Growing up dysphoric, your experience of the world is physiologically, sociologically, and psychologically atypical.
As such, you form your understanding of yourself and others through that lens. For myself, I was aware of dysphoria as early as I could understand concepts such as gender. My mom was a babysitter and crossing guard and my dad worked in a factory. I understood the differences between male and female bodies and social roles (especially in 1983) through them because they were both very much what you might call “cis” and very much did embrace their perceived societal roles. It might be strange to kids nowadays, but that kind of social split between men and women was much more common back then.
God, I feel old. I shouldn’t feel this old at 34.
Anyway, my parents were wonderful. Grandparents too. I had an incredibly strong and close family unit and no source of childhood trauma external to dysphoria. So, let’s dis-spell any pre-conceived notion someone might have that all trans people experience child abuse here and now.
I experienced none whatsoever.
The only source of distress in my childhood was based in my dysphoric condition. I became aware of the incongruence in me at about the age of 5. My 5th birthday party is one of my first memories. We played Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey. I remember listening to the adults talking as I blindly aimed to pin my tail onto this pompous jackass in front of me and I realized one referred to me with a male pronoun.
It bothered then as much as now.
Taking aim, I pinned my tail.
The blindfold was removed from me, my tail was nowhere near the mark.
I turned to face the world again and another adult stopped to admire my eyelashes.
She said they looked like a girl’s.
She was right, but for now it would have to be our little secret.
Shortly thereafter, I tried to rebel against efforts to gender me to the contrary of my feminine nature, but could never escape it. It was like a ghost shackled to my soul, tearing me apart in every movement I made in the world.
Eventually, I realized that the ghost must have won, because I wasn’t the one in control of who I was anymore.
I’d become the ghost. I was the one chained to this body.
Claw as I might, I could never get back in.
I tried sometimes, in my private time. Much like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, I’d attempt to sit inside my body and try to be comfortable, but I couldn’t, it was a square hole and I, a circular peg.
Eventually, I discovered books like Charlotte’s Web, where I found my first role model in the character of Charlotte. And then, video games; Mario 2 was my favorite, I loved that I could be Princess Peach. I found solace in them and in solitude itself. When I wasn’t reading or playing games, I’d play with my toys and get lost in imagination. My imagination is a female-only safe space none of you are welcome in. There, I cared for my dolls as my children, dressed myself up in clothes my mom never knew I took from her (sorry, Mom), and began to dream about being just like her one day.
I was socialized primarily among other girls who always treated me just like I was one of them. I was so happy in these interactions, and I found I could exist almost somewhat comfortably within my body in moments like these. I’d feel the incongruence in me begin the mend. In the briefest of moments, I may have even experienced dysphoria’s opposite, euphoria.
Here’s a small tattoo (sorry again, Mom) that’s on the back of my neck:
To me, this is what Gender Dysphoria looks like. These lines represent a separation between Mind, Body, and Spirit. A fracturing of humanity.
It represents, as minimalistically as possible, the sensation of experiencing life as a ghost as I have described it here. When I was socializing comfortably and able to be myself, I felt these lines pull together. It’s in those everso brief moments of euphoria where my fragile young identity was formed, and in the rest where it was broken.
I remember experiencing sexual segregation for the first time in Kindergarten. Nobody understood why I was crying when I didn’t want to sit with the boys. Nobody cared to ask. I was assumed to be a problem child and forced to do it, in spite of my resistance. Adults continued doing this to me, regularly. Never once did anyone ask why I didn’t want my humanity ripped apart. I was just picked up like a pig in a chute and forced, again and again, into groups I didn’t belong in.
I’m not sure if you know anything about masculinity, especially as it begins manifesting in young boys, but as I understand it, it seems like a hell of a drug.
Some boys couldn’t seem to get enough of it. There would be fights and conflict everywhere all around me with boys trying to claw the manhood out of one another. I hid as best I could, but of course it was impossible to hide forever.
They thought I had something they wanted and they came to take it from me too.
As you might imagine, I was these boys’ whipping girl. I had testosterone running through me but no masculinity in me with which to defend it, and so, smelling it in me, they would pounce at every opportunity to grab a piece of masculinity that just wasn’t there. I can’t even describe how terrifying it was.
Just imagine being the only little girl thrown into the middle of a swarm of testosterone-crazed apes who want to eat parts of you, or worse, want you to not exist.
Every day at school was a nightmare like that for me. Every single one.
It led to distress in my life like you can’t imagine.
I developed a serious eating disorder fairly early on. By 2nd grade, I was already way more chubby than anyone would consider reasonable. The fat was like an armor I wore. It hid perceptions of masculinity in me and detoured boys from attacking me over it. Instead, of course they attacked me for being fat. Most kids would respond to that and just lose some weight, but I couldn’t.
I needed my weight. It protected me from having my humanity ripped apart by boys who wanted to consume the masculinity I didn’t have. I was far happier with their attention re-directed to my stomach and away from my mind and crotch.
It wasn’t just the weight either, I’d do as much as I could to deflect. Any stupid thing I might think of to make myself seem outrageous in some fashion, all with the effort of pushing them away from the identity they continually tried to fracture. I pray this doesn’t still exist, but there might even be a video of myself singing Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achey Breakey Heart” in a school “talent” show.
I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew the social wrath this would bring down upon me. I didn’t care. It was everso much better than the alternative.
I resisted school more and more as I got older. After 3rd grade, my mom pulled me out of public school and I went to a private Christian school. One day, I intend to write about my experiences there, which were much like what we call Conversion Therapy— but of course, they didn’t actually call it that.
For now, let’s skip those years and suffice to say the conversion didn’t work.
Next, came Middle School, like a trainwreck into my life.
And I became a fully realized, fractured human being.
That tattoo on the back of my neck became my entire existence.
It was everything it was in elementary school, but indescribably worse.
The only choice I had to deal with it was akin to Stockholm Syndrome.
Dysphoria had abused me through my entire life and I couldn’t take it anymore, so I attempted to embrace the fate the world had for me.
As I’ve mentioned, I was obese. Even moreso by this time. My family was worried to death about my health and wanted me to play sports. I’d played a bit of basketball with my Christian school friends which was tolerable enough. I had to play with the boys, but it was alright. I looked on it as a battle of the sexes. One which I lost but that’s just because I suck at basketball.
A better girl definitely would have won.
In junior high though, in what I’ll tell you was an act of true insanity, I tried playing Football at the behest of my family.
If the world wanted me to be this way so badly, I thought I’d give it an honest try. If I was supposed to be one of these masculinity-starved beasts, I would do so while wearing padding on a battlefield over some weirdly shaped ball of pig-flesh that men carried up and down a field while other men tried to stop them.
That only lasted about a week. I hated every moment of it. Worst thing I’ve ever done. Who gives a crap honestly if that stupid ball gets to one end or the other anyway?
Later in life, I came to realize that ball and I had a lot in common.
I was a weirdly shaped ball of pig-flesh being carried around by the men against my will, being forced by them, from one end of a field to the other.
A source of conflict they could focus all of their masculinity into protecting and/or attacking.
Or, as Feminist Frequency eloquently put it,
“In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball.”