Understanding Gender Dysphoria: A Brief History on a Changing Definition

A person with makeup on in front of a black background

Gender dysphoria is a term used to describe the discomfort and distress experienced by individuals who identify with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth. This condition has a rich history and has undergone significant changes in terms of its definition, understanding, and treatment. In this blog post, we will explore the definition and history of gender dysphoria, including its evolution from gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). We will also examine the current understanding of gender dysphoria and its treatment, drawing upon academic sources from the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine.

Gender dysphoria has a long history and has been documented in various cultures throughout history. However, the terminology and understanding of the condition have evolved over time. The first recorded instance of gender dysphoria was in ancient Greece, where it was known as “eunuchoidism” (Stryker & Whittle, 2006). In the 19th and 20th centuries, medical professionals began to describe gender dysphoria as a mental disorder, which is no longer classified as such.

The modern history of gender dysphoria can be traced back to the early 20th century when terms such as “transvestism” and “transsexualism” were used to describe individuals who expressed a desire to live as a gender different from their assigned one. However, it was not until 1980 that gender identity disorder (GID) was formally recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Note: When the DSM-5 was published 33 years later, it reclassified GID as gender dysphoria. This change was made to reduce stigma and to acknowledge that the distress experienced by individuals with gender dysphoria is not inherent to their gender identity, but rather to the mismatch between their gender identity and their sex assigned at birth (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Gender dysphoria is a complex and multifaceted condition that can present in a variety of ways. Some individuals experience dysphoria around their body, such as a strong desire to alter their physical appearance to match their gender identity. Others may experience dysphoria around social roles and expectations, such as discomfort with being referred to by their birth name or pronouns. Still, others may experience dysphoria around legal and administrative documents, such as their gender marker on official identification.

The experience of gender dysphoria is not universal, and not all individuals who identify as transgender experience dysphoria. Additionally, the severity of dysphoria can vary from person to person and may fluctuate over time. Treatment for gender dysphoria may involve a range of approaches, including psychotherapy, hormone therapy, and gender-affirming surgeries.

In conclusion, gender dysphoria is a complex and multifaceted condition that has undergone significant changes in its definition, understanding, and treatment over the years. While the condition can cause significant distress and impairment, it is important to recognize that gender identity is a normal and valid variation of human experience. APA has taken significant steps to destigmatize and recognize transgender people and to remove the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder as a disorder. This represents a shift from pathologizing gender nonconformity to promoting gender diversity and individuality.


American Psychiatric Association. (1980). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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