Dissociative Identity Disorder and Gender Identity
Most people do not struggle with their gender identity and they feel like their body represents the gender they emotionally connect to. Others suffer from gender dysphoria or they are questioning their gender. They might not want to adhere to different theories of binary gender-norms or they want to transition to the opposite gender. There are many different experiences of gender, and each of them is valid, because it is about a subjective emotional experience. Now imagine that you are more than one person in one body. And the different people in that body identify with different genders on the spectrum. That is one of the realities of living with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
I suffer from and am diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder. And because of that disorder, I also struggle with gender identity issues. But let me explain some things first, as there are many misunderstandings about both Dissociative Identity Disorder, and gender identity experiences.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a mental illness on the dissociative spectrum, and it is trauma based. For someone to develop this disorder, they must have experienced trauma during childhood, before the age of about 8. That trauma prevents the brain from forming one integrated personality. Instead the mind is fractured and fragmented into many personalities. The trauma can be medical, sexual, emotional or physical. For most people with DID, it is about long-term complex sexual, emotional and physical abuse by a primary caretaker (a parent or parental figure). This is the case for me: my father abused me sexually, physically and emotionally, and even trafficked me, from about the ages of 4 to 10. So trauma causes DID.
The fragmented mind is a way to protect you, it is a coping strategy. When a traumatic experience happens, most people go into a dissociative state so you don’t need to deal with the overwhelming emotional and physical pain. It is like your mind doesn’t connect to your body. It is an automatic response and most people eventually get out of it fairly quickly. But for some children, a traumatic experience is so overwhelming, that they need to be protected from its emotional effects forever. So the mind dissociates a part of your mind from your memory and feelings. Those memories and feelings get stored somewhere that you don’t have access to. And they form an alter (a person with their own emotional experiences and memories), someone who is not you but also resides in your mind.
The more traumatic experiences you have, the more likely it is for more alters to be formed. And you most likely don’t even know that they exist, because well, that is the goal, isn’t it? You are not supposed to understand the gravity of your experiences,. Because you need to be able to function and survive. Once your mind has engaged that particular coping strategy, it will be able to use that again. A split (a formation of a new alter) can happen when you go through something traumatic. What is traumatic is very personal and subjective, different people going through similar things, react differently, after all.
For many who have DID, it can take years or decades to become aware of that they have a system (all alters together =system) because it is covert illness. It is not at all the way Hollywood wants to make it seem. You most likely have met systems in your life, and you don’t know that they are systems. Because it is all about seeming like you are normal and adapted, so you can survive. And how would you know that you have a system? Amnesia about the trauma or between different alters is one of the symptoms, but it is also the main protective mechanism: you won’t have to deal with the trauma, if you can’t remember it. And the different alters might not need to know about each other either, unless their specific coping skills are needed to handle a particular situation.
Most alters have a certain role in a system. Some might be protectors (they protect the system or parts of the system from hurt), some are persecutors (inside the system to hurt alters in a dysfunctional way to soothe an abuser and avoid further hurt), some are trauma holders (they have the trauma memories and feelings related to those). There are hosts (the alter being mostly out and interacting with the world) and there are also dormant alters (they have not made themselves known in a very long time). There are child alters (littles), there are teen alters, there are adult alters. Each alter is their own person with their own emotions, opinions, and preferences. Just as much as alters can have different ages, they can also have different genders.
It is important to mention that there are different kinds of multiplicity or plurality (having more than one identity/personality in your mind), and it doesn’t always have to be a disorder. There is DID, and then there are different forms of OSDD (where there either is no either amnesia, or the alters are not fully formed and are instead called fragments). There are also those who function very well with it. They might either not remember their trauma at all (yet?) or there is no explanation to why their mind is fragmented like that. Their experiences of plurality are valid. But I want this post to be about DID, because that is my experience of plurality. The gender identity issues that I want to discuss might be different for those with functioning systems who openly communicate.
Gender identity is the subjective experience of one’s own gender. If your emotional and physical gender identity overlap, you are cis-gender. And if the inner gender experience doesn’t overlap with the physical expressions of gender of one’s own body, then someone experiences gender dysphoria. All these experiences are on a spectrum, and everyone has their own subjective needs to handle this. Some people might want to transition to the opposite binary gender through hormone replacement treatment, or surgery. Others don’t feel the need for a physical change and identify as the opposite binary gender while continuing to physically represent the gender they are born with. Yet others might feel they are genderfuid, non-binary or agender. Everyone’s emotional experience of gender is valid, and it is up to each and everyone how they would like to express their gender identity.
Our System and Gender Identities
As I said earlier, I am diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder. So I am going to use the pronouns we/us for now, as I am going to try to talk for the whole system for a while, instead of just talking about myself. I first became aware of the system in my 30s.
I am the main host at the moment and most of the posts you read on this blog are either written by me or filtered by me. And I am the one who makes most decision for the system. I am not that strong of a host like most other systems have. There are a few others who often front (interact with the world) and because I live with a safe partner, I don’t feel the need to be constantly in control of switches (when one alter takes over and interacts with the world). Things might look differently if we had to interact more with other human beings in real life, had a job or had many friends.
There are around 30 alters in our system (you can read a bit about who they are and such in this post). Not everyone is aware of each other, and we can’t always communicate with each other. It can feel like driving a car: sometimes you are the driver, sometimes you are in the passenger seat, sometimes you are in the backseat and sometimes you are tied up in the trunk. All of us have different skills and talents, weaknesses and needs. We speak in different voices and have different facial expressions.
And we have different genders. You can imagine it like 30 people relating to the same body differently because we experience our gender each in our own subjective ways inside the mind. I am a cis woman. and feel femme. My emotional experience of my gender overlaps with the biological gender markers of my body. But not everyone of us feels like this. Most of our littles (child alters) identify as female and cis. But things become a bit more complicated when looking at the teens and adults.
There are two of the teenage alters that we are aware of who are either genderfluid or non-binary, or feel masculine. And all of our adult protectors and persecutors identify as male. None of these alters relate to the body like I do. We are lucky enough that we often are co-conscious in one way or another (being able to see and intervene when an alter does something hurtful) and the times that the different gender identities have caused issues have been few so far.
Our hair is one of those issues. We have short hair at the moment, but that wasn’t a system decision. It was the decision of a non-binary masculine alter who decided to just buzz it all off one morning. All I remember is looking in the mirror and seeing the long hair, and then about an hour later I looked in the mirror again and all the hair was gone! I laugh about that now and I don’t mind a change in looks every now and then. But it has caused some distress in the littles who now feel they look like a “boy” and are very unhappy about it. Hair grows back though, and I guess everyone should have their needs met sometimes.
There was situation that definitely had to do with gender identity. It happened when my partner was holding our hands during a flashback and someone pulled the hands away and said: “Are you gay or what?” We laughed about it after. But I am of course now wondering if there are any alters in the system who maybe want to express their male gender identity sometime. I feel it is important to meet as many needs of the different alters in the system as possible so I would at least want to know their needs so we might come up with a compromise.
Dissociative Identity Disorder and Gender Identity Struggles
Most systems that I know, sort gender identity issues through some simple but safe steps. They allow each alter to dress the way they want to. They agree on one haircut for the body, but own a variety of wigs. Make-up, jewelry and different clothes are always available, as are binders. I like that sort of solution because it is a strong attempt to validate everyone’s feelings while not judging, and making sure that everyone is on board.
I am not sure if this would work for our system. And I can sometimes sense that one of the more masculine, or male alters either fronted or is close, by the clothes, make-up (or lack thereof) that got picked for the day. But we are in no way close to any sort of communication in our system that would allow us to make any decision on how we all would like to express our different gender identities at this point. I don’t know if that discussion is important for us at the moment, but it might be in the future.
Transitioning and DID
There are some studies about people with DID who were not aware of a system and transitioned fully, only to later find out that they were not alone and that they made a decision while being so dominant as a host, that the other alters of the system were unable to voice their opinion. I also see the danger of a host with strong gender dysphoria to override a system decision and go for transitioning anyway.
On the other hand, I also know systems who have transitioned, and made the decision together, and are very happy with having made the decision. I personally, from my own point of view as the host of a system, find it important that all decisions about transitioning are made by the whole system. A host is not forever, hosts can change out of nowhere. So it should never be the decision of one alter, but all alters’ decision. But I am also very aware of the pain and struggle that can come with not being able to relate to one’s body gender identity. This is a very complex issue that probably doesn’t have a simple solution that fits all systems.
So I feel that for DID systems it is important to go through the psychological evaluations before being able to transition, so they can get the professional support and can make safe decisions. We have not felt any alter who wants to transition inside our system, but I can only imagine the havoc it would cause because we have so many gender identities in between us.
Our Gender Identity
As for me personally, and the system that I am part of, we have had some long reflections about it lately. We know that for some people labels are important to their identity so how would we even label ourselves? I feel that every one of us has to make that decision for themselves. My gender identity is femme cis woman. I know that some teens identify as non-binary, genderfluid and masculine. And I know that some of our protectors identify as male. And that is okay. As a system, as a whole, we are genderfluid.