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.



28 07 2010

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 bandages were thick enough that it felt like I still had boobs, even though I knew I didn't.

All wrapped up the day after surgery.

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.

Me at my 20th birthday party

Guess who?

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.

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.”

An Account of These Seriously Ripped Pecs

4 06 2010

My blog needs a subtitle. My blog-writing has been seriously hindered by that lack. A title, no problem. Titles can be anything from “Transgender Rights” to “Intersections” to “Corn Muffins and That Damned Stapler”, depending on whether you want to be political, vague, or cute. Your title doesn’t matter; it’s the witty clarification that follows after the colon or semi-colon that constitutes the real work. The subtitle is where you unveil your intentions. The subtitle is where you show how clever, punny, and relevant you are. The subtitle structures the whole blog to come—it’s that reference point toward which all the ensuing sentences direct their deferential gaze. The subtitle is where you kick it home.

Perhaps avoiding sports metaphors will be my first step. Is there even a sport in which you “kick” something into a location called “home”?

This week, I’ve been sitting at work in the university LGBT resource center, compiling a list of books to recommend we purchase for the library. As a person who spends almost all of his time immersed in works of the 16th century, it was downright novel (see that’s a pun there) to browse titles published after 2000. And enthusiasm, for me, strikes with verve and, really, no sense of direction. Thus, through some untraceable series of metonymic (possibly also Freudian) leaps, I found myself newly enchanted by my chest.

Allow me to explain.

My chest is a flattish expanse. My areolas are a little more taut and protuberant than a lot of guys’, a result of fresh scar tissue binding them to the rest of me. My nipples are flat and shy against my tough pink areolas. Beneath all this, across my ribs, two long purple lines, like parentheses demarcating the afterthought that constitutes my chest.

What keeps amazing me, though, is how big this chest is. It stretches the whole way from my neck to my belly. It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be. Which is to say, it takes up a lot more of my body than I thought it would. When I had breasts, I tended not to think of them as my chest. My body had no chest. It was a pillow more than it was a body part. I liked when people rested on it, seemed to get comfort or pleasure from it.

The truth is, I’ve always been a chest-grabber when I’m excited. This habit originates in an Idaho public high school where I figure out that drawing attention to the jiggliness of my boobs is both highly comedic and also gets me dates. The chest-grabbing has evolved now to a firm though somewhat flailing palm-to-sternum thunk whenever I’m experiencing a high level of enthusiasm for the task at hand.

So you can imagine that I’ve encountered my chest a lot in the past week, as I research for our center’s library and find again and again that we queers have written about ourselves. We’ve made narratives and photographs, we’ve faced ourselves in shop windows and the lenses of mirrored sunglasses and we’ve made sense of our reflections. We’ve theorized, we’ve researched, we’ve soliloquized. This is exciting stuff, my friends. We’re writing to each other, making our own words and wrapping them in print and shipping them off to reach each other. So I grab my chest.

And then I find myself surprised. This is my chest, here beneath my hand. This is mine. I am in this skin; my body is tending it even now, making sure it gets blood and sweat and oxygen. My chest is young, queer, and strong, and so are the new-bound books I’m getting for this center, and so are the students who are going to read those books. That’s huge. That’s even bigger than this chest.