Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for Harry Benjamin Syndrome

Theoretical Musing about Labels

   This is stuff I usually stay away from, but it’s been floating around in my mind for the last couple weeks, so I figured I’d write about it.

   I ~really~ thought that surgery [SRS] would be no big deal. I mean, I was living the life I had always dreamed of, and I knew surgery would make my head stop hurting every time I saw or thought about my crotch, but what was ~really~ going to change?

   heh

   So, now, not quite three months after surgery I recognize what absolute twaddle that was. Surgery has been both a non-issue and profound beyond anything I had imagined. It’s brought my femaleness to a legally recognized status; it’s made my mom say: “she’s all woman now;” it’s made an important person in my life describe having completed surgery as demonstrating “commitment” to my transition; it’s made people that I thought saw me ‘completely’ as a woman before change how they’ve been treating me (seriously); and much, much more. It’s changed how I view myself as well; I am more peaceful in my own mind than I ever remember being [I still have drama, of course, but even the worst of the drama seems so much more manageable than it did before surgery]. This, finally, truly is the life I was meant to live all along.

   And then, a few weeks after I got home from surgery, a friend asked me if I’m still “transgender.” And I responded that I didn’t know. It got me really thinking about labels and how I define myself, and what defines me, and how others define me. Again, stuff I’m usually smart enough to avoid with a ten-foot pole.

   I’ll stipulate that deep down I don’t really care about labels. I’m pretty much just Penny, and I like it that way. When I announced my transition to one of the other drum teachers where I work he said, “I hope it’s okay if I still think of you as a drummer first.” And I was like, “Well, d’uh.”  🙂  So, I’m just me. And I drum. And yet, labels obviously matter on some level, and they matter to some people more than others. And some people like to attack each other based on their real or perceived labels. That’s the part that’s the hardest for me, honestly. When this stuff is all neat theory it can be almost fun and interesting, but when people start hitting each other with sticks because of it, it becomes much less good.

   Anyway, onward into the breach…

   So, am I still “transgender?”

   I don’t think I am. At this point I’m not ~certain~ that I ever was. “Transgender” is, in shorthand, the state of having one’s sense of self not match one’s assigned gender; basically, the brain says “woman” [or “man”], and the crotch has a penis [or vagina]. Well, see, the thing is, that now my brain says “woman,” and my crotch has a vagina. I match. I’m legally and physically female, which is what I’ve known myself to be for quite some time. “Transgender” just doesn’t feel like it describes me in anyway anymore, if it ever did. There’s nothing “trans” there. “Transgender” seems to be best applied to people who are in a state of flux, either temporarily or permanently; drag queens, people who crossdress; genderqueer folks; androgynes; and others. The other thing is the “gender” in there; my “gender” never trans’ed anything; I have always been female – albeit a very confused female for quite some time, but a female none the less. 

   So, how about “transsexual?” Am I still “transsexual?”

   This one is fuzzier for me. “Transsexual” still, to me, seems to imply that there is work to be done, a change to be made. I’ve done a bunch of reading in the last few years and the last few weeks, and I guess I’ve become the type of woman that I used to find infuriating; I see transsexualism as a physical condition of my birth that my surgery, for lack of a better word for it, cured. A friend and I were speaking earlier today, and he brought up the “pre-op” and “post-op” prefixes that get applied to “transsexual” to reflect a person either being before or after surgery. I confess that I have sometimes given in to the expedience that the term “transsexual” affords; most people have some idea of what a “post-operative transsexual woman” is; or at least they think they do. But I am not “a transsexual.” It is not my identity; it is a condition I suffered from. Just as needing my gallbladder removed fifteen years ago didn’t make me a “cholecystectomist” [yes, I totally made up a word to prove a point], being born with a penis instead of a vagina doesn’t make me a “transsexual.” I think this is why I have gravitated toward the phrase “woman of transsexual history.” Clearly, I can not, nor would I ever try to, escape my history, but it’s just that: history. I recently found the phrase “woman born transsexual,” and I think I like that even better. There are some women who refer to it as “HBS” or “Harry Benjamin Syndrome,”  though it seems like the phrase has been largely used to bash GLB folks as well as transgender individuals and people with transexualism who don’t measure up. [This all gets ~really~ heated with the people to whom it matters, like, name-calling and everything – it makes me glad that I really don’t care most of the time.]

   Whatever. I’m a woman. Since surgery it’s been pretty clear that the world is even happier seeing me as a woman than it was before (imagine that, for all of everyone’s talk about “acceptance” and all that, for most people – even me, at some core level, it does seem like what I’ve got in my panties actually matters – who knew?). 

   I know there are some who include “transsexual” in the “transgender umbrella,” and I have mixed feelings about that. Not surprisingly, before surgery I was much happier to include myself under the umbrella. I know that there is strength in numbers, and I’ve always been very Rodney King in my desire for everyone to just get along, but I also know that most “transgender” people that I meet don’t remind me of me; many people that identify as “pre-op transsexuals” don’t really remind me of me either, fwiw, though some do. This is the point where it seems like the most vitriol gets spilled. I have no interest in identifying or defining anyone else; likewise, I need no one else’s story to validate my own. My life’s been plenty crazy on its own, thanks. So, I try to take it in stride when others describe me with the best terms they have in their vocabularies, though I do try to correct them when appropriate if they err. I am not now, nor was I ever, given my understanding of the term, “transgender.” I am not “a transsexual;” I suffered from transsexualism. I will correct people about this, but I probably won’t become truly angry when people make mistakes, unintentional or not – though I do get frustrated.

   So, why the hell do I talk so much about all this stuff then? Why, if I identify as a woman, and see my battles as largely behind me, did I document my surgery and recovery in such detail? Well, for one thing, my boyfriend crossdresses, so I’m sort a part of the transgender extended family by being a partner at this point. It was several months before surgery that I said that I considered him more transgendered than me, which now makes all sorts of sense. More importtantly, though, I remember the pain, confusion, fear, and self-loathing that I lived through. I know there are tons of resources both online and not at this point for other women born with the wrong genitals, but if my voice helps even one person to find their path it will have been well worth it. Also, I have no intetnion of giving up all the connections and love that I garnered in the before time; most of my world knows of my history, and they all see it as just that: history. I have nothing to hide. Usually I talk too much, as a matter of fact.  🙂  [It all started when I was very little, and my mom would say, “Now, don’t tell anyone that your father and I were never married.” And I would meet people, and the first thing I would say was, ” Hi, my parents were never married.” I’ve always been a ~wide~ open book!]

   Speaking of self-loathing, I’ve noticed that having friends who are struggling with their own path through discerning whether they really are suffering from transsexualism or something else means that even though I have put my own self-loathing to bed, I have to deal with other folks who are still buried under their own belief that they are somehow horribly damaged. And their self-hate makes waves. Just recently I dealt with a friend who is discerning her trans-status agreeing with another friend that we, she and I, “aren’t normal.” You know what? Screw that. I’m normal. I’m more normal than most people I know, actually. I found it painful to sit there and have my friend’s self-hate bleed onto to me as she tried to defend the position. She can be “not normal” if she wants to be, but I’m normal. Period. It reminded me of a point a few years ago when my therapist remarked that it had been months since I had referred to myself as a “freak.” It marked a huge turning point for me, and I refuse to go back there just to make my friend feel less alone. I admit freely that transsexualism isn’t that common, but it’s no less normal than lots of things. I could go on a tear about every single person I know and explain in great detail why they aren’t “normal,” but that’s kind of my point: no one is “all normal.” [I have a whole rant on the word and philosophy of “normal,” but this is already too long, so it’ll keep.] 

   So, what the hell am I? Where did this get me? I think I reaffirmed my distaste for labels generally. I’m Penny. I drum. I teach. I love Tim. Oh yeah, I’m a woman. I’m Swedish. I believe in God. I had my gallbladder out. I love my mom. I was born with the wrong crotch, which has been surgically corrected. I was married and am divorced. I lived with my Gram before she died. My stepfather and I don’t get along that well. I went to an all-boys Catholic High School. I have a ton of friends whom I love. I’m ~such~ a Bostonian. I’m a geek, goofball, and cutie-pie. I’m tall. I have some pink in my hair.

   What the hell label you gonna put on that?

🙂

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