Meet Aaron Terrell
Updated: Oct 13
Part I: Gender Dysphoria & Shame
I had what we would consider early onset childhood gender dysphoria; a self-conception of being a boy despite a body that contradicted that. I don’t think I was born with it though; I think it was a response to restrictive female gender roles and a sense that boys had a freedom that shouldn’t be withheld from me. I was a tomboy who grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian environment and was regularly reminded how girls behave and dress, with the explicit message being I was acting like a boy and that was inappropriate. From my earliest memories the wish to be a boy, or the self-conception of myself as a boy, was inextricable from a sense of shame at feeling that way.
I began to tell myself stories to explain why I felt the way I did. When I was a toddler my infant brother died from SIDS and a few years later I became convinced that his spirit passed into me. That was why I felt like I was a boy; I was carrying my brother’s spirit with me. This story also gave me permission to ‘act like a boy’, because I was doing it for my brother, not for me. I eventually outgrew this story and around age 11 or 12 my internal story shifted to something a little more realistic, which was that puberty would take away my ‘boy’ feelings and turn me into a real girl. I convinced myself that would fix me. It didn’t.
The shame I felt as a small child for wishing I was a boy only increased in adolescence along with the “dysphoria”. I didn’t know that word at the time, but that’s what I would come to understand it as. The older I got, the more intense the dysphoria got and the more intense the shame at still feeling that way. I kept telling myself I would outgrow it. I wouldn’t feel this way at 16. Then when I still felt that way at 16, I knew I would outgrow it by 20. On and on it went.
It was further confounding and embarrassing because I wasn’t attracted to girls. My peers thought I was a lesbian but in reality the thought of touching another girl’s body was repellent to me. My own female body was grotesque, why would I find pleasure in duplicating it? I wasn’t attracted to boys until my late teens and when that attraction manifested it was indistinguishable from envy. I found gay men most attractive, and fantasized about being one. I now realize gay male relationships were appealing because they didn’t involve any female anatomy and was therefore erotically pure in my estimation. I certainly never told anyone this.
By 26 I hadn’t outgrown the dysphoria, and in 2010 I started exploring the possibility of transition. Medical transition wasn’t nearly as daunting as the prospect of telling my friends and family my shameful secret that I had carried with me as long as I could remember. However, once I had vocalized it, the shame disappeared. As if all my life I had been carrying a heavy burden, when all I had to do was put it down. The dysphoria indeed persisted and I went on to transition in 2011 at the age of 27.
Important to note because I know this is a contentious issue right now between trans people and gay people: I did not transition to have sex with gay men. I anticipated being celibate the rest of my life. I did not believe actual gay men would be interested in me, and I wasn’t interested in women. Spending the remainder of my life single was a sacrifice I was more than happy to make to be rid of the dysphoria. I saw it two ways: I could be single as a man or partnered as a woman. The choice was simple for me.
Part II: Gender Ideology & Gender Reconciliation
Transition was an unequivocal relief for me. Testosterone brought on physical and psychological changes that allowed me to feel comfortable in my body in a way I didn’t know was even possible. The dysphoria dramatically reduced as my face and musculature began masculinizing. My sexuality ceased to be focused on gay men and instead, very surprisingly to me, turned primarily toward women. I later concluded my previous repulsion to the female form was a projection of my dysphoria, and my attraction to men was primarily envy. With the relief from dysphoria that repulsion and envy faded away. Two years into my transition I got “top surgery” and my dysphoria was mostly eradicated. As disturbing as this may sound to people who do not suffer from gender dysphoria, the day I had my double mastectomy remains the greatest day of my life. Dysphoria had been such a constant and seemingly interwoven sense of who I was, I wasn’t able to fathom what I would feel like without it. Immense relief and contentment is what I felt.
After transition I didn’t spend much time in trans communities. I lived mostly stealth. I went back to college and got a Bachelor’s degree. I started a new job where no one knew of “my female past” (as I would refer to it at the time) and generally embraced life as a man and didn’t spend much time dwelling on the trans part of my life. Transition worked wonders for me, and I got on with life. Occasionally I would wander into online trans communities where I would read young people, often teenagers, expressing they thought they were trans. I was team transition all the way. I mistakenly assumed gender dysphoria was one thing, and that transition was the only solution.
In 2017 I learned gender dysphoria is not one thing, and that plenty of people are transitioning despite never even experiencing dysphoria of any variety. I became aware of this shift in understanding when I befriended a number of transmen in my city. Initially I was glad to learn there were other people with whom I had such a fundamental commonality, but quickly learned our experiences were starkly different. Some of the things I learned from these young transmen:
Being ‘trans’ is separate from gender dysphoria
Transition is something you do to demonstrate you are ‘trans’
Assuming dysphoria should be a prerequisite to transitioning is inherently transphobic because it ‘pathologizes transness’
Lying about having dysphoria is a normal part of accessing trans healthcare, as is necessary because doctors and clinicians are by and large transphobic
Upon hearing multiple variations of all of the above, I was dumbfounded and angry at what I perceived as a cruel appropriation of an ailment I had suffered my entire life. When I expressed disagreement at this framing of ‘trans’ as an identity independent from any mental turmoil at one’s sexed body, I was told that as a fellow trans person I shouldn’t be invalidating anyone else’s ‘transness’ because trans people are invalidated enough by ‘cis transphobes’, and therefore don’t need it from fellow trans people as well.
After distancing myself from my short-lived friendship with these transmen, my anger and confusion only grew. I started lurking in online communities for transmen and learned the cohort I had known in person were not an anomaly - they were expressing the currently pervasive view of ‘trans’ as an identity. An identity that must be validated by surgeries and hormones. My anger at the appropriation melted into terror at what was happening. I read a lot of their stories, I asked a lot of questions, and eventually developed a sense of what was happening. Loneliness is driving young people to drastic measures to find community, purpose, and distinction. Trans is a religion and a youth subculture rolled into one. It is especially appealing to girls who have been sexually abused or who are on the Autism spectrum. In females it appears to be unrelated to sexuality (apart from fleeing male attention). What we now know as ROGD has little to do with GD as we previously understood it and more to do with tragically normal adolescent struggles being funneled into ‘trans’.
While casually researching the turn within the trans community I came upon a number of stories of detransitioners, mostly women (former transmen). I was not surprised that there were many detransitioned women now. What did surprise me is their stories of dysphoria sounded much more familiar and relatable to me than what I was hearing from the current ‘trans’ population. For these women transition did not relieve their dysphoria. Sometimes it made it worse. In other cases it just came with the nagging reality that they were lying to others and deluding themselves. It would seem many experiences common in girls upbringing, especially masculine girls, can easily be interpreted as an intense, unrelenting feeling that we should have been boys.
All these revelations led me to re-examine my transition and the stories I told myself as a child and as an adult about why I felt the way I did. I’ve realized ‘gender dysphoria’ is just another story I use to explain to myself why I feel the way I do about my female sex and where that positions me in the world. While transition did provide significant relief, and I stand here a decade later without regret, I do wonder if had I been given a different story or tools to explain my discomfort with my sex, would I have found the relief I needed without such drastic and invasive measures? After all, no one is born in the wrong body and I was not supposed to be male. What we are currently doing is solving software issues by carving up hardware. We are treating normal female adolescence with blunt force transition. We should be identifying the root issue before trying to solve vague and nebulous anxieties - body dysmorphia, social anxiety, fear of loneliness - with irreversible hormones and surgeries.