I use the abbreviation “SRS” to refer to the thing that happened to my chest this past January. I use it fondly and frequently. In a sea of words, most of which don’t fit me very well, I’ve settled quite happily upon “SRS.”
The terrain of trans-related language is frankly littered with potholes. Sometimes it seems like that bristling feeling—the alienation and anger that come when the words assigned to us are wrong—is everywhere. Seeping into the most well-meaning conversations, spilling onto us from rolled-down car windows next to us at the stoplight, simmering among the magazine headlines in the check-out aisle. As a result, I know to take special note when I find a term that sounds good to me.
Other terms at my disposal are “sex change,” “top surgery,” “chest reconstruction,” and “double incision with nipple grafts.” “Canflattening” crossed my mind as a viable option. A friend from college quite rightly offered “getting rid of your chest dangleys [sic].” In the end, though, “SRS,” or “sex reassignment surgery,” is what comes out of my mouth.
I’ve spent some time tiptoeing between the potholes, reading the doctor’s note that claims I’ve “completed sex reassignment surgery,” repeating the words to myself, and then staring at my chest.
On the one hand, a thing called “sex reassignment surgery” sounds like it could easily amount to a ten-thousand-dollar event requiring legal documentation from three different states. On the other hand, my chest is just my chest—not as concave as I thought it would be, definitely paler than I expect it to be, far less hairy than my brother’s or my father’s. My chest doesn’t look like a ten-thousand-dollar event requiring legal documentation in three states.
The same process, the giant-sounding “sex reassignment surgery,” could also accurately be termed “moving my nipples three inches.” This makes me wonder why I would have had to give anything more than my own signature on a consent form.
Nonetheless, the doctor’s note says SRS is what happened to me, legal forms and familial concern and a lot of airfare all squeezed together into one three-letter acronym. I could riff on this for hours. My sex has been assigned, like an essay question on an exam, like a secret agent’s mission. My sex is a task designed to call upon my skills and on which I will be graded. It will require agility and many costume changes: Infiltrate the bathroom, learn to sing in the proper key, explain how you can be a feminist without being a woman. Having been assigned once before, I’ve been reassigned. The assignment I received the last time needed tweaking and has thus been reissued.
The point is that Dr. Brownstein, being a plastic surgeon and not a geneticist, time traveler, or hypnotist, didn’t open me up and change my sex at some elusive biological root. No amount of chest surgery could possibly erase, flatten, reconstruct, or incise my history of mini-skirts, straight boyfriends, and keeping Chapstick for choir gigs in the cup of my bra.
Dr. Brownstein was the agent of my reassignment. He is the wizard in the cartoonish purple armchair (this I do not embellish) who signed the paperwork that conveyed me to the professional realm of Mr., the formal realm of Sir, the social realm of Bro. He conjured for me a bottomless supply of M’s: an M to show the cashier at the liquor store, an M for the TSA agent who eyes my boarding pass. An M for the bank teller, the bouncer, for each and every one of my future employers.
SRS is my term. I’ve wrestled with it, scolded it, poked fun at it, and finally inhabited it. I’ve played around with other terms, but I’ve arrived back at SRS. My reasons are unequivocally personal and arguably nonsensical. But the fact that I have a term that I like is the important thing. Words can be terrifying when it comes to trans issues. Finding the right words is what keeps me writing.