I’m afraid I have to collapse the wave function on the whole Schroedinger’s Genitals thing I had going for awhile: I’ve not had lower surgery.
Hopefully, that won’t encourage any creepy love-letters (yes, something I’ve actually dealt with. More than once).
The reason I’m mentioning that very personal, and very uncomfortable-to-mention, information is that it’s important for the context in which I’ve been navigating a lot of complex issues lately. A few weeks ago, I was contacted very unexpectedly and out-of-blue-ishly by the people who handle the assessment process for those in the Vancouver/Victoria area of British Columbia who are pursuing vaginoplasty (aka SRS, GCS, lower surgery, bottom surgery, etc.), and they were asking to set up an appointment for the in-person interview part of the assessment.
For those who don’t know (which is probably only a tiny minority of anyone reading this blog), the process for trans women to access lower surgery, especially when dependent on external financing, requires jumping through a lot of hoops and submitting to a lot of standards and expectations, collectively referred to as “gatekeeping”. This process is, at its surface, all about ensuring that you’re a “good candidate” for the surgery, “proving” that you’re “really” transsexual, “really” psychologically “able” to make the decision and offer informed consent and ultimately cope with a surgery that’s very emotionally intense (especially when viewed from a cisgender male perspective, which has difficulty imagining the procedure as anything other than horrific), “proving” that you’re really “living as a woman” (whatever the hell that means), and “proving” that you’ve really “socially integrated as a woman” (again, whatever the hell that means).
It’s kinda all about making sure you’re not shaking up cisnormative expectations too much, or threatening the larger frameworks of sex and gender more than is considered acceptable. It’s face is “protect the patient from the potential consequences of their decision”. It’s shadow is “protect cis-patriarchy from what the patient may imply”.
So… I’d an assessment interview to deal with. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the wheels were turning in the process of my having my surgery.
Actually having my surgery.
It’s one thing as an abstract. As a hypothetical question, yes, I know that this is what I want, and, arguably, need. I know that that is the way my body “wants” to be configured. I have the hard reality of those anatomical desires (if you can really call it desire… Signals? Wiring? Programming?) confirmed almost every time I’m aroused. My body “knows” that’s not what the physiological response is “supposed” to be, and it “asks” for sensations and actions my anatomy can’t provide. I have it confirmed every time I take a shower, every time I get dressed, every time I go pee, ever time I adjust my tuck. I know, as a hypothetical question, that keeping my current genital configuration was never going to be what I really wanted, even if circumstances had been different and it was what I needed to accept.
But what this is as a theoretical question becomes very, very different when it begins to become a reality. When you begin to start wondering when your surgery date will be set. March? April? May? By this time next year, I’ll have a fully healed, functioning vagina? Whaaaat?
And the finality of that decision becomes apparent.
I’ve learned a lot in the time since I began living a transgender life. I’ve grown and changed a lot. And a lot of the things I thought I knew about myself, thought were certain and concrete, turned out to be different, or turned out to be fluid.
I believed, for instance, that I was fully and completely androphilic, exclusively sexually attracted to men. That didn’t turn out to be exactly true. I’m now very happy to just call myself “queer” and accept that who I find attractive or sexy or who I love really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with their being a man or woman or non-binary, nor with their genital configuration. I don’t think of myself as bi or as pansexual. I prefer just saying “queer” because that way it doesn’t matter, I don’t have to pin it down. I can just allow myself to experience whatever attractions or desires come along. And I can do so without having to code or designate or even understand them.
I used to refuse discussing, or thinking about, much less considering the implications of, how my body was never really normatively sexed. That I never really was “male-bodied” in the usual sense, and don’t fit into the traditional conceptualization of trans women’s lives, narratives and transitions as being a process of AMAB -> “male socialization” -> endogenous masculinization -> “come out” -> exogenous feminization. I still don’t openly discuss this much, given what I’ve seen of the consequences of trans women admitting to not fitting The Narrative, but I allow myself to know it. To be aware of it.
Just like I’ve stopped letting myself ignore other aspects of my history that used to terrify me. The various “…-survivor” things.
And I believed that I was wholly binary-identified. I’m not sure that’s entirely true anymore. The more confident I’ve become in my sense of who I am and my right to that understanding, its articulation and its embodiment, the more I’ve been willing to let the comfy blanket (or perhaps training wheels is a better metaphor?) of a consistent, all-encompassing Trans Woman identity slip off the parts where it didn’t quite fit. Maybe there are parts of me – parts of my history, parts of my body, parts of my selfhood – that can be considered androgynous, or bi-gendered, or even male. Why not? Would that compromise my validity in any way, or my right to call myself a woman?
“Woman” is the gender that makes sense to me. The only one that makes sense. In understanding myself, that’s the one that fits, that feels like it actually echoes me. I can confidently say that concept of gender, or self, of sex and sexuality, of the body, that’s the one that’s closest to “me”. Through that, yes, I know that for the most part I’m “binary-identified”. I’m a woman. And that’s fine.
But I can’t confidently say it’s fixed, nor can I confidently say it’s absolute. I’m a woman, but I’m a woman with qualifiers (though it doesn’t need to be unqualified, fixed, absolute or certain to count and be real, and I sure as fuck don’t care what anyone else thinks the “requirements” are for being a woman).
I also don’t know if I can say that I’m always going to feel the same.
That’s why suddenly being confronted with the finality of SRS… that’s why it’s somewhat frightening.
I suddenly had to ask myself how much certainty I really had in all of this… in my “gender identity” (I used to think I knew what that meant, but I no longer think gender has intrinsic qualities; it can only express intrinsic qualities), in what I want for my body, in what I want to embody through it. I started wondering about hypotheticals like whether, in lieu of a vulva and vagina, I might want something else, some other genital configuration.
That’s sort of a foregone conclusion, as being poor, and dependent on socialized healthcare, I have exactly one surgeon, one option, one “technique”, available to me. And even revealing that I was briefly considering other possibilities could damage my chances for approval.
Nonetheless, it ended up on my mind. Ultimately, just like I realized that despite the fact that it’s not quite perfect, and not quite absolute, and not quite concrete, I am a woman, I realized that although I’ll never really be wholly certain, vaginoplasty is what I want, what’s best for me, and certainly better than what I’ve got now. It would make me feel better, more right, in my body. And complex questions of gender and self aside, that’s the most basic, most fundamental, and most important point of medical transition: to feel at home in one’s body.
It’s also the most basic of human rights most frequently denied to trans people: the right to physical and medical autonomy. The right to ownership of one’s own body.
It’s in that respect that the personal becomes the political. What does it mean to access lower surgery, to get to be “post-op”, in a world where this is a limited, politicized possibility? Where lower surgery is a means through which people’s physical realities, their bodies, their anatomies, are so often defined and controlled and limited by their socio-economic realities? Where the “post-op” identity has come to carry along with it an enormous amount of cultural baggage, loaded as middle-class and white?
By no means would I have any intention to martyr my body and my rights as a gesture of “solidarity”, and I have deep problems with the way that poor trans women in Canada, the UK, Ireland and other parts of the English-speaking world being able to access lower surgery and some degree of reasonable medical care is characterized as “privilege”. Privilege, as the term is used in social justice discourse, refers to generalized social advantages conferred to one group at another’s expense. Poor Canadian trans women do not access surgery at the expense of poor American trans women. There’s not a power relationship there. In both cases, the privileged party is the wealthy (yes, trans, but especially cis) of each respective nation, who don’t need to worry about where their healthcare is going to come from. Who can pick and choose their surgeons.
However, neither can I take my ability to access surgery (such that my being contacted about my assessment could even come as a surprise!) for granted. It’s an advantage, certainly. I can’t ignore the scores of women I know in the United States who have resigned themselves to never accessing surgery not out of choice, but simply because that’s the reality they have to accept. They don’t have a spare $17,000 lying around, and know they almost certainly never will. That’s something I can’t shake off. I can’t just blithely get wheeled into the operating room without awareness of the fact that it was only the circumstances of my birth, being born on one particular side of the Strait Of Juan De Fuca, that allows this to be a reality.
That allows me to someday feel that much more at home in my body.
That allows me ownership of my body.
Something that should not be in doubt for anyone.
The socio-economic realities for Canadian trans women are different. As said, I know an enormous number of American trans women who likely will never be able to access lower surgery, gatekeeping or not, due to the unimaginable cruelty of the American healthcare system (poised to become even more cruel, with a vicious and hungry little Paul Ryan running alongside Mitt Romney for the White House). Amongst my Canadian trans women friends, however, surgery is not at all uncommon. And like almost all my friends, most of them are on the rough side of the class divide too. Nonetheless, surgery is accepted as something that most of us will be able to get, as long as we play along with the gatekeepy game as defined by WPATH and British Columbia’s insurance providers.
That means not only are the socio-economic realities of Canadian trans women different, the way we relate to our society and systems relative to our class and spending power, but it means that the physical and anatomical and sexual realities of Canadian trans women end up being different too. We end up inhabiting different kinds of bodies.
That’s a difference that a line on a map should not be able to make for someone’s life.
Being Canadian, however, often means living by cultural codes established in the States, by the socio-economics of the States. The differences often go unacknowledged. Much of the world, I’d imagine, just conceptualizes Canada as “kinda like the States, just a bit more polite and cold and nature-y or something” and doesn’t allow it to go much beyond that. Furthermore, the vast majority of trans writing comes out of the United States. The trans discourse is defined by the American conditions, and often that Americo-centrism goes curiously unrecognized, even in otherwise intensely critical and reflective trans-feminist circles. That means I have to navigate the cultural baggage produced by American medical and social injustice whether I’ve been party to it or not. Having lower surgery means accepting a certain kind of conceptualization of who and what I am, regardless of how much bearing that has on my history and experiences.
Dealing with inaccurate and unwanted assumptions is kind of part of being trans anyway, I guess. But living in constant compromise to normativities, misperceptions, assumptions, other people’s narratives… it’s exhausting.
And that is related to perhaps the darkest aspect of going down this road, of taking advantage of this option: it’s conditional. Having socialized medical care doesn’t mean I’m in the position to simply wander into an office and say “Yep! Sign me up for SRS!” and presto, I’m in the operating room. It means that not only do I have to submit to the gatekeeping standards of WPATH, and play those games, jump through those hoops, tell all of those half-truths about myself, occlude all of those potential disqualifiers, it means I have to do the same for the gatekeeping standards of those footing the bill. Not only “prove” that I’m “really” trans enough to be a “good candidate” for surgery, but “prove” I’m “really” trans enough that the taxpayers should cover the procedure. It means going through a lot of very creepy, very humiliating things. Just to be “allowed” what should be a basic human right.
When I began the process of medical transition, it wasn’t difficult for me to obtain the needed diagnosis. I knew I had to do this, and the only language or concepts I really had available were the same ones made available by the same medical community doling out the magical girly pills. I don’t think I could have articulated my feelings outside the accepted narratives even if I tried. I didn’t have the language to do so, nor the self-awareness to have the inclination. I was desperate, I was dying, and it was a direct and immediate need, that I expressed through direct and immediate terms. I was in no position to question it or explore it or think about what it means.
That isn’t the case anymore. At this point, I absolutely have the means and self-awareness to question the process by which I’ll get this approval. That …that and everything else… makes accessing lower surgery an inherently political act just as much as it is a personal one.
What makes me most uncomfortable is I already know I’m going to play along with the process.
What makes me okay with this, confident in doing this, confident in this as a political act despite the demand for complicity in a cissexist construct, is that ultimately, my politics of trans-feminism boil down to the right to make these choices for ourselves. For our own sakes. We’ve already had far far far too many martyrs. Each trans person, each trans body, is an end unto themselves.
It’s a political act, and demands political consideration. But what kind of trans-feminism would it be if it meant that in the end I couldn’t make this choice for myself? In all senses, for myself.
What I want for my body?