In nearly every picture from my childhood I am wearing ballet leotards or a tutu, mostly because I studied ballet as a child, but also because I identified with the ballerina. It was my “girl” thing, and the ballerina represented the woman I wanted to become. My brother always appears wearing a baseball cap or on a mini-bike, all very macho-like poses.
The most fundamental of questions, “Who am I,” usually occurs to all of us early, before we have formed an opinion about how we fit into the world around us, and who our adult selves will grow up to be. It is a philosophical question, for the most part, one that addresses our personality, our desires, how we fit into the world around us. For some, another question is also formed early, one most of us never give a second thought to: “What am I?” If I had been born someone who asks this question of myself, I might be looking at those photos from my youth and asking why it wasn’t me in the baseball cap, or on the mini-bike, and I might see the little girl in the ballet tutu and have no emotional connection to that person, because I have no connection to that identity.
I am told that this is how someone with gender dysphoria feels – everyday.
Gender dysphoria, formally called gender identity disorder, is a condition that keeps a person from the most fundamental assumption, that I am a girl, or you are a boy.” Typically we know this to be true for ourselves because we see the evidence: my breasts, your penis, are there when we look in the mirror. For transgender children, and by extension for their families, living with gender dysphoria can be painful and isolating. Confusion is often the norm for the children and their parents, and in the larger society it can lead to isolation, rejection, ridicule, and harassment. The issue goes well beyond that of a boy playing with dolls, or a girl playing with toy soldiers; it goes to the heart of how a person perceives himself or herself in contradiction to how their bodies were shaped when they were born, and how those shapes create assumptions about them. The population of people born with gender dysphoria are commonly called “Transgender”.
You might be asking yourself “Why should I care about this?” The Williams Institute, a think tank branch of UCLA’s law school recently released figures that indicate roughly 700,000 people in the United States are born with gender dysphoria and these are only estimates, because the often bigoted reaction from those who do not understand transgender people, prevents many transgenders from publicly disclosing their gender dysphoria.
If your genitalia didn’t match the gender you associate yourself to, would you feel disfigured? What would you do about it?
The statistics on suicide rates among people born with gender dysphoria are staggering. One study revealed 41% out of 6400 respondents reported attempts to kill themselves. This represents about 9% of the total estimated transgender population, or those we know about.
It is important to remember that gender dysphoria is not about sexual attraction, indeed, when the symptoms of gender dysphoria begin in childhood, as they always do, sexual attraction and sexual orientation are not developed yet. It is also useful to keep in mind that gender dysphoria is not considered a disorder, nor is it considered a psychological anomaly; yet because our society tends to stigmatize people who are different from ourselves – especially when the difference is sexual orientation or sexual identity – a transgender person is often misunderstood and treated as though they are an anomaly, leading to enormous levels of distress, self-doubt, and lower self-esteem. More dangerous and disturbing are the high incidences of violence and murder directed at transgender individuals who are often revictimized by some members of law enforcement, who treat the victim with scorn.
Recent media attention has brought gender dysphoria out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Chaz Bono is the most well known transgender person in the country, if not the world. For Chaz – born a girl named Chastity – the action of having a gender reassignment surgery began with many of the issues in childhood I have already described. Despite his famous parents and a life raised in comfort, Chaz describes a painful existence, beginning as early as 3 years old, and ultimately made a decision to reassign his gender through surgery to correct the physiological mistake of being born with the wrong genitalia.
Over the coming months I will write a series of posts that will explore the transition from childhood to adulthood for gender dysphoric members of our society; the choices they make for themselves and the choices society’s pressures force them into. It will talk about gender laws, gender discrimination, and sexual reassignment surgery.
The time has come to stop ignoring this population of men and women, who by accident of birth have been given body parts they do not identify with. We can help stop the isolation by opening up the discussion and ending the bigotry transgenders have been forced to live with for so long.
If you are gender dysphoric, if you know someone who is, or if you simply want to learn more about the issue, please join me in this online conversation. I welcome your comments below.