noun: the distress a person experiences as a result of the disconnect between their internal gender identity and the sex/gender they were assigned at birth.
Salgu Wissmath, a 33-year-old Korean American nonbinary photographer, had never heard that identifier growing up and didn’t come out until their late 20s. They’ve now been openly nonbinary for about five years. Wissmath’s experience is common for many transgender and nonbinary people who don’t have easy access to queer vocabulary or community. Like others who learned more about gender through social media, Wissmath says that watching YouTube videos of other nonbinary creatives and following their blogs on Tumblr is what allowed them to learn about gender dysphoria and discover their own gender identity. “Knowing that it took me such a long time to learn about and understand what gender dysphoria was made me want to do a project specifically about that,” they told the Cut.
Wissmath was inspired to create their photo series “Documenting Dysphoria” after they took a portrait of themself to describe their experience with gender. Seeing how the photo turned out, they wanted to provide the same opportunity for others. The photo series is for the trans and nonbinary community to see stories from other people like us, and “for us to recognize parts of ourselves in the experiences of others. Ultimately it is to empower us to embrace our own skin.”
Yet Wissmath makes it clear that the series isn’t solely about dysphoria. On the contrary, it’s also about gender euphoria, which they also asked about when interviewing individuals for their portraits. “Certain clothing might really give you gender euphoria, but other clothing might cause gender dysphoria,” they said, adding, “With this project, my goal isn’t to focus only on unhappy feelings, but to focus on the feelings and experiences that have allowed people to understand their own identity.”
Many of the scenes the photographer captured were especially personal in nature. Before taking the images, Wissmath interviewed each trans person about their gender identity, their experience with gender dysphoria, and what dysphoria means to them. Based on those conversations, together they would style a photo that would best represent their experience. “Sometimes we tried to illustrate a specific incident they shared with me, sometimes we just tried to show a general situation where they would often experience dysphoria, or sometimes we tried to represent a specific feeling,” they say. All of the clothing and poses were intentionally selected to illustrate those experiences and bring each individual’s feelings of gender dysphoria to life.
One of their favorite images in the series is the one of delfin. “delfin was the LGBT center director at Ohio University when I was in grad school and they were the first nonbinary professional I had ever met, so they were a big role model for me,” Wissmath says. “delfin told me about this time they had to attend a black-tie event, and they shared what went through their head: Well, they said I had to wear a tie. They didn’t say what I had to wear a tie with. Then they told me about this outfit they had worn to a wedding they were in: a button-up shirt and tie with a beautiful ball gown dress. So that’s the outfit we picked for that photo.”
Whether people see this project and feel affirmed or learn something new about their own identity, Wissmath wants their main audience, the queer community, to feel hopeful. Second to that, they want to show the general public more nuanced stories than what you find in mainstream media, which doesn’t often present the full range of transness and the trans experience.
“While there is an increasing awareness of transgender identities, there is still a continued misunderstanding and lack of acceptance that contributes to high rates of suicide, discrimination, and barriers to health care in the trans community.” Wissmath references that trans women of color — specifically Black trans women — continue to die at alarming rates, and that in 2020, at least 37 trans or gender nonconforming people were killed in the United States alone. In America, trans youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to cisgender kids. The rise in violently anti-trans bills proposed in legislatures throughout the country — including HB1570 in Arkansas this week, which would essentially criminalize health care for trans people — has taken its toll on the community, too.
Showing instead of simply talking about these experiences is vital, because, as Wissmath notes, “individuals who experience gender dysphoria need to see themselves reflected in art and media.” Through this project, they hope that trans and nonbinary people see a more specific and authentic representation of their own thoughts and feelings. “Our society still has a long way to go to fully understanding and accepting all forms of gender identity and expression across the gender spectrum.”
I identify politically and internally as nonbinary and externally practice as masculine, so trans-masculine. Nonbinary to me is being off of the structure that was put into place to categorize/control people. To me, that’s the political part of the identification.
What does gender dysphoria mean for you?
What comes to mind is a strong feeling of disorientation, seeing an offset image or looking in parts of a fragmented mirror and seeing someone else’s body reflected.
My brain goes to experiencing dysphoria when being misgendered. Just hearing a pronoun — it [can feel] completely out of left field. I think when I said the word disoriented earlier, that is something that I tie to that of just being, “Wow, who the fuck are we talking about?” And then the embarrassment and the realization that, “Oh, this person was actually referring to me.” But it’s like a shadow person.
What do you hope people can understand from seeing this project?
I would [hope] that other trans folks would see that they are not the only one in certain struggles. I think the secondary part of that is someone realizing that someone’s experiences are similar or the same — that also creates a feeling of connectivity.
I feel like everybody has a thing with bathrooms. I go to the bathroom during class instead of between because there is less of a chance of running into someone. I still tend to use the bathroom of my assigned gender because it’s still the safest option.
What does that feeling feel like?
I get anxious and I feel like I’m on guard all of a sudden. I always feel my hands tense quicker than anything. My voice always gets quieter. My movements will get less big.
That’s something that comes with feeling like I’m passing, my movements are bigger. I walk down the street and I’m more confident, and my movements are larger. And then, once I feel like I’m not, I get a lot more restrained and a lot smaller because I want to draw less
attention to me.
There are a lot of different reactions that you are having while that happens. There is the emotional reaction of knowing that people see through you. Versus what is an innate fight-or-flight reaction where you are prepared just in case they are going to react poorly. You don’t have time to feel upset about the dysphoria in that moment, because you kind of have to get through that situation first.
How would you describe gender dysphoria?
It is like going through your day and not feeling like you are wearing a mask. And then suddenly becoming aware that to the rest of the world, you’re in costume, even though you feel like this is the most true, authentic you.
I identify as trans and under the trans umbrella I identify as nonbinary. A lot of times people will explain nonbinary as both a man and a woman, neither, or somewhere in between. For myself, I like to even exist or define myself outside of those short definitions. In addition to being nonbinary, I identify as fem, as somebody who presents in a way that’s on the more feminine side. Then, because it’s central to my experience of dysphoria, I would also throw intersex in there as well.
What are some times you’ve experienced dysphoria?
Going to doctors and getting really any kind of physical or body exam is definitely a time when I’ve experienced a lot of dysphoria. In my case, for some reason, I can never go to those appointments without crying somehow. That’s because I know I’m nonbinary, but when I tell my doctors that, “I’m nonbinary, so please don’t do this thing, please don’t call me this thing, please don’t prioritize this, this, and this,” they just always ignore that anyway.
One thing I don’t identify with for myself and one that I like to dispel a lot is the whole trapped-in-your-body feeling. For me, that’s never really been my experience with dysphoria because I don’t feel I’m trapped in anything.
What do you hope people might understand from this project?
That dysphoria looks different for everyone. I think that in the media dysphoria is presented really one or two ways; it’s very watered-down. I don’t think people realize that it is very personal, that it is not the same for every person, even if they share the same identity. That for some people, it’s mostly social dysphoria. For some people, it’s mostly physical dysphoria. And that it’s not clear-cut.
I think some kinds of gender dysphoria are related to environment, kind of related to how other people interact with me. And then other facets of gender dysphoria are not triggered by anything, but just kind of how I feel about myself in the world. A lot of my dysphoria is very physical to my body. So I really needed to be on hormones because the hormones made me physically change and I can be in my body and really be happy with myself.
What are some things that help affirm your gender identity?
Switching my underwear from men’s underwear to women’s underwear made me feel so good. Men’s-cut underwear made my butt look misshaped or something. When I switched to women’s underwear, it felt snug in the right way. It hugged my hips the way I wanted it to. Looking in the mirror and seeing myself in them — it’s what I always wanted and it was what I was always scared to do. I just found I needed to get myself and wear the things that make me feel good.
I recently got a new pair of long johns for my bottoms and they’re women’s kind. I felt so much better in those than all of the men’s ones that I have. It’s like every time I have switched one undergarment I have from a men’s undergarment to a women’s undergarment, I just feel more secure in myself and more comfortable with myself. It just makes me feel good every time I look at myself throughout the day. It makes me feel good to know that that’s what other people are seeing when they look at me.
How would you describe gender dysphoria to others?
It’s kind of like one of those movies where somebody wakes up, and they’re still experiencing life, and they think it’s like everybody else, but then they go outside and they’re invisible. Nobody’s going to see them and they’re just like, “Why can’t you hear me? Why can’t you see me?” And they spend all of the rest of the movie coming to terms with being invisible and hopefully figuring out how to not be invisible anymore. That’s what gender dysphoria is like. Because you’re one thing, but either you or someone else can’t see that. But they need to.
On forms, I typically choose nonbinary and gender nonconforming and trans. If there’s fill-in boxes or if there’s just an “other” box, I’ll do trans, nonbinary, or trans masculine. I think the theme of them all is that it’s kind of not one thing that can be pinned down. Putting multiple things together doesn’t mean that it’s 50 percent this and 50 percent that. Sometimes I think about gender like an electron cloud; the moment that you can identify the location of the electron in the cloud, it’s already somewhere else.
When have you felt gender dysphoria or gender euphoria?
My most consistent and calming ritual that I have right now is giving myself my shot every Monday. I feel very much in control of my body, which for a very long time I felt I had no control over. So that’s something that gives me joy.
I’m on low-dose testosterone. I wanted a little bit of a moderate effect of what testosterone does to the human body. The challenge with that is that you can’t really predict or control how much change happens to which part. And it’s not like you can take a certain type of testosterone just for muscles and then leave your voice alone.
I want some of the body changes that happen with testosterone, but I don’t want all of them. I’m not interested in being perceived or treated or identified as a male or a guy or a man. I am interested in having my body be more muscular in build. I don’t even want my voice quite this deep, but I did want to have it deeper than before I started taking testosterone. My voice has been continuing to drop a little bit beyond where I want it to go.
How would you describe gender dysphoria to others?
Gender dysphoria feels like when you know to your core that something is true and everything else around you, including what people say and do and the feedback you get from the world, says otherwise.
Genderqueer and genderfluid are the labels I use. It’s essentially living on the borderland of masculinity and femininity and sort of feeling both male and female, not only in terms of masculinity and femininity, but in terms of identity. Most recently, I’ve noticed in self-reflecting, I’m leaning toward more femininity, but at the same time being scared of that.
What are some examples of types of situations where you are more aware of gender dysphoria?
When it comes to the more formal events on campus, anything that calls for more formal clothing, where a T-shirt and jeans is not appropriate. When it comes to what does it mean to dress professionally.
What does it mean to enter into spaces where there are very rigid gender norms, specifically around professional dress?
There are days where I’m comfortable showing up to my boss’s office in a skirt. But then other days being very mindful that form of presentation creates a barrier in how people perceive me as a professional and as “an expert.” Oftentimes people see me as a joke. Again, there are days where I’m all for disrupting that, taking it head-on. Other days, I just don’t want to have to deal with that.
What does that feel like?
Not pleasant. It’s anger. It’s pain. It’s confusion. Frustration. And snarkiness, wrapped into that. “Well, they said I had to wear a tie. They didn’t say what I had to wear a tie with.” And then questions of self-doubt. Am I really trans? Maybe I’m not trans. Am I trans enough? It’s a lot of contradictory feelings all popping up at once.
I identify as a demiboy or trans boy. It basically means that I’m mostly masculine, but there is still a lot of fluidity in the way that I experience masculinity and my gender. I put a lot of thought and creativity in the way that I dress. A lot of times I dress really feminine. It kind of derails people from how I actually look, and my identity. It’s really shitty because they devalue the way I identify just because I’m wearing a skirt. If a cis gay man was wearing a skirt, he would still be a cis gay man. But since I’m trans, I experience this invalidation of my identity just because I’m aligning myself with my sex given at birth.
What words would you use to describe the feeling of gender dysphoria?
Awkwardness. I would say itchy. My skin doesn’t feel right on me. Parts of my body don’t feel right. Sometimes gender dysphoria can cause panic attacks. When I have a panic attack, I’ll just feel really physically drained and nauseous.
I also have dysmorphia, which is a psychological disorder in which you are intensely uncomfortable with the way that you look, which is also a part of my dysphoria. I’ll be looking in the mirror and just feel really, really uncomfortable with the way my face is shaped and how feminine I look. I’ll feel really uncomfortable with my body, because of my dysphoria, and then I’ll actively hate my body, because of my dysmorphia. They go hand and hand with each other.
What do you hope people come to understand through these images?
The idea that trans doesn’t look a certain way, and that it’s expressed in so many different ways.
I can’t even describe the weight that was lifted off myself when I finally came out and started living as me. It’s literally the difference between night and day. Just going out and having people accept me as I am, no questions asked, makes my day.
What does gender dysphoria mean to you?
It means living in very literally hell on Earth. That’s what my life was. I spent 35 years trying to give my parents what they wanted and I almost took my own life because of it. Becoming myself has been the only profound experience that I’ve had in my life. So I know I’m going in the right direction.
If I still see too much of the old me, then looking in the mirror sparks dysphoria because I spent 35 years living in that hell of a life. Every time I start seeing that in the mirror, it comes right back up, and I have to live through that all again.
What does it feel like?
First, picture in your mind someone you dislike. Then imagine tomorrow when you wake up, every single person on the planet insists you have to act just like them. You have to dress like them. You have to like the types of movies and TV shows they like. You have to read the kind of stuff they do. And all the stuff that you want to do, you are absolutely not allowed to do it without being extremely ridiculed, mocked, and ostracized by society. That’s basically how it feels to suffer dysphoria.
What do you hope people can understand from this project?
That trans people are just people. I don’t even like the word transgender. A trans woman is just a woman.
I am a genderqueer, nonbinary, trans person assigned female at birth. I claim trans because I’m not cis. I am nonbinary in that I don’t identify [with] a gender on either end of the spectrum of gender and actually [don’t even believe] in gender as a binary spectrum, but more of a constellation.
What are some different situations where you have felt gender dysphoria?
I find myself tensing up when I’m in crowds where I know, or anticipate, I will either be misgendered, or people from my past will use my birth name, and that there will be an environment where I am referred to as “the daughter,” or complimented on things that I perceive in feminine ways.
I think some of that is just existing in space with people who don’t see me as who I am. Everyone at my job knows my identities. I’ve shared it with my family. My friends know. And still it happens: People don’t see you. And that tension just heightens. I think no matter what I do, people don’t see me as trans, or they don’t see me as genderqueer, and that just heightens however I feel my body in that moment. But nothing feels good.
What words or feelings would you use to describe gender dysphoria?
It’s like a slow drill or like a dull vibration that’s always there. It’s that ever-present, kind of dull refrigerator hum that I never bothered to investigate and was just told, “Well, yeah, the refrigerator hum. That’s just a sound you’re used to.” I absolutely have moments of gender euphoria where I don’t hear the hum.
What do you hope people who view this project might learn from it?
I hope that someone is curious, in a nonexploitative way, and that their wheels keep moving around this idea that gender is a fucking construct. I would even imagine on some level, someone else feels seen or heard or affirmed.
Everyone knows that the bathroom issue has been really big with the community right now. Awhile back, my church does this thing where they provide food for the less fortunate. I literally got persecuted, yelled at by a group that just got done eating, seeing me come out of the women’s restroom.
How would you describe what gender dysphoria is?
When a person realizes who they truly are, every time they see that their outside does not match, it saddens their heart.
Have you ever gone to the drive-through and you order a soda and when you look inside it’s something else — and you’re depressed? That’s kind of the way it is.
What do you hope people come to understand from this project?
This is who we are. What is so wrong about accepting people for how they
want to live their life?
I’m a binary transgender woman. So for me, there’s the social dysphoria and the body dysphoria. Those are really the two components. I’ve noticed, at least in my experience, that one or the other is stronger in different people. For me, it means that mixture of not only not being able to live as your gender in the world, which is the social aspect, but also just that basic discongruence with your body itself.
What are some situations where you feel gender dysphoria?
It’s usually when something suddenly reminds me that I’m trans, or somebody particularly reminds me of that. Like when I’ll suddenly get excluded in a conversation in a certain way.
This is the example of an environment inducing [gender dysphoria] for you. You’re at a job and suddenly people start treating you differently because they find out you’re trans.
I finally got this one teaching job. I could tell he didn’t know until after I’d already taken the job because he needed to hire somebody really quick because they lost a teacher right before the semester started. So he got the background check back after it already started. And then he’s all, “Well, I don’t care as long as you teach.” But he wasn’t very friendly about it.
Then he probably told somebody or somebody found out or they just figured it out. Then all of a sudden, my co-workers are treating me very differently and they’re very cold and evasive and somewhat hostile. And then all of a sudden, the parents found out and then even the kids wouldn’t respect me because if neither the other teachers nor the parents are, they just don’t feel obligated to.
So it just made teaching there a nightmare. I was going there every day trembling. And then I would go there and then halfway through the day I’ve locked the door for lunch and I’m crying in my classroom and I just finally quit. There was one day when I just said, “This is my last day here.” I didn’t even give them two weeks’ notice. I couldn’t stay.
Living every day as how I view myself makes me feel very excited. I am a woman with just something extra. You don’t have to wear makeup and you don’t have to do your hair every day to identify as a woman because you are who you feel you are.
When do you feel gender dysphoria?
When I see a lot of my friends. Because it’s baby season, everyone is starting to reproduce. Although I’m very excited for their journey, I’m envious and I’m jealous because even from when I was a child, that’s something I really wanted to do. I really wanted to be a mother and have that physical and emotional connection with my child. Because I can’t have that, it’s very devastating.
What does the feeling of gender dysphoria feel like?
Like a disconnect. I have no idea how to describe it. It just sucks. I’m going to just use disconnect. It’s when I feel disconnected from my gender.
What do you hope people will come to understand about being trans?
Genitalia does not define gender, despite whatever they have read in biology. It goes beyond that.
What advice would you give to someone that is just starting to transition?
Enjoy your transition. Love who you are now and who you are going to become.