Bodies How Transition Changed My Rigid Expectations of Masculinity
Obtaining a perfect grasp of masculinity was not my goal when I decided to transition, but I certainly did feel the pressure to try.
The lobby of the hospital smelled like a hotel and looked like a museum. We had arrived on time, with plenty of cushion room until six. The sun was still down, and every room and hall we walked through held that pleasant night-time aura, when the warm interior lights make the glowing black skyline in the windows pop. In the waiting room, I was given a clipboard with a number on it that made me shudder. It was the estimated cost of surgery, which I was hoping— but not certain that—my insurance would cover. They snapped an ID band onto my wrist, which could not fit all twenty letters of my legal name. I looked at copies of Food and Wine with my mother and my partner to pass the time.
The night before, my partner and I had been out with a few friends. It was the last night before I would be housebound for a couple of weeks (the idea of going outside with drains coming out of my body repulsed me). I rushed through dinner so that I would be good and full before ten, when I would be cut off from food and water until after surgery. My partner’s phone went off five minutes beforehand, alerting me that now was the time to chug every drop of water within reach. After dinner, we went to a ceramics shop that had unusually late hours and I painted a truly hideous mug. I still have it now: One side has an illegible, smeary black design which, in more capable hands, would have looked like an eighteenth-century earring in imitation of a sketch I’d seen at the Met. The other side wears a carnation, my plan B. The whole thing is sponged over in a sad, unappetizing pink, meant to cover up the botched earring (it didn’t). It is a monument to hubris, poor time management, and anxiety. But it holds coffee. Or pens. I only use it now when I’m desperate.
After the shop closed, we waited outside for a car. I hugged my friends. “Say goodbye to these TITTIES !” I yelled as we boarded the Lyft, and saw their laughter more than I heard it.
I was reading a recipe about blackened salmon when a nurse came to fetch me, and I followed her to one of the many curtained stalls that corralled around the nurses’ desk in the next room. She told me that I would need to provide a urine sample. The pre-op water fast had me feeling like a shriveled corn husk, so being asked to manifest liquid on command felt highly offensive. Worse, I had to brush my teeth and rinse my mouth with an antiseptic, but was not allowed to get anything down my throat, or I might choke and die on the operating table. Mid-brush, I savored the crisp moisture on my tongue and could have cried when I spit it back out. Once back in my stall, it was time to put on my surgery outfit.
They came in as I was sitting in the stall, tapping my feet in my fun new grippy hospital socks to feel them cling to the tile and peel back off. “Is this a look?,” I asked. My partner got the joke—I’m not sure my mom did. She smiled nervously. (I would later find out from my partner that she revisited an old chain-smoking habit for the duration of my surgery.)
A student anesthesiologist came in to place my IV port, which I had been dreading. My left hand might not be my dominant, but the full use of both hands is precious to me. The supervising anesthesiologist popped his head in to check on me.
“He’s lucky he’s the first case of the day, it’s not like we’ve been chugging coffee all night to get to him.”
My mother nodded, but did not seem much comforted. The anesthesiologist, whose shoulders could have swept a breeze into the room, such was their breadth, left me with a “See you in there!” and walked out with his student.
I turned to my partner. “Is it just me or was he—”
“Shockingly handsome? Yes.”
Next, my surgeon came in. She was starting her day with me, so she was still in her People clothes. I appreciated the fact that her winter coat cut nearly the exact same silhouette as her white lab coat. She even had a Starbucks cup in-hand. In the time that I had known her, she had never been anything but gently enthusiastic. Her words of encouragement were simple but they put me at ease, and when she left, she walked leisurely to wherever she was to scrub in.
Another nurse arrived, whose eyeliner was precise, thick, and well-angled—so I trusted her immediately. She led me down a hall and told me when to hug my partner and my mom goodbye.
“Is this your first surgery?” she asked.
It was, and so she ran me through what was about to happen as if it was the itinerary for a dinner party while leading me to a door that looked more like it led to a meat locker than an operating room. I was laid down on the room’s Tetris block shaped table, and they hooked me up to a sedative drip. Handsome anesthesiologist talked me through it.
“This is like Xanax, but in drip form.” He told me.
“Sick.” I replied.
I was out before my surgeon even got there. The way I fell asleep for this surgery reminded me of going to bed after a beach day. If I tried hard enough, I might have heard the clucking of seagulls.
As I fell asleep, I had no metric for understanding that I was sure this was what I wanted. I knew, intellectually, that yes, I did want to be on this table, being ironed and smoothed out by the nice lady with the Starbucks. I wanted top surgery—I wanted to have my breasts removed from my body and have my chest remade in the image of the chests of cis men. I had wanted this for years . But in my primordial lizard brain, I wasn’t positive. If you were to ask me what makes me trans, like many people have tried to do, I would be able to give you an answer that satisfies the curious cis brain, like the canned “boy brain/girl body” response.or another easily digestible pull-cord slogan recycled from Degrassi . But I can’t give you an answer that satisfies my own trans brain. Besides, I have reservations about the idea that the brains of cis and trans people can even be distinguished by some basic neurochemical structure. In truth, I don’t know what it is that makes me trans, and that uncertainty will likely be the unsteady hill I die on.
It’s not that I want to be assured that I qualify for a trans diagnosis‚ I have strong opinions about the pathologization of transgender identity, but I’ll save it—it’s that I wish I could understand how to reconcile my refusal to accept gender as a natural structure with the irrefutable feeling I have that the gender I was assigned was wrong. Because if I insist that I was assigned the wrong gender at birth, does that mean that there is a correct gender that I should have been assigned? And am I deciding that the correct gender would have been “male” by taking testosterone?
I do not strike most people as being particularly butch. My partner read me as a cis gay twink when they first met me, and their opinion seems to be that which prevails. I don’t consider this a failure. Obtaining a perfect grasp of masculinity was not my goal when I decided to transition, but I certainly did feel the pressure to try. In preparation for coming out, I had all my hair cut off, though I love having long hair. I like having something to toss, I like to tie it back, I even like when it inconveniently falls in my eyes. I don’t love admitting this, but I like to think it gives me a kind of romantic fancy lord look (and if it doesn’t, please do not tell me). But I cut it off anyway. I thought maybe I would warm up to it. I also knew that it would be a very long time before testosterone had its way with me, and having long hair would only make it more difficult to be read as a man. If I insist that I was assigned the wrong gender at birth, does that mean that there is a correct gender that I should have been assigned?
I also got rid of all my “girl” clothes. At first I wore earth tones, and then I wouldn’t buy anything unless I could get it in black. It was an effort at utilitarianism, but the mourning symbolism is not lost on me. I also put restrictions on how I expressed my sexuality. I knew absolutely that I was not going to read as a straight man, and so I committed to acting the stereotype of a gay man. When I was younger, I looked up to feminine gay men, likely because it was a masculinity I felt I could mimic. I knew how to play the role, so I did. If you had asked me if I was attracted to women or non-binary people, I would have lied.
I came out, and then I went back in, and then a year later I came out again, for good. A month after the second debut, I started testosterone. An amazing doctor at Callen Lorde granted me a prescription the day I met her, and I was shocked. For years, I had prepared for this moment, and I was ready to cajole, beg, and cry. I had gone through the trouble of seeing a therapist for a year (the year bookended by my comings out) because I had been advised that without a year’s worth of gender dysphoria documentation I would not be given the time of day. This doctor spoke to me for a little while, and the questions she asked only seemed to require that I tell her that I thought I would feel better on T. And I did. She took my word for it. My word, not that of my therapist, who I was assigned to because she was the only person at the counseling center who had ever met a trans person; nor the word of my parents, who were shocked because they couldn’t make sense of a child who played with dolls as and loved the color pink turning out to be a boy. Her understanding was a gift. It was the first time that I could really understand that I got to be the judge of how I would do this.
My feelings before my first shot of T were a lot like how I felt in the hours before surgery. I felt a chilling kind of calm. It wasn’t excitement, and it wasn’t fear, just a very easy nothing, as if there would be no consequences to this action. What I felt gave no clue as to how the choice I had made would affect me. Would it make me happy? Would I regret it? There was only one way to find out.
The nothing feeling never became something. The new hormones took residence in my body as comfortably as if they were coming home. Over the next few months, my body would change and my voice would slide down and settle at the bottom of my chest. The pressure to keep my hair short and my clothes boring began to lift. The deeper my voice got, the less inclined I was to monitor my sibilants; the straighter my body got the less I wanted to keep it hidden; the sharper my face got the less worried I was that longer locks would deny me the “he/him” pronouns I craved. Even more startling was that I began to care less about whether or not strangers read me the way I wanted them to. I started to plan for surgery, and with each new development, as stressed as I may have been about insurance, work, scheduling, etc., I was never stressed about the alteration that was going to be made to my body. I took this as a sign.
Before this surgery, I spent several quiet moments alone, breathing steadily, and imagining my breasts as pockets of sick tissue that would need to be removed and laid to rest, for my health and theirs. They would get put out of their misery, removed from a body that couldn’t care for them, and I would be free. My torso would be cleansed and weightless. I did this to soothe myself. Originally, I imagined them as hostile forces, but then I questioned the helpfulness of doing so. My breasts were not wanted, but not through any fault of their own. They did not ask to be there as much as I did not ask them to come. And so I shifted my thinking, and it made me feel better.
The surgery was about two hours long but I can only remember noise in the first few minutes after waking up. My eyes were closed. I heard electronic beeping and chirping coming from, I don’t know, monitors and heart rate things and IV drips and such. A nurse was tending to me.
“Wh-at’s your . . . name?”
“Mmmmm, nice to meet you, Fr ank.”
I fell asleep again with the relish of a middle schooler waking up before the alarm and realizing they could get a little more sleep before school. Then, a few minutes later:
“Can I take . . . shallow baths?
“Yes, you can.”
Another dip back in and out.
“Fr aaaaaaa nk?”
“Can my family come back here?”
“Let me go see if I can find them.”
And in and out again.
“Your nurse is nice.”
“Yeah, he is. I think . . . his name is . . . Frank.”
Once fully awake, it really did feel like a something ailing had been taken from me. I had been ready for a bubble to burst. I worried that I would wake up and snap; that this surgery would be the thing that made it clear that I had no right to claim male identity, that I was some Munchausen’s case who fetishized queer people. I had been questioned, examined, and groomed to expect regret, and it never came.
In the months since surgery, I’ve had to go to post-op appointments at regular intervals, decreasing in frequency over time. I love going to these appointments and seeing the combinations of people gathered for their first consultations; or for their pre-op preparation appointment; or to get their drains out; or, like me, to get their incision sites checked out and have Dr. Bluebond cheerfully tell them how great everything looks. The people assembled in this waiting room are not tremendously diverse in certain respects, which I believe to be because access to surgery can be prohibitively expensive regardless of whether you have health insurance, but I have seen and accidentally eavesdropped on fellow patients and observed that the range in gender expression is quite wide. I’ve seen everyone from fellow masc-eschewing folks to some less savory types that refer to our surgeon as a “cute blond girl” ( yikes ). That being said, I can’t help but make the joke about us only having seven names. Every time the nurse calls for me, at least three other heads in the room turn.
I filled out a form last month to have my pre and post-op comparison photos sent to me and scrolled through them, expecting to feel overwhelmed, but the impact of each photo hit a brick wall inside me. A paper on stone. It’s not that I felt nothing looking at these pictures, it’s that the feelings didn’t penetrate very far. The body I was looking at was a body that didn’t suit me, but the one I sat in now was. I didn’t look for very long, and once I closed the computer, I got on with my day, unmoved.