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What is gender dysphoria and how can you support your trans friends?

It describes the discomfort someone may feel about their body and gender identity

It describes the discomfort someone may feel about their body and gender identity© Justin Lambert

People can question their gender for a lot of reasons, but many people do so because they feel uncomfortable in their body or in living as the gender they were assigned at birth. This discomfort is known as ‘gender dysphoria’.

Gender dysphoria is a broad-ranging term that’s used in the medical field, but also more generally by some trans people to discuss their experiences with their gender identity. While people experiencing gender dysphoria may be referred to a gender dysphoria clinic (GDC) for further advice on how to manage or alleviate their dysphoria, gender dysphoria itself is not a mental illness.

We spoke to Cleo Madeleine, Communications Coordinator at Gendered Intelligence, a charity that provides support and resources to trans people and their families, to get the low-down on what gender dysphoria is and how you can support people who might be experiencing it.

What is gender dysphoria?

There is a phenomenon called gender incongruence which describes any feeling where your internal sense of identity – your sense of who you are in terms of gender – is different to the sex that you’re born into,” explains Cleo. “This incongruence can come with feelings of discomfort and anxiety, physical discomfort, or even pain. In some cases, these can be quite severe, permanent feelings of discomfort about one’s body or the relationship between yourself and your body.”

Cleo points out that while all trans people feel a sense of gender incongruence, not everyone who feels gender incongruence is necessarily trans. People might feel unaligned with the gender they were assigned at birth due to gender stereotypes, for example.  

There are lots of ways to manage gender dysphoria, Cleo adds, including medical interventions such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or surgery (also known as ‘medical transition’), parental support, peer support, and educational support.

Cleo explains that one of the first things that can help someone who is experiencing gender dysphoria is “being able to have conversations about how they’re feeling in a supportive environment.”

“Being able to talk to their friends and family about how they’re feeling, and being supported if they want to change their name, try out different pronouns, dress in a different way, these can all be really effective in helping someone feel well,” she continues.

After this, some people may go on to medically transition, although Cleo points out that this is becoming increasingly difficult in the UK, due to increasing hostility towards trans people and lengthening waiting times to access gender-affirming healthcare. But, she continues, for people who do need those services, it can be life-changing. “It can completely remove or significantly reduce that discomfort and give people a new lease on life.”

How to support someone who is experiencing gender dysphoria

Experiencing gender dysphoria can be distressing, so it’s important to continue to support your loved one as they navigate their feelings. “The first thing to do is to just be the friend, loved one, or partner that you are to them already,” advises Cleo.

“One thing we see a lot [at Gendered Intelligence] is someone coming out as trans or asking questions around gender identity, and the people around them pulling away because they’re not sure how to act or what to say,” explains Cleo, adding that this isn’t necessarily because the person is transphobic or unsupportive, but because they may be surprised or confused. 

But, she points out, what people who are experiencing gender dysphoria or questioning their gender need most at that time is stability. Someone confiding in you about their gender dysphoria is, as Cleo says, a “display of trust”.

“The best way to help them is reassurance and to help them walk through their thoughts,” she adds.

Where to find support

If you’re looking for support to help you better understand gender dysphoria or to better support a loved one who may be experiencing it, Cleo recommends reaching out to local Pride groups who may be able to direct you to resources in your area.

You can also find support from Switchboard, a national LGBTQIA+ support line, or Gendered Intelligence (where Cleo works), a trans-lead charity that offers support services for trans people and their loved ones. 

“No one’s expected to become an expert overnight on trans issues,” concludes Cleo. “But what can be really meaningful is listening, offering the support that you can provide, and helping that person to get the support that they need – whatever that is – that you can’t [help them with].” 

Story by Lois Shearing : Cosmopolitan

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