Some of us figure out we’re trans the moment we’re first introduced to the gender binary (“mama or dada” “brother or sister” “boy or girl.”) Others perform countless variations of our assigned gender before realizing that all of them feel equally wrong somehow. Some of us wake up one day knowing, and never look back. Others spend years chipping away at layer after layer of fear, shame, guilt, denial, social and/or familial expectations, before arriving at our “true gender,” or a self-expression that feels right to us. For some it just takes a simple thought experiment (“If I could go back in time and change my assigned gender, would I?” Or: “If no one else had an opinion, how would I identify?”) And for others it takes experimenting with clothing, presentation, pronouns, names, etc. before they figure out what feels right.
Every trans person is unique. For me, gender expression was the gateway to understanding gender identity, and it took moving several states away from my family before I felt comfortable taking steps toward a gender expression that felt like home.
Within just a couple of weeks of moving to Lubbock, Texas for grad school, I cut my hair. A week later, I cut it again, this time shorter, and square-er. At the local Goodwill, I nonchalantly browsed the perimeter of the men’s clothing section, avoiding any and all eye contact, until the coast was clear and I could make a bee-line for it. I grabbed heaps of musty button down shirts, men’s jeans and shorts, sad-looking shoes—really anything that looked remotely close to my size would do—and then booked it to the gender-neutral dressing room.
In the dressing room, I watched myself transform into the handsome devil I secretly believed I could be. I stood in awe of my new, more definitively masculine figure and aesthetic, and experienced a high I’d never felt before. Trans folks refer to this high as “gender euphoria”—the feeling of satisfaction, joy, or intoxication, with the congruence, or rightness, between one’s internal and external reality (sex and gender, internal experience and outside expression, etc.).
I would go on to experience this high, this gender euphoria, countless more times over the next ten years. When I bought my first cologne. When I put on my first binder, pulled my t-shirt back on over it, then looked in the mirror. When I looked down after top surgery, and saw my completely flat chest for the first time ever. When someone called me “sir” for the first time. Or the first time a barista wrote my chosen name on my iced coffee. I could go on.
I was experiencing gender euphoria long before I knew that I was trans—and long before I had language for my experience. For a long time, I really didn’t know what to make of it (literally, the first time a stranger “sir’d” me on accident, I was ecstatic and then confused by my own ecstasy.) But a pattern emerged, a pattern which would eventually lead me to an understanding of my gender.
But it’s not just me. Gender euphoria is an essential part of many trans people’s experience and journey of self-discovery. Despite it’s prevalence, euphoria is not something that most cis people (or non-trans people) would think to associate with trans experience.
In the US, the aspect of trans experience that doctors and psychologists and the media fixate on is dysphoria: the experience of discomfort, dissatisfaction, or distress over the wrongness or incongruity between the trans person’s internal and external reality, between their sex and gender, body and mind, presentation and inner sense of self. This fact is at once cause and symptom of the medicalization and pathologization of trans people in the US. I say “in the US” because, contrary to popular opinion, trans people have existed and have been accepted as valid in many other parts of the world throughout human history. But in the US, trans-ness is still seen as synonymous with illness, as pathology; and the textbook narrative, which informs media portrayals of trans people, is defined by negative feelings and experiences.
In reality, however, gender euphoria is just as essential (if not more so) to many trans folks’ narratives as dysphoria is. It’s time cis people, especially those who treat trans people, or who write us into their plot lines, became aware of this.