In The Unlikely Event I Change My Mind, I'd Like To Turn Twenty

I wrote yesterday about my experience with top surgery earlier this year, in part of what seems to have become an annual tradition of writing about my top front quadrant. I feel tentatively good about it! On the one hand, I’m wary of oversharing about big-ticket issues like “THE SURGERIES” early in transition in ways I may end up regretting later on; on the other hand, being able to honestly and publicly speak about the body and desire is something I’ve come relatively late to, and I’m very grateful for the chance to get to do so. I would have wanted to read something like it very much just a few years ago.

As with any personal essay, publication invited commentary from both people I know and from strangers; since this essay was about embodiment, specifically mine, most of the comments that were directed at me acknowledged my vulnerability with carefulness – variations on thank you/I’ve felt like this/here is part of the story of my body in exchange for yours, etc. Some of the commenters were instead emboldened by this vulnerability and offered frank assessments in exchange – variations on here is what I think you should have done with your body instead. (A bit late!) This was not my first experience with such things; I long ago developed a fairly robust filter when it comes to online feedback, setting a distinction between perhaps-impolite but useful critique and unhelpful, dehumanizing noise. I once spent a few months “trying out” for Gawker and concluded that I did not have what it takes to work there full-time.

It was my first time coming into direct, targeted contact with the specific kind of transphobia that purports to worry a great deal about adolescent girls. You may, of course, point out that I am nowhere near adolescence, that I am a full thirty-two years old, but this particular brand of concern trolling doesn’t require an actual adolescent in crisis so much as the infantilization of trans men and transmasculine people (who are really women, who are really girls, who are really confused girls, who are really deluded girls, who are both insufficiently empowered and insufficiently protected from the twenty-first century’s new sexist menace, the powerful anti-breast lobby).

The general tone of such comments was this: although the writer of this essay was unfortunately not a teenage girl, there are teenage girls who have been taught to hate their female bodies, and might turn to top surgery to memorialize that self-hate in flesh. The image relies on a particular idea of white cisgender womanhood as vulnerable, valuable (to someone else), and under siege. Being misunderstood is always painful, especially being misunderstood by someone who clearly doesn’t like you, but there’s something uniquely unpleasant about trying to describe your experience as an adult experiencing the joy of autonomy, change, and embodiment and hearing “What this story is really about is a suffering child,” as if one were the shivering little prisoner in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” without knowing it.

Daniel Ortberg@danielortbergImagine writing those who walk away from Omelas, putting down your quill pen, cracking your back, and whispering “Got ‘em” to an empty room

(I like LeGuin very much, but I’ve never liked that story.)

I don’t think I know very many people who would use this exact language, but I do think I know a number of people who would confess to sharing a similar fear, if it were worded more carefully. Sure, trans people get a bad rap, the thinking might go, and I’d never advocate for violence or conversion therapy, exactly, but what about all those kids today? They seem different from the kids I knew growing up, and it’s awfully difficult to distinguish between “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman” and “I’d like to transition, call me Ishmael” and I’m not so sure I approve of their signing billion-year contracts with Trans Org on their fifteenth birthdays. What if we simply discouraged them – respectfully, of course – from taking all this transition business too seriously? But I have not written about Ishmael, or about myself at fifteen; I am talking about myself, now. I do not now, as a result of my decision to transition, live a life that is free from the influence of sexism – have not flown off with Peter Pan and Mary Martin to Never-Never Land – have not done anything, directly or indirectly, to teenagers or children.

Sometimes trans people talk about transition, particularly HRT, as a sort of second puberty, a flirtation with adolescence, an opportunity to re-experience a particular phase of life on our own terms. (Should I include the caveat that many trans people don’t take hormones, that some people who take hormones don’t consider themselves trans, that non-binary people may sometimes take hormones, that I don’t claim to speak for other trans people or even other trans men, that I am merely trying to explain myself to myself as best I can? While we are at it, what do you think the “center” means in “masc of center”? I have no idea. Sometimes I picture the “of center” in masc/femme of center as a very patient person sitting cross-legged on the floor wearing fitted sweatpants and a drape-y top. I don’t think that’s right, but I haven’t heard anyone else come up with a better suggestion.) Many of us don’t talk about HRT in such terms at all. Adolescence is not the only time of life that brings significant change. I’ve only ever heard trans people use this language with a bit of a wink, as a shorthand for acknowledging the sometimes-sudden, sometimes-profound changes a hormonal shift can bring, not out of any understanding of themselves as teens reborn, out for a joyride in their own bodies, trying to outrun a disciplining parental force. Many non-trans people seem to miss this distinction, and as a result fall behind in an already-complex conversation.

My hope for all people, of every age, is that they may find elements of joy in their embodiment, not unrelenting happiness or forced positivity; that they would not consider their own gender identification as something they owe anyone else; that they would be given the necessary time and resources to make thoughtful decisions about their own bodies; that they be free from harm by the forces of sexism, racism, transphobia, transmisogyny, self-loathing, and ingrown hairs (I recommend a warm compress for the last). If I were to ever come to regret any aspect of my transition or present embodiment, not just in the sense that anyone can regret any part of their life circumstances without wishing to trade them in for something else, but regret in the sense of wanting to change my life again, wanting to commit myself to a process some people have sometimes called “detransition,” I would hope for the following: the ability to speak honestly without fear of disappointing others, support and affection from my friends and family, good counsel, attentive and conscientious medical care, tenderness towards myself, and the ability to recognize that my specific experience does not need to be universal to matter. I wish that for all trans people now. I hope that if anyone ever said, “I am experiencing regret, I believe my own transitional work was rooted in something unrelated, I want to find healing and home in the sex I was assigned at birth without attempting to use my experience against trans people,” that they would be met with openness, solidarity, and love. I hope we all get the chance to grow up and stay there.