Writers often center trans characters’ gender dysphoria, completely ignoring their gender euphoria. Not only does this enforce the incorrect belief that all trans people experience debilitating gender dysphoria, but it is also a form of the toxic struggle narrative trope. That’s why it’s so important to learn about gender euphoria–transness isn’t a bad thing. Unlike society has trained people to believe, us trans people can be happy about being transgender (not just about transitioning). It’s important for writers from all walks of life who are approaching trans characters to learn about the diverse experiences we face–not just the bad parts.
So what exactly are “gender dysphoria” and “gender euphoria”? Gender dysphoria is a term that refers to the distress that a trans or gender nonconforming person may have about their gender identity in the context of a society that does not accept them. It is often used to clinically “diagnose” transness because of what is listed in the DSM-5. The word “dysphoria” comes from the Greek word meaning “pain that is hard to bear” or “anguish”. Gender euphoria, on the other hand, is not so professionally defined–it is the antonym of gender dysphoria that came about in response to the idea of “gender dysphoria” being considered the be-all, end-all of what it means to be transgender, when our experiences are much more complicated than that. It refers to the joy a trans or gender nonconforming person may have when their gender identity is affirmed. “Euphoria” comes from the Greek, “the feeling of living well, healthy, and content consistently”. The etymologies of both dysphoria and euphoria are rooted in a long-term feeling that a person carries with them. For the negative, it can be a burden, but for the positive, it can be like a personal treasure. Gender dysphoria is clinically considered a requirement of being transgender in order to medically transition–which is a problem on its own–but not all trans people experience gender dysphoria and gender euphoria.
Gender dysphoria’s prevalence in fiction makes it seem both like gender dysphoria is a requirement of being transgender and also like dysphoria is the culmination of What It Means to Be Transgender™. The truth is that trans people are far more varied than being restricted to one trans narrative (which, surprise-surprise, is the entire point of this blog). Centering only stories where trans people experience extreme discomfort with their relationship between their gender and society is not only incredibly incorrect, but also harmful. If young trans people only read stories where the person is dysphoric when they, themselves, only experience euphoria or neither gender dysphoria or euphoria, they might come to believe they aren’t transgender. This gets even worse when it’s a cis person reading it, because their assumptions can seriously impact trans lives. When people don’t learn that gender euphoria is a thing and that not every trans person experiences dysphoria or euphoria, the outcome is not a good one. Society will end up with a limited definition of what it means to be transgender and trans people will end up feeling just as uncomfortable with their relationship between their gender identity and social norms as before.
Further, the fixation on the negative aspects of being trans is a form of the struggle narrative trope, which is bad representation. This obsession with dysphoria–a negative outcome of being transgender or gender nonconforming in a society with strict gender norms–makes it seem to readers like being transgender is inherently tied to suffering. Since this is the majority of what readers see, it ends up defining transness by the pain the characters feel. Strictly speaking, it warps what it really means to be transgender away from a complex understanding of gender and society and towards an unhealthy, pain-focused, false experience. If dysphoria and other pain is all that readers see, transness is likened to suffering and fetishizes the true issues that trans people face by association.
One way to balance this out is to show trans characters who experience euphoria. So, how can you go about doing that? There are a number of things that give me gender euphoria, personally. Wearing outfits that make my shoulders and biceps look bigger and my waist slimmer, being affirmed in my gender by strangers, growing a beard for the first time, seeing my wonderful hairy body in the mirror, testing how deep my voice can go, being stronger than I was before starting testosterone. In all of these cases, it’s like a little firework was lit in my stomach, went straight up, and exploded in my chest. That’s a bit flowery, I suppose, but it’s the best way I can explain it. I asked some friends (a grab-bag of trans masc, trans femme, and nonbinary folks) for examples. They mentioned makeup (for all different types of trans people, not just trans women), tacky button downs and cool jackets, crop tops, fashion, aesthetic, the growth of breasts, long or pretty hair, outfits that show curves, reveling in onlookers being uncertain about their gender, and being called “dude” by a guy (trans masc and occasionally nonbinary). There are so many different things that can give different people gender euphoria and it’s really something I love reading characters experience. It just makes me happy to see them feeling affirmed because I know what that feels like and how important it can be.
At the end of the day, it’s important for writers to show a bunch of different kinds of trans experiences–especially the good ones. We have so much transgender pain in media that it’s vital to show the happy parts. So think about your character: do they experience dysphoria or euphoria at all? If they do, what gives them euphoria? What gives them dysphoria? How do they feel when these things happen? How are you showing the readers that trans people like this character can be happy in their transness? Conversely, how are you showing the readers that not all trans people have to be sad and hurting all the time?