Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Life in No Man’s Land

When the media covers transsexual people, there is a lot of interest in the process of transition.  Julia Serrano covers their fetishization of transition excellently in her book Whipping Girl. I think we all know the tropes: we open with a picture of Joe as a football player in high school, then cut to Joe at the dressing table, becoming Michelle, putting on heavy makeup, pantyhose, skirt and heels, maybe using a wig, and then trying to “act feminine”. We see “Michelle” learning how to abandon a football-player swagger in favor of a dainty feminine swish; relearning how to talk, ending every breathy sentence with a rising lilt to sound like a vapid valley girl. It’s hardly a surprise that some feminists react to this kind of presentation by thinking that transsexual women are fundamentally phony.

Quite possibly the media’s coverage does represent some people’s experience, but it doesn’t represent how things were for me. I don’t really recall ever trying to change how I did fundamental things like my word choices, the way I move, and so on. I barely changed the way I dress—where I live, plenty of women wear jeans and t-shirts, especially young technical women. If I had to guess, I’d say that I may be a bit butch today, but not so much so that anyone would notice or comment, and before transition, I was probably seen a little feminine for my gender presentation, but again, not really enough for anyone to comment on it (to my face, at least).

Looking back, I think that there are aspects of my transition process strike me as far more interesting than the aspects the media focuses on. Before transition, when I had male gender presentation, although I assumed that I was doing so successfully, it would be fair to that I wasn’t always quite as successful as I thought—apparently my femininity showed through at times in various ways. Apparently, I was always at least a little androgynous. Once I finally began to deal with my gender dysphoria, I started taking spironolactone to block the effects of testosterone while I tried to work out what path I should take, and when I did so, it pushed my body further into the gender no man’s land of androgyny. Physical androgyny allowed me to adopt a gender presentation that offered little in the way of clear gender cues. As a result, sometimes I accidentally passed as female without intending to, but mostly I left people fairly confused. (Actually, according to some sources, apparently I occasionally unwittingly passed as female even before spironolactone, although I’ve never really understood what it was that people could have been seeing.)

Being very androgynous really messes with people’s heads. Some people just guess a gender and go with it, but others stare, and wonder, and stare some more; they want to know; they feel they need to know, but politeness demands they not ask. One particular incident sticks in my mind as an exemplar of the extreme androgyny experience. I was waiting for a bus wearing jeans and a baggy sweater. My hair was long but somewhat unkempt because I hadn’t had a hair cut in months (I was letting it grow). But mostly I looked pretty ordinary. I didn’t look like I was making any kind of statement; I didn’t seem like someone trying to win a goth prize or show how genderqueer they were. Instead, I just an ordinary person waiting for a bus. In my eyes, I was presenting as male, but my sense of my gender presentation was biased—I mostly saw (and tried to minimize) the male gender cues and discounted any female ones, but other people didn’t see me the way I did. Apparently it was possible to look at me and suppose I might be a fairly flat chested, slightly scruffy girl.  On this occasion, I noticed vigorous debate just out of clear earshot amongst a small group teenagers and I knew what they were talking about; me. It was a little unnerving, but it was also amusing. Eventually, one came over to me and asked me the time. I answered briefly in a gender neutral tone, and the teen rejoined the group to report that the encounter had been inconclusive. Another one came over and asked me if I knew when the bus was due, and I told her. Again, I hadn’t answered the real question they wanted answering. Eventually my bus came, I boarded, and as it pulled away, I gave them a shy smile.

After a period of androgyny, I began transition in earnest and for a short time spent some of my time presenting as overtly female and some not. I remember that switching gender presentations wasn’t fun because I far preferred to be perceived as female, but looking back on it now, what is so odd is how easy it was to switch from being perceived as one sex to the other. One time in the grocery store I saw someone I knew from work, where I had not yet transitioned. She hadn’t seen me yet, and so I changed sex right there in the grocery store. I moved my shirt from being tucked into my jeans to hanging over them, dropped my purse into a canvas shopping bag I was also carrying, and mussed my hair. And that was basically it. The transformation from girl to boy took seconds. Looking back on it, that’s just weird and almost implausible.

In a similar vein, I also have a photo of me sitting in the same spot, wearing the same clothes (well, almost). In one I’m presenting as a boy, and in the other I’m a girl. They were both taken on the same roll of film, and so weren’t far apart in time. To my eye at least, in each case the gender presentation is utterly unambiguous (which makes me cringe looking at the boy one), but what is odd to me now is how someone could flip between the two presentations with so little else appearing to change. To some extent, thinking about it now it’s rather mind blowing and hard to believe (perhaps in part because being able to move my gender presentation around was such a short lived skill—I had it only while I needed it and it atrophied once I had transitioned).

It wasn’t all fun. At the peak of my androgyny, I wasn’t always sure what people were seeing and so sometimes it was hard to know just where to go vocally, since I wanted to sound congruent with how I was perceived. Sometimes not knowing whether to pitch my voice down to make it sound more masculine would render me nearly voiceless and I’d only be able to speak quietly.

It’s also interesting to me that when I finally did transition and present as unambiguously female, the world reacted by breathing a collective a sigh of relief. The intrusive confused stares stopped and life suddenly got a lot easier. It’s odd when you think about it, from the media portrayal of transsexuality, switching your sex presentation is the big deal, where someone might legitimately worry about being found out or stared at. But looking back, the truth for me was far stranger, that changing gender presentation was something I could do in seconds, and the stares came when I didn’t present as female.

But even that isn’t necessarily the strangest aspect of transition; so far I’ve focused on the perceptions of random strangers, but I also saw hundreds of people on an ongoing basis as part of my daily life. They didn’t know me beyond hellos, goodbyes, and inconsequential small talk, but they got to see me transition. I went from “somewhat androgynous boy” to “very androgynous person” to “normal young woman”, and that too messes with people’s heads. People’s brains just aren’t designed for that to happen, and so it doesn’t. For the most part, they edit their memories, and that’s really strange to observe. After I had transitioned, a bank teller mentioned to me that she remembered my boyfriend—I had no boyfriend; the person she was really remembering was me. The same happened to a bus driver I knew. The clerks behind the counter at the local convenience store seemed to be utterly unphased, which freaked me out more than it did them. In the entirety of my transition, to my knowledge I only freaked out one person, a server at a McDonalds that I went to only very occasionally, who I think might have been a little attracted to the old me. She never said a thing, but I saw her double take when I returned as a girl. What’s weird though is that this reaction was the exception, not the rule.

To me, these are the aspects of transition that I find strangest—how you can slide from one gender to the other, through a very strange no man’s land, and in particular how it puts other people into uncharted territory of their own, and how they deal with that. I’d have thought that the strangeness of these aspects would be exactly the kind of thing that would arouse the prurient fascination of the media, but a guess not. A small mercy, I suppose.

The Great Firewall

Unlike some other bloggers, my blogging here is focused on just one topic area. I keep things from my regular life out of this blog, and much of the content of this blog would (I believe) be quite a surprise to most of the people who know me in my job, personal friendships, etc.

I think everyone does something akin to this. In a classic clip from Sienfeld,(specifically, the 7th season episode The Pool Guy), George Costanza worries about  “worlds colliding” if Relationship George is introduced to the friends he knows as Independent George. We’re all like that to some extent.

That said, this blog seems to be a rather extreme example.  There is a lot I don’t get to say because I want to keep my worlds separated. In some ways, my self-imposed firewall is quite limiting.

For example, I considered making a Simpson’s-style avatar in lieu of a picture, but having made one, I decided that as stylized as it was, it might nevertheless give more clues than I want to about who I am in real life. Likewise, one of my upcoming posts will be about voices, and it would be nice to share my own or at least talk about what I sound like, but given the shadowy nature of my persona here, I’m going to have to tread carefully there too.

It also means that if I’m quiet for a while because I’m busy with other things in my life, it will be indistinguishable to you from simple laziness on my part since I’m not going to say “I was in Bombay that week!” or “I was in piloting a hot air ballon from Alaska to China”. You’re just going to have to miss out on all that stuff. The most I’ll concede is that I have a real life, doing things I love doing, and sometimes that life means I’m not always able to sit down, reflect, and write something here.

In short, the most you’re going to get out of me about the rest of my life is on my about page, which gives you some sense of who I am without going into any serious details.

I’d like to be able to say that at least by being circumspect about revealing too much about my real life, it does allow me to be as honest as I like about issues that I would otherwise consider very personal and private.  But actually, that’s not completely true either—I have another layer of self-imposed firewall. I have to considered the possibility that despite all my care, someone might figure out just who I am anyway—all it takes is one slip on my part (e.g., a computer left open when a friend stops by). Given that reality, everything I write has to meet the criteria of being something I could live with if a friend did read it. Curiously, that restriction doesn’t chafe at all; so far, there is nothing I’ve said that I’d actually be unwilling to stand behind if I had to.

On the positive side, by omitting so many details, the blog stays more-or-less on topic, which is hopefully good.  And I think there is another curious phenomenon: I also enable you to imagine me in a way that matches what you are looking for. If you want to think I’m just like you, it’s probably easier to do so if you don’t know that much.

A Vagina Monologue

One of my goals in writing this blog is to talk about things I don’t usually talk about elsewhere, so today’s topic is genitals, specifically female ones. In my daily life, the topic of genitals in general, and my own in particular, are about the last thing I’m likely to bring up. Yet, in the context of the lives of transsexual people, the topic of genitals is one that can’t reasonably be ignored, so I’m going to give my perspective on the matter. (This is one of the harder posts I’ve written, because I’m battling my inhibitions a little in writing it, and I think that’ll show up in the way I express myself, but hopefully it’ll still be coherent.)

Some people within trans* communities are rather obsessed with genitals.  Some of them want to categorize transsexual people as “pre-op” and “post-op” and claim that one kind is better than the other.  For example, some people who have transitioned but have not had surgery may belittle those who have as being misguidedly focused on something superficial. That stance strikes me as rather ironic, since many transphobic people would claim all members of the trans* spectrum are focused on gender superficialities.  On the other hand, people who have had surgery may characterize those who have transitioned but do not want surgery as freaks who are less legitimate as women or men because of the form of their body. Again, this stance seems ironic to me—no matter how much surgery you may have had, transphobic people can always use your physical attributes to deny you your gender, because it just isn’t possible for surgery to fix everything.

Others try to take the opposite stance, and would prefer to ignore the issue, making out that genitals are unimportant or irrelevant. This position strikes me as missing the point too. It clearly is really important to some people—having genitals that aren’t the ones you want leads to dysphoria, and finally getting ones that feel right can be a source of euphoria. And not only that, having genitals that aren’t massively gender-variant means that you get to live an easier life—we only have to think about the looming issue of airport body scanners that show your naked body to security screeners to realize that having a body that is closer to a cisnormative one can avoids certain kinds of problems. So I don’t think we can close our eyes and try to avoid the topic.

In other words, as usual, it’s complicated. The truth lies somewhere between these viewpoints. I’m not sure that I can give a single universal truth, but I think I can share what is true for me on this topic.

First, let me say that people who transition and aren’t eager to get surgery aren’t in anyway bad or lesser people.  To think that would be to think myself bad, because there was a time when I worried about the risks and expense and wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to go through with it, so I identify with some of those people. Others just don’t have the same kinds of feelings about their bodies that I did, and while they are different from me, they aren’t worse people. (Although if their perspective on body issues is vastly different from mine, it probably is fair to say that they might not do well trying to represent (or even fully understand) me, nor I them.)

My path was repeatedly one of being unsure if I’d have the courage to take a step, and then finding myself taking it. I wasn’t sure I’d admit how I felt, and then I did. I wasn’t sure I’d have the courage to transition, and then I did. And so it is no surprise that the process repeated itself with surgery.

Once I had transitioned, surgery moved from a distant and nebulous future step to being my logical next step if there was a next step to take. But it wasn’t a step I was especially eager to take early on post transition. I worried a lot about the risks. One Internet acquaintance went for surgery in Canada, and ended up with the horrific experience of a recto-vaginal fistula. Stories like hers made me well aware that the procedure doesn’t always go well. For the first time in a long time, things were good, and I really didn’t want to screw that up. And, even if there are no complications, there is pain and discomfort from surgery, and a lifetime of dilation to look forward to. Added to that, as someone who was single, it didn’t seem like there was any urgent need. And in any case I couldn’t afford it at that point in time. But over time, my perspective changed.

Before transition, I had various fantasies of acquiring a vagina and ridding myself of its nemesis (sometimes unbidden ideations of the latter, although I recognized them as more of a theatrical mental image than something I’d be foolish enough to do). Those thoughts were part and parcel of my gender dysphoria. With transition, things got better, but on the genitalia front, things got both better and worse. The idea of going out into the world with bulges in inappropriate places horrified me, so with transition, I took to tucking—something I found so easy that it quickly became second nature. Doing so allowed me to not only keep my genitalia well hidden from the world, it also allowed me to conceal it from myself as well. But that also meant that my anatomy felt more and more inappropriate over time.

By about two years into transition, I really felt like I was going to have to bite the bullet. I couldn’t keep living the way I was living. Other people manage far longer, but I couldn’t. About two years transitioning I began planning for surgery in earnest, and about six months later, the big day arrived.

I tried to have realistic expectations. I was mostly worried about the risks. I could die on the table; I could have nasty complications. I was quite fearful, but I went ahead anyway, because it was something I felt I needed to do. Even as I went forward, almost all my attention was on negatives, the recovery, the aftercare, and so on. I didn’t expect it to change anything much in my day to day life, other than stealing time out of my day for dilation. Almost everyone I knew assumed I had a vagina as it was, so they weren’t going to treat me any differently. I was still single, and so didn’t have exciting plans to put my new anatomy to immediate use. In many ways I went into it with about as much excitement as I would go into a wisdom tooth extraction—something you have to do.

So I was remarkably surprised by what happened after surgery. I’ve never had my expectations so utterly fail to match my experience. I had never imaged that I would be on cloud nine, not for days, but for months afterwards. When I came back from surgery, I actually outed myself to my housemates partly because I had a dilation regimen that would be hard to explain, but also because it would have otherwise been hard to explain the big smile I had much of the time.

Why I was so happy is not the kind of thing I can explain with any kind of logic, just that when things are right, you know. I’d had a mental image of what everything would feel like, but the reality was so much better. I wasn’t really aware that I’d be able to use my pubococcygeus muscle to squeeze my vagina and anything inside it, or how that would actually feel. It turns out that in my case, the way it all feels, the harmony of it all, is almost magical. Having a clitoris is likewise a wonderful thing. Labia aren’t quite as big a deal to have, but they’re still part of the overall picture.

The post surgery aftercare was much easier than I imagined. I had no pain, only some discomfort when I put pressure on parts that were tender and still healing. That did mean that I had some discomfort sitting on hard surfaces, but a donut ring handled that while things healed (the inflatable ring I got given wasn’t especially attractive, but it easily fitted into a regular cushion cover).  Dilation was fine too; it wasn’t painful, in fact it could be as much fun as I wanted to make it.

In short, I thought I knew what to expect but I was wrong—in a good way. It does mean though, that, as politically incorrect as it may be, people who have not had surgery are ill-equipped, literally, to comment on how important it is for the people that have it. To adapt the line from The Matrix, “No one can be told what having a vagina is like, you have to have one of your own.”

I don’t think it’s always this good for everyone who has surgery; other people do have pain or complications, or just aren’t as happy as they thought they would be. And I don’t want to imply that things are perfect for me. Surgery makes the best of what you have, but it can’t create something out of nothing. I’m missing ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and so on. I’ll never have a period. I’ll never be pregnant and bear children. And if I want to maintain the depth and width of my vagina, dilation is a ritual I must faithfully follow. But I can say with conviction that surgery made a huge positive difference for me.

For me, there is something transcendent in taking a part of my body that I had no love for, and refashioning it into a part of myself that I cherish. It isn’t a minor thing, or something superficial. It’s an amazingly wonderful thing. It’s about the best thing ever.