I had been dealing with depression for several years before I started exploring gender transition options. Of course, the distressing incongruity between my female body and my brain’s non-female body map had been extreme and persistent since puberty, but I tried so hard for so long to suppress those feelings, to attribute them to the body image disturbances that characterize anorexia nervosa or dismiss them as an unusual form of gender-centered vanity. So it was not until more recently – thanks in large part to perceptive suggestions from an observant friend – that I learned about gender dysphoria and started considering transition in a personal context.
When I first became aware of these options, I felt an immediate and expansive euphoria, an ebullient optimism that inflated me with such promising possibility. I believed that I had finally found The Answer to so many of my life’s uncertainties. I believed that transitioning – in a straightforward black-and-white line, from ugly A to perfect B, from female to male (whatever I thought those words meant then) – was The Solution that would fix all of my problems.
Buoyed by this excitement I began researching transition options, poring obsessively over online trans forums and frantically downloading research papers from PubMed. Very quickly I encountered cautionary statements – in scientific studies and trans peoples’ own stories – urging those of us considering transition to have realistic expectations about how transition may affect our life and reminding us that transitioning will not solve every problem.
“Overall, participants’ evaluation of the treatment process for sex reassignment and its effectiveness in reducing gender dysphoria was positive. It was described as a ‘‘challenge’’ or a ‘‘long and difficult road’’ that was worth taking because of its positive implications on future life, at the end of which not everything was different or better without limitations.” (Rupin 2015)
“Don’t expect transitioning to solve all of your problems. Transitioning is not a panacea – it won’t solve all of your problems. If you were prone to anxiety before coming out, you’ll probably still have to deal with it afterwards. At some point in my transition, I came to terms with the fact that living as my true gender wouldn’t magically fix everything. And it felt really good to let go of that impossible expectation.” – Annika
So I started to examine my own expectations about transitioning. This process began very gradually, my original optimism tempered but preserved. But as I delved ever deeper into myself, as I came to recognize – with a terrifying emptiness – that I do not have any cognitive sense of gender identity (just the physical distress associated with female anatomy), and as my long-standing depression spiralled ever further out of control, I started asking myself with a haunting and repetitive urgency: how much does gender dysphoria contribute to my depression? How much can I expect transitioning to alleviate this complex distress? These questions quickly gathered a frightening momentum, eliminating one by one every hopeful expectation I had about transition, culminating in a crushing avalanche of doubt about whether my gender dysphoria was even worthy of continued acknowledgment.
So often I would reach the end of the day and reflect on the past 16 hours, wondering what would have been better if I had lived the day inside a male body. Usually the answer that I gave myself was that very little would have changed, perhaps a few accidental mirror glimpses – always that initial flash of confusion as my brain works to reconcile reality with expectation – those mirror glimpses might have been less unpleasant, sure, but nothing else would have been any better. So why bother with transition then? Why bother with all this gender nonsense at all?
But in the moments when depression loosens – ever so slightly – its death-grip on my mind, in the moments when I feel a lucid clarity open up like a window to the world, I wonder if perhaps I underestimate how deep this dysphoria extends, if I underestimate how extensively the brain numbs itself to daily pain after a lifetime of unabated agony. And in these moments I can relive the day with more precision, sailing through the same sequence of events, but this time in a masculine vessel. It seems a lot would have been better.
On the squash court –
The squeak and shriek of sneakers on shiny varnished floor –
I could have worn shorts without feeling so self-conscious of my girl hips, I would not have been so painfully aware of my small shoulders dwarfed by the broad backs of male opponents, I would not have felt such desperate pressure to overcompensate with wins to prove that I deserve to play among men.
Standing outside in the summer sun –
The far-off chirp of cheerful birds and the low buzz buzz of busy bees –
I could have escaped my sweat-sticky sweater, an all-season mask concealing the feminine swell of my chest, and I could have instead felt the sun kiss the skin on my bare arms, I could have let my eyes wander as they wished without so consciously averting my gaze from the girl-shaped shadow on the ground.
In the shower –
Warm rivulets of water draining down over all the parts that I pretend do not exist –
I would not have had to cloak myself in darkness, I could have soaped my bristly legs without thinking automatically that I should shave them, and stepping out afterwards I could have wrapped the towel around my waist and seen my face and my bare chest in the mirror and not had to look away.
Driving in my car –
My hand on the shift stick and wind breezing in through the open window –
I would not have had to angle the rearview mirror just so to avoid that quarter-slice of girl-face when I glanced upwards, I would not have had to tug my jacket down low enough to hide the width of my hips in the seat, and I could have sung along more freely with the radio with a deeper voice vibrating through the lines of my jaw.
Pulling on my pants in the morning –
The rustling of fabric and the brisk zip of the fly in chilly pre-dawn dimness –
The flatness of the crotch would not have been such a mocking emptiness, the snugness of the pants over my hips and thighs would not have been such an excruciating reminder, and when I looked down I would have seen a man in jeans instead of a girl in men’s jeans.
Sitting typing like I am now –
Quiet clickety clack, clickety clack, rat a tat tat –
I would not have to feel the tight X of bra straps across my back, I would not have to notice how my wrists and fingers on the keyboard seem so slight and feminine, and I would not have to be afraid of seeing my face reflected back at me in the laptop screen.
With all of that, how is it possible that I still doubt whether I should transition? Such doubt this is! It only seems to multiply as my mind paces the same well-worn path through the same worn-out questions. This doubt is an aggressive beast that feasts on self-reflection.
“Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
– Tweedledee (Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)
Ruppin U, Pfäfflin F. Long-term follow-up of adults with gender identity disorder. 2015. Archives of Sexual Behavior 44(5):1321–1329.