What Is Gender Dysphoria? An Expert Breaks It Down For You

IMHNBO (in my humble, non-binary opinion), gender stereotypes are totally cringeworthy. If you, like me, have always felt lingering discomfort around gender, it's natural to wonder if you've been experiencing gender dysphoria. And if you've never felt totally comfortable with traditional gender roles or your cousin's big gender reveal party made you want to jump in a lake, unpacking the term can be validating.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines gender dysphoria as "a conflict between a person's physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify." The APA states that this conflict can cause serious distress or even problems functioning in one's daily life. According to Anemone Schlotterbeck (she/her), LMSW and Gender Affirming Services Specialist at Philadelphia's LGBTQIA health and wellness Mazzoni Center, part of the problem in really defining gender dysphoria is that the term really has two meanings. "There are two different concepts circulating," Schlotterbeck tells Elite Daily. "One is a clinical diagnosis, and the other is the term trans people use for ourselves, sometimes overlapping with the clinical definition but sometimes different."

If your gender has made you super uncomfortable, or you're just starting to learn about the gender-binary, Schlotterbeck breaks down the definition of gender dysphoria.

Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection

What Is Gender Dysphoria?

The term gender dysphoria was originally coined by medical professionals studying gender in 1973 and was used to describe the emotional aspect of gender discomfort and initially wasn't considered a medical diagnosis. However, in 2013, the APA changed the diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID) to gender dysphoria with the release of the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V). This change was aimed to support those dealing with gender dysphoria rather than to diagnose someone as mentally ill just for being trans. Schlotterbeck shares that while the diagnosis itself didn't really change, minimizing the use of stigmatized language when talking about gender discomfort was crucially important. "Really, the answer is that gender dysphoria should never be categorized as a mental illness," Schlotterbeck says. "It's just an utterly normal variation of human experience."

It's important to note that the APA states that gender dysphoria diverges from gender nonconformity, or people acting outside of gender stereotypes. Stating that "girls behaving or dressing in ways more socially expected of boys" or adults wearing clothes associated with another gender is not the same thing as experiencing gender dysphoria.

What Does Gender Dysphoria Feel Like?

Although the term "dysphoria" may inspire images of intense suffering, Schlotterbeck shares that in practice, gender dysphoria can just mean feeling uncomfortable when someone assumes something about you based on your assigned gender.

While gender dysphoria is something that many transgender people experience, Schlotterbeck attests that feeling confined by traditional gender roles isn't synonymous with being trans. "We talk about gender dysphoria like it's a special secret thing that trans people experience," Schlotterbeck says. "Like no one else has any idea and couldn't possibly imagine what it feels like for gender not to fit. I try to shift that to: We all know what it's like when gender doesn't fit."

Schlotterbeck shares that in practice, feeling discomfort stemming from your gender identity doesn't have to mean being in intense pain or suffering. "Think about how you know that a pair of pants don't fit," Schlotterbeck says. "Sometimes they hurt, and you know that they don't fit. That's basically what the gender dysphoria diagnosis is, like the only way we really know is in you’re in severe pain. But there are lots of ways to know that your pants don't fit. Sometimes they don't fit in ways that aren't painful. You just don't like how they look. They fall off. Or all the other ways."

I identify as a trans person and regularly experience gender dysphoria. Although changing my name, using they/them pronouns, and coming out as non-binary has been incredibly validating, I'll be the first to tell you that gender dysphoria is very real, and ultimately, can be very painful. (Cue: me crying in a fitting room wondering if I'll ever find "men's pants" to fit my bodacious booty. Hey.)

Jokes aside, whatever you're thinking, feeling, or experiencing with gender is totally valid. Although gender dysphoria can be literally painful to some, to others, it may be uncomfortable or just off-putting. You have nothing to prove anything to anyone, you don't need to quantify or contain your choices for others, and you never need to feel like you aren't "trans enough" for not having certain experiences.

What Does It Mean If You Experience Gender Dysphoria?

Although Schlotterbeck shares that gender dysphoria is something many trans people experience, it's important to establish that dealing with gender dysphoria doesn't mean that you are trans, and being trans doesn't mean you have gender dysphoria.

"Gender dysphoria isn't the dividing line of what makes you trans or not. It's not some test you have to pass through to get to a magic portal to be trans," Schlotterbeck says. "Everybody has experiences with gender dysphoria. Nobody's gender fits 100% of the time. That's not how gender works."

But Schlotterbeck shares that feeling totally uncomfortable with your gender all the time is different than feeling off from time to time. "If you're constantly barraged by this thing that doesn't fit, all day, every day, as a totally pervasive experience — obviously that's a different experience than every once in a while, you're like, 'Huh. I don’t really identify with that'. Or, 'That feels kind of bad,'" Schlotterbeck says.

If you're feeling some gender weirdness, or you're interested in exploring gender in a new way, Schlotterbeck suggests looking for communities of other trans people, either IRL or online. Additionally, finding a gender-affirming therapist can create space for you to talk about whatever you're feeling. Having a community that makes you feel safe can be super helpful in unpacking all areas of gender — the good, the bad, and the (non-)binary.

As Schlotterbeck shares, everyone deserves to feel at home in their bodies. If changing your name, your appearance, your pronouns, or even just how you see yourself in your own head makes you feel good, you don't need anyone's permission to be who you are. You are a flawless angel, and you deserve to feel safe and comfortable every day of your life, no matter what words or identities feel right to you.

If you or a loved one are trans and need support, The Trans Lifeline, (877) 565-8860 is 24/7 crisis hotline national led by trans people giving emotional and financial support to trans communities, including trans people that are undocumented and incarcerated.