Gender Dysphoria From A Wheelchair: What It’s Like To Be Trans + Disabled

StoriesEmet Tauber
Photo by Becky Nussbaum

Photo by Becky Nussbaum

For many trans people, gender dysphoria is a part of everyday life. And gender dysphoria is hard to define or describe for those who don’t feel it. The American Psychiatric Association’s fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) tried to clarify the condition by revising their previous diagnostic term “gender identity disorder.”

And while the updated manual has updated the renamed condition with a more nuanced set of criteria and a better description of the feelings of distress experienced by many of us who don’t identify with the gender we were assigned at birth, no clinical diagnosis can adequately sum up what dysphoria feels like.

However, every person’s emotions and thoughts differ vastly when it comes to identity and gender expression, so I can only claim the dysphoria I experienced as my own, and can only speak for myself… For most of my life, dysphoria has been far more than a treatable disorder or condition. It feels like an elusive presence that constantly creeps behind me, following me around wherever I go.

During the first few years of my transition, dysphoria ruled my life. For various medical reasons, doctors advised me against undergoing a medical transition of any kind. I felt stalled, and my dysphoria seemed to worsen: I couldn’t look at myself without almost crying. I couldn’t hang out with other transmasculine people without becoming extraordinarily uncomfortable. Even though I was able to identify the cause of my distress at a relatively young age, and was empowered enough to identify as trans, I didn’t know where to turn for relief. Even supportive events like trans health conferences gave me insurmountable anxiety.

Then about two and a half years ago, I started experiencing intense, chronic pain on top of everything else. That pain would be eventually diagnosed as the genetic disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. One of the first things that happened when the pain started was that I was no longer able to wear my chest-binder. Since I have mild scoliosis and another spinal condition called cervical kyphosis, the binder caused intense inflammation in my ribs. So I had to start accepting my chest for what it was. That was very, very hard—and I still struggle with it many days. The combination of my dysphoria and my disability brought on even more, all-consuming pain—physical, emotional and even intellectual.

That said, the advent of my diagnosis (and my need to ditch the chest-binder) gave me yet another challenging invitation: I now had the chance to see my situation with a paradoxical sense of freedom, to start experimenting with more non-binary gender expressions. I became curious about using makeup for the first time in four years. I was a guy, but one who could explore stereotypically “feminine” ways to present myself. This milestone changed how I thought about my body and myself.

Then about six months after the pain first became intense, I had to start using a wheelchair. Once again, my mind was being challenged to relate to my body in a new way, and my self-perception was being forced to change.

Sitting down for most (or all) of the time, your body starts to look different. My chest sits lower on my body, and my hips and thighs look wider. My legs have become thinner from muscle atrophying.

At first, I felt like my wheelchair-body brought all of my worst features to my attention, and to everyone else’s attention. My first instinct was to wear baggy clothes all the time, but then I realized that bagginess and wheelchairs don’t mix well. So I had to accept the fact that I was going to have to look at myself as I was.

Not only did I feel self-conscious about being in a wheelchair and people always staring at me, but people were also constantly reading me as female. But over time, I slowly started accepting myself both as a disabled person, and as a non-medically-transitioning person.

Yet eight months ago, after years of accepting that hormones would never work for me, I was given the miraculous news that I could start testosterone. While I finally was seeing the change I had long awaited for in myself, my body was still deteriorating due to my disease.

Over these eight months, I’ve lost a lot of weight (in the bad way), my pain has increased, and my my autonomic nervous system has begun to fail. At times, I feel stuck beyond words, like I will never achieve that feeling of peace within my body.

When you see trans men in the media, you see men like Aiden Dowling who are physically fit and attractive. I’ve never felt like there are any people like me—someone in a wheelchair, someone who is sick, someone who is a trans man who looks more feminine. Often, I have felt inadequate in my identity. But recently, I realized it’s because people like me lack representation.

Even though I am sick and in a wheelchair, and even though I haven’t had top surgery and I dress feminine, I am a man.

The key to conquering my dysphoria was realizing that no matter what ideas my body has of its own, I am still valid as I am. Even in my broken down, dying body, I am still valid. I am trans, I am a guy, and I am in a wheelchair.  


Emet is a transgender man, a disabled person, and a rabbinical school student at the reconstructionist rabbinical college. Emet has a degree in Liberal Studies from Purchase College, extensive activist experience, and a strong Jewish connection. Emet came out 6 years ago as the first openly trans student at a Jewish day school. Emet is originally from Memphis, but currently lives in Philadelphia.  Emet currently serves on the board of both GLSEN  and TSER (Trans Student Educational Resources), where he works to make things better for transgender students. Emet hopes to be a rabbi with a focus on social justice and working for action within the Jewish community.