Supporting The Families Of Adults experiencing Gender Discomfort and Transsexualism
By Bernard Reed
The Gender Identity Research and Education (GIRES) provides information and education to families in which an adult member experiences gender discomfort or transsexualism. So far, it has directly helped 160 people by means of individual advice sessions and telephone contact, and, in collaboration with Mermaids and Depend, workshops that enable families to meet others with relevant experience. GIRES believes that the information below would be helpful to other families dealing with these issues and to the organisations that wish to support them.
Gender Identity And Transsexualism
Family members faced with issues of gender dysphoria and transsexualism usually seek an answer to the same burning questions: how has this occurred? what did I do wrong? The following information should help them by explaining what is understood about the development of gender dysphoria, and relieving them of any sense of being guilty for the way it has developed.
Male and female characteristics depend on two factors: sex and gender. ‘Sex’ describes our physical structure, including external appearance, internal organs and brain, which all differ between males and females. There are two different aspects to gender: ‘gender identity’ describes the inner sense of knowing that we are boys or girls, and later men or women; ‘gender role’ describes how we behave in society. Even though we now live in a more equal society, boys and girls are still expected to dress differently from each other and, possibly, enjoy different kinds of games. Each is expected to have rather different interests and different groups of friends.
Typically, sex, gender identity and gender role are consistent with each other. So, we tend to think of human beings as falling into two distinct categories: boys and men, who are ‘male’; girls and women who are ‘female’. As soon as the sex of a baby is apparent, it is assumed that the gender identity matches. However, people vary greatly and it should not be surprising that, occasionally, a few individuals experience a mismatch. The way they look on the outside doesn’t fit how they feel inside. The way they are expected to behave may be quite different from the way they actually want to behave. This causes a feeling of intense discomfort which is described as ‘gender dysphoria’ (dysphoria means unhappiness). This condition is increasingly understood to have its origins before birth. Research studies indicate that a small part of the baby’s brain develops in opposition to the sex of the rest of its body. This predisposes the baby to a future mismatch between gender identity and sex.
As the individual grows through childhood, adolescence and on into adulthood, the discomfort may become extreme. Even so, many will continue to strive to live and behave according to the gender role that society expects of them. However, for some, the stress of their situation may become so intolerable that medical help is sought to enable the individual concerned to undergo ‘transition’, that is, to live according to the opposite gender role, and to have treatment, usually including hormone medication and surgery, to bring the body more closely in line with the underlying gender identity. Those who seek this treatment may be referred to as transsexual people or trans men (female to male) and trans women (male to female). This treatment is very successful in giving trans people the feeling of harmony that they seek.
Gender dysphoria has nothing to do with sexuality, that is, whether a person is gay/lesbian or straight. The sexual orientation of trans people, as in the population generally, may be towards men, women or both, or they may have no sexual interest at all. In any case, the trans person is likely to be unsure of future orientation until gender confirming surgery has been completed. It may remain the same; it may change.
Gender dysphoria not a mental illness, although the condition can cause great stress in the lives of the individuals concerned and their families.
Trans people’s rights are now recognised in law. They will be able to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, leading to new birth certificate, which will help to prevent discrimination against them. They will also be allowed to marry in their newly recognised gender.
However, as a consequence of society’s lack understanding and care, trans people often suffer a great deal, just at a time when they most need support. Many find that their families reject them. Sometimes, despite being protected by employment law, they are made to feel very uncomfortable at work, as well as elsewhere. It takes great courage for trans people to reveal their true gender identities. They deserve respect and understanding.