Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for Sexuality

Transsexuals Reinforce Sexism

One of those pesky issues that transsexualism bumps up against is sexism. My transsexualism was very much physically based. What I mean by that is that while it’s true that a large part of my dysphoric feelings were around my gender presentation and perception, in retrospect it seems that an even bigger part of my issue was around my body. I hated my body; well, certain parts, but I think my meaning is clear. When I was very young I was aware that I hated parts of my body. It was young enough that I’m fairly certain that it was a literal example of a “girl brain [or soul] in a boy body.” And that very concept is what I want to talk about.

I’m going to talk about this in a fairly loosey-goosey sort of way. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and so everything I say should be taken as my opinion and my sense of understanding of the biologic and neurological studies I have read mixed with personal experience. Again, take it for what it’s worth.

So, that’s sort of a problematic concept, eh? “Girl brain” implies “boy brain.” That feels one step away from reinforcing lots of sexist dogma that usually posits males as superior to females. There are some studies that seem to be showing some interesting differences, though, between males and females, especially in an area of the brain called the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis. Transsexuals appear to have that part of the brain that more closely aligns to the sex they perceive themselves to be. The studies are painfully small, and jumping to solid conclusions from these studies feels like it may be premature. And yet, it’s difficult for me not to latch onto these studies and scream: “See? This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you all.”

However, and this is super important, for every study that I’ve seen that shows differences between the brains of males and females, there is another study diminishing the differences and pointing out overlaps that calls into question just how much difference there really is.

Shouldn’t that call my narrative of having been born with a girl brain in a boy body into question?

I don’t think so, and here’s why:

Studies like these are usually about finding averages and ranges. It doesn’t surprise me for a second that there would be overlaps in studies like this, especially at the edges. Just as the average male has more upper body strength than the average female, that doesn’t really tell us much about a random male and a random female. So, too, I believe that just because there is separation in the averages, the very fact that there is overlap between the brains of males and females in most structures means that making too many assumptions about specific males and females is fraught with difficulty.

At this point, I believe our brains are incredibly complex and unique. There are so many different parts that make each of us who we are that there is bound to be differentiation as well as similarity. Picking out the specific elements that make each of us who we are is probably a little ways off. What I know is I believe that I was born with the relevant parts of my brain in the female range, and probably so far into the female range as to be outside the overlap between female and male; every study I’ve read, and everything I’ve ever felt has lead me to this conclusion.

So, we have one over-simplification out of the way, here’s another: I feel like a woman. I have no idea what that statement means. A thing that hung me up in my transition was trying to figure out what the heck “feeling like a woman” meant. It seems a ridiculous statement to me in so many ways. And yet, it’s the only way I can say it: I feel like a woman; I feel that I am a woman. A critique I’ve seen of this is that if I felt that I was Napoleon or a panda bear, it would be obvious that I was suffering from some sort of delusion. But those are false analogies; Napoleon was a specific person, and people aren’t panda bears. Males and females are biologically very similar, and are the same species, having a little separation in a place where there is often overlap in an unusual direction doesn’t seem that far a stretch. I’ve made my peace with the fact that some folks will think I’m crazy. I must note that any “crazy” I had in my personality really seems to have largely abated since my transition. Any anxiety and depression issues that I had seem tied to the fact that I was living the wrong life in the wrong body. My own empirical evidence seems to confirm that, for me, transition was the right thing to do and affirms the concept that I do feel like a woman and have a female brain. [I’m aware that a sample size of 1 is sort of worthless, but then I’m only talking about my life.]

So, from a biological and neurological standpoint, I don’t believe that transsexualism reinforces sexism. Yet, I’m very sympathetic to the notion that somehow, in some way, my transition spells out a certain delineation between men and women, and even male and female, that could be seen as problematic. During my transition, I recall vividly feeling the world change how it treated me, as people’s perception of my gender started to catch up with my identity. It would be dishonest of me to not say that I noticed what I considered a shocking amount of sexism in the world. However, as I have learned to navigate the world around me better over the last several years, I feel that the sexism I see, while certainly a problem, isn’t quite as overwhelming as I perceived at first. I believe that sexism is one of those pesky, nuanced issues that simply can not be reduced to one-dimensional concepts like “the patriarchy.” Just as I referenced earlier in the biological sense, there is a lot of overlap; the simple reality is that socially there is much blurring between the genders and much picking and choosing that people are able to do when presenting themselves. Is it a perfect balance? No, certainly not, but I don’t believe it’s as bad as it is often portrayed to be.

I don’t want to turn this into an examination of sexism itself. As I said, there is overlap and gaps and places where men and women, and male and female are barely distinguishable, and places where the differences are extreme. Sometimes the separations are benign, and sometimes they are very problematic. For me to deny that would be for me to deny all my learning and life experience up until this point.

Back to those overlaps and areas of separation. It is exactly those areas of separation, specifically within the brain, that I believe the pivotal trigger for transsexualism lives. I believe that I was always a girl and then woman. I believe that my social, presentational transition was about catching people up to who I really was. I didn’t transition from a man to a woman, I stopped being afraid and pretending to be something I’m not. Physically, at least in an outward sense, it’s fair to say that my transition was more about going from one side to the other. And yet, even in the physical sense, it seems like my body has always been in that area of the overlap and / or separation that would be comfortably in the female range. (I always said that I had my mom’s hips, for example, which is slightly flippant, but only slightly, as I’m using it as a concrete example to illustrate that there was always plenty about my body that landed at least in the middle of the spectrum, if not firmly in the female end.)

So, what about genetics? What about chromosomes? What about genitals? Well, unlike many folks with transsexualism, I have had my karyotype tested, and it is, in fact, XY. To some, this is exactly the evidence needed to declare me insane. From my perspective, though, it is exactly the proof that sex and gender are much more complicated than eighth-grade biology would have us all believe. As for genitals, I was born somewhere in that very broad range that is referred to as “ambiguous genitalia.” I had my first reconstructive genital surgery when I was three years old. What I was left with was also pretty well within what people would expect as male. Again, to me, that just lends evidence to the complexity and variance that describes the fullness of the human experience. Reading the science that is available, it’s clear to me that we still have more to learn, but it’s also clear to me that I am not crazy, that my reality, as I describe it, is well within the naturally occurring variation of humanity.

So, while I can understand the perspective that my transition and life somehow reinforces sexism and sexist principles, I just can’t see it that way. If we admit that sexism is a problem (and again, while stipulating that it’s a very large, very messy, exceptionally nuanced issue, I think it is), I believe that people born with transsexualism, rather than reinforcing the problem, can be exemplars of how similar men and women, and male and female, truly are. Honestly, I think elite athletes, where the difference between men and women, male and female, is so extremely delineated, as well as sexual procreation and childbirth, which is generally considered an area where male and female are on opposite ends of a spectrum can reinforce some of the negative principles of sexism far more strongly than a person born with transsexualism ever could.

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Bone Dry

TMI warning. This is one ~those~ posts that’ll be pretty personal and maybe graphic. If that’s too much, please consider this as one to skip.

So, less than a month ago I was lamenting that I was having a little bit of spotting in this post. I’ve also mentioned a few times that I’ve still been wearing panty liners everyday. I was having pretty random discharge, and so I didn’t necessarily need them everyday, but I had to wear them everyday. It wasn’t too bad, but I sort of started to feel like it was a perpetual thing that I would have to live with forever.

Well, within a couple days of that post I referenced, I had another experience of annoying spotting – fresh blood when I wiped after peeing and some discharge. I was as annoyed like I always was. I was still debating seeing my doctor about it. After all, I had surgery in February, 2009. I know my body heals slowly, but over eighteen months seemed like an exceptionally long time, even for me.

But then, as I was still putting off going to the doctor about it, it just stopped. At first I figured it was more of the same. I expected the discharge would reappear within a few days. I had times before when I would have no discharge for days at a time, and then I’d have a day with moderate discharge out of the blue. There seemed to be no pattern, but it seemed like it always came back. So at first I was hesitant was to get excited about a few days with no discharge. But the days stretched to weeks, and my liners remained dry.

I was skeptical. But the dryness persisted.

Finally, I decided to be brave and go without a liner in my panties for a few hours, and then a whole day. They were bone dry.

I’m pretty ecstatic. It seems like the internal granulation tissue has finally fully healed. It’s still possible that I could have some discharge, I suppose (I guess I’m still a little skeptical), but it’s been a couple weeks at this point, and nothing. So I’ll be braving it for a while, and I really think I’m through wearing liners, unless something unforeseen happens.

One slightly less positive side-effect of the healing of the granulation tissue is that I seem to be less self-lubricating when I have sex, which makes sense. That’s a minor annoyance, but something I can certainly live with. It’s better to be fully healed.

I think my healing has been very personal. I think it’s important to share my story so other folks contemplating SRS can see one potential outcome. But, like anything else YMMV, so I don’t really want to say that healing from SRS typically takes 18 months, or that in 18 months everything will definitely be perfect. This is my story, and is just one possibility. I share it just so there are as many possibilities as possible out there.

But, yay. Eighteen months after surgery I think I’m fully healed (yep, that’s ~slow~ healing right there). It feels really nice. And super yay, I get to stop wearing panty liners every single day.

The Project of Laramie

So, the other day I saw a live performance of The Laramie Project. It was the first time I had ever seen it in any form. I also got to see the ten-year epilogue, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Both plays were extremely moving and very well directed and performed. I cried lots. The first play I attended alone, while for the ten-year follow-up I was accompanied by the Darling Boyfriend.

I confess that I vaguely remember the play when it first was done. I certainly remember Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder, but I was still so confused and hiding in 1998 that I couldn’t fully connect with any efforts to make the world better, even from afar simply as a spectator. I was also a little old; I’ve been amazed at how many young people saw the play (or performed in it) in their high schools. Truly amazing. But in 1998, when Matthew Shepard was killed, I was still agoraphobic, repressed, depressed, and even though I at the time thought I was bisexual, I was in deep denial about being trans (even though I knew, ya know? I suppose that’s what “denial” means), and I had never connected with, or really felt connected to, the queer community. So I felt horrible when Matthew Shepard was murdered, but I didn’t connect fully with the fact that I too could be ~hated~ like he was.

Now I joke that, even though I’m a straight woman, my history of transsexualism grants me a lifetime all-access pass to the queer community. That might sound glib, and I really hope it doesn’t. But in some respects I do find it interesting that it was only after my transition that I have felt comfortable embracing the queer community. And while in some respects I feel more like a straight ally, there’s no denying that my history gives me a certain perspective. I have a place in the world that it is what it is, and for me that means a connection to the queer community that will always exist.

And so the plays hit me very strongly. Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay. We’re approaching the Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we remember folks who were killed in the previous year in hate crimes. I feel that I live a pretty safe life, yet there’s no denying that some people are terrified by my existence. I believe that most hate comes out of fear, and that the unknown is often the scariest thing around. [That’s why, as much as I used to think I would gradually live a fairly stealth life, I’m still telling my story so often and so publicly: if folks are afraid of the unknown, I want them to know that people like me are just ordinary people, and being so open seems the best way for me to do that.] But the reality is that I could be a victim simply because of who I am. I don’t live in constant fear or anything, but it is a sobering thought.

Anyway, the first play tells the story of Matthew’s murder. We meet Matt, members of the community, and the murderers. It is a very complete picture. There are reports from the young man who found Matthew, tied to a fence, clinging to life (Matthew died six days after the attack), the first officer on the scene, and the Emergency Room doctor. The play is a dry account of the townspeople’s words, but it is anything but flat. The words weave together into a compelling narrative. Laramie is a portrayed as a pretty normal town, the proverbial “any town,” with its own character, of course, but a sense of community that is strong and vital. The play introduces us to several gay townsfolk, almost all of whom find Laramie a mixed bag of a place to live. Perhaps my strongest emotional reaction was when the play introduced Matthew’s father.

It feels impossible to give the play a fair synopsis, beyond simply saying that it tries to tell the very complex story of how two young men brutally murdered another simply for being different than them and the community’s reaction to that crime.

The follow-up play, created ten years after Matthew’s murder, tells the story of the town now. I was saddened but how much some of the town’s residents have rewritten history. There are rumors of drugs and robbery (there were no drugs found in any of the three young men’s systems – and the investigating officers were livid at such assertions). There is the sense that the “New York Media” fabricated the hate crime to push their agenda. There is a protectiveness about the town by its residents: they don’t like Laramie being known for a hate crime. The problem with their thinking, to me, is that by saying “it could have happened anywhere,” they’re missing the point that, yes, it could happen anywhere, and that’s why we need to work to end hatred – everywhere.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the second play is the 20/20 report from 2004 which planted the seeds for all the false rumors about Matthew’s murder. The circumstances of the show, it’s obvious agenda, it’s treatment of the real evidence of the trial and investigation, which amounted to ignoring facts in favor of salacious rumor-mongering and victim-blaming was just shocking. At one time I watched 20/20 pretty regularly. I was disappointed that anyone considered a journalist would so distort the truth. Really sad.

There was a very touching part of the second play, when a bench at the University of Wyoming was dedicated to Matthew Shepard, and his father spoke. He had an obviously broken nose, and he told how when Matthew had been alive the two had an informal “competition” going to see who would break their nose more times. His father said that when Matthew had died he was ahead 3 to 2, and that now he had evened the score. And oh how I cried.

Both plays were powerful beyond anything I was expecting. It is so sad that we can let our fear and our hate so get the better of us that we can be driven to such horrible acts. Just sad.

As part of the plays production there were a couple panels organized. I actually sat on one. It was called “Be Part of the Solution” and we talked about ending hate crimes and programs and such. I ended up talking a lot about the camp for trans youth that I was a part of this past summer. The panel included some real heavy-hitters (someone involved with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, someone from GSLEN, someone from GLADD, the director that put on the first high school performance of The Laramie Project, and a couple others). It was sitting on that panel, and realizing that I belonged with the heavy hitters, that I finally realized that I have indeed become an activist. It was a heavy realization.

“Penny Larson, activist for transgender equality.”

Wow.

My, How We Categorize Each Other

I’ve never cared much about the groups to which people belong. I’m human, and I do tend to lump people together in categories, especially people I don’t know, because it just sort of helps to keep track sometimes of populations of people that far outnumber my ability to have an accurate or detailed idea of everyone. These lumps are fuzzy and coarse, and I’m not remotely attached to them (so, if I label someone as “Brown-eyed” and later find out that they actually have hazel eyes that are only brown sometimes, I’ll have no problem letting go of my erroneous classification and I’ll hope that they weren’t offended by my mistake – similarly, I try not to be frustrated when someone mislabels me, because I know how easy it is to do). I hate labels and classifications, and yet I use them all the time just to keep track of folks. I have some friends who love Broadway Musicals; if I were to organize a trip to see “Evita” it would be helpful to know who I should ask. But then maybe a friend who usually hates musicals just happens to love “Evita” for some reason. So the distinctions are useful, but they can also be a trap if they’re held too rigidly.

I try to never use these lumps as ways of segregating folks. I have a hard time with spaces that are exclusive. My church is “Radically Welcoming,” the generally queer open-mic that I attend is certainly inclusive, when I open my house to my friends it is open to all of my friends. I become overwhelmed at rallies and sporting events because the “hive mind” feels oppressive to me (I’m very empathic, and I feel the weight of so many people thinking the same thing as suffocating – I find it physically uncomfortable).

I don’t understand why we don’t celebrate our differences. Labels are fine for groups of people, but they’re really too coarse to do a good job of describing individuals. Groups created around labels can be great, but I don’t understand why they need to be exclusive. I posted pretty regularly on a message board a few years ago, and the rule was that content could be moderated, but people would not be (so, anyone could post, they just had to stay on topic). I tend to live my life much that way, finding open assemblages of folks who come together as much out of some random commonality as any of their labels.

I simply have never understood why it is necessary for folks to work so hard at othering other folks. People are “gay” or “Republican” or “Communist” or “hippie” or “geek” or “hipster” or “straight” or “trans” or “Catholic” or “foreign” or “Irish” or whatever. And the labels aren’t really that problematic, honestly no matter what they are. So much of the trouble starts when people use the labels to be a form of “like me” vs. “not like me” which all too quickly turns to “like me (=good)” vs. “not like me (=bad).” I’ve mentioned before how I simply have never understood the prevalence of “us vs. them” thinking that so many people engage in. I watched liberals call George W. Bush “Hitler.” Now I’m watching conservatives call Barack Obama “Hitler.” It’s pretty depressing, and from my perspective I just can’t understand. I believe that people are generally good, and want what’s best. Good people can disagree. Why do disagreements turn into personal ad hominems so easily and so often? I get uncomfortable when my friends start bad-mouthing groups of people, it doesn’t matter which group is being slammed. My Darling Boyfriend says this is deep-seated and has to do with our tribal roots, but I hope and pray that we can grow beyond it and start to see all other people as connected to us.

I’m expected to think a certain way because of the groups I belong to – the labels I wear, and it’s as frustrating when friends do it as it is when people who dislike me do it. It might explain why my favorite label is, shockingly enough, “Penny.” When it comes down to it, the labels I wear, and the rules I break and follow, all combine to make me a unique whole. Shoving people into lumps can be useful sometimes, but everyone is unique, and I work hard to always remember that.

I’ve been watching several things happen online lately that have just made me so sad…

I’ve been reading and expanding some of my ideas on the Chartreuse Flamethrower. I’ve had trouble processing some of the ideas expressed there, but I think it’s important, most notably because I’m having trouble understanding. And I’m most interested in understanding folks different from me – I already understand me.

I read about one way of looking at being trans written by Dyssonance, and  I found myself disagreeing strongly with her thoughts. I have found the concept that my SRS was a “cure” to be just about the perfect way to express what was going on both internally and externally. But I’m not threatened that the idea that transition or surgery is a cure doesn’t work for everyone. For me, it was pretty clearly a physical birth defect. I get that different people have different experiences, and again, I think that’s really cool. Other folks’ experiences do not invalidate my own – how could they?

I read about the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, and the many people boycotting businesses in the state, and how that’s effecting trans folk in the state.

I read about ENDA, and how trans folk (and really anyone who transgresses gender stereotypes) may get stripped from the bill once again.

I read about how WPATH is encouraging the depathologization of trans folk in the new DSM, and how an intersex group feels that can lead to their further pathologization.  And I wish there was a way to make it possible for folks who want or need medical intervention to get it while not stigmatizing everyone who is either trans or intersex.

And I read Zoe Brain, whom I continue to think is the bees knees, talk about the incidence of intersex, and say this: “I just see that while there are two distinct sexes, there’s an area between, neurologically and anatomically, where things are not so straightforward. Someone can be neurologically usual, but otherwise anatomically unusual, or the reverse.” And I just think that makes so much sense, but then I wonder if that would make others feel squeamish (with the word “usual” being so close to “normal” and all).

I just can’t understand why defining oneself is so often a leaping off point for saying how others definition of themselves is either wrong or evil. I love the diversity of expression that I see in the world around me. And I’m always surprised by the people whom I end up loving and disliking. I’ve met Swedes and drummers and trans folk and Christians and liberals and conservatives and a million other people from a million other labels and descriptions, and whether I like or dislike them (and vice-versa) seems much more often to be about who we each are as people – not about their or my labels.

This post has turned into my usual quoting of Rodney King, Bilbo Baggins, and Bill & Ted, respectively: “Can’t we all just get along” … “I simply do not understand war” … “Be excellent to each other; party on dudes…”

But there it is – can’t we just be gentle with each other?

Watching the Anger Flow

I usually stay out of transgender / gender identity / identity politics discussions on my blog. There are a few reasons for this. The most important thing is that I try to keep this blog very much about ~my~ story. This a place for me to work things and out and just be sort of a journal. It’s cathartic, it’s not intended to be a place for grand social statements. But also, those discussions so often get ugly beyond all sorts of reason, and I don’t like to wade into such harsh water.

But I’m tired of watching, as I say to my Darling Boyfriend, people going batshit at each other, so I figured I’d write about it. I figure this post has the potential to upset everyone I know (well, not everyone, but lots of folks that I consider friends). But these are just my opinions. I’m making no claim of “truth,” or divine knowledge. I am also not speaking for anyone but myself. I am not claiming to speak for others with any sort of “everyone knows” or “most people feel” kinds of statements. I own all of this.

It won’t surprise me (if anyone even reads my blog) if I trigger some harsh words. I guess I’ll just have to take what may come.

So, with the caveats out of the way (I love caveats)…

I’m really tired of watching folks who seem like such obvious allies be so hateful to each other. I have so many thoughts that I’m not even sure where to start.

First, I’ve started to realize lately that there are so many things that get conflated it’s difficult to keep everything focused. It seems to me that so much of what falls under transgender issues is just as easily described as sexism. Men and women have assigned roles and even in the 21st century those roles can be rigidly enforced. Men and women have different standards of dress, different expected professions, different goals, different ways of acting, etc. The list of differences, both politely expected and societally enforced, is quite long. I always knew that the world was different for men and women, but when I transitioned it became clear to me just how sexist the world really is. And yet, clearly, part of that makes sense to me on at least some level, because even though I think men and women are ~equal~, if there were no ~difference~ then why would I have needed to transition in the first place?

“Men and women” is a simple binary. Most people are comfortable with it, fit into it, and never realize that there are folks for whom the binary doesn’t work. It doesn’t make them evil or transphobic, it means that they’re comfortable enough with the status quo to take it as it is. One of my best friends recently had a baby, and I was amazed by how repeatedly his sex was reinforced (“You’re a big boy”; “Are you mommy’s good boy”; “Such a happy boy”). But it’s just about universal. Whether a baby is a boy or a girl is the first question people ask, even before they ask if the baby is healthy. This works for most folks. To ask them to change is asking a lot. To ask them to understand is a bit different. Understanding is something people should be able to offer.

Let me tackle the gender binary at this point. The binary works for me. I feel no need to destroy the concept of a binary, and I don’t see it as particularly helpful (or possible) to attempt it. I recently read a blog post that stated it more clearly than I can giving an example of how binaries aren’t intrinsically bad. I fit very well in the binary, and it seems like most folks do too (“even” most trans folk). I sort of think of it like an inverse bell curve. Most people are on either end, with some folks approaching the middle, and as it gets dead center there being fewer and fewer folks there. There are folks in the dead center of the binary, but that doesn’t invalidate the binary. Actually, I think that the evidence is that it works for the vast majority of people. The sexes are equal; but the sexes are different.

But what about those folks in the middle? I’d be lying if I said I completely understand them. I try. And many of my friends are more in the middle than it turns out I am. I consider some of them some of the most special and valuable people I know. One of the most difficult things with these folks can be what pronouns they prefer. I have it easy on the pronoun issue. I look like I prefer “she.” I sound like I prefer “she.” And I do prefer “she.” Lots of folks have a tougher time; their visual presentation doesn’t do an accurate job of communicating their preferred way of being referred to. I’ve seen over and over again the suggestion that people ask someone their preferred pronoun before using any pronoun. I think that’s unrealistic, and more so, I find it personally invalidating. I worked hard to make it ~visually~ clear that I prefer to be referred to as “she.” Just because I fit into the binary at this point I see no reason for invalidating my desire that my preferred pronoun~is~ assumed from my appearance. I understand that for some folks it’s not so simple. I even read a post recently by a person who wrote about folks who prefer to be referred to as “it.” I also understand the pain of being referred to by pronouns that are wrong. I think this is one place where a little understanding on both sides would just be helpful. I have exactly one friend who never misgendered me during my transition. I know how difficult it can be to stand up and explain that your preferred pronoun might not match the one expected just from your appearance. I have become as diligent as I can be about remembering and respecting peoples preferred pronouns. I think the nature of the binary is that asserting a preferred pronoun that is unexpected based on preconceived notions of appearance may be necessary, but respect for the preferred pronoun should be the norm. Being mildly surprised that someone prefers to be referred to as “it” is fine; refusing to use “it” to refer to that person because you don’t think it’s valid is not.

So, fine, let’s respect the binary but also respect the malleability of the boundaries, and the arbitrariness of most of those boundaries. Even though I’ve settled nicely on one side of the binary, I am in no way threatened by folks who traverse the binary or exist in the very center. I don’t get too upset at the folks trying to destroy the binary because I understand that it is a reaction to the sometimes unnecessary rigidity of the boundaries between the two sides of the binary, and also because I know that the binary is here to stay.

Next I want to talk about legislation. I think it’s important and right that gender identity and expression is added to hate crimes laws. It would be great to live in a world where “murder is murder” and hate crimes legislation wasn’t needed. I don’t live in that world. Not only are people targeted for violent crimes specifically because they transgress the gender binary, the crimes are also not taken seriously. A way to help remedy that is to specifically state in law that a crime against someone because they don’t look like they’re “supposed to” is not only an actual crime, it can not be minimized because the person was “asking for it.” Hate crimes laws help to eliminate specious claims such as trans panic. Trans hatred and violence can strike anyone, even folks who are years past transition and blend perfectly, and even non-trans people. Making a specific legal statement that violence against people who transgress society’s gender norms is a good thing. I think we all, every single one of us, benefits from that.

The second part of that is anti-discrimination legislation. I think this is important as well. I’ve seen too many people kicked out of homes, lose jobs, and face all sorts of unnecessary and wrong-headed things just because they don’t look like they’re “supposed to.” I think that’s wrong, and I think a law would be helpful.

A part of this that no one wants to address is the restroom issue (the gender-identity and expression hate crimes and anti-discrimination bill in Massachusetts is deridingly referred to as “The Bathroom Bill”). It’s incredibly trivializing to diminish all of these issues to where one goes potty. I don’t understand the extreme emotions that are generated around this. I do have my feelings about it, but I’m not super high charged about it either. I do understand the confusion when folks who are non-gender-normative have to use a public restroom. It’s tough on both sides. During my transition, when I wasn’t sure I was blending yet, I spent months going to great lengths to never (and I mean ~never~) use a public restroom. I just felt more comfortable that way, but I don’t think that’s a realistic solution for folks. Now I just go pee and don’t think about it, like most women do. I don’t think even the most nutty people are seriously suggesting genital-checking before entering a restroom (well maybe a couple are, but that’s not most peoples concern in my experience). When I began my transition, one of my guy friends asked what was to stop him from using the ladies room if he said that he felt like a woman. I never did have a good answer for him. And I know that the reality is that it really doesn’t happen. But there are people like Jasper, who wonders why it isn’t all about what’s in their head. And I have to confess that I would be at least mildly uncomfortable if Jasper followed me into the ladies room. The reality of this part of the issue is that it seems like most people don’t really notice who else is in the restroom with them. I scope people out very generally, because the restroom is a place of vulnerability, but for the most part I’m tuned out as I usually am.

Jasper brings me to the “this is all in our heads” issue. Well, where else would it start? If I’m a woman now, then to me I always was. But that means at some point I was a woman with a penis. There’s a whole debate about women with penises (I’ll get to that next). I was a particularly depressed person, and my life since transition does seem like I have really figured out something that enabled me to live an actual life. So I clearly believe in transition and surgery. But if Jasper causes issues for me, I’m admitting that I have a line somewhere that it feels difficult, if not impossible, for me to cross. Once I’ve admitted that there is a line, where the line is becomes the important question. I think this is a complex and nuanced issue, and acting like there are easy and pat answers in any direction isn’t helpful.

And there’s this pending national ENDA legislation in the US. It’s looking like it will be trans-inclusive but only in so far as someone has or has not had surgery. Stuff like this really makes me wonder about the whole condition of transsexualism. I see surgery as the easiest big decision I ever made. It was the perfect thing for me. I am amazed at how much my vagina has become a part of me in a way that I can’t really imagine a time before surgery. But is my having had surgery really the thing that validates me? My mom described me as “all woman now” to the neighbors (!) after I had surgery. A friend of mine said that my decision to have surgery demonstrated a certain level of commitment to my transition. Clearly surgery matters to people. It remains amazing to me that anyone (beyond my Darling Boyfriend) really cares what I have in my panties. What if I had born 200 years ago? Would I not have been transsexual just because the best thing I would have been able to do would have been to remove my testicle? What are people going to think in another 200 years when as yet undreamed of surgical interventions will exist? Will they look back on us as pretenders or wannabes? It’s become a catch phrase for the “surgery makes you a woman” camp that “women don’t have penises.” Well, they don’t have prostates either (the prostate is not removed during SRS). If I am a woman (and I know with every ounce of my soul that I am) it was not surgery that made me a woman. I was a woman and I had surgery to stop my brain from hurting so much (and it worked). But if we’re going to play the “physicality makes you what you are” game we’re going to leave out most transsexual men, at least for now, because they don’t have the surgical options that transsexual women do. I’m not down with leaving out transsexual men. So I don’t think surgery can be the end-all-be-all when it comes to legal status. Again, it’s complicated and nuanced – and laws suck at that.

I’ve been presented with a lot of “loving the body God gave you” imagery lately, mainly out of the movement away from being the perfect little size 4 Barbie doll (as if I could ever…). And I see how complicated this issue really is. For someone with transsexualism, learning to love the body God gave you may never be possible. Surgery was the only thing that worked to make me stop hating myself and my life – and it has worked incredibly well. But surgery isn’t the right thing for everyone.

One of my best friends is a woman who has chosen, for now, to “not decide” whether SRS is the right choice for her. To me that doesn’t diminish her value, or her conviction, or her womanhood. She is one of the most thoughtful, special, and powerful people I know. I wouldn’t for a second push her to have surgery or judge her if she decides to never have surgery. This isn’t a contest. I’m not trying to be “more woman” than anyone else, I’m just trying to be authentically me. I wish everyone the peace of mind that I’ve found, whether that means surgery or no, full time or part time, “he,” “she,” “they,” “sie,” or “it.” I value people as individuals. And I judge people as individuals. I’ve known folks that are jerks and folks who are lovely in all walks of life and of all genders and sexes.

So I understand that ENDA may ignore folks whose expected genitals don’t match their presentation. Especially in the United States we’re pretty conservative about sexuality and genitals. I’d be comfortable with unisex restrooms as the easiest way to solve a lot of these issues, but I know most of my fellow Americans aren’t down with that. I hope there’d be more understanding on all sides, but it seems like that isn’t the case.

I haven’t even really talked about labels, because I’m tired of them and they just cause fights. I’m finding labels difficult to discuss even amongst some of my closest friends. Everyone finds the way to define themselves that works for them, and I’m a big supporter of that.

My mommie told me when I was very little: “You’re no better than anyone else, and you’re no worse either.” I believe that. It’s a small planet, and we’re all in this together. Disagreements are bound to happen, but they don’t need to degenerate into name-calling and anger and hatred.

Be excellent to each other…

Learning the Language

Tell me about the man who became a woman.
— ten year-old to Bishop Tom Shaw after he received me into The Episcopal Church
Did you used to be a guy?
— The Darling Boyfriend right after I told him about my history of transsexualism

I’ve been talking a lot lately to a lot of people. I’ve been meeting new people. I’ve been reconnecting with old friends. I use specific language to tell my story when I speak with people, but other people make a muddle of all the words and concepts that they have for transsexualism, transgender, intersex, genderqueer, and queer folks. I’m not talking about people who think I’m some sort of freak or abomination; I’m talking about folks who are very new to the concept that a woman could be born with the wrong body – or that someone might not be comfortable with our easy little binary of “man ~OR~ woman” – or that someone might dress like what is perceived to be their opposite sex for either fun or profit – or that someone might feel more comfortable identifying with the opposite sex but might not need or want medical interventions. I’m talking about folks who are eager to understand, but don’t yet. And maybe they can never fully grok the experience, that’s fine. The very fact that they’re asking questions and interested in understanding as best they can is something that is really lovely.

All this expansion has taught me that I need to let go of my rigid sense of self when it comes to other peoples word choice. What does that mean? Well, I’m a woman. I get that. I was born with a birth defect. I get that. I’m heterosexual and so is my boyfriend. I get that. I’m my mother’s daughter. I get that. I’m infertile, and my infertility bites at me just like it would at any woman. I get that.

But I didn’t always have words to describe it. I don’t know anything now that I haven’t known for my entire life. But when I was six I didn’t have words – I just hurt myself. And when I was 12 I didn’t have words – I just tried to figure out why I felt like I might be a girl even though I had a penis. And when I was 16 I didn’t have words – I just knew I hated the effect testosterone had on me. And when I was 18 I didn’t have words – I just knew that I wanted to have sex with men. And when I was 20 I didn’t have words – I just knew that I wanted to wear feminine clothes. And when I was 25 I didn’t have words – I just wanted to paint my fingernails. And at none of these points could I see the whole picture. I was glimpsing pieces of the puzzle, never able to fully accept or process what I was seeing. What seems so annoyingly obvious in retrospect was completely confounding at the time – in the moment.

And so, if I didn’t always have the words for it ~while I was living it~, how can I possibly hold others to a higher standard than that? Why was it ever difficult to be patient with others? Maybe it was an expression of my own frustration finally coming out. Maybe I’ve been militant about language simply as a reaction to my own inability to find the right words for so much of my life. I guess I still have a lot to learn.

It was the bishop telling me about that question the 10 year-old asked him: “Tell me about the man who became a woman.” Six months ago my skin would have crawled and I would gotten all language-police about it – yes, even with a ten year old. But in the moment when the bishop said that I finally put it all together. I fully support the people who live very quietly about their medical history, but I think it’s important for the world to understand transsexualism and transgender and intersex. I think it’s important because people still misunderstand and hate and hurt. I believe that the world can be a better place. And so for me, right now, what I need to do is, as I said in my last post, tell my story.

For that ten year old, the words he has are “the man who became a woman.” For my Darling Boyfriend it was “used to be a guy.” Another thing I’ve heard from people is that I “decided to be a woman.” There are many more misconceptions and poor ways to word things, but almost always it seems like it’s done more from ignorance than hatred.

And so I have decided to make a conscious effort to not take the way anyone else describes me personally. It won’t always be easy, I’m pretty sensitive after all. But most people seem to be just curious and they’re doing their level best to understand. It’s tempting to react with Calpernia Addams’ “Bad Questions” when people are ignorant in ways that cause some discomfort, but I’m feeling like I don’t want to do that. I’m very lucky in that I blend really well, so nobody ambushes me with these questions anymore, and that is a help. I’m consciously putting myself out there from a position of strength to be a tool for education. Few people know the answers to these questions better than those of us living it; I think it makes sense for me to be answering those questions – even when they’re really personal. Who better, right?

So, while I will maintain my own focus and integrity with my story and will endeavor to be even more clear with my choice of language, I will also allow for the fact that many other folks will be learning things that they may have never considered before. They will need time, space, and patience to learn the correct language. It makes it especially difficult because there are several different ways to say so many of these things; there are so many different ways to tell the stories. I can offer my story, and I will do it sincerely, openly, and gently.

Let’s all educate each other…

One-Year Post-Op Update: Penny’s Excellent Adventure

[This is part of my ongoing diary about my SRS experience in Trinidad, Colorado with Dr. Marci Bowers. See the main page here: Penny’s Excellent Adventure.]

One year ago today I had the surgery that finally made me feel at home in my own skin.

So, this will probably be the last entry in my “Excellent Adventure” series. I suppose if I’m still writing in four years I may do a five-year update, but it’s getting to be pretty redundant. As I’ve written before, if this surgery is the right choice for you, it will change your life more than you can even imagine. And if it’s not right for you, it’s probably one of the worst things you could ever do (though, in fairness, even though I know there are people out there for whom this is true, I’ve yet to meet anyone who regrets having SRS). I think it’s needless to say that for me this surgery has been one of the best things I have ever done.

So, the obligatory, ~wow~, it’s only been a year. It feels like it’s been so much longer. I have trouble remembering what my body was like before.I’m pretty serious about that. It took 38 years for me to have my body corrected, and after one short year (and really this happened much more quickly, almost immediately, as a matter of fact) it’s difficult to remember that I wasn’t born with a vagina. It feels like I’ve always been this way. Perhaps that’s because I was waiting for this forever, and I finally have the body I imagined myself having all along; I dunno. I just know that it’s very hard to remember that 366 days ago I still had the wrong parts. A few other folks have said that it feels like longer than just one year as well (my mom insists that it’s been at least two years). I guess it has something to do with having transitioned a while before I had surgery, but I really do think it is also related to the fact that this feels so normal that it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t like this.

Having been through this, and having had to finance it myself, I am now more than ever convinced that this is a medically necessary surgery and should be covered by health insurance.

My healing feels essentially complete. I’ll explain a couple things that are going on.

First, the granulation tissue, which I wrote about here, here, here, here, and here, seems mainly resolved. It seems I still have some in the very back of my vagina, but it seems to be gradually resolving, and I’m still unsure whether I want to actually have my doc look into it or just let it slowly resolve on its own. I think I’m giving it another couple months. I’m really not very concerned about it at this point, I guess.

There are a couple other things that bear mentioning. Because I still have some internal granulation, I’m still spotting and wearing pantie liners everyday (though a liner is more than enough). When I dilate, the dilators have slight stains right at the tip, and sometimes when I have sex there is a slight bit of bleeding. Also, the spot near my clitoris where I had some granulation treated has a weird indent. It seems purely cosmetic – there is no discharge from that area, and it doesn’t bother me, as it takes a very close examination to notice it (it’s sort of buried under my clitoral hood), but I figured I’d mention it. The external granulation seems to have been completely resolved.

My urethra seems ~big~. Like, sometimes I feel like there’s a big gaping hole there. I wonder how I’m not incontinent (which I’m not – not even a little) with such a big urethra. I spoke with another woman who had SRS and it seems like this may be a common outcome. It doesn’t seem to create too much of a problem in and of itself, but it does cause two related issues. First, I often make a mess when I pee. Before I had surgery I told my therapist that I just wanted to pee straight. Well, no cigar. It’s not too bad, honestly, but it can be disconcerting, and it means I just have to make sure I pay attention when wiping. The other issue is that sometimes I worry that my boyfriend will go for the wrong hole in his exuberance (ironically, I only have this fear when he’s using his hand, never when he’s using his penis – huh, weird). I think once he just about did and it just has made me nervous ever since. I think I’m mostly being paranoid. I could have a revision, but it honestly doesn’t seem like a super-big deal, so I’ll probably stand pat for now.

My scars have faded more than I ever expected them to. I’ve let my hair grow in a pretty natural way, and with the bit of hair, and the natural skin color, my scars are virtually undetectable. I had issues with lots of swelling on my left labia, and  it seems like that did not hinder the healing and fading of my scars in any way.

Basically put: it looks like a pussy.

However, there are a couple other things I should say about its appearance with the help of my Darling Boyfriend’s perspective. (Here’s the wiki on the vagina for reference.) First, he’s not a gynecologist, but he is an anatomy geek (and he’s a biology teacher), so his eye is probably keener than most. He said that on a cursory visual inspection, he would not be able to tell that my vagina was surgically constructed, and that groping in the dark he wouldn’t be able to tell. However, he’s been down there a couple times with the lights on, peeking around, and he said that it does look different from other pussies. First, my labia minora doesn’t completely encompass my vaginal opening (I think this has to do with both the swelling that I experienced, as well as having so much granulation tissue removed). Next, my vestibule is quite long, and my perineum is quite short (Dr. Bowers even mentioned at the time that I had a very short perineal body); this has resulted in my vaginal opening being very low. And then, of course, once he got inside he definitely noticed that I don’t have a cervix. And he’s said that my vagina is very tight (in his words: “not a bad thing”), and that it’s very round. Having said all that, in his words, “No complaints.”

Every once in a while I’ve seen women who’ve had vaginoplasty say that no one can tell that they have a neovagina, not even their gynecologist. Simply put, if you’re gynecologist can’t tell – you need a new gynecologist. Dr. Bowers’ work is amazing, but there are some differences between original and after-market parts, and that’s just reality. It isn’t good or bad, it just is. (This paragraph, and really this whole diary, is here just to try to paint as clear a picture as possible as what someone can expect from having vaginoplasty. It’s like anything else, your mileage may vary, but I worry about folks having either unrealistically positive or negative views of this surgery and what actual outcomes are like.)

As far as the “realness” of either my vagina or my femaleness, both the Darling Boyfriend and my ex-boyfriend have had basically the same reaction (summed up by my ex: “fake pussy my ass”). There’s a sexist piece of conventional wisdom that I confess to spreading that “men are stupid and women are crazy.” Yes, sue me, I have some sexist notions sometimes. Anyway, on that point, the Darling Boyfriend has shared that he “never expected to find a sane pussy anyway.” I dunno, maybe it should raise my feminist ire, but I certainly have my crazy moments, so it just seems cute to me.

Orgasms have become gradually easier to attain as I have learned how my body works. I’m sort of an orgasm machine at this point. I can lose them if the mood goes awry, but let’s just say that as far as orgasms go, I’m very happy.

I have about 5.25″ of depth, which is about .25″ less than I had immediately after surgery. Considering how little donor tissue I had, I am extremely pleased with this amount of depth. I’m dilating several times a week, sometimes with “help,” and sometimes on my own. I still feel like several times a week is important to keep the depth I have, so I probably won’t back down too much just yet.

My metabolism seems to have completely stopped since I had surgery. The operating room felt like a meat locker, and I’ve been cold almost consistently since then. They had me wrapped in warmed-up blankets after surgery, and I felt snuggy, but since then it’s been so easy for me to get cold. Also, between my metabolism slowing down and being inactive for so long during my recovery, I’ve put on about 60 pounds. I have struggled with my weight for my whole life, and this is hardly the biggest I’ve been, but it is frustrating to have regained so much weight. I finally feel healthy enough to really start tackling the weight issue again.

Beyond all the physical stuff, I have to talk about how having had surgery has made me feel. For the first time in my life I feel normal, I feel like a whole person, I feel peaceful. The constantly nagging voice in my head screaming that ~something is wrong~ has fallen silent. I still have joys and sorrows, and my life isn’t perfect. But my life finally feels like ~my~ life. I’m not trying to be someone, I just am someone. This is a shift that I don’t feel I can adequately put into words. My social transition allowed me to interact with the world as myself, but my SRS has enabled me to interact with my own body as myself. It’s quite profound. Having lived 38 years trapped with the wrong parts has made me so exquisitely grateful of having the proper body. As I said in the note that I wrote to thank Dr. Bowers and Carol, “[I am] whole and complete.”

I.Am.Me.

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