Sex Reassignment: More Like Algebra or Carolyn Keene? (Body Hatred, Part Two)

23 02 2011

The word “hatred” has a certain buzziness these days, a quality that tends to get it sent into battle from both sides of everything. In one of many examples, Prop 8 protests gave us “Stop the H8,” a response in part to a small, tasteless movement of picketers who have been insisting for a while that “God Hates Fags.”

Hatred, in other contexts, might have meant merely the opposite of adoration. Here, though, the message is not that God loves heteros the way I love oranges and hates homos the way I hate pickled cabbage. It is not that God feels like His tongue shrivels up and His skin crawls when He walks into a room where He can smell a homosexual (as is the case with me and pickled cabbage). “Hate” does not mean “harbor strong dislike for” in our current moment. Hatred is not an emotion, but a political stance.

Neo-conservative picketers are by no stretch of the imagination the only people using the word “hate,” either. They are a convenient example, but the truth is, hatred has become something like a culturally sanctioned way of expressing feeling. We hate our bodies (even though we sort of know we shouldn’t). We hate celebrities and politicians. We hate frat boys and/or reality TV shows and/or pharmaceutical companies.

The truth is, it’s almost always easier to feel angry than to feel even momentarily powerless. It is easier to say, “I hate my high school,” than to say, “I couldn’t make the people there respect me.” It’s easier to say, “The Bible says God hates gay people,” than to say, “My belief system does not account for these people I don’t understand.” Easier to say, “I hate this vagina,” than to say, “I am deeply uncomfortable with the way people touch me sexually and I don’t know any way of having sex with this body part that would be less uncomfortable.”

It’s a big problem. Lately, I’ve really been grappling with the way self-hatred still defines so much of how we think of trans people, both within and without the community. Hate the old body, love the new, right? Or in some cases, hate the old body, hate the new one less.

Part of the problem is, transition is not the replacement of the old body with a new body. You can’t just lop off body x and sew on body y. Or, if you’ll allow the math pun, body xx with body xy (or vice versa). If that were the case, transition would look like this:

The problem is not that we feel we need to change our bodies. Change everything you want to, I say. Throw a q or a 7 or a question mark into that equation, for goodness sake. The problem is staring down the narrow corridor of that equals sign.

All the surgeries, the parentheticals, the additions and subtractions—they can’t and shouldn’t be strung together and expected to produce some average, normal, unremarkable, standard maleness (or femaleness, as the case may be). There isn’t an average, normal, unremarkable, standard maleness. Throw out the term on the other side of that equals sign. There’s nothing there, just the same fantastic, troubled, strong, pinkish-tan in my case, human body that walked down the equals sign tunnel in the first place.

So, as promised, I must conclude that sex reassignment (and, by extension, gender itself) is less like algebra and much more like Carolyn Keene. A singular name for a disparate grouping of bodies and psyches and creativities.  A convenient fiction, which nonetheless has very real material effects in the world. And it’s only by enjoying each Nancy Drew novel in its own right that you can really love Nancy Drew—none of those books can be strung together to add up to any larger story arc. The point is, I love Nancy Drew, not because she’s on her way to some definitive, 56-book-long Answer. I love her because at any given moment in any given book, she is Nancy Drew.

Childhood nostalgias aside, I really do think we lose something when we rely on hatred to explain ourselves. So, queers and allies, let’s try to change the terrain between hatred and anti-hatred. Our struggle doesn’t have to be a struggle on those terms; it doesn’t have to be a struggle to get the Them to stop h8ing the Us. Speak out against discriminatory practices like Prop 8, certainly, but push it farther—let’s push ourselves to write novels, to take photos, to write history textbooks. Resist hatred by coming up with different ways of talking about feeling, different stories about why a person might want to add a (p + 2b) to their x2.


Body Hatred, Part One: How Cats Are and Aren’t Like Roommates

18 02 2011

There are these two cats that live in my house. They sleep here; they poop here; they store their possessions on shelves, in shoes, under furniture here. They seem to have little to no notion of me as an authority figure—in fact, I’m fairly certain in their eyes, we share a pleasant and mutually beneficial roommate relationship.

The longer we live together, the more similarities I find between my relationships with the cats and those with former roommates. There are times I start to think they look up to me—as when I demonstrate how to unwrap cheese products without inadvertently eating some of the plastic wrap. Other times, the reverse becomes true: they are, for instance, totally indifferent to my success at repeating entire passages of Edward II not only from memory, but in a passable Christopher-Eccleston-as-the-Ninth-Doctor imitation.

We share our requisite tense and embarrassed roommate moments, too, of course. Times when the cat feels his need to sit on the toilet seat is at least as pressing as my need to pee. Times when they mistake my glasses for cat toys. Times when I brazenly enter a room without knocking and interrupt important butt-cleaning time.

It seems to me—and this is where I think my cats differ from my roommates—that the most important part of our friendship is the snuggling. Perhaps humans could learn a thing or two about how seriously

How do they get under blankets without thumbs?

This spot has been adequately tenderized

cats take snuggling. Wherever on my person the cat needs to lie down, she or he will devote five to fifteen minutes simply preparing the surface thoroughly with her or his front paws. It feels like they’re tenderizing me.

Any surface is fair game when it comes to cat snuggles. My back, my butt, my face—all are equally probable sites of cat massage. In particular, though, the cats like my stomach. I’ve gathered that lying down for more than forty-five seconds constitutes an open invitation to set up camp on my tummy and to ignore all interfering entities (such as books, laptops, my arms).

As a 23-year-old, pop-culture-watching American, I initially found the power of the kitties’ love for my middle disconcerting. Such forthright affection for it really throws the ol’ midsection into a different light than one gets used to seeing. The cats have no idea—and, for the record, they could not possibly care less—that for many in this country (and others), belly fat is a terrifying, insidious demon. It hovers in every aisle of the grocery store and slinks between the pages of every menu, threatening every perfect, mechanically stitched waistband in the windows of every American Apparel, H&M, and Urban Outfitters.

The cats, unlike the trendy waistband police, devote admiring care to the choicest, softest part of my stomach, kneading, headbutting, kneading again. Their feelings toward it are simple: This is nice. I like here.

Makes me realize how overdetermined our body parts are. No roommate of mine, no matter how close we were, could ever have touched my stomach the same way one might massage my shoulders. The human who has touched my stomach the most is probably my doctor—and that totals something like two hours total stomach-touching time in 23 years? It’s the very center of our bodies, and we do everything in our power to pretend it isn’t there.

The Boobs That Didn’t Belong to Anybody

19 07 2010

An illuminating moment for me came at my post-op party. We called it a “boob party” and spent the night celebrating chests. Everyone brought magazine clippings or photos of chests and we pasted them on the wall in the stairwell. We kept a running list of all the euphemisms for chests we could think of on the whiteboard usually reserved for intra-apartment communications like We need milk and Has anyone seen my watch? and HEY GUYS I LET THE CATS PEE ON THE SOFA (just kidding it’s water).

At this party, every guest was invited to wear whatever made their chest feel good. Some went topless, some chose corsets—we even supplied glitter-encrusted adhesive craft foam for those who wanted to make pasties (the majority of our guests chose this option, which was just another sign that my life is nothing like what my guidance counselors envisioned).

These stayed up in the entryway for weeks after the party.

Decorations for the boob party.

I would have made a beeline for the craft foam myself, possessing the healthy appreciation for glitter that I do, but my nipples were hot off the press and couldn’t quite be trusted with that sort of freedom.

It was early in the night and several of us were still putting last touches on our outfits. I was elbows-deep in a closet, digging for one of my old corsets for a friend. My painstakingly selected ensemble was a black a-shirt (through which you could just make out the square outlines of my nipple gauze), jeans, and a plaid fedora to which I had, in a fit of audacity, affixed a pin that announced, “trannyfag.” Someone had convinced me to wear green eyeshadow. I felt fantastically queer.

This friend, the corset-borrower-to-be, waited patiently as I cursed my way through the disorganized piles of clothes. We talked about my scars and my stitches, the egg-yolk-yellow hotel room I recovered in, the difficulty of flying back from San Francisco while trying not to lift any bags heavier than 15 pounds, as per my surgeon’s instructions.

Finally, I found the corset, white and lacey and a little dusty. Having been worn to virtually every costume party from high school through college (as I’ve mentioned, I am not a creative costume-maker), the boning was contoured just as I had so recently been. I untied the laces and shook the last echo of my former shape out of the fabric.

My friend raised her arms and I wrapped her in the stiff satin corset. I muttered something, mock-cantankerously, about having to relace the whole damn thing to fit her thinner frame. She giggled, and I hoped it was because she felt pretty, with the lace hugging her hips and her shoulders bare.

This was taken two weeks after surgery.

The celebrated chest, minus gauze.

It was true; I did nearly have to relace the thing, since her waist is comparable to my thigh and her shoulders are about forty-three times more muscular. Running my fingers over the familiar eyelets, feeling medical tape crinkle and tug across my chest, I felt very aware of the cool air on my collarbone. My collarbone hadn’t seen fresh air in a year, hidden under binders and loose t-shirts. Air moving across my collarbone was so unexpected, it was almost frightening.

I thought then of my friend, the corset threatening to slip right past her hips to her ankles. I thought of her shopping around for electrologists while I’m working so hard to sprout just four hairs from skin that doesn’t even do peach fuzz. I thought of her shyer, deeper voice in contrast to my own ringing, melancholic, opera-trained, still so alien mezzo.

“It’s hard to relate,” I began somewhat absently, watching my formerly hourglass-shaped corset conform to her taut, upside-down-triangle torso.

“I want hair,” I continued. “You don’t want hair. I let it grow, you rip it all out. We want all opposite things.”

She looked at me like I had just tried to explain differential equations using a flipflop and a jar of peanut butter.

“I think we want the same thing,” she told me bluntly.

It felt as though the poles had shifted.

Her voice had warm finality in it. It said, “I have no problem relating to you.” It said, “You’re looking for freedom and I am, too.” It said, “Your tits aren’t my tits, and both of us have beautiful chests.”

Binding: The Most I’ve Ever Sympathized with Macbeth

24 06 2010

I bought my first binder during a summer vacation at my parents’ house. I had only the vaguest inkling of how big around my chest was, and I reasoned that binders are elastic, so erring on the smaller side would just feel like I was wearing a corset. I’d worn corsets plenty of times, I thought. In fact, I owned two corsets and wore one to every single themed party I attended, figuring no one’s going to question your costume creativity if you’re gutsy enough to wear a white corset.

I ordered a double-front compression shirt in a size small. It was misdelivered the first time around, which caused me great anxiety, but it did eventually reach me in an unremarkable, utterly nonthreatening envelope. As it turns out, I may be small in relation to many things—small in relation to most refrigerators, for example—and even small in relation to my father, but I am not an Underworks size small.

The biggest exhibition I’d made of my transness at this point was a page and a half of signing the name “Jamie” over and over, which I had secretively penned earlier that summer, one night in a hostel bunkbed in Amsterdam just before falling asleep. That page disappeared, unseen by anyone but me, into the leaves of my diary. Unsurprisingly, then, when this binder came in the mail I was nowhere near prepared to ask anybody for help getting it on.

I retreated to my bedroom and ripped the packaging open with a pencil from my desk. I took off all of my clothes and, seeing no more graceful way to approach, dove arms first into the elastic tube. I was soon to discover that in fact too-tight binders are nothing at all like corsets.

The first and foremost dissimilarity between corsets and binders is that binders have no interest in curves. Binders have the singular aim of making a body as cylindrical as possible. Their strategy: steamroll your lumpy bits as though they aren’t there. Corsets, on the other hand, mean to move existing pieces around into a particular arrangement, and as such must be designed to allow for those pieces (by this I mean boobies) to get inside in the first place.

The conclusion is, while at my smallest point I was probably the diameter of the small binder, and while my boobs could probably have been cinched to that same diameter with the use of a corset, this binder wasn’t ever going to have the privilege of reaching those squashable parts.

I have these shoulders, you see. In spite of my best efforts to pull the fabric in one bunch, one end of the binder had held fast to my raised elbows, and one end managed to make it to my armpits. My arms were pinned against my ears, straight up in the air. My head was entirely encased, my shoulders completely immobilized.

I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances. I ran. Blindly, I ran around the bed, then back the other way. Panting, I forced myself to fall over onto the pillows. As I lay there, my feet and hands dangling helplessly off the edges of the bed, I tried to convince myself that this was not an irreparable situation. Trying to make it funny to myself, I mumbled some of that Macbeth monologue about being stepped in blood so deep it would be as hard to go back as go forward.

I don’t remember how I managed to get myself free, but I know I managed to do it and leave the binder intact enough to return it. My next binder (a size medium) was more successful. I loved it from the first time I put it on. I wore it every day, alone or with others. Still better, I was the closest to loving my chest I had ever been in my life.

I didn’t need my chest to look like I had a Y chromosome to match the other guys’. What I needed at that point was for my chest to obey me for once. My binder helped me to announce something to myself and to anyone who looked at me. It did not announce, “These breasts are not here,” because binder or not, my boobs were too large to be unnoticeable. It announced, “These breasts are not a part of this body.”

Binding was the first thing I ever decided to do to my body purely for my own benefit. Binding was the first thing I ever did to my body to make my body feel like my body.  Purely for my own comfort and recognition. Purely for the way it made me feel. I think it was beautiful.

It did physically hurt sometimes; my post-op, single-t-shirt-wearing body hasn’t forgotten that. I couldn’t sit through an entire class period without having to get up, go to the bathroom, and fold myself in half a couple of times to stretch out. Airports were hellish because my back started to ache under the weight of my shoulder bag.

The point is, the things we do to make ourselves feel free sometimes don’t look like they’re freeing. Bundling myself into a binder wasn’t restrictive, actually. I was freer. It made me safe. I remember it lovingly, in rich detail. How good it felt to put the first one (well, the first one that fit) on, to wrestle it down my stomach and button a shirt in front of it. To suddenly bend and gesture and dance, safely contained. My body felt good. It felt like it was mine. I touched my chest all the time in my binder.

The Advance Guard Has Arrived

16 06 2010

I found a chin hair. It is long enough that I am unable to comprehend how I missed noticing it until now. Quarter-inch-long hairs take a few days to grow, or they did the last time I sprouted any new hairs. This means I washed my face and brushed my teeth and tousled my hair in the mirror on multiple mornings in a row without once taking a good look at my chin.

As a result of its surprise entrance, this hair has reigned in my thoughts all afternoon. As soon as I decide to pluck it out (because a single lonely hair looks utterly accidental, like the cat rubbed up on my face during shedding season), I decide that I have to show it to someone first. As soon as I decide to show my boss (because, as the director of an LGBT center, he would probably understand why it’s a big deal), I decide that the ability to grow very sparse and mostly unnoticeable body hair is probably not among the skills they hired me for.

It is perhaps true that of all the things I could be doing to help our community out, sitting in the center toying with my lone chin hair ranks among the least productive. Still, it is also true that I got hired to help make this center even better for every queer, whether questioning or ally, genderfucking or pansexual, trans admirer or straight-presenting, on campus. And how can you possibly do that job without sharing in the enthusiasm, the orgy of selfhood that necessitates a center like this? How could I sit on this veritable throne of new books for the library, reading pages of each one before I tape a call number to its spine, and not excitedly toy with this chin hair every few minutes?

newly trans gay tie-wearing me

It is with exhilaration that I take full responsibility for this chin hair. I feel as though I personally crafted this chin hair, and that the process has taken me years. I was crafting this hair as the bemused, straight version of me learned by trial and error to put the eyeliner on first and that my forehead is lovely but just too large to permit haircuts without bangs. Tentatively lesbian me was crafting this hair as I discovered how soft and warm sex can be when you’re sleeping with someone who pays attention to your body. Newly trans gay tie-wearing me was crafting this hair, even as needlephobia defeated T.

This one follicle comes from the part of me that keeps searching, every time some identity, word, or sexual act doesn’t feel quite right. This is the part of me that has always believed that I can find a way to be happy, whether I’m wearing clothes or not, inebriated or not, at school or in Boise, working hard or playing rough. It’s the part of me that crows lovingly about this job. I am unable to face this center, our shared and staggering multiplicity, without feeling my dear, queer little heart bounce proudly.

T is the Culprit; or, Why Singing is Like Driving

14 06 2010

This summer, I’ve been observing with concern a very strong, unfamiliar smell on my skin. What if other people can smell it? What if the people sitting next to me in class lean away from me, not to see the blackboard better, but instead to evade this overwhelming cloud of scent around me? I finally confided in someone whom I subject to my smell on a daily basis. My confidante accepted my fears and sagely pointed out that it’s entirely likely that T is changing my body’s smell. “You’re basically a 13-year-old boy,” ze reminded me. “That’s a pretty smelly critter.”

Ze also allowed that because I’ve spent over 20 years smelling like lilacs and raindrops (that’s what girls smell like), my smell change probably seems far more glaring to me than it does to other people. People around me probably just smell some vague and unsurprising boy smell, just another human being. My nostrils have been trained to expect some other smell from my person. I smell muskier, darker, no longer tangy and sharp. From white wine to red.

The good news is, music is coming back into my voice. For a bit there, everything middle dropped out of my vocal capabilities. The middle of my singing range became nothing but a rush of air, no matter how hard I tried. The middle volumes (the volume appropriate for volunteering answers in class, for instance) disappeared into one of two unpredictable extremes: hockey-game-loud or conspiratorial whisper. I’m sure my German class thinks my feelings toward translating Nietzsche vacillate wildly from rabid enthusiasm to clandestine reverence.

To my relief, some modicum of grace has returned, as of the past week, to my vocal stylings. I’ve very gratefully taken to singing along again to the Glee soundtrack while I’m at work.

In a sense, my voice and my smell are traveling at the same speed in opposite directions. As my smell grows less recognizable, my voice gets more and more familiar. After always hearing my voice as though it’s the sound of someone else calling out from the other side of a thick, dense wall, I’m beginning to hear a voice—my voice—come out of my own chest. Its nearness, its familiarity, is startling. Like a close friend tiptoed up behind me and started a conversation right into my ear.

This voice feels solid, like a physical weight resting comfortingly at the center of my diaphragm. Singing suddenly feels like what slipping into my first car felt like. It’s the feeling of knowing exactly what to do with every lever, every button. It feels intimate.

The end of the story is, I smell fine. I keep smelling my clothes periodically just to be sure.  I sing with gusto, perhaps more loudly than is strictly necessary. With great relief, I’ve found that second puberty is way funnier than first puberty.

5’6″, Medium Build, Brown Hair

10 06 2010

My body is startling. It has so many parts, first of all. Second, all these parts work at far less than minimum wage for a brain that pretty emphatically disagrees with them some of the time. A brain that has flatly disowned them at multiple points in their time together.

This body can work itself to exhaustion on a pull-up bar (not having accomplished much), but it refuses to stay awake through more than half an hour of Garden State. It can consume literally a plateful of ears of corn, but it feels full to the very edges before I’m halfway through a yogurt. It turns white and limp when I have to get even the smallest blood sample taken out of it. It sweats constantly, every single moment, of an east coast summer. It smells totally different now that I’ve been on T for a few months. Like I say, it’s a funny bunch of pieces.

My fingers, for instance, seem unfazed by the biting judgments my brain has passed upon them. Not once did my fingers rebel when I cursed them for being too delicate, for hurting when I tried to wrestle with other boys. Not once while I railed at them for being too thin for men’s ring sizes. Not once while I held them stiff at my sides, certain they’d outed me by flitting around like moths. My fingers just carry on, doing whatever I tell them to do. They’re either fiercely loyal or they’re huge losers.

I made the right choice when I decided to start medically transitioning. Not that many things have changed about my appearance yet (excepting the disappearance of some almost belligerently round ta-tas—that was pretty major). It isn’t about passing (often I still don’t), and it isn’t about erasing the body I was born in. I’m keeping this body. It’s downright hilarious. Acquaintanceship with this body became a roaring, raucous friendship when I started T. I didn’t have to medically transition; I was functioning all right beforehand. I decided to transition because I wanted to connect with my body, all the way out to the skin. Instead of just telling it to do things and letting it exist alongside me.

There are so many things about bodies that I could only ignore for the first 21 years of my life. In particular, I now cannot get enough of the multitude of words available to describe our body parts. There is nothing more satisfying than to have an itch somewhere on my body and to call out the exact right word for what that body part feels like to me. To be able to call out, with perfect accuracy and clarity, “I have an itch on the lower half of my left asscheek,” is frankly exhilarating. My manly, flat, unabashed asscheek, pale but still just barely tinged with my mom’s golden skin tone, has an itch and may imminently be scratched by my prim but resolved man-fingernails.

I have so many words and so many parts. It feels like I’ve just come into previously unimaginable wealth. My body is the funniest friend I have. I’ve spent so much more time laughing with my whole self lately. Using every muscle you can possibly engage in laughter. Being able to name each one of them as they spasm with mirth and let my voice fly.