Welcome to another Queering the Narrative, the blog about how to write better queer characters! This week, we’ll be talking about a topic that’s somewhat personal to me: writing dysphoria.
If you’ve got a trans, nonbinary, or otherwise gender expansive character, it’s likely that you’re trying to figure out what their dysphoria looks and feels like. This discussion will help you understand what it IS, how it FEELS, and give you some good strategies for writing dysphoria.
Disclaimer: I am a binary trans woman, and a lot of this discussion draws on my own personal experience. I’ve tried to include things I’ve learned from other trans and gender expansive folks, but I’m not as much of an expert in that. As I say later on: dysphoria is different for everyone, so take my experiences with a grain of salt if you aren’t writing a binary trans woman.
What is it?
Dysphoria is a feeling that your gender identity does not match the one you were assigned at birth.
For many trans, nonbinary, and otherwise gender expansive folks, dysphoria is a defining aspect of their identity. It is the sensation that has been referred to in popular media as “being trapped in your own body.” It is a distressing feeling of wrongness — a feeling that the you in the mirror does not align with the you you feel in your soul, and is often linked to both primary and secondary sex characteristics
For a long time, dysphoria was actually considered a disorder. (It isn’t. There isn’t anything disordered about being trans or nonbinary.) But, because you can be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, many people think that it’s a requirement for trans-ness. Without getting so bogged down in arguments against transmedicalism that I make my word count completely untenable, let me just say: your character does NOT need to experience dysphoria to be trans.
Not all gender expansive folks experience gender dysphoria. Some only experience gender euphoria, which is dysphoria in reverse (a feeling of elation or comfort in certain identities/expressions). A lot of trans folks experience both dysphoria and euphoria. Some do not experience either.
How does it feel?
Writing dysphoria is challenging because, really, it’s different for everyone.
For some, it’s a feeling of intense distress. It can lead to feelings of dissociation, depression, or an aversion to seeing yourself in the mirror. For others, it’s milder — challenging, but not debilitating. It might manifest as anxiety or depression, or could even be akin to how a cis person might feel about a crooked nose or double chin — the distress might not be world shattering, but it can just be upsetting to not be able to look the way you think you should.
The most popular portrayal of trans folks is the “man trapped in a woman’s body” (or vice versa) trope. However, this isn’t always the case.
For example, nonbinary people exist. Don’t forget that.
Some of us really like our bodies; we don’t feel trapped by them. Such folks might be “non-op,” with little to no desire to surgically alter their bodies. They also might not want to transition at all — no surgeries, no HRT, just expressing themselves through such things as clothing, cosmetics, and mannerisms.
Dysphoria is a feeling of incongruence. It’s a misalignment of self, a feeling that something just isn’t quite right about how you are perceived by the world. Dysphoria warps your perception of yourself, and can make you scared of other people seeing you, scared of how you’re being perceived.
It’s like looking in the mirror and realizing you don’t like the dress you’ve got on — except you can’t just change out of it. Instead, you need to somehow find a way to dye the dress new colors or have it tailored while you’re wearing it so that it’ll look the way you want it to. (And a lot of OTHER people are extremely attached to the dress the way it looks on you now, and you might be worried about how they’ll feel about you if you try to change it.)
It’s important to note, too, that dysphoria isn’t just about physical appearance. Someone might experience dysphoria related to their voice, libido, body odor, missed life experiences, emotional reactions, societal expectations, or anything else “gendered” in our society. Keeping this in mind when writing dysphoria will help make it feel more authentic and nuanced.
Tips for writing dysphoria
So now you know what dysphoria is and have a loose idea of how it feels. How do you utilize this in your writing? Here are some tips and ideas:
1. Focus on euphoria rather than dysphoria
Most media about trans folks (and, really, queer people in general) focuses on our struggles and distress. This can be important, as it forces people who do not experience these things to sympathize with them. There is a lot of room, however, for happy queer stories, and one way that you can carve that space in your narrative is by describing gender euphoria.
Instead of your character looking in the mirror and feeling sad and self-hating, have them experience a moment of joy over a change they’ve made. Maybe they’re binding for the first time, or just got a haircut, and their appearance feels more in alignment with their sense of self. Writing dysphoria by making it about the positive experience of gender euphoria is powerful, and can help people realize that being gender expansive isn’t all just doom-and-gloom.
2. Make it more reactive than passive
For a lot of people, dysphoria doesn’t really kick in until they notice something to be dysphoric about. This doesn’t have to be catching a glimpse of themself in the mirror; maybe they hear themself in a recording, or are distressed by an emotional reaction they don’t enjoy.
3. Consider how you feel about an aspect of your appearance that you don’t like, but can’t easily change.
The way you feel about a weird mole or skinny arms or a crooked nose can help you understand why someone wishes to get rid of their breasts or facial hair. When you look in the mirror and desperately wish that something was different about you, that’s a somewhat similar experience to dysphoria.
Remember, though, NOT TO TRIVIALIZE. People die from dysphoria — it can trigger dissociation, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Be sure not to overuse this comparison, though it can help you sympathize with your character!
4. Feelings of incongruence
One of the things that people who experience dysphoria often agree upon is that it’s freakin’ weird. It’s a weird feeling to look in a mirror and think oh, no, that’s not me.
Sometimes, a person experiencing dysphoria can’t place WHY. It’s a misalignment of self that your character might not be able to place. Your character may boil this down to bodies/gender just being weird, because they can’t pin down what’s “wrong.” This can be especially common in nonbinary/genderqueer folks, as they do not necessarily have a “goal” they are working toward the way binary trans folk often do.
Please remember that narratives that lean heavy on dysphoria are far more powerful and authentic when they come from folks that experience it. If you’re writing dysphoria and you don’t experience it, please try and make it a character trait rather than your character’s entire experience. And, most importantly, get a sensitivity reader!
If you have specific questions, suggestions, or ideas for how to write dysphoria, let me know in the comments! I’m happy to answer and address any confusion.
That’s it for this week! Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!