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.