What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is the discomfort a person feels with how their body is perceived and allocated a gender by other people. The experience may occur when a person feels their biological or physical sex does not match their sense of their own gender.
The feeling that there is a mismatch can trigger a range of responses. Some people experience serious distress, anxiety and emotional pain, which can affect their mental health. Others experience only low-level distress — or none at all.
Puberty can be a very difficult time for children with gender dysphoria, when their bodies change. Teenagers with gender dysphoria are more likely than others to self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, so it is important to seek treatment.
What is gender?
Gender and sex are different things.
Your sex refers to your physical or biological characteristics — for example, whether you have a penis, vagina or breasts, your hormones and your genes.
Your gender is how you feel about yourself — whether you feel masculine or feminine, or a mixture of both. It is your sense of who you are.
A person's sense of gender can change over time. The gender that you identify with might be the same as, or it might be different from, the biological sex — boy or girl — that you were assigned at birth.
What causes gender dysphoria?
Different people show their gender identity in different ways. They might have been born female and later identify as male; they might have been born male and later identify as female. Or they might identify as being somewhere in between a boy and a girl or a man and a woman. They might have another sense of their gender identity. These different situations can be described as 'transgender' or 'gender diverse'.
Some people with gender dysphoria strongly feel they want their body changed so it fits their self-identified gender. They might want to have the physical features of that gender and be treated as having that gender identity. These feelings may become stronger around puberty and adolescence.
Gender diversity by itself does not cause mental health problems. However, some people with gender dysphoria find the mismatch of their body and gender identity to be so distressing that it leads to serious mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide.
Not every transgender or gender diverse person will have this experience however, and not all will experience gender dysphoria.
Choices for people with gender dysphoria
If someone has gender dysphoria, there are different ways in which they can get help. The focus is on supporting the person and their family in working out what is best for the person.
Psychological counselling, especially from someone with experience in helping people with gender dysphoria, can be beneficial.
Some people find it helpful to dress and identify as the gender they identify with. Coming out to people they trust, changing their name, using a different pronoun to describe themselves and finding other people who have been through similar experiences can all help.
Some people decide to change their bodies into the gender they identify with. This can be done with hormones or surgery.
What treatments are available for gender dysphoria?
Hormone treatment can help some people with gender dysphoria. There are 2 types:
- medication to block puberty
- cross-sex hormone treatment, using hormones such as oestrogen or testosterone, which can be prescribed for children from around age 16
The type of hormone treatment recommended depends on whether the person has been through puberty yet, and a medical specialist in hormonal treatment will supervise it. Depending on their age, the person may need permission from parents or a legal authority to go ahead. The earlier treatment is started, the better the outcomes for a young person with gender dysphoria. The best place to start is to talk to your doctor.
Once someone is 18, they can consider surgery to change some of the physical features that do not align with their gender identity. This is called gender confirmation surgery. Usually, people have hormone treatment for some time before deciding on surgery.
It is unethical for a doctor or psychologist to try to change your gender identity, and this is not an appropriate form of treatment.
Resources and support
If you, your child or your partner have feelings of gender dysphoria, you can talk to a doctor or other health professional about what help you can get.
There may be long waiting lists to get treatment and there may be legal barriers. The law has recently changed so children with gender dysphoria do not need to get authorisation from the Family Court for some treatments, if their parents agree.
For more information about your rights and where to access treatment, you can contact:
QLife at qlife.org.au for a webchat or call on 1800 184 527 from 3pm to midnight every day.
Trans Hub at transhub.org.au
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Last reviewed: March 2021