Transgender persons are not a new phenomenon, but the discussion around them is more relevant than ever as they become more public. As transgender representation increases in television shows and civil rights conversations, so too do political issues surrounding them.
As a result, it’s important to understand the underlying mental condition transgender people experience, something called gender dysphoria.
What is Gender Dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is a mental condition where sufferers experience extreme distress at presenting themselves as their assigned gender. When such people choose to present as a different gender, they are referred to as transgender. People who identify with a “traditional” gender role are considered cisgender.
The causes of gender dysphoria are disputed and mysterious. Some research points to genetics, some points to social factors, and still more points to hormone exposure before birth.
Because of the acute discomfort and emotional distress sufferers experience, it is critical that transgender people find a way to cope with their condition. Trans people have a significantly higher rate of suicide attempts than cisgender people.
It may be easy to label gender dysphoria as a mental illness, but that’s not telling the whole story. While it certainly shares qualities of mental illness – to the point where it is recognized under DSM-V – illness also implies wrongness. For instance, being chronically depressed is not a normal state for a human body.
A helpful comparison may be found in autism. Many autistic people resent its label as a mental illness because they see the autistic brain as merely different in its processes, structures, and ways of perceiving the world. Though this is an oversimplification, transgender people may view their assigned gender as “wrong” but questioning it as merely a step in the process to their desired end state.
Another common misconception is that all transgender people undergo reassignment surgery, where their genitalia are altered. Reassignment surgery is expensive and carries many risks, so many trans people choose to keep their given genitalia.
Currently, the most effective treatment for transgender individuals is to live as the gender they desire. This may involve altering their appearance and name. Cognitive behavioral therapy also helps, particularly with the confusion and anxiety that transition can cause. Many trans people also undergo hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, to help assist their physical transition.
There is a great deal of scientific debate over treating transgender children. Many children cease experiencing symptoms around puberty, but others do not. Certain drugs exist for them, but the associated risks require extreme care.
Regardless of whether we understand gender dysphoria fully, one thing is clear: transgender people are here to stay. Being informed helps us be more compassionate, which is important for a stable and healthy world.