Do you need to have gender dysphoria to be transgender?

One question that frequently comes up on trans support boards like Reddit’s AskTransgender is whether a person needs to experience gender dysphoria in order to be transgender. Most commonly, a person feels strongly that they are indeed transgender for various reasons, but worries that their apparent lack of dysphoric feelings means that they aren’t “really” trans. This process of questioning can also be complicated by trolls across the internet who seem to believe they need to protect the very concept of transness by keeping out so-called “trans-trenders” who don’t meet some particular criterion (as if trans people have ever been considered to be more trendy, popular, or desirable than cis people).

This self-evaluation often weighs heavily in their decisions regarding their gender, such as whether or not to start transitioning, and these people deserve useful guidance. I have some experience in this area: before I transitioned, I didn’t think I had gender dysphoria at all – but I chose to start HRT anyway. This turned out to be the right choice for me even though I didn’t believe I was experiencing dysphoria at the time, and similarly situated trans people may also find that this is a positive choice in their lives. Here’s what this process looked like in my case.


Why I didn’t recognize that I was feeling dysphoria

Prior to transitioning, I didn’t believe I was dysphoric. In fact, I was – I just didn’t know what it felt like or how to recognize this. I’m very short with a slight build and almost no body and facial hair, and after growing my hair out, I was frequently read as a woman in public. For that reason, it was easy to feel at least somewhat comfortable in my body and in public.

However, I didn’t realize that I was experiencing the mental effects of dysphoria – in my case, flattened and irregular emotions, irritability and high levels of daily stress, a general feeling of hopelessness and pointlessness to life, and a kind of depersonalization/derealization that left me feeling displaced and disconnected from the world. Because I had been feeling this way my entire life, I didn’t know that this wasn’t normal for me or that it was possible for me to feel otherwise.

When I started HRT, I experienced a lifting of these symptoms within a week or two – and the difference was nothing short of miraculous. Life up to that point had felt like being separated from the world by a shattered and distorted glass. For the first time, it was like I came into proper alignment with reality – like I was feeling the world as it’s meant to be felt. I discovered the many textures of emotion that I’d never known before, a sense of purpose and fulfillment and belonging in my own life. I had never felt this kind of happiness before, a sense of simple joy and comfort and rightness that had eluded me for 23 years. It made me feel like myself for the first time, and being myself was finally a good thing.

If, before choosing to start HRT, I had known that I could expect these changes, I would have been highly certain that this was right for me. I would have known that I actually was experiencing gender dysphoria, and that I should probably pursue the typical treatment for this. However, without knowing that these changes were possible and would happen with HRT, I could have easily fed myself doubts forever and delayed transitioning indefinitely.

So: Under an assumption that gender dysphoria is necessary for a person to be transgender, crucial gender-related decisions such as transition may require information that cannot be gathered without first actually making the decision. But contrary to this assumption, accepting my transness and pursuing my desired gender was still the best choice for me. Choosing to start transitioning even though I didn’t believe I was experiencing gender dysphoria led to a clearly better outcome for me. It fixed things for me that simply could not have been fixed otherwise. Conversely, had I decided that my apparent lack of dysphoria meant that I wasn’t “really” trans and shouldn’t transition, this would have led to a much worse outcome.


Why I chose to start HRT

If I thought I wasn’t experiencing gender dysphoria, why did I elect to start medically transitioning? A number of lines of reasoning led me to believe that this was a worthwhile choice. Although I was comfortable with my body at the time, I realized that my body would not always stay that way. I imagined how I would feel in 5 years, 10 years, or 40 years, gradually feeling my body become more and more clearly masculine – growing and losing hair in all the wrong places, my body shape getting further away from what I wanted it to be, and knowing that I could have chosen otherwise but didn’t. When I envisioned this awful future, I knew that this path wasn’t right for me at all.

I had spent a couple years telling myself that I could wait to start HRT until later in my life – that I could hold off for now, and only think about starting hormones once it became really necessary due to reaching a point of physical masculinization where I just couldn’t stand it anymore. But I realized: If I’m going to do it eventually, then why wait? Why pack on years of going in the wrong direction, and end up spending even more years to reverse? Knowing what the right trajectory is for me, why not just get myself on that trajectory starting now?

Finally, I simply couldn’t settle for just never knowing what HRT was like. To be clear on the degree of commitment here, if you decide you don’t like HRT, you can easily stop after a month or two with little or no permanent changes. To me, this was at least worth trying. How would I feel if I went the rest of my life without ever finding out what this does for me? That wasn’t acceptable to me – so I tried it, and soon realized this was one of the best decisions of my life.


Considerations other than dysphoria

Not every trans person feels a strong, clear aversive and negative feeling toward their body and its features. For those who don’t experience this, but still identify more closely with a gender other than the one they were assigned, there are plenty of other ways to clarify what you want out of gender in your life. For instance:

  • If you could have chosen to have a male or female body from birth, which would be preferable to you?
  • Do you feel that being one gender is better for you than being another? Which gender do you feel happiest in, and which gender do you feel less comfortable in?
  • Do you find yourself worrying that something could mark you as “not trans” or exclude you from transness? (Cis people typically don’t desire to be included within transness.)

Being transgender doesn’t always mean experiencing a vivid repulsion about aspects of your body and gender – it can also reveal itself as simply having more positive feelings toward the idea of living as another gender. Ultimately, this isn’t about who does or doesn’t fall within a given definition of “transgender”. This is about which choices are best for an individual as they navigate gender and its role in their life.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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