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What Society Tells Me as a Trans Disabled Person

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The decision to remove “gender identity disorder” from the DSM provoked a variety of reactions from transgender people, to say the least.

For the most part, many have seen this as a positive step, but others such as Chase Strangio in The Huffington Post have pointed out that this could prove detrimental for trans people, usually women of color within incarceration or controlled living circumstances who need to access medical services. As a trans person with mental illnesses, my feelings are very ambivalent.

I have a variety of disabilities, and some of them are things I don’t know if I would “cure” if given the option. Disabled people have such a wide variety of feelings and opinions on how they process their disabilities and their stigmas that it’s impossible to simplify it all.

In many cases, my mental illnesses fall under the disorders I would “cure” if given the chance. I feel that while some of my disabilities make up part of who I am and aren’t things I would “cure” for the sake of being “normal,” I will admit that even they create obstacles in my life. It just so happens that my mental illness is not something I feel, as some others do, brings many positives to my life. My mental illness holds me back and prevents me from really doing the things I want to do. I would “cure” my paralyzing anxiety, my OCD, all of it, if given the chance, because it seriously impairs me.

I don’t believe my gender impairs me. I don’t see being non-binary as a “disordered” way of thinking or existing. I don’t believe having a sexual development disorder is the same as anxiety. My gender doesn’t prevent me from doing anything. People prevent me from existing to them (not to myself) as who I am by their inability to accept anything beyond a gender binary. I don’t believe I am disordered about my gender; I believe society is disordered about gender.

People often don’t understand anxiety. They don’t understand why I can’t do certain things, why I obsess about things, why I think the way I do, etc. But I feel as though I would have these problems regardless of the way people saw them. My anxiety does stem from treatment I have had in the past, but at this point it is so well ingrained that it exists on its own. Sure, the treatment of others can exacerbate my anxiety, but positive treatment won’t cure it.

I don’t feel I want to “cure” how I view my gender. To put it simply, my mental illnesses are about the disordered way in which I relate and interpret society, whereas my status as trans is more about the way a disordered society misinterprets and doesn’t relate to me.

I believe trans experiences are too varied for us to really be able to draw lines and decide whether gender identity is or isn’t a disorder of our own minds or a disorder of society. I don’t necessarily feel gender identity disorder as a diagnosis always prevents or helps provide access to resources, due to the complex and varied ways a cisgender-dominated and centric medical establishment has control over trans people and they way they experience their bodies.

In my variety of disability experiences, I’ve found that control over my body has always been an issue. Having nurses take my blood as I physically fought them when I was younger, I learned pretty quickly that body autonomy was a privilege I didn’t have. My disorder created circumstances that made it impossible for me to do certain things, from sleeping over last-minute at a friend’s house to running away from home when I desperately wanted to. Still, despite the obstacles my disabilities cause me, despite feeling I would “cure” some of them if given the chance, I do not feel ashamed to have disabilities or disorders.

What concerns me about celebrating removing “gender identity disorder” from the DSM is the continuation of the mental health stigma, the continuation of the idea that a “disorder” is not only something negative but something to feel shame over. It makes me feel a bit lax to celebrate. In general, I feel that we should focus on uniting trans and disabled (or indeed trans disabled) individuals to argue for more bodily autonomy for both trans people and people with disabilities.

As a trans and disabled person, I’m told twice over that I’m not the boss of my own body. I’ve been given medications and treatments all of my life for disorders without doctors explaining to me what they do. I’m now forced to continue estrogen replacement therapy because there is no alternative other than osteoporosis.

Doctors have always, whether on trans or disability issues, assumed that my say in my own body, in my own treatments, is the least important or not worthy of consideration. Focus has never been put on prioritizing my comfort and my ability to understand my conditions or even inhabit my own body over the doctor’s ability to examine and treat me.

Because I grew up poor, I went to a university hospital that treated me without charging. But the cost of that was that I’d be inspected by medical students like a lab rat. It’s an experience I look back on with disdain and frustration when I wonder how my treatment and my experience of my own disorder would have been different if I were wealthier, how I might have been able to find some pride in being “different” if I hadn’t been treated the way I was.

My mother, being only 18 with a very sick child and coming from a broken home herself, had little preparation for navigating the medical establishment and quite often felt ill equipped to contradict people in white coats. I’m grateful for the times when she put her foot down, when she said no when they tried to do exploratory brain surgery on me. When she was adamant that I was blind in one eye because of the way I played peek-a-boo, despite several, probably condescending white men in coats telling her that I just had a lazy eye.

But there was only so much a poor woman working at McDonald’s to feed four kids could do. Something like the removal of GID from the DSM will affect the poorest and most vulnerable trans people. I’ve already seen the wreckage when disability and poverty or disability and trans status can collide. I can’t imagine what happens under multiple intersections.

Disabled and trans people both need more bodily autonomy within medical systems. Whether trans gender identities are considered “disordered” or not, medical professionals and establishments need to make more room for the people they’re treating, and understand them not as just “patients” but as fellow human beings with a right to their own bodies.

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Image via Thinkstock.


Originally published: February 27, 2017
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