What even is being transgender

Published on April 18, 2019

A lot of people in the world have some really misguided thoughts about what being a woman who is transgender is about, so I thought I’d write up a short page about it.

What it’s Not

First, I want to clear something up right off the bat. Unfortunately, most people’s initial experiences are from the media, which routinely mixes up “Transgender” with ”Cross-Dressing”. These are wildly, completely different things.

I want to make it super clear - being transgender isn’t about sex. At all. It’s completely unrelated. This misconception really sucks. And I deeply hate that a huge percentage of society think that I’m non-consensually sharing a fetish every time I’m just trying to pick up things for dinner at the grocery store.

What being transgender is about, is how I want my body to look. It’s about being able to look in a mirror and not hate what I see, or about being able to take a picture of myself and not be depressed for hours afterwards.

Being constantly reminded by every mirror, every camera, every time I speak, that I’m not what I’m supposed to be, is a toxic cloud to my mental health. It’s like standing next to a campfire unable to breathe, all the time.

So what is it?

Reports of people being transgender exist across all cultures and have existed across history. We now know that this makes sense, because being transgender is a biological phenomenon - like being left-handed, or being near-sighted. It seems to have a hereditary component, and being trans is actually something you can see on an fMRI scan. And just like nearsightedness, it’s a phenomenon that negatively affects Quality-of-Life unless it is treated.

It turns out, that your brain is kind of hard-wired to a certain gender. Specifically, it’s hard-coded to a certain kind of gender hormone - when it gets ones that don’t match, you feel Bad, and eventually you even feel suicidal. But oftentimes, that Bad isn’t super obvious or clear - if you’ve lived in a toxic cloud your whole life, it’s hard to know what a sunny day even looks like. In fact, like many people, I have difficulty even describing what gender dysphoria feels like, because I’ve never experienced what it’s like to fully not have it.

But good news! We do have treatment for this, and that treatment is gender transition. The goal of transition is to do whatever you need to do, in order to relieve gender dysphoria, and look the way that makes you feel Right. To start to clear out that toxic cloud and replace it with fresh air.

Treating gender dysphoria works

One of my favorite stories about transition comes from @yonatanzunger, who really wrote beautifully about the positive impact transition can bring to someone:

Long ago, when I was in grad school, a lot of my friends suffered from major depression. I had suffered from it as well, although not as badly as some of my friends. And among this group was a trans man, who was suffering pretty hard from depression. Then one day, he started HRT.

A few weeks later, he was almost unrecognizable: there was a light in his eyes that I hadn’t ever seen before. He was alive. A few years later, he had top surgery. He was excited off the roof about it.

The thing is, “depression” is really a cluster of symptoms; it has many causes. His, as it turned out, was caused to a huge extent by his gender dysphoria. Modern medicine’s treatments for general major depression are a lot better than nothing — but they’re also a lot worse than an actual cure. Seeing oneself, and one’s friends, suffering from it means spending a lot of time feeling helpless.

Seeing the change that HRT made for my friend… well, imagine if you’d spent your life watching people die of strep and pneumonia and one day you saw someone treated with antibiotics. It makes you want to jump up and yell “HOLY SHIT EVERYONE CHECK THIS OUT!!” There are so many people in this world who are suffering, and it is So. Goddamned. Rare. that there is something you can actually do which will not just help a little, but help a lot and turn their life around. It’s absolutely amazing when it happens.

So that left a big impression on me. It was a moment of realizing that no matter how awful the world can be, sometimes, there are things that just plain make people happier. And we should grab onto those things for dear life and make sure we get them to everyone who needs them.


Anaïs Betts

Written by Anaïs [a.na'is] Betts, who lives in San Francisco.

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