Transgender people may begin identifying with a different gender, rather than the one assigned at birth, in early childhood, which means they can't remember a time they didn't feel shame or distress about their bodies. For other people, that dissatisfaction with their biological sex begins later, perhaps around puberty or early adulthood, though it can occur later in life as well.
It's estimated that about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population self-identify as transgender, but not all who are transgender will choose to undergo a gender transition [source: Gates]. Some may choose to affirm their new gender through physically transforming their bodies from the top down, while others may prefer to make only certain cosmetic changes, such as surgeries to soften facial features or hair removal procedures, for example.
Not all who identify with a gender different than their birth sex suffer from gender dysphoria or go on to seek surgery. Transgender people who do want gender reassignment surgery, however, must follow the standards of care for gender affirmation as defined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).
In 1980, when gender identity disorder(GID) was first recognized, it was considered a psychiatric disorder. In 2013, though, GID was, in part, reconsidered as biological in nature, and renamed gender dysphoria. It was reclassified as a medical condition in the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), a common language and standards protocol manual for the classification of mental disorders. With this classification, transgender people must be diagnosed prior to any treatment [source: International Foundation for Gender Education].
Gender dysphoria is diagnosed when a person has a persistent desire to become a different gender. The desire may manifest itself as disgust for one's reproductive organs, hatred for the clothing and other outward signs of one's given gender, and/or a desire to act and be recognized as another gender. This desire must be continuously present for six months in order to be recognized as a disorder [source: WPATH].
In addition to receiving the diagnosis from a mental health professional, a person seeking reassignment must also take part in psychotherapy. The point of therapy isn't to ignite a change, begin a conversion or otherwise convince a transgender person that it's wrong to want to be of a different gender (or of no specific gender at all) . Rather, counseling is required to ensure that the person is realistic about the process of gender affirmation and understands the ramifications of not only going through with social and legal changes but with permanent options such as surgery. And because feeling incongruous with your body can be traumatizing and frustrating, the mental health professional will also work to identify any underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse or borderline personality disorder.
The mental health professional can also help to guide the person seeking gender reassignment through the next step of the process: real-life experience.