s essential for our personal well-being to look inward and deconstruct oppression from within. Discrimination that is internalized, puts us at odds with ourselves and obscures the societal causes of our internal struggles. Start by letting go of gender stereotypes and dismantling gendered language, then take it from there. Work to manifest radical self-love at a socially conscious level.
Hobbies, art, crafting, building – every tiny act of creation comes with its own gratification. It’s a way of channeling negative feelings directly and fashioning them into something unique and vital. We can let go of who we are, or who we want to be, and throw ourselves into the birth of something new.
This is a great release for difficult emotions. I have taken to making self-portraits when I feel particularly overwhelmed. It’s an outlet for my feelings, but also for my gender identity. I can draw myself in ways that convey masculinity and femininity simultaneously, and it’s not only gratifying to see myself portrayed in that way – it provides me with an immense sense of relief.
Making art that speaks to the gender dysphoric experience is therapeutic, and it’s also valuable in a wider social context, where art is homogenized to portray the aesthetics of oppression. But above all, art can help us see ourselves from new perspectives, and to discover the beauty in our own narratives. Perhaps more than any other activity, making art is what has endeared me to the strange paradox of my being. I don’t think there’s anything I value more highly for soothing my gender dysphoria.
9. Connect With Nature
Personally, there are few things I find more helpful than getting out into nature. In nature, I am more than my gender, more than my physical characteristics. I am more, even, than simply human. I am an animal. I am a living being. I consume, I breathe, I grow. I have more in common with my fellow creatures than I can ever fathom.
When I get out into nature, I feel assured that the connection I have with my body is deep and valid, whatever the forms it takes. My relationship to my body is multidimensional, complex, and rich, defined by so much more than only my gender. I can know my body in so many more ways than just the sex characteristics it bears. Understanding my place in the universe outside of human social constructs frees me to discover myself in ways that transcend gender, and that bring me into a more unifying connection with life on our planet — including myself.
[Feature Image: A photo of two people. On the left is a person with light skin and blondish hair. They are wearing a white hat, grey striped tank top, blue striped suspenders, a multi-colored patterned skirt, blue tights, and dark blue shoes. On the right is a person with light skin and bright orange hair. Their outfit is comprised of a yellow tank top, grey skirt, and yellow shoes. The two people are standing outside. In the background are trees and other people. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jasperswardrobe/3694966216/in/photostream/]