“Maybe you’re just a tomboy,” someone close to me helpfully offered.
The suggestion resonated, in a way, because tomboy was the label I fed myself when I wondered what I was doing.
When I stood in the shower and carefully soaked washrags until they were warm and safe, using my hands to plaster them onto my chest and pelvis. Inevitably the rags would slip off and intense anger and abandonment would race from nowhere and settle in my ribs.
When I heard another young person crying in the fitting room next to me after she and her mother had had a disagreement. It was jarring to hear someone in tears in that setting, though I cried every time I had to go clothes shopping and found someone I did not recognize looking back at me from the full length fitting room mirrors.
When my response to my first menstruation was to do nothing. If I did not acknowledge the blood, it did not have to be reality. I could reject it.
Gradually I began to realize that being a tomboy was not the issue. To be a tomboy is to be a boyish girl. The source of the issue was that I did not see myself as a girl.
There is a term for that: gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — the go-to handbook for mental health professionals — as persistent identification as a gender other than the one assigned individuals at birth on the basis of their perceived sex, and the distress that results from that identification. Emphasis should be placed on the distress, for identifying as a gender other than the one you are supposed to is not a mental disorder. The distressing part about gender nonconformity is not that one is gender non-conforming, but that one has to confront and live in a society in which gender roles and classifications remain startlingly inflexible.
Transgender people experience gender dysphoria in a variety of ways. Some may not be bothered by their bodies, but may be affected by and avoid behaviors or clothes that are seen as gendered in a way that does not match their gender identities. Some transgender people might find themselves triggered only in social settings where they are presumed to be an incorrect gender by those with whom they interact. Some transgender people may find that they cannot live in their bodies and that medical intervention is necessary to make their bodies match their knowledge of themselves. Some transgender people are not gender dysphoric, because they feel no distress regarding their gender identities.
For me gender dysphoria means that when I awaken in the morning from dreams in which I have a male body. I stumble into the bathroom and feel almost displaced as I catch sight of my reflection. It is as if someone who has hidden themselves behind the door, waiting just for me, has rushed out and violently shoved me; my body tenses, my heart rate quickens, and anxious nauseousness climbs up from my stomach as I struggle to catch myself. I try to avoid mirrors for the rest of the day, because I can already feel that my body is wrong by the way that it moves, or the way that clothes cover it or brush against it — I do not need further visual confirmation.
For me gender dysphoria means that each time I am called Miss, or someone uses my birth name, or refers to me using female pronouns, I am reminded of the strange and utterly lonely rift between my perception of myself and the world’s perception of my self.
Letting go of the tomboy label was not hard, nor was adopting the term gender dysphoria to understand my feelings. What was incredibly hard, though, was recognizing that there is nothing wrong with me for feeling the way I do. It seemed natural, rational, to doubt the legitimacy of my self-perception, despite what the DSM has to say. Maybe I am wrong, I often thought. Maybe I am deluded. Maybe, as I imagined Freud would have suggested, I have a case of intransient penis envy or some sort of complicated relationship with my parents. I could come up with a million maybes, each more convoluted and ridiculous than the next. But one day I understood that I am not trying to be a certain way or be a certain someone. I am trying to be me. And that is the crux of gender dysphoria: the struggle to live authentically.