Inspired by their own journey as a nonbinary person, Salgu Wissmath, a photographer from Sacramento, California, decided to document feelings of gender dysphoria.
It's a term for the anguish and distress a person experiences as a result of a disconnect between their gender identity — who they feel they are — and the gender a doctor assigned them at birth.
"Gender dysphoria is sorely misunderstood by society," Wissmath says, underscoring the role the experience plays for many, though not all, trans people. "It allows them to come to understand their own identity."
Wissmath talked to a number of trans people for the project, diving into personal experiences that have marked their identities.
The results are deeply intimate, illustrative portraits that explore and celebrate the many aspects of gender, its fluidity and its complexity in a binary society.
The images in Salgu's work affirm and offer visibility to the trans and nonbinary experience from a queer lens. We see the humans behind the stories and, at the same time, they see themselves — which validates their experiences in a world that often deems them invisible.
Here are some of their stories, highlighted by Wissmath's project:
I have this memory. I just moved to this new town. There were a bunch of kids who I got to know and I played with a little bit. There were girls and boys. Part of the play place was a lake. I didn't want to do what it looked like the guys wanted to do. The girls didn't quite accept me. Neither one was fitting for me at that time. I remember going over to the other side of the street, sitting on the bridge overlooking the brook that fed the lake, and just wondering what I am. Am I an alien? I was about 5.
What did that feel like? Scary. Also, how alone I was in my non-understanding of what was going on. I didn't want to tell anyone. Somehow I was very embarrassed to show any signs of female characteristics, or to like girl things publicly. I remember having to live a dual life.
What advice do you have for others who transition later in life? Talk to as many people who have done it as possible. Get the real story. When you hear enough stories, you can probably place yourself some place in the spectrum that you feel most comfortable with.
What do you hope people who see this project understand? They are real people, just like everybody else. There's good ones. There's bad ones. There's smart ones. There's dumb ones. Everything you can imagine — war heroes, football players, models, every walk of life ... they are there.
I think some kinds of gender dysphoria are related to environment, kind of related to how other people interact with me. And then other facets of gender dysphoria are not triggered by anything, but just kind of how I feel about myself in the world. A lot of my dysphoria is very physical to my body. So I really needed to be on hormones because the hormones made me physically change and I can be in my body and really be happy with myself.
How would you describe gender dysphoria to others?
It's kind of like one of those movies where somebody wakes up, and they're still experiencing life, and they think it's like everybody else, but then they go outside and they're invisible. Nobody's going to see them and they're just like, "Why can't you hear me? Why can't you see me?" And they spend all of the rest of the movie coming to terms with being invisible and hopefully figuring out how to not be invisible anymore. That's what gender dysphoria is like. Because you're one thing, but either you or someone else can't see that. But they need to.
I identify politically and internally as nonbinary and externally practice as masculine, so trans-masculine. Nonbinary to me is being off of the structure that was put into place to categorize/control people. To me, that's the political part of the identification.
What does gender dysphoria mean for you?
What comes to mind is a strong feeling of disorientation, seeing an offset image or looking in parts of a fragmented mirror and seeing someone else's body reflected.
My brain goes to experiencing dysphoria when being misgendered. Just hearing a pronoun— it [can feel] completely out of left field. I think when I said the word disoriented earlier, that is something that I tie to that of just being, "Wow who the fuck are we talking about?" And then the embarrassment and the realization that, "Oh, this person was actually referring to me." But it's like a shadow person.
What do you hope people can understand from seeing this project?
I would [hope] that other trans folks would see that they are not the only one in certain struggles. I think the secondary part of that is someone realizing that someone's experiences are similar or the same — that also creates a feeling of connectivity.
I'm a binary transgender woman. So for me, there's the social dysphoria and the body dysphoria. Those are really the two components. I've noticed, at least in my experience, that one or the other is stronger in different people. For me, it means that mixture of not only not being able to live as your gender in the world, which is the social aspect, but also just that basic dis-congruence with your body itself.
I feel like everybody has a thing with bathrooms. I go to the bathroom during class instead of between because there is less of a chance of running into someone. I still tend to use the bathroom of my assigned gender because it's still the safest option.
I do this thing where I walk in, and if somebody is at the sink, I walk really fast with my head down, so they don't look at me. Or I'll wait in a stall if somebody else is out there, and come out after they leave. I got hit with a purse once. And I was like, I'm just trying to pee. Because she thought I was a boy. I was like, that's fair, but where am I supposed to pee?
How would you describe gender dysphoria?
It is like going through your day and not feeling like you are wearing a mask. And then suddenly becoming aware that to the rest of the world you're in costume, even though you feel like this is the most true authentic you.