It seems like every other week, some conservative with a podcast and an ax to grind announces that being transgender is a mental disorder — despite having no credentials that would actually, I don’t know, make them qualified to diagnose someone.
And I’ll be honest — it’s frustrating to still hear this.
You don’t have to look very far to get the general medical consensus. The World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association have both affirmed that being transgender is not, in fact, a mental illness.
And while “gender dysphoria” can be medically diagnosed, this is specifically done to access gender-affirming care — not because being transgender is in itself a disorder.
It’s true that some people really and truly don’t get it. There are some folks that use this kind of language because they don’t know how else to talk about the trans experience.
They don’t know exactly what a “mental disorder” is or what it’s like to be transgender. And they see that we’re suffering and dysphoric — so they don’t know how else to talk about it.
As someone who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and also happens to be transgender, I can tell you upfront that there’s just no comparison.
Being transgender and having a psychiatric illness aren’t at all the same. Comparing them isn’t just an “apples to oranges” situation — metaphorically speaking, we’re not even in the same food group here.
And why is that? To start, let’s talk about what mental illness is.
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a health condition that impacts thinking, emotion, and/or behavior in a way that creates distress. More often than not, this leads to difficulty functioning in social, work, and/or family activities.
For people who aren’t transgender, they might look at this definition and come to the conclusion that trans people are mentally ill, because many of us do experience distress, and being transgender absolutely does impact how we think about ourselves and how we behave.
The problem is, it’s not being transgender that, in and of itself, creates distress and dysfunction. It’s the difficulty in trying to be who you are when the society around you is deeply hostile towards you.
It’s not my gender identity that’s caused me distress. It’s moving through the world as a trans person.
If anything, identifying this way has brought me enormous relief and made me a happier person overall.
I started to experience distress because of how others treated me. I was distressed when I experienced invalidation, harassment, and rejection. I was distressed when I was closeted, trying to be something that I wasn’t.
And my functioning was impacted when I couldn’t access care, like hormones and surgery.
When I wasn’t able to be who I was, and when I encountered violence and opposition because of it, that’s when I was distressed.
When someone is suffering as a result of how the outside world treats them, especially when they are part of a group that has historically been marginalized, that’s not a mental disorder.
The word you’re looking for there is “discrimination.”
The more “insane” thing to do would’ve been to keep pretending to be someone I wasn’t, which was a much more agonizing experience for me.
Figuring out my gender wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was a huge relief and it improved my life, so long as society did not interfere with my ability to transition. I’m far more mentally healthy now than I ever was prior to transition… by a long shot.
And that’s why I consider my experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder and my transgender identity to be — categorically — two very different things.
It’s true that how society treats me because of my OCD, and a lack of accessibility to the therapies and medications I needed to thrive, were both contributing to my distress. Discrimination happens to people with mental illness, too, and it can have a profound impact on our lives.
But there’s a component to my distress that originates outside of that mistreatment.
OCD — and the neurobiology behind it — creates patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviors that are in themselves distressing, even under the very best circumstances.
Labeling those patterns as a disorder is the quickest way to say, “There are aspects of my biology and brain chemistry — mixed in with my environment and genetics and everything that makes me a human — that create specific and unpleasant mental/emotional experiences for me.”
Those patterns have been studied over the years, and they’ve been observed in many people who all respond similarly to particular solutions. The label exists to guide people like myself to the resources and solutions that will help reduce our suffering.
Many of these mental and emotional patterns associated with OCD feel at odds with who I am, and when I don’t work to mitigate their impact, my mental health worsens.
Being transgender, though, feels in alignment with who I am, and when I am able to freely explore and express this part of myself, my mental health improves.
The unpleasant experiences that stem from OCD aren’t reflective of who I understand myself to be; I feel more “myself” in the absence of those experiences.
As a transgender person, though, I feel more “myself” when I am able to embrace my gender identity. The more present I am in that experience, and the safer I feel in expressing that, the more whole I feel.
To call my transgender identity “disordered” implies that I need to minimize this part of my experience, but to be the very best (and healthiest) version of myself? I need the exact opposite.
The key differences here, then, are where that distress is coming from, and under what circumstances it improves.
Those two factors are where being transgender and being mentally ill diverge completely.
I don’t experience distress when I think about being a gender other than what I was assigned at birth, and I don’t experience distress from behaving accordingly. In fact, the more freely I am able to live my life in ways that align with my identity, the healthier I am.
But I do experience distress when I think, behave, and feel things as a result of the neurobiology we call “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” And the more I’m able to minimize and manage the impact of those thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, the healthier I become.
In that way, these are totally opposite scenarios.
When we diagnose someone, we’re essentially saying, “This pattern is present, but if it were less so, this person’s mental health would improve.”
So when you say that being transgender is a mental illness, you’re saying that suppressing or minimizing that identity would then lead to mental health.
But this simply isn’t the case. When trans people are able to be themselves and access gender-affirming care, their mental health outcomes are often better. This is especially true in situations where discrimination or violence is less likely, or in the case of youth, when they are supported by their families.
So by its very nature, being trans cannot be a mental illness — because invalidating and minimizing a trans person’s identity has not been proven to positively affect their wellbeing.
It’s the complete opposite.
If you were to classify being transgender as a mental illness, then, you would be making a recommendation to a clinician to treat us in a way that would not improve our health, which completely defeats the point of making any diagnosis in the first place.
But there are plenty of trans people who continually emphasize how much these attitudes harm us.
We don’t need transgender people to stop being trans, nor do we need to further stigmatize our identities and experiences. Gender diversity is not an illness — a society that is hostile towards it, though, is far more distressing.
If diagnoses are meant to help improve a person’s health, I’m still waiting to see any proof that labelling us mentally ill is actually improving our lives.
The sad reality is, many of the people who still insist that being transgender is a “disorder” don’t actually care about our mental health.
Because let’s be honest, if they did? They’d stop talking and do a much better job of listening.
People who are determined to label transgender people “mentally ill” — those who do so to rile people up on Twitter, not just because they haven’t thought about this much — do so because it’s a way of dehumanizing us.
It’s a way of suggesting that we are delusional and that we aren’t who we say we are. It implies that trans people need to be “cured” or “fixed,” and that we shouldn’t exist. To them, we’re mistakes that never should have happened.
That mentality is used to justify a lot of the emotional and physical violence that wounds and even kills us, and it perpetuates the hostility and self-hatred that drives so many of us to suicide.
But I want to be crystal clear about something: my being transgender was never a mistake.
My path hasn’t been an easy one in a lot of respects. But the strength and determination that I carry in my heart is part of a legacy — it comes from generations of transgender and gender nonconforming people, those who were willing to risk everything for a future they knew they might never see.
They stared down all of the dangers that came with that, showing up for each other and for a better world, so that one day, trans people like me could truly live. It’s a legacy that I now have the privilege of inheriting, and it’s one that I don’t take for granted.
For me, being transgender is an honor — and every single day, I step into my life knowing that from the moment I was born, I arrived with a purpose.
I want a future where every trans person can become who they are with every ounce of safety, love, and affirmation they deserve. And if that’s your definition of “crazy,” it sounds like I have my work cut out for me.
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Whatever that can be described as a mental illness in the transgender experience does not belong to the trans person, but afflicts the people and society that cannot or will not comprehend and accept trans people and their experience and expression of their own being.
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Reblogged this on cabbagesandkings524 and commented:
Sam Dylan French – Being transgendered is not a mental illness.
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Amen! This is a truly crystal-clear explanation of the difference between a disorder and an identity. It’s not the identity that’s causing distress; it’s how people treat that identity. It’s other people’s attitudes that need to be fixed, not the identity itself.
Your posts are so helpful and necessary, and I really hope they give certain people (like followers of those pundits and politicians) the A-ha! moments they really need. Maybe that’s super cheesy and idealistic to say, but that’s what I hope.
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I can relate to your story in a way, through my adhd and anxiety (GAD). Sumarizing here, to make sure I have the concept right.
ADHD is a brain disorder. Like gender dysphoria, it falls into a tricky category where the direct _symptoms_ are mostly mental. We don’t have traditional physical symptoms such as rashes or headaches… though those symptoms can be brought about by my anxiety, and I’m not sure about your OCD?
Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve learned so much from this post
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Woops. Realized it sounds like I said your condition is a disorder – meant that only for the adhd! only meant that they both fall into tricky categories. and also that we share medical professionals with those who have other conditions such as mental illness
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