The Truth About Covert Gender Dysphoria

CW: gender dysphoria, genitalia, body functions, sex talk, self-harm

Over a year ago I wrote a post about how I was learning about gender and being Autistic. I stated (pretty confidently) that I was bigender AFAB and totally into men. After the same kind of reflection I had to give my past after being diagnosed Autistic, I redigested my history through the lens of being gender divergent. I had to face some hard stuff about major mental health episodes that were not fully explained by autism, but several wonderful Trans friends have been so helpful. Thank you Zee, Maxfield, Alaina, Jordan, Eli, and Katie. You’ve taught me so much and been so supportive and patient. Trans people understand me in ways cis people have never been able to do.

I also said in my previous post that I do not experience dysphoria, that “my gender diversity is entirely social and expressive in nature.” This turns out to not be true. From what I have observed in others, not every Trans person pops out of the womb knowing their discomfort and mental health problems stem directly from gender dysphoria. To complicate matters, a person can also be Neurodivergent, mentally ill, and/or experience childhood trauma. It can be impossible to unbraid which dysfunction is caused by what. You can mask multiple identities that are socially unacceptable in order to earn love, avoid abuse, and fit in enough to survive. These threads of suppressed selfhood become indistinguishable from one another.

I did a lot of research in articles and on Trans media and discovered that people who figure out they are gender divergent as adults can have covert “symptoms” of dysphoria or signs that are misinterpreted, excused, or denied through mental gymnastics and lack of cultural imagination. For instance, as a child I was completely unaware that people could feel different about being a girl or a boy.

I would like to list my own covert and overt signs of AFAB gender dysphoria from my youngest years to now. [Note: A lot of the more covert symptoms are also associated with Autism, trauma, or mental illness, but in conjunction with the more overt signs, this suggests a mixture of autism and gender divergent traits which is not uncommon]:

Childhood

  • Being upset about having to sit to pee. Asking my mother why I couldn’t have a penis (this is a distinct early memory) and not getting a satisfactory answer. Trying to pee standing up and making a mess. Dreaming about standing to pee.
  • Being dressed in more feminine clothing than I ever wanted to wear and resenting it. Wanting to wear boys’ underwear and clothes instead of girls’ from a very early age. (This was immediately discouraged and I started playing dress-up like a girl)
  • Not ever understanding how to interact with other little girls and them clocking me as different right away. A lot of that is, of course, due to autism as well which is one reason this has been so difficult to figure out. I’ll never know exactly what made them reject me, but gender non-conformity was definitely a factor.
  • Having profound childhood depression and feeling like I’m not actually “real.”
  • Having “male” special interests.

Teens

  • My anxiety, depression, and dysfunction increasing very dramatically with the onset of puberty. I can’t even describe how severe it was or how it felt. This is a common symptom of gender dysphoria. When I got my first period I immediately threw up. I am not particularly squeamish, but I had a great deal of trouble with this body function. Again, Autistic sensitivities can make body functions uncomfortable, but my Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) was always very acute and accompanied by unbearable anxiety and pain without having any actual gynecological condition like endometriosis or cysts. It also didn’t stop once my period started, but only got worse during.
  • Relief of general depression and anxiety when I was put on hormones that stopped my periods. Trans people are often intolerant of the sex characteristics they have and find relief with hormonal changes or when certain body processes are halted or begun.
  • Feeling like an imposter when wearing feminine clothing and feeling like I was wearing a costume. Feeling like a spy or interloper when hanging out with girls (when they would let me).
  • Having a much easier time socializing with boys and trying to prove how “tough” I am to them.
An angry kindergartener dressed in pink

Adulthood

  • Having “deserted island” fantasies where I daydream about how I could present or dress without any observers to criticize/threaten me.
  • Recurring dreams where I have male genitals and feeling grief upon waking.
  • Dismissing my anger at being female by thinking it’s “only internalized misogyny.”
  • Episodes of self-harm associated with meltdowns, but because I felt “angry at my body.”
  • Being embarrassed about having large breasts to the point that I wear baggy clothing, tight bras, and slump to hide them which affects my posture.
  • Feeling distress when I see any pictures of myself and being unable to look directly at the camera (also an Autistic thing, I know). However, my photos always seemed very grotesque to my eye and I never think I look like me.
  • Having a bad reaction to hearing my voice played back to me because it sounds high and girly in recordings compared to when I speak. This is “voice dysphoria” and all Trans people deal with it to some degree.
  • Showering in the dark.
  • Watching Queer and Trans porn exclusively. (It’s incredibly sad that often the only way to learn about FTM changes or Trans sexuality is by watching porn. There is also not enough positive or educational porn/sex ed featuring gender divergent people, although this is starting to change)
  • Preferring to be intimate with bisexual men, closeted Trans women, and kinksters who would engage in role reversal in sex play.
  • Buying men’s toiletries, clothing, and cologne but dismissing it “because it’s cheaper.”
  • Not feeling comfortable with female roles or occupations. I was much more comfortable working with men in restaurant kitchens (despite the sexual harassment) than doing front-of-the-house work which was mostly women servers/hostesses.
  • Not wanting to have children because I can’t imagine my body doing that. (There are lots of other reasons too)
  • People assuming I’m a lesbian and being very confused about me.

There’s a lot of other things, many of which are difficult to divorce from my neurodivergent traits and probably shouldn’t be separated out. For instance, I am actually pansexual and I am attracted to women, but due to general social difficulties I never learned how to “flirt in gay” – or flirt like a normal human at all. The only examples I could study were of cis-normative romance. I didn’t know one can have different types of sexual feelings for different genders.

I also want to point out that a person can go a very long time without connecting these things about themselves to Trans identity, especially if they are required to mask heavily in order to have any kind of life. I didn’t even associate the blatant traits listed above with “I am not gender normal.” I was put on lots of psychiatric drugs that muddled my thinking and due to multiple serious problems, including other types of dysphoria, abused alcohol for a long time. This can be a major barrier to understanding oneself, but isn’t uncommon in closeted people.

To further complicate matters, I am not a binary Trans man – I exist on a non-binary gender spectrum but “center of masculine” as Hannah Gadsby has noted. I love flower patterns, fabric crafts, toe-nail polish, playing with make-up, grumping about men with cis women, and occasionally “dressing up” as femme. I feel much better shaving my legs even though I’d also like to grow my beard. My preference for men/AMABs was also confusing for me. I was familiar with butch lesbians, but I do not identify as such at all and don’t fit into that culture either.

I honestly feel like I am a non-binary bi/pan guy who values their feminine qualities and experience and I will never not be a feminist.

I have gone through many “masc phases” when I couldn’t take the dysphoria anymore and long periods of time when I was trying so hard to be properly feminine that being clocked as queer or masculine caused me distress because I wasn’t performing well enough. I have experienced discrimination and violence due to being visibly gender non-conforming and this has also set me back. Being in my 40s, when I was growing up, the vocabulary and information about gender diversity was not there when I needed it although I always acknowledged that neither boy nor girl was a good fit.

At this point, I exist in a state of questioning and I am trying to figure out what to do to alleviate my gender dysphoria. It is not safe to come out to my family because they will punish me financially and I need their support to stay off the streets and, frankly, they need me too. These are difficult times and there is not much community support for Trans people who are disabled older adults, especially where I live. I have changed my name on social media and made cosmetic changes, but I feel the claustrophobia of the concessions I make for safety very strongly.

I wish there was a clear path to resources and support for every gender-questioning person no matter where they live, but that is a long way off. Luckily, things are changing for gender divergent people and there is information and community online, but actual support services are mostly missing or discriminatory, especially if you are diagnosed Neurodivergent or a member of other minorities.

The gender questioning flag. Queer vexillology thinks of everything

Gender expression on the spectrum

the-pink-dressSince I began a support group for women and non-(gender)-binary individuals this year, I’ve learned more about gender as it relates to autism. A while back, I wrote a clumsy piece in which I was trying to figure out why people sometimes mis-gender me in conversation. I give several good reasons, which I’m not going to rehash here, that have to do with how I was raised and socialized as a kid with Asperger’s.

But after some deeper thinking, reading, and talking with non-binary folks, I recalled some things about my youth that suggest that I am another spectrum person who shows gender diversity. For instance, my favorite pair of underwear as a four-year-old were what I called “boy-panties.” Boy’s tighty-whiteys in my size. I always begged my mom to let me wear the one pair we somehow had, but she got uncomfortable at my insistence after a while. That was the first time I remember being made to feel wrong for wanting to dress a certain way.

There’s nothing wrong with how anyone expresses their gender, genders, or lack of gender – the problem is with society’s narrow definitions.

Like most little girls, I was given dolls like Barbie and fancier baby-dolls like the ones in horror movies. I never liked them. The china dolls were ghoulish with their staring glass eyes, and I would denude the Barbies, yank their limbs off, and ignore them.

DSCF2024a
Not a serial killer, just interested in how things are put together – I SWEAR

Later on in life, I would have sexual relationships with men who enjoyed cross-dressing in public and role-reversal in the bedroom. I was very much on board with this and kept having to steal back my panties from them. (Expensive!!) I just saw this as light kink rather than true sexual expression, and I did both myself and my partners a disfavor by not leaning into the psychological aspects more.

Gender also exists on a spectrum.

Outside of sexual expression, I felt confused and angry about the strict gender expectations that made it harder for me to fit in anywhere. Dresses were scratchy, uncomfortable, and made me feel even more awkward. I’ve never felt comfortable with purses or feminine shoes – like I’m a silly imposter. Instead, I prefer gender neutral clothing. I still enjoy some makeup, skirts, and some types of female outer expression. But other trappings of femininity are not emotionally or physically comfortable for me at all: women’s jewelry, eye makeup, high heels, etc . . .

On a deeper level, I don’t feel like I’m neither gender or androgynous or NON-BINARY; I feel like I am BOTH GENDERS. I feel like I have a fully-realized male side and female side. If I had been born with a male body I would be OK with that, but I’m also happy with having female anatomy, so I don’t have any physical “dysphoria.” It honestly doesn’t matter to me, although being physically male is more advantageous.

[I don’t like the word dysphoria used in conjunction with gender expression, because it is loaded with the judgment of a presumed “norm.” Same reason I can’t stand the word disorder used for spectrum conditions – the NT presumption and judgement are there. There’s nothing wrong with how anyone expresses their gender, genders, or lack of gender – the problem is with society’s narrow definitions. Say gender diverse, please, in reference to people on the gender spectrum.]

My gender diversity is entirely social and expressive in nature.

The only term for this I’ve ever heard is “two-spirit” but it is considered cultural appropriation by American indigenous people to use this term if you are not native. So what’s a girl/boy to call his&her-self?

BIGENDER is the correct term, which many of you are hearing for the first time. Now, of course, this isn’t the same as being bisexual – one can be gay or heterosexual AND bigender. Being a straight bigender woman is a little difficult. People, of every gender and orientation, tend to “read” me as lesbian or bisexual. This is enough for most heterosexual guys to rule me out – just not fem enough to fit in with the social constructs they are comfortable with and unthreatened by. It makes dating a nightmare, but dating is a nightmare FULL STOP.

NON-BINARY is identifying as neither gender or being gender ambiguous. Being BIGENDER is needing to express both genders within and/or without oneself. (But not necessarily at the same time.)

In addition to LGBTQ folks, there are non-binary, bigender, and intersex (physically gender-mixed) people who tend to have higher rates of autism or neurodiverse traits. Many of us feel the terms AFAB – assigned female at birth – and AMAB – assigned male at birth – are genuine ways to describe the experience we’ve been through. Society, the hospital, our peers, and our families forced a very particular set of gender expectations on us based solely on what we had between our legs at the hospital we were born in. It’s not fair or realistic to the way gender also exists on a spectrum.

Some researchers in Holland did a recent study on autism in gender diverse people. In children and teens referred for “gender identity disorder” (GID), 7.8% of them were also identified as autistic, compared with not even 2% of the general population. In a study that reversed the method by testing autistic people for “gender variance,” the rate was an unsurprisingly high 7.9%. The jury is still WAY out on the correlation and/or causation factors of the overlap, but it is certainly worth looking into further.

As a great article on autism and trans identity in The Atlantic by Bryony White points out, “approaching autism in strictly male/female terms has still largely excluded gender-diverse people from the conversation.”

In the meantime, just as with any difference that is harmless to others, let’s just accept it¬†and not give people who already have problems fitting in an even harder time.

Sound good?