Episode 6: Gender Dysphoria, Transitioning, and Elf?

In this episode we explore what gender dysphoria feels like using the movie Elf as an example. We also look at the differences between social transitioning and medical transitioning. This episode is dedicated to Ms. Julie, who passed to the other side this week and left the world a little darker for her loss.




So the other night I was laying in bed stressing myself out because I felt like I had given myself an impossible task. How could I explain gender dysphoria to someone who had never experienced it and would likely never experience it? It felt like trying to describe a Salvador Dali painting to a blind person.

But just before I fell asleep, it hit me. The perfect way to explain it already existed, and I’ll be you’ve already seen it yourself, because the perfect way to explain gender dysphoria is the hit 2003 Christmas movie Elf.

Hello! And welcome to another episode of Valentine’s Voice, the educational show for and by transgender people hosted by me, Valentine Valcourt. I know I said last week that we would be discussing the different steps that transgender people take in transitioning, but after starting writing the episode I realized that before we talk about HOW transgender people transition, we have to talk about WHY transgender people transition. We’ll get into the transitioning part in just a bit.

So, in episode 5 we said that transgender people are people whose mental gender identity and physical sex do not match. The cognitive dissonance caused by this is called gender dysphoria. The gender part of this term is obvious, is a kind of dysphoria related to gender. Dysphoria, as defined by the Miriam-Webster dictionary means ‘a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied’. So to be really clear about this, being transgender is not a mental illness. Gender dysphoria is the natural response to having a body that doesn’t match one’s mental identity. There are also transgender people who do not experience gender dysphoria but do know that there is a disconnect between the mental gender identity and physical characteristics.

The best way that I can explain this in the movie Elf. For those that haven’t seen it, the first portion of the movie is a long set of hilarious hi-jinks involving Will Ferrell living as a man in an elf’s world. Recently Will Ferrell produced a documentary about his best friend transitioning and his learning experience with that. I assume that he would be stoked to find out that’s been explaining transgender issues for way longer than his documentary has been out. He even thinks that he’s an elf, since that’s the way he was raised. In the movie it’s played for laughs, because he hits his head on every door frame and has to use tiny toilets and showers and whatnot. But take a second and think about what that actually would have been like. He’s been told his entire life that he’s an elf, held to the standards and expectations of an elf, expected to live exactly as they do. We see in the movie that he can’t live to these standards, he can’t do what they do. The awareness of difference, that everyone that you’re around responds a certain way that you don’t. can do things you can’t, and that they do it naturally, without thinking about it, and you do not. Aside from that, there is a fear that everyone else is going to realize the same thing that you have. You Aren’t What You Seem. Living under that cloud has secondary effects, like depression and social anxiety. For me, this is how gender dysphoria felt. Like fear, inadequacy, anxiety, depression, and social anxiety.

So you can imagine my joy when I found out that A. there was a community of people like me, what I felt had a name and B. that there was a way to make it better. This solution is transitioning, and it is a process that takes time and involves several parts. If you haven’t watched Episode 5 this would be a good time to do it, because we’re going to use the gender bread person as our framework for explaining this.

The first part of transitioning involves your mental gender identity, it is realizing that that these feelings you have felt your whole life are gender dysphoria. It is the acceptance of being transgender. This can actually lead to the gender dysphoria getting worse, giving it a name can be the same as giving it a focus. For me this involved several different pieces falling into the puzzle at once. As I mentioned before, I was raised in an ultra conservative religious household. I didn’t really get to start thinking for myself until I broke away from that, sometime around 24 or 25. So it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I realized that not everyone was attracted to people regardless of gender, I wasn’t straight. Something about that clicked more little switches in my brain and I began presenting more androgynous. Then I heard that the lead singer of Against Me! had come out as transgender. She was a lot more similar to me that any other transgender person I had ever heard of, it helped me realize that I didn’t have to be a super femme person to have gender dysphoria, to be transgender. Lastly, my first wife and I divorced, and the amount of risk involved with transitioning dropped tremendously. The pieces came together in one area just as they fell apart in another. I realized that I had a once in a lifetime chance, and I took it.

The second part of transitioning is in expression. This means social transitioning. This can be the hardest part. It can also be dangerous. For anyone new to be transgender who is watching this trying to learn more I need to pause here and tell you rule one of being transgender. Be safe. You are a valid transgender person without doing any of it. If you want to know the best thing you can do as a transgender person at any stage, it is surviving. Too many of us are either killed or die by suicide, the numbers are atrocious. So if you have realized that you’re transgender, and you are either not in a safe situation to come out, or are still a minor living with parents who are not supportive, wait. It gets better. As time passes you will gain more and more independence and you’ll be able to transition. For anyone who is able to transition safely, step three means telling people your new name, your new pronouns. It can mean changing how you dress, talk, walk, how you style your hair. I have to emphasize how big a deal this is. This is the first time for many of us that we get to finally be ourselves. No, a lot of things don’t match up, yes, it can still cause massive amounts of painful dysphoria, but the day I finally switched to using my real name was one of the happiest days in my life. I had very short hair, I had only been on hormones a couple months and you couldn’t really tell. None of that mattered, I was me and I wasn’t having to pretend anything to anyone anymore. I knew that I never would again.

The third part is matching the physical characteristics to mental identity. Generally this means hormones, also known as hormone replacement therapy or HRT. Note that I said generally, not all transgender people go on hormones. I am going to have an entire episode about hormones and what they do coming up, but the take away is that they swap the instructions that your body is running on and start working on matching your body to your gender identity. Another way that people accomplish this is through gender affirming surgery. This can mean surgery to any part of the body including the face, chest, genitals, and fat redistribution. Generally surgeries to the chest are called top surgery, and surgeries to the genitals are called bottom surgery. Between HRT and the various gender affirming surgeries it’s actually really amazing that all of this is even possible. For transgender people it is a full blown miracle.

Notice that I did not mention gender identity or attraction, the other two parts of the gender bread person. This is because there isn’t anything wrong with the gender identity portion, and gender identity has nothing to do with attraction, they are not linked.

So just to wrap things up, the reason that people transition is that their mental identity and physical characteristics don’t match. For a lot of transgender people this causes gender dysphoria, a natural response to the cognitive dissonance caused by the mismatch, not a mental illness. To fix the mismatch, and to relieve any gender dysphoria a person might be experiencing, transgender people transition. This transition can be either or both social and medical. Social transitioning is changing your gender expression to match your mental identity. Medically transitioning can be either or both hormones and various gender affirming surgeries. Transitioning in any form saves lives, full stop. The feeling I described of being different, not fitting in, fearing that people will figure it out, and all the accompanying pain can absolutely kill.

I really appreciate you taking the time to watch this episode, and if you enjoyed it please like and subscribe, it really helps. Next week we’ll be diving into hormones, what they do and don’t do specifically for transgender women. We’ll be tacking transgender men and non binary people in a later episode. Thanks again, and I’ll see you next week.


This episode was largely about my own personal experiences and opinions, no sources today.

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