“I never told anyone I wanted to be a boy as a child, and indeed, never knew what a penis was until I was at least nine or ten. When looking at my female body parts, I sort of just mentally block them out. Can people psychologically deal with their transgendered state in different ways?”
The answer to both your questions is yes, but it depends on how you define “transgender.” Transgender is not a diagnosis – it is a label applied to a condition, personal identity, and/or group, depending on who is doing the defining. However, it is sometimes linked with the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID).
If you are speaking of the actual diagnosis of GID, there are some specific criteria that go with that diagnosis, although therapists today are much more flexible with regard to those criteria, knowing that not everyone fits into the little charts offered by the DSM.
When we look at the DSM, or even certain books that have been written to describe our “condition,” we are given a set of criteria that we are then expected to “match up” with our own situation. For some people, this can be incredibly affirming and relieving – “Yes, this is me, 100 percent, exactly, finally it all makes sense!” For other people, it can be very confusing – “That’s not like me and that’s not like me, so what’s my problem? Do I not qualify as trans, even though I feel this way?”
In the very beginning, when I was just discovering that I was not the only one in the world who had this odd “condition,” I was told to read a book called True Selves. At the time, it was almost the trans bible. Literally everyone I met in the community had read it. And it was helpful – but there was a lot in there that had nothing to do with me and that I couldn’t relate to.
I was also told to read Stone Butch Blues. At the time, it was almost the trans man bible. And it was a great book, and Leslie Feinberg is one of my earliest role models/idols, but it had nothing to do with me. I couldn’t relate to it. It wasn’t my life.
So I think that there are a couple of pitfalls to avoid for people questioning their gender identity or their identity as trans (or even the possibility of a GID diagnosis). Those pitfalls are: 1) taking specific sets of criteria too seriously, and 2) not taking specific sets of criteria seriously enough.
Taking Criteria Too Seriously
This relates to your first question – Is it normal to feel transgender but not really have body dysphoria?
The specific criteria listed in the DSM for Gender Identity Disorder do not reflect me much at all. Nevertheless, I have that diagnosis and I transitioned medically. It was the right thing for me to do. If I would have tried to match myself up with those criteria, or with what I read in any of the clinical books out there (or even books like Stone Butch Blues), I could not have done it, and I would have been back to questioning what the hell was wrong with me, because I obviously didn’t fit here.
So it’s important to see those criteria as general guidelines that fit some people to a “T” (no pun intended) and do not fit others. Many (possibly most) people who transition have some kind of body dysphoria, and it can be very severe. Others do not. It is certainly one thing that therapists look at, and if it is present, it can be a pretty good indicator of what’s going on, but if it’s not present, it does not necessarily mean that a person is not transgender. It might or might not affect the necessity of transition.
But here we are equating transgender with GID, and that is where we get into dangerous territory, because those two things are not the same. So when looking at clinical criteria, don’t take it too seriously with regard to your own situation and don’t feel that you have to “match” it in order to give your feelings and identity a label that you’re comfortable with, which might be “transgender,” or which might be something else.
Not Taking Criteria Seriously Enough
This relates to your second question – Can people psychologically deal with their transgendered state in different ways?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the danger of expanding the criteria or parameters for “transgender” so broadly that anyone experiencing what he or she perceives as a gender identity/physical body misalignment feels that there is only one possible explanation, one possible identity, and one possible path – transition – even if changing the body is not really what’s right for that person.
Transition is a medical necessity for many people. It’s not something that we do for fun. It’s something that we have to do in order to survive. But transition is not the answer for others. There are many ways to deal with a gender/sex mismatch, depending on the amount of psychological anguish and discomfort it is causing.
For example, you can live as a “masculine” female. You can live as a man without any type of medical intervention (although changing legal paperwork might be difficult). You can live as a man privately and a female publicly. You can live as both genders or as neither gender. You can also live as a “feminine” female, or you can adopt or express specific traits, regardless of how they are labeled by your culture. You can really live any way that you want to, as long as you are living and not merely clinging on by your fingernails. (It’s important to stress that these are options for some people – transition is a medical necessity, and for those who transition, there are no other options.)
A clinical diagnosis and medical transition are simply not the remedies for everyone, and broadening the criteria to encompass every possible manifestation of what might be seen as transgenderism can lead to a feeling of being limited in your options. There are many ways to deal with being transgender, and you have to find the one that works for you.
I don’t know how you define transgender. My definition is very narrow and tends to run along clinical lines – a person whose gender identity and physical body are not in alignment. In my definition, the remedy for this situation is often, though not always, transition. But in my definition, once a person has transitioned, he or she is not transgender anymore – the situation causing the misalignment (causing the person to be “across” from his or her gender) has been corrected.
There are, however, many people who have transitioned and still consider themselves transgender. There are also many people who have transitioned and have never considered themselves transgender. This is where language and concepts get sticky, and this is where people can get confused.
My definition is not the popular or generally accepted one today. Most people seem to prefer a much broader category that encompasses anyone who intentionally (or sometimes unintentionally) deviates from standard gender norms, particularly those who are subject to negative repercussions because of that deviation. There are other definitions as well, and they often include people or groups who would not define themselves as transgender if they were doing the labeling. This is one of many reasons why I prefer a narrower definition.
Regardless, it’s not my definition that matters – it’s yours. You have to decide what being transgender means to you and how you are going to deal with it. Sometimes a therapist can help with this, and if you are considering transition, I would recommend that you try to find a knowledgeable one. Sometimes an online or in-person support groups can help you sort out where you are and where you might want to be.
But don’t cling too tightly to any particular standardized set of criteria that makes you feel as if you have to be one certain way in order to fit. On the other hand, don’t dismiss established criteria as meaningless. It can be very helpful in figuring out who you are and who you are not, which then can expand your options.
This was a difficult post to write because of the wide variations in language and definitions throughout our community. I am very interested to hear what readers have to say.