Is being transgender a mental illness? The official answer from the folks behind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is – yes. However, they’re incorrect.
“Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify,” states the DSM 5. “ People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.”
It’s not an inaccurate description of the realities of transgender existence but where I differ is I don’t consider that existence to be a mental illness. It is true many transgender folks, including myself, have dealt with mental illness at some point. However, that’s a product of living a transgender existence in a cisgendered world.
For example, I have fairly intense generalized anxiety. For a long time I was able to crush the symptoms and mask the feelings with work and school – eventually, that stopped working. When it did I began to seek treatment (finally). In addressing the triggers for my panic attacks I realized a consistent theme was my assigned gender.
“Where I differ is I don’t consider [Trans] existence to be a mental illness.”
Think about the hundreds of small interactions you have each day with gender. Trips to public bathrooms at work at school, the clothes you wear, stopping at a store and a clerk politely uses the word ‘ma’am’, or ‘sir.’ If you’re trans these small interactions can spark feelings of anxiety. Compounded multiple times a day, day-over-day, year-over-year – it literally drives a person crazy.
Ultimately gender dysphoria is a fancy way of referring to what happens when you have a person who falls outside the gender binary living in a gendered world. If gender didn’t matter, there’d be no dysphoria.
It’s really hard to describe the feeling of being stuck in your head. What it’s like to be going about your day until something happens. It’s rarely as dramatic as TV or popular media, it’s usually more insidious. That’s what creates the anxiety, living life needing to gauge threats on a nearly continuous basis. That’s why safe space matters.
Jake Graf, who is among many things, British, transgender, and a filmmaker made this INCREDIBLE short film that shows some of the daily struggles of transgender existence. Featuring an all transgender cast it beautifully illustrates some of the mind games that come with transgender existence.