Dissociative Identity Disorder, Gender, and Sexuality: The Intersection of LGBTQ Identities & DID

A light blue wall covered with cut-outs of people reminiscent of the gendered symbols on restrooms, each in a different color of the rainbow.

In honor of pride month, we decided to cover a topic we’ve wrestled with ever since our diagnosis: The intersection between our dissociative identity disorder, gender, and sexuality. How does it work? What language do we use? We’ll explore it all in this article.


CN: Extensive discussion of exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation; Casual discussion of the experience of DID; Final section includes a detailed list of attacks on trans rights, including many links, the contents of which may be upsetting. 


I’m at a point in my life where the vast majority of my friends identify with at least one of the letters in the LGBTQ alphabet if not several of them. Since I was 18,  I identified as bisexual. The existence of multiple trans folks in my life also prompted me to consider the question of gender identity multiple times.

At some point, I learned a thought experiment that was both helpful in assessing your own identity and in gaining a greater understanding of the importance of accurate pronouns for non-cis folks. Imagine that you are being presented with an award that is the culmination of your life’s work. It is everything you have worked for and is a beautiful celebration of your skills and accomplishments. The person giving you the award begins the ceremony by listing all of the important things you’ve ever done and all of your most impressive qualities. Now, imagine this process but substitute different pronouns in while the host introduces you. What does it feel like to have your most important life achievement attributed to “him” “her” or “them”? (Folks with advanced knowledge of gender identity and pronouns know there are many other options to explore as well.)

What I experienced when I tried this exercise was that hearing she/her felt affirming and celebrating, while hearing he/him felt as if I was suddenly invisible in my moment of greatest visibility. But perhaps most surprising to me was how neutral I felt about they/them. (Put a pin in that for later.) After multiple opportunities to reconsider, I always came back with the answer I was a cis woman. Or rather, I would sometimes say that if it were the default to choose between sixteen different gender identities, I’d probably pick something else, but “cis woman” got me 98% of the way there and I was fine with that.

Dissociative Identity Disorder, Gender, and Sexuality

However, all of these assumptions came into question with the arrival of my DID diagnosis. The knowledge that I had Dissociative Identity Disorder came with the understanding that I no longer had one sexual orientation and gender identity to contend with. I had dozens of them.

Because here’s the thing: each identity in DID can be as complete and distinct from one another as several physical people are from one another. Things like hobbies, manners of speaking, and body language can change entirely from one alter to another, so it absolutely follows that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender presentation (what you do with your appearance to reflect your gender) would also vary between alters.

As usual, we can only speak from our own very personal experience with these issues. The topic of varying orientation and gender identity within a system is something we’re still very much figuring out. So this post isn’t intended to be an all-comprehensive piece of educational material on the topic and more of a case study.

How Do You Figure Out Who You Are?

I’ll start with the easy stuff: a huge part of system members learning about themselves and each other is simply a practice of trusting that sense of inner knowing you have about yourself. If you say that your favorite color is blue, no amount of external evidence that you clearly favor other colors can refute the internal knowledge of what you feel is your favorite. Identity is not something that can be proved conclusively. It is by definition self-reported, and frequently, that inner sense of knowing is not accompanied by any rhyme or reason. “Why is your favorite color blue?” is about as silly of a question as “How do you know your favorite color is blue?” You just know! For many of our system members, this inner knowing was how we identified what their gender was.

 

A collection of brown tags that each have a different gender identity or sexual orientation written on them in black sharpie.

To accompany this inner knowing, each system member has a clear image of what they look like that we can see in our mind, a tool that we use to help alters communicate with one another. And so when we first met Jack, it was visibly obvious that he was a tall, blonde man in his 20s. Jack was able to contribute the knowledge that he was a gay man.

With these tools, we can say that in our system of 36 alters, we have 24 women/girls, 8 men/boys, 2 nonbinary people, and 2 people who are uncertain of their gender.

Exploring Gender Identity as a System

The experience of reconciling that we had system members who weren’t women/girls was surprisingly difficult. I heavily credit my many trans and genderqueer friends for giving me the language necessary to explore this process, as well as to set the example that it was normal and accepted to be in various states of knowing and not knowing what was going on with your own gender. As I think many non-cis folks do, there was definitely a period where we were hesitant to admit that some of our system members used he/him pronouns and we “softened” the transition by using they/them pronouns instead. This shifted both as we got used to the change and as these system members became more confident in describing their own identities.

As we started to explore language to describe our many genders, we found that the men and boys in the system didn’t identify with the idea of being trans. Their reasoning was that none of them felt as if society had incorrectly assigned them the gender of “woman,” it had assigned me the gender of “woman” and incorrectly assumed that my body contained only one identity. They also didn’t really feel like the body belonged to them but that they were occupying it temporarily to care for the others. They were generally unbothered by our feminine clothing choices or others’ use of she/her pronouns by people who thought they were me.

A particularly interesting journey in our exploration of gender was that of our system member June. When June first revealed themselves, they said their name was Julia, they used she/her pronouns, and were generally feminine in their presentation and mannerisms (all this is shared with June’s permission.) June was shy and avoidant of most social situations and while we knew they had been the most active during our musical theater and choir years, they remained fairly private and reluctant to share much about themselves.

I can’t say how exactly June recognized that they no longer wanted to use their old name and pronouns, but as anyone who has wrestled with gender identity knows, it’s often a confusing and fraught process based largely on instinct. At first, June didn’t know what they wanted to replace the name and pronouns with, just that the ones they were currently using were wrong. And that was when we realized, June was our first system member to identify as trans. They had presented as a woman because that was the identity expected of them and necessary for them to succeed in their role but it was one forced on them and not an accurate representation of who they were. After some months, June piped up one day to announce their new name and pronouns, which they have used ever since.

What Language Do We Use?

A question we continue to ponder is what language to use to refer to our gender(s) collectively. What word or words to we use to describe our gender as a unit and what pronouns should people use when referring to all of us? The closest term we’ve found that seems to match how our gender(s) work is Multigender. But at the moment, that feels like a term of utility more than a term that validates our identities.

The pronoun question is more complicated. Remember how I said I was surprised to find I felt neutral about they/them pronouns during the thought experiment? Well, many people who have internalized the fact that we are a collection of identities rather than one, instinctively switch to using they/them plural  (hah, take that language gatekeeping transphobes). Again, this is the most utilitarian way of describing us. We say “we” and “us” not because it’s our identity but because it’s accurate. I am referring to the opinions and actions of multiple people (in my head) when I say “we”.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating LGBTQ themed products: A blue T-shirt with the phases of the moon in pansexual pride colors, a black cell phone case covered in DnD dice in the colors of the asexual flag, a laptop with eight different stickers demonstrating the many pride flag colors the moon phases design is available in, some with the text "Not Just a Phase."

However, we’ve found that it does feel slightly weird to hear people say they/them when describing us. Maybe it’s because only one person fronts at a time and most of us individually don’t use they/them pronouns.  Our existence as a collective and as an individual is a constant contradiction that current language conventions don’t really encompass so it makes sense that there isn’t an easy answer. At the moment, we tend to prefer people default to she/her and use each of our individual pronouns when referring to us as individuals. So, if a friend asks how Holly is doing, they’d say How is she doing; when we discuss Luke’s progress, we talk about what he’s working on for himself; and when we talk about June as we did above, we tell their story.

Exploring Sexual Orientation as a System

Well, I’ve spent quite a long time discussing how gender interfaces with our multiple identities but not much about sexual orientation. The truth is, we are even less certain about how to talk about this topic. Sexual orientation is particularly complicated for us for multiple reasons.

The first is that during the in-depth trauma work that we’ve done in therapy over the last few years, one of the biggest issues we’ve been working on is our multiple sexual traumas. While these traumas were going unaddressed, it resulted in a lot of dissociation from our feelings of sexual attraction. The change was so extreme that multiple times we wondered if we had “become” asexual. So for the first few years after our diagnosis, our ability to recognize sexual attraction at all was extremely limited, let alone to parse out which feelings belonged to which identity.

The other complicating factor is that we’re in a long-term relationship and have not dated anyone new for a very long time. While we are not monogamous, our intense therapy and trauma work has meant we have little interest in attempting a new relationship at the moment. That means we’ve had few opportunities to experiment with how our sexuality interacts with other genders.

What I can tell you is that with that inner sense of knowing that makes up identity, sometimes system members just know. As I mentioned earlier, Jack is a gay man. He knew that about himself from day one and we didn’t need the opportunity to test the concept to know it was true. (We later hypothesized that being gay may have been integrated into Jack’s identity specifically because he was created to handle interpersonal interactions with strangers where it was to our social benefit to be fluent and comfortable in more feminine mannerisms.)

You might wonder, what does it mean for the body of a cis woman to contain the identity of a gay man?  Our answer is, eh? *shrug* One of the things we love about being surrounded by folks from every shade of the LGBTQ rainbow is that it’s been emphasized to us that gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender presentation are all incredibly subjective. We all have random collections of body parts, accessories, and internal responses to things. There are terms to name patterns within those literally infinite combinations of parts and feelings and appearances and these terms do serve a purpose as communication between different people. But ultimately, they are a form of self-expression. If who you are doesn’t follow the patterns of external expectations of that term but feels like the right one to you… Well, that doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.  The words exist to serve you. You aren’t failing by not conforming to the original meaning of the word.

Overall, I can say that the LGBTQ community has taught us a massive amount about the importance of being authentic to your own identity and equipped us with the tools we needed to go through that exploration, over and over again, as a system. 

A light skinned person holding up a white protest sign that says Protect trans youth! in all caps, colored like the transgender pride flag.

Support Trans Rights

For months now, I have wanted to write about the wave of anti-trans legislation that has been hitting the US over the last several years. My mental health is still not to a point where I can dive into research to the degree that I wanted to do for this issue. But what I can do is take the release of this article during pride month as an opportunity to call your attention to the issue, give you a summary, and point you to resources where you can learn more.

Starting in 2021, every year the number of anti-trans legislative bills introduced in the US has broken the record of the previous year, often by a dramatic margin. These bills range in content from interfering with educators’ ability to honor trans students’ chosen names and pronouns; bills denying trans people gender-affirming care (which for many trans people is life-saving treatment); labeling gender-affirming care for kids “child abuse” thereby placing the parents’ custody of those children in jeopardy; requiring invasive physical examinations to determine whether a trans person is allowed to participate in gendered sports; criminalizing drag performances or public performances that include cross-dressing, and much much more. Some of these laws are so restrictive and dangerous that trans people have opted to leave their state, or send their trans kid to live elsewhere rather than risk the consequences.

I highly recommend looking through ACLU’s extensive documentation and the Trans Legislation Tracker to learn more about these issues and how you can get involved in supporting trans rights. If you yourself are not trans or you are not closely connected to anyone who is, I also recommend watching this 10-minute TikTok with trans activist Alok that includes Alok’s incredible description of the importance of allyship, and how cisgender people fighting for the rights of transgender people are actually fighting for themselves. (Full version of the interview with Alok here.)

 

About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter or view her wide range of creative projects on KellaHannaWayne.com.

 

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